Laura Kuusk

Laura Kuusk: Mediated views

Laura Kuusk (b. 1982) is a photographer with a background in semiotics. After graduating from the Estonian Academy of Arts, she moved to Grenoble in the south of France. Since 2010, she has been attending the experimental post-diploma studies at the Annecy Higher Art School. In her work, Kuusk studies the narrative situation in art, focusing on the gaze, the (power) relationships between viewer and image, and various means of producing narratives.

Author and artist, Kuusk has arrived at visual expression through structuralist and post-structuralist philosophy. This is crucial background information for understanding the intellectual sub-layers of her work and the ease with which she addresses the meta-levels. An education that has progressed from theory to practice has opened up new perspectives for the artist and facilitated an investigative attitude. As a result, it is all the more interesting to follow Kuusk’s interdisciplinary project, to look at the relationship between rationality and intuition within it, and to see how the visual aspect has developed from early tentative experiments to a more mature visual sophistication.

Investigative art involves systematic and focused problem posing, whether the problem be visual, thematic or medium-specific. Throughout her work, Kuusk has been concerned with looking and perspective. In an early video, 7 Beloved Christmas Songs (2006), the artist sits at a romantic candlelit Christmas table with a companion who later turns out to be her video camera. Clearly a fledgling relationship, it still shows great potential. The viewer sees the scene through the eye of the camera, which further enhances the impression of the camera as a living being and a feasible communication partner. Kuusk’s final work for her master’s degree, Lenses (2008), is an intricate pseudo-documentary photo film that tells the story of the mysterious disappearance of an electrical engineer. Based on the perspectives and fragments shown, the viewer has to construct a story about a man who has never existed.

In subsequent works, Kuusk has reduced her narrator’s position and focused more on the structure of the narrative. In a photographic installation, The Knife (2008/2010), two cinematically arranged shots create an atmosphere of suspense, allowing for a range of possible interpretations. A woman is doing the dishes – a large kitchen knife close at hand – while she keeps looking over her shoulder. In the first photograph, the tap is running and her hands are in the sink; in the second, the tap is off and her hand seems to be reaching for the knife. Is she having an innocent family conversation while about to wash the knife or is she preparing to defend herself against an intruder? No answer is given. Instead, the absence of a solution focuses our attention on the basic mechanism by which the viewer automatically attempts to construct a coherent story based on the two shots placed side by side.

Désœuvrement and idea films

A similar play with the viewer’s story-making skills occurs in the Almost Film series of documentaries (2010–2012).  The series is made up of four films in each of which a different person speaks about a film they are planning to make or would like to make. The people give engaging accounts of the storylines and visit possible locations. With skilful editing, a conspiracy theory, a mystical fairy tale or a violent horror-thriller are brought before the viewer. Engagingly addressing the clash between dreams and reality, and perhaps the power of thought, these idea films work superbly. Making the film is left up to the imagination of the viewer rather than the director.

Since moving to Grenoble, Kuusk has been associated with a group of local artists(1) whose characteristic aspiration to create what are referred to as non-works using unconventional techniques and often everyday items has been described by the French art critic Nicolas Thély as désœuvrement (a lack or loss of work, activity, or oeuvre; idleness), an aspiration to move outside the corporate world (of commercial galleries) and to engage with spiritual values in a way that the absurd and the poetry of idleness allows.(2) The Almost Films by Laura Kuusk are a good example of how the loss of the work described by Thély happens: there is no need for the work itself, when talking about it conveys what is essential. The rest is just handicraft.

In August 2011, Kuusk had a larger solo exhibition, Spéciale Dédicace, in the studio of the Annecy art school. The visual highlight of the exhibition was a location-specific video, 1% for Annecy (2011), made during a temporary summer residency in Annecy. For the video, Kuusk filmed the lake at Annecy with a high-resolution camera and slowed it down to 1/100 of the normal speed. In addition to referring to the French 1% system (1% artistique), which requires 1 per cent of the budget of every public space to be spent on works of art selected in a public competition, the video, on the one hand, pays homage to the picturesque beauty of this lake surrounded by mountains and, on the other, functions as a bracketing of the fetishized landmark, rendering it unreal.

In the solo exhibition, Rear Window, in summer 2012 at the apartment gallery Motel 763, Kuusk played with the multiplicity of viewpoints and perspective. All the installations at the exhibition were fitted in the ceiling and the visitors were given hand mirrors. They had to walk around the gallery looking up at the ceiling with their mirrors while at the same time finding their way around the exhibition space. The split perspective and visual shifts broke down ordinary spatial perception.

Cooperative platforms

Laura Kuusk’s intellectual project is more wide-ranging than her own artistic output, covering the curating of several cooperative projects: first and foremost the exhibition and seminar platform Doings or Not with Margit Säde-Lehn, and an experimental gallery, Loop, which also functions as a joint art project for all the participants.

Doings or Not was initiated in 2008 through an exhibition of the same name in Slovenia, introducing young Estonian artists. Held as a joint summer camp for art students and practising young artists, two seminars and workshops (2008 and 2011) on the island of Muhu off the Estonian west coast focused, among other things, on the recycling and environment-specificity of ideas and materials.

The Loop gallery is a unique cooperative project – a portable dolls house that Kuusk found in the streets of Grenoble in 2009. Travelling to several destinations across Europe, it has since become an international exhibition space, where more than fifteen different solo and group exhibitions have been held (e.g. including the Tartu artist group Duul and the naïve artist Asta-Helbe Jukk). Loop offers a playful alternative to big art. An exhibition need not be monumental in scale; by fitting ideas into a small space, they can be studied and tested even more closely.

Like her investigative art projects, these two cooperative platforms are part of Laura Kuusk’s long-term working process, which aims at pushing the limits of customary ways of making and experiencing art by way of playful experiment.

Martin Rünk

(1) The artists who have gathered around the Oui centre for contemporary art established in 2007 at the initiative of  Stéphane Sauzedde include Camille Laurelli, Clôde Coulpier, David Lefebvre, Fabrice Croux, Pascale Riou, Séverine Gorlier and others.
(2) Nicolas Thély, ‘Together Alone’. – Camille Laurelli. Pdf catalogue, L’école supérieure d'art de Grenoble, 2009,, accessed 27.05.2012.