Laura Toots is a post-conceptual photographer, who looks at various aspects of memory reconstruction and the autobiographical impulses these stimulate, through a method of personal archaeology. Toots studied photography at the Estonian Academy of Arts, where she defended her master’s thesis in 2011, but she was already awarded the Young Artist prize by the academy in 2008. In addition to many group exhibitions she has had three important solo exhibitions – Distant pieces (no big stories nowadays) at the Tallinn City Gallery and Not Necessarily So in Austria, both in 2010, and Desire Path at Draakoni Gallery in Tallinn in 2012. In her work she uses her own family by taking portraits of them and using material from her family archive of photographs and videos, and does so in an intimate and poetic fashion. She uses very personal photographs that allow the viewer to take a peek into one family’s everyday adventures. But she does not permit the viewer to take a voyeuristic position. She presents her biography honestly and openly so the result is almost cold, laconic and neutral. She does not idealise her family, but asks whether the constructions of her childhood memories of her parent’s heroism still hold true today.
Henri Bergson claims that the past is constantly being reshaped through the present, and that motives are formed via outcomes. When, as a child Toots believed her mother could fly and her father was the world’s strongest man, now she balances these idealistic images by controlling their relevance. In her series of photographs Past Perfect (2010) Toots re-presents her parent’s one-time roles in family narratives from her childhood – with her mother posing in a stewardess’s uniform in front of an aeroplane and her half-naked ex-muscleman father posing in a gym.
In her book “Relating Narrative” the Italian feminist, Adriana Cavavero, raises the issues surrounding the relationship between narrative and oneself – the construction by others of our own personal history. In the series Perceiving something different after something significant although things remain the same (2010) in the form of an artist’s book, Toots looks at precisely this aspect of how her parent’s stories of her childhood and her family’s oral and photographic material overwrites and forms her own memories. She refers to her own working method as the creation of personal performances and short stories, which she uses to study the various aspects of memory. Bergson has identified three separate processes in human thinking – Pure Memory, memory image and perception – according to which we live sentiently in the present and perceive with our ontological memory, while at the same time our psychological memory constantly selects past memories, so only memories, which seem relevant in the present situation reach our awareness. Toots is also working on this Bergson-like analysis of selection processes.
In the video Howevermuch (2010) Toots has lined up apparently random, but very carefully edited, fragments from her family video archive and presented them as a flowing yet non-linear treatment of time. Each moment in this video is at least twofold – the past and the present simultaneously. Toots has managed to make time timeless, to create a Deleuze-like position, where time is neither the fourth dimension nor is it a purely subjective phenomenon. Through a hazy sequence of images the viewer perceives the passing of time via memory, this becomes a flow of consciousness where the viewer senses each moment of how the past flows through the present into the future. Hazy, out of focus shots direct the viewer to another important aspect in Toots’ work, which with her training as a photographer is her serious interest in the camera with its opportunities for technical errors, the infinite number of possible dislocations, shots and choices. In terms of the resulting photograph this means that either the camera is out of focus, there is no-one in the shot or there is some other shift which makes the viewer ask what happened beyond the video or photograph.
She also uses an important presentation technique in the manipulation of her photographs. Her Desire Path exhibition included the photographic series Lovers’ Discourse (2012), where wedding photographs were partially covered by mounts so it was possible to only see an “insignificant” repeating detail. Normally, the role of the mount is to surround the image but Toots has used it as to highlight and conceal information. She seems to be fascinated by detours and holes in the system, and she enjoys revealing them. Her work also includes many “memory lapse” works, where it is the absence of something that is captured in the image. This might be a specific subject, such as her own “me” character behind the camera or an artwork that is missing on the wall. The existence of these objects is revealed through some mark or trace on the gallery wall. In Adolescent (reconstruction of a wall) (2012) the position of the picture is indicated only by the adhesive putty for attaching it to the wall. Favourite swimming suit (2012) shows the favourite item of clothing as a dotted line drawing. What is being shown is a space or a gap, the absence of something. In these works Toots does not endeavour to create reconstructions of memory, but a specific structure from which the memory is removed. This also applies, in part, to the works that deal with the very intimate family archives.
Her family is not a source of anguish for her, but simply the nearest laboratory in which to conduct her analysis. Toots’ work is not about the deconstruction of childhood and the role of parents that is characteristic of psychoanalysis, but is more like Deleuze’s and Guattar’s anti-Freudianism, where all phases of development existed in a non-linear fashion at the same time. Toots has a positive platform, a model family, an existing ideal – no drama involved. With ease she playfully juggles the gender roles within her family and those that exist in society – in her postcard series of her family spending time on an exotic tropical island My father is not my hero, his heroism is my father (2012), she has drawn a bra on her father with a marker to achieve a visual similarity with the rest of the family.
Anders Härm asserts that inevitable changes and exaggerations occur in Toots’ stories, and that at some moment it becomes difficult for her to understand whether she is using her own family or is simply playing with the idea of a family. While most of her subjects are her family members, in 2011, in her apartment exhibition during the project Sosistavad ruumid (Whispering rooms) of Tallinn Month of Photography, the emphasis changed and Toots included her mother in the art making process by making her the artist. Slideshow Curated by My Mother is, as the title suggests, her mother’s selection of slides from the family archive. A more techno approach is apparent in her video piece Turnaround (2011), where she filmed an aeroplane engine starting up and preparing for takeoff. This work is also based on personal family experience, but expresses a wider relevance. Toots has made use of political paraphernalia but in her own poetic way. She has made reference to the Soviet Union, where flying was only possible in dreams, and the motif of taking-off is a reference to Estonia, as a newly emerging nation. On a more personal level her work refers to the rhetoric of escape, the idea of starting from scratch, leaving old things behind, seeking a new and better world and a new life waiting somewhere else.
Marcel Proust in his master work In Search of Lost Time wrote about the inert essence of recognition and the flow of time, and the idea that only when looking back on an experience does it become complete. Laura Toots does not live in her memories and neither does she long for the past. Her playful search, which portrays the constructions that connect time and memory in an interesting way are like a DJ’s set, with tunes from the past and the present, original works and covers. Her interest in memories and remembering are closely tied to fantasy and the distortions in memory from the capabilities and errors caused by recording devices. In light of what Bergson said, we can appreciate that in Toots’ work the past no longer operates directly, but fits into our present day awareness which provides its life-force. The moment a memory works in this way it ceases to be a memory and once again becomes a perception.