Mark Raidpere

When Mark Raidpere and Hele-Mai Alamaa graduated from the Department of Photography at Tallinn School of Communication, higher education in photography did not even exist in Estonia. However, it was the field of photography that had been showing the most intensive developments in Estonian contemporary art in the last couple of years. “It is usually the case that when there are changes in society, then often these changes are carried by a genre, a group or a class, which has not been formally established”,(1) commented Peeter Laurits. Indeed, for the purposes of comparison it is worth recalling the status of photography in the arts at the end of the Soviet period by pointing out, for instance, the most popular exhibition venues––the utterly marginal Kiek in de Kök and the Lee gallery in Tallinn's Old Town. Estonian photographic discourse, having forcefully emerged by the mid-90s, was generally divided between two clearly opposing poles, both ideologically and iconographically. On the one hand, the Neo-Conceptualism of Peeter Linnap and his followers, and on the other, performance and fashion photography, led by Toomas Volkmann and Ly Lestberg––a movement that played a surprisingly important role at that time, and labelled Mannerism by Linnar Priimägi, its cultural critic and main spokesman. Then elsewhere, away from the general battlefield, Toomas Kalve was working in his own nostalgic style characteristic of Tartu, and also, the Destudio people were busy working within the mainstream, being decidedly advertising and lifestyle focused. Basically, this was the local photographic scene, and could be seen as a point of departure for Raidpere. Indeed, it is obvious that Raidpere, having started his career in fashion photography and often appearing in the media, both as a model and designer of collections, belonged to the Mannerist persuasion, both in terms of his pictures and his social circle. But there is evidence that his convergence with contemporary art should not be reduced to the single personal crisis, to the dramatic turning of Saul into Paul, that served as the basis for the pictures in his solo exhibition Io (1997). In the second part of the 1990s, his auto-aggressive and homoerotic self-portraits, shot on a scratched film at home with a Zenit-E camera, became works that helped Raidpere, as a satellite of Ene-Liis Semper, to place himself in the centre of a trend based on psychoanalytical interpretations. Personally, I have also actively helped to mythologize Io as Raidpere's ‘stage debut’, as his ticket to the world of contemporary art and the guarantee of authenticity for his more recent work. From the present perspective, however, it would be fair to admit that this approach could rather serve as the basis for the pictorial soul-searching of the violent autistic subject,(2) one of the most important trends in Estonian art of the second half of the 90s. It certainly cannot be regarded as the only source of Raidpere's work that was later extended.

At the School of Communication group exhibition, held at the Tallinn House of the Black Heads in 1995, Raidpere brought his work Untitled, an installation of popular photographs. Due to the artist's profile as a fashion photographer, I had trouble finding the right place for the work back then. The installation consisted of everyday photographs taken from the cutting room floor in a photo shop. The artist had organised the pictures into three different fields, based on their typology: ‘men’, ‘women’ and ‘people’. In this context the work looked like a surprisingly analytical Neo-Conceptual comment on both the functions of the portrait genre in ‘depicting’ reality, as well as on the utmost banality of this ‘reality’. This brings to mind the words by gallerist, Mari Sobolev, at the opening where she announced, referring to that particular photographic installation, that to her surprise some of the works from the exhibition would be worth showing in the Annual Exhibition of the Soros Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia (SCCA), the institutional core of Estonian art life, that was exhibiting at about the same time. In other words, the work itself might be marginal, but at the same time it refers to a sociologizing rather than mythologizing mentality, guaranteeing the sustainability of Raidpere’s extremely personal work even later, outside the discourse of the body that dominated Estonian art during the second half of the 90s. Let us recall that playing with photography’s regimes of presentation and contexts was not arbitrary here, and later it became the basis for a couple of rather effective moves that carry considerable meaning in Raidpere’s work. For instance, in 1998, during an event in the Mutant Disco club party series, he showed the photograph Raidpere (1998) in a spotlight above the heads of the dancing crowd, a nearly full-scale ‘stately portrait’ of his mother. Bringing the reserved and slightly worried-looking middle-aged woman into the atmosphere of an ecstatic youth party created a strange alienating effect. In 2003, when one of Raidpere’s most important employers, the fashion magazine Stiil, asked him to make an illustrated contribution introducing ten classics he was most strongly influenced by, he made a self-ironic statement, putting together a ‘board of honour’ with twelve passport photographs of himself. In this series of photographs, Raidpere appears in his most expressive transformations of identity, adding a quote from the cultural theorist Susan Sontag to serve as his artistic credo: “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability” (3). At the exhibition, held with Ene-Liis Semper, at Dublin’s Temple Bar Gallery, the same page in the magazine, with the passport photos torn out of their ‘natural’ context for the second time, entered a life of its own in the artist’s biography as the work Good Boys (2005).

Raidpere's "first coming" in the context of the art world is still clearly associated with self-portraits––psychological monologues in the photographic mirror.  And even ten years later it is difficult to get rid of the mental image of those works, which on the pictorial level have little to do with self-portraits––for example, the video piece, Work in Progress (2005), showing a view from a window onto an empty parking lot where a strange, lonely man stood, regardless of the weather, time and situation––but on the metaphorical level are still just self-portraits, paraphrasing the ‘where-have-all-the-flowers-gone’ theme of perishability that has constantly accompanied the artist’s reflections upon himself. Also, the work 10 Men (2003), where the movie camera observes violent criminals posing for the photographer, brought movingly and sometimes frighteningly close to us with the use of montage, slow motion and a sentimental soundtrack,(4) has given the English art historian Mark Gisbourne reason to say that this is “what amounts perversely to being a manipulated self-portrait by other means”(5).. 

For that reason I would still like to take a closer look at the beginning, focusing on the three series of photographs that are direct self-portraits––Io (1997), This Mortal Coil (1998) and Portraits (1998). These works, forming a whole block in Raidpere’s oeuvre, have not yet been viewed together. With Io it is important to note the change in mentality in the Estonian artistic landscape marked by the series. Euphoric media games taking place in carnival style transformations, promising us a completely convertible identity in a post-modern utopia––one is reminded of the rhetoric of Destudio's photomontage of the 1990s "Cain and Able, Wash and Go", where the "self" is nothing more than another commodity on the shelves of the media supermarket––some people, tired of role plays, developed a generational need for a deeper construction of the self. This brought about a wave of art directed towards the more traumatic side of self-awareness. The American art historian and theoretician Hal Foster has analysed the phenomenon of the death drive in Grunge culture, taking Nirvana as an example. All of those who just a few years earlier had marched in the parade of absolute convertible identities, now seemed to compete with one another over who is most devastated, most proudly up the creek, most effectively absent-minded, most magnificently ‘dead’; that is, who has the most expressive symptom. The pictures of Io (Italian for ‘I’) were created as a reproduction of a personal crisis, the rephrasing of the mirror phase in the home environment. The series about self-mutilation, problems of sexual fatality, haunting quests for the self and a depressive "self" stance could suit the Lacanian concept of ‘hysterical communication’. Stepping in front of the public with these pictures as in front of a dominant father figure, the artist asks or demands of society: “Tell me who I am, tell me what I desire.”(6) From the perspective of ‘hysterical communication’ it was necessary to step out of the closet as a tragedian, because in this case the self-image inevitably only forms in a dialogue with an authority––the public. In the photographic series, This Mortal Coil, where Raidpere, as in Io, using aesthetics that contrast with fashion photography and gay glam, but still depending upon them, relates the pressures of sexuality to the body perceived as being dirty. In the following exhibition, Raidpere continued with the familiar topic of identity, but unlike before, he was no longer alone in his pictures. And even the type of picture had changed––the results were double-portraits with Anu Aaremäe, Ene-Liis Semper, Kiwa, Rainer Jancis, etc. For the first time, his pictorial creation was based on a moment of dialogue, communication with people who were close to him, but still unpredictable. Each of the dramatically lit high-contrast black-and-white photographs seemed to depict just one person, but it is still not quite Raidpere himself, but some variant of him. Placing two negatives on top of each other and exposing images selectively, the artist was reborn each time as a hybrid person, with his facial features arranged in an elevated spirit of loss. Raidpere and the individuals that appear as shadows in his self-portraits appear in strange relationship to one another––the picture mirror has an almost ghost-like ability to create new naïve idealized heroes perceived as personalities. Every one of those twelve names, twelve creative and socially close individuals signified a different shift vector or direction of transformation––a double or intermediary person the artist engaged when depicting himself, somehow believing his self-image to be dependent on them. Here, for the first time, in association with himself, Raidpere places a bet on somebody else, as he has done in many of his later videos, such as the work Andrey/Andris (2006), the ‘camera test’ following a flirtation in a gay bar in Riga. Yet, there is no doubt that even in retrospective the most important work from this set of photographic series is Io. Not only because of the ‘right of the firstborn child’, but also because it styles the complex relationship between private association and pictorial language that functions in the public space, touching that ‘shifting focus’ that has become the hidden mechanism for Raidpere’s future video pieces.

Raidpere, who has today gained international recognition(7) as an artist working mainly in video, had his ‘second coming’ as a result of a brief spell of study at the Film and Video Department at Tallinn Pedagogical University(8). It was slow, cautious and well considered––he started working with people close to him like an archaeologist, one by one, removing thin layers of meaning from some 1500-year-old family drama. Undoubtedly, the change of medium enabled Raidpere to keep a distance from his everyday job as a photographer working at the request of magazines, newspapers and advertising companies. He confronts the glossy pictorial language of the fashion and lifestyle world, often emphasizing the authenticity of the snapshot by bringing forth technical ‘dissonances’. As opposed to the clear purposefulness of commercial works, Raidpere as a video artist is characterised by a desire to keep the previously filmed material in store for a long time and come back to it later from a different angle. The video medium, which stores immediate reality in a neutral way, becomes the most important means of narration for the artist, allowing him to create endlessly modular emotional nuances in the subsequent montage. Raidpere’s first video piece, Father (2001)––a portrait of a lonely old man in the somewhat melancholic atmosphere of a bachelor flat in Lasnamäe, with its slow frames synchronised with a musical soundtrack that connects the video fragments(9)––serves as an overture for the whole series of exploratory portraits of people dear to the artist. These themes, summarized in the solo exhibition Isolator (2005), which represented Estonia at the international Venice Biennial, are later supplemented by some new works. Thus for instance, in his solo exhibition in the winter of 2006/2007 at Kumu Art Museum, as part of the Hansapank Group art prize, Raidpere showed a fragment of a ‘happy childhood’––the material, taken from the family archive, was filmed by his father thirty years ago with an 8-millimeter camera. In that readymade video we can see little Mark and his mother in the kitchen in the artist’s childhood home. The family members are confronted with one another in a way that is almost hauntingly similar to Shifting Focus (2005), the central video in the set of works submitted to the Venice Biennial, and here too little Mark bursts into tears. The main part of Shifting Focus, the black-and-white video that emphasises documentation with its rough recording, is dominated by the weeping artist’s effort to open himself, and his mother’s (as well as the viewer’s) lengthy expectation that this something we are waiting for, would finally be pronounced. The core of the work displayed in a widescreen format that adds a festiveness to the source material, is framed by a more everyday narrow clip in TV format and in colour about setting up the camera, lights and ‘performers’. This complicated inner structure gives the whole work some qualities of both performance and a pure momentary happening, a genuine moment, and while watching the video the viewer’s focus of attention constantly shifts between these two modes.

Both of these most important video works from Raidpere’s family album have strangely neutral titles borrowed from technical terminology: ‘shifting focus’ and ‘doubling’, as if insisting one more time that these works are not only limited to the personal, but also tell us about the peculiarity of the video medium as such when dealing with feelings and the private sphere. Voiceover (2005) is his father’s monologue about his feelings, visions, voices that he has heard and his deceptive images he has had about his son. “It is in fact an extract of a much longer interview that I did with him, when I tried to approach an incident that had occurred a couple of years before––it was while I went to visit him in his apartment to take some pictures of him. At a very quiet moment he totally unexpectedly started to cry, leaving me in shock. So in the interview I was asking why. When my father finally reached the point, history sort of repeated itself––he burst out crying uncontrollably. Structurally, I added myself to the work in the monitor, giving the viewer a one-to-one translation of my father's text. I think the text by my father even gains in its threatening insane character if performed in a stone-cold manner.”(10) The artist’s father talks about his illness, odd things that the voices have put into his head: his son’s suicide, immaculate conception and his delusions related to the media. On the small screen, the rhythm of the father's emotional story in the edited ‘dubbing’ is callously presented, using the same text translated into English, by the artist himself. The simultaneous connectedness and separateness of the old and young man against the deep red background seems to emphasise the little boy’s helplessness next to his big daddy, his inability to show ‘unmounted’ emotions. Yet, at the same time it is actually the son who controls all the material, probably being afraid at the same time that the relationship between artistic self-expression and schizophrenic psychosis that appear in his father’s biography might also be expressed in him. Perhaps explaining the control element that is characteristic of Raidpere’s works.


A critic from The Herald, a Glasgow newspaper, has declared, watching the video, that “again, the medium is not only utilised, it is examined––the video confessional is a staple of documentary television, commonly reserved for the most harrowing, most revealing scenes, and the small interpreter in the corner here matches the awkwardly superimposed sign-language interpreter.”(11) In these two works, Raidpere is extra acutely aware of the camera’s social function in orchestrating confessional scenes. We are presented with a close-up of the inner dramas of a split family, their life, their memories and dwelling place, and we can share the artist’s indefinable guilt viewed from a distance. This all contains just the right amount of confession to activate a fable, a ‘fabulator’ in our minds and make the viewer sympathize with something that is extremely intimate.

Several of Mark Raidpere’s recent works, such as Andrey/Andris (2006), 5 Guards (2006) and Wailing Woman (2007), suggest that the artist has now turned his curious camera eye away from himself towards the outside world. Not as directly anymore as in his earlier video piece 10 Men, but he is still fascinated by the proximity to the stigmatized 'other'––be it a young waiter in a gay bar at night, with pose and honesty strangely fusing in him, an ardent female guard in an art museum or a single, barely traceable tone of consolidation in a video scene shot at a dance rehearsal studio… Clearly, as an artist he is hunting on new grounds. But knowing Raidpere’s thoroughness and how he sets up communication traps for his viewers, moving from one work to the other and carefully weighing the associations of significance between them, at the same time complementing his ‘body of work’, it seems to me that it is too early to say anything generalising about all of them as a whole.

Rather, I would like to end this with a personal memory of my classmate Raidpere that keeps haunting me to this day. Namely, it seems to say something important about his artistic position. The following scene probably occurred in the early 90s, during the first year of senior secondary school. Mark, embarrassingly neatly dressed, was called in front of the class to read an essay he had written. With careful pauses he started describing some emotionally loaded episode from life and then moved to the problem of the essay, the question. But to his classmates’ astonishment, perhaps even irritation, and to the teacher’s sheer amazement he kept on posing new questions for the next twenty minutes. In fact, the whole essay consisted of only questions. The presentation, considering the conventional conformity of school essays, felt like a performance, an inappropriate yet effective gesture of independence. The literature teacher’s frightened praise, “good, wow, that was so creative, but...”, was more than predictable. Looking back at this scene, it seems to me that contemporary art is one of the few domains where the complexity that is characteristic of Raidpere’s manner of thinking can freely reveal itself. And what makes it interesting is the play between the genres––“as a fashion photographer, he must conceal this complexity at all costs, while as an artist he may uncover it”(12). Obviously, any clear answers we might glean from Raidpere’s work have already been reformulated to be presented by the artist as questions.

Hanno Soans

*This essay is an excerpt from a collection “Artists of Estonia 3” (Tallinn: Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia, 2007).

(1) Kaadrid üheksakümnendaist. Hanno Soans’ interview with Andrus Kõresaar and Peeter Laurits. – Agent, no. 8, September 2006, p. 14.
(2) See in specific: Hanno Soans, Peegel ja piits. Mina köidikud uuemas eesti kunstis. – Kunstiteaduslikke uurimusi, 10. Eesti Kunstiteadlaste Ühing, 2000, pp. 309–353.
(3) See: Mark Raidpere, 10 olulist fotot. – Stiil, 2003, II, p. 18.
(4) The soundtrack of 10 Men is the intro-part of the song Mäng (Game) by Mikk Targo, processed by the artist himself.
(5) Mark Gisbourne, Between Lead and Gold. – Isolator. Mark Raidpere. 51st International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, catalogue of the exhibition in the Estonian pavilion. Tallinn: Center for Contemporary Arts, 2005, p. 9.
(6) I found that quote from the conception text by the younger generation photographer Marge Monko for the exhibition Ütle mulle/Tell me (2007). As an important generational difference from ‘early’ Raidpere that was projected on a psychoanalytical horizon, with the main pathos ‘tell me about my symptom’, Monko also analyses psychoanalysis itself as one dominant manner of speaking.
(7) Mark Raidpere’s success on an international art arena is confirmed by his solo exhibitions during the last couple of years in prestigious institutions such as Platform Garanti in Istanbul, Gallery Michel Rein in Paris, Tramway in Glasgow and CAC in Vilnius; furthermore, there are numerous important group exhibitions and longer articles in arts magazines Camera Austria (97/2007), Flash Art (Vol. XL, No. 252/2007) and Frieze (107/2007).
(8) The department of film and video studies which started work in 1992 at Tallinn Pedagogical University existed until 2006, when as the result of the amalgamation of various organisations it was incorporated into the Baltic School of Film and Media at Tallinn University. – Ed.
(9) The soundtrack of Father is a remake of Laurie Anderson’s Bright Red, made in cooperation with Rainer Jancis.
(10) From the artist’s E-mail to Alexander Kennedy, an art historian and critic in Glasgow. 21. October 2006.
(11) Jack Mottram, Loaded and Shooting at Home Truths. – The Herald, 27. October 2006.
(12) Maren Lübbke-Tidow, Nearness and Distance. – Camera Austria, 97/2007, p. 12.