CATALOGUE - Mark Gisbourne, Between Lead and Gold. – Mark Raidpere – Isolator. The Venice Biennale – Estonia. Palazzo Malipiero 12.06.2005 - 06.11.2005

The biochemistry of human life and desire, and therefore the seat and cause of human emotions, owes a great deal to the analogous condition and complex traditions of the alchemical imagination. However, this analogy does not intend to valorise the implausible practice of alchemy, but rather in the familiar sense of alchemical thinking creating a personal secret knowledge that both confers and develops an uncertain hermeneutic confusion as to what is being said or expressed.(1) It is analogous to that which we might call our daily struggle to grasp and communicate with the incommunicable dwelling within ourselves: the mysterious and inexplicable mutations of our human feelings and how we might begin to translate them. For in some ways those feelings we direct towards ourselves, as well as to others, always remain - to some non-definable extent - in a state of estranged incommunicado. And, so it is with all human life, its secret feelings and emotions, since there are thoughts thought but unspoken, and imagined feelings of the transmutable mind that are still somehow not (or, at least not yet) easily realisable through the tongue of transference.(2)

The development of dynamic psychology in the twentieth century, be it the ’talking cure’ or, the many different avenues of psychotherapy, notions of language as catharsis, were all trying to posit the general supposition of a ‘better out than in’ philosophy whereby the expression of human feelings was thought (at least in theory), to serve for the betterment of the individual and/or the immediate community, as well as the broader society wherein he or she lived.(3) Strangely, and as if by an inverse paradox, the twentieth century managed to generate that that was the opposite of the very thing it proposed, namely a widespread condition of existential alienation among those nations and peoples who followed to closely its psychotherapeutic practices. Perhaps, to understand is not to know as was previously thought, and that self-knowledge is as intangible now as it ever was. And, if this is true of the self, how much more so when it comes to those who are close to you, or, even more, when extended to the social and communal frame within which we spend our lives.

The relevance for us is that communication, and that which is incommunicable, are the most vital components of the artist Mark Raidpere’s work. Would that we could see ourselves as other see us, seems to be a central or axiomatic concern of this artist in his video, film, and photographic works. Hence the alchemical gravitation from that that is base to that which is precious, and vice versa, seems to me an adequate mirror of analogy to describe the human conditions of our day-to-day emotional life. And, particularly so, in a world where the science of biochemistry leads increasing to insights as to the very chemistry and make-up of being. In terms of what constitutes the fundaments of human consciousness the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, describes it as:

“We become conscious, then, when our organisms internally construct and internally exhibit a specific kind of wordless knowledge – that our organism has been changed by an object – and when such knowledge occurs with the salient internal exhibit of an object. The simplest form in which this knowledge emerges is the feeling of knowing, and the enigma before us is summed up in the following question: By what sleight of hand is such knowledge gathered, and why does the knowledge first arise in the form of a feeling?”(4)

Here we find ourselves at the bridge between the psychical and the somatic, at the interface and primary conditions of life, before the epistemological constructions of systemic knowledge have taken place.(5) And, it is this very ‘feeling of what happens’ that helps us understand the subject content of Raidpere’s work. In the ordinary and straightforward way in which the artist presents the event contents of his work, he evokes a sense of ‘wordless knowledge’, an understanding that "feelings are not mere decoration added onto the emotions, something one might keep or discard. Feelings can be and often are revelations of a state of life within the entire organism."(6)

The need to deal with and open up the complexities wrought by the transmutation of feeling(s) – to change their form and nature – is evident in his recent work called Shifting Focus (2005), in what amounts to a feigned interview and apology to his mother. The elements of the supposedly half-phrased apologia, the preparatory contents as it were, are all pretence and posture, the scene is staged, the lighting is set, what ensued was the grooming of the hair in the lens of the camera; the pretentious allusion to the filmmaker making a film. Thereafter the conversation, that will be no conversation, begins, stumbling words, ‘I can’t say…..’, followed by mother’s solace ‘Out with it…’, then, ‘I feel that…’, mother’s response “What do you feel, what is it?’, and so on. Tears follow with ‘I feel I made loads of mistakes…’, and ‘I’ve done wrong to myself, to everyone I love’, and the summation ‘It’s more like a nightmare than a delight…’ The key to this work that purports to be an attempt at reconciliation, and yet peters out into a staged and vexing frustration, is the first person singular, namely the ‘I’. It is a wordless ‘I’, which though it is vaguely enunciated, has become the incommunicable ‘I’ of feeling, something that breaks through not as emotions (though these too are expressed by the artist’s tears) but as an inchoate ‘wordless knowledge’ that the ‘I’ possesses but which cannot be easily translated. And, it is the ‘I’ of the self, that is encapsulated through the second eye of the camera, that records what has taken place and that is used by the artist to his own ends and purposes as a film. The work reveals that a feeling allied to the mechanism of intention most often remains isolate and somehow untranslatable, and that the supposition of our shared feelings is largely a projection. It is hardly surprising, then, that the final metaphoric stage of the alchemical process is that of projection, with “its deliberate attempts to both reveal and conceal,” in the casting of the reified material (in this instance ‘a feeling’) upon the object to achieve its transmutation.(7) Hence the artist’s mother appears unchanged as if she were no more than the passive audience to the projection as it was taking place. In the end nothing is actually revealed except the processes at work in the act of revealing.

In the mid-1990s Raidpere became known for his glamorous fashion photographs. Contrary to the then prevailing euphoric image of his star persona, pulverised in media performances, Raidpere´s first solo show opened up a psychoanalytic body discourse in the examination of personality. In dialogue with the camera, displaying burns on his body and the vulnerability of his personality, he tried to get back to the epicentre of personal crisis. In the more intense photographs of the series, the tormented gay-aesthetics couples with the grotesque with such force that the Self only holds out conditionally. The hysterical mirror phase with an authenticity proof of the burns ends in the more melancholy tones.

An interest in the processes and the revealing of contents that both form and constitute self-projection, has always been apparent in different ways in Mark Raidpere’s work. No doubt the artist’s fashion background initially informed this tendency. However, whereas in fashion imagery the projection is stylised and typological, Raidpere’s first photographic work of self-projection was a psychosexual self-analysis, in which he posed different photographs of his burn-marked body, called Io (1997). In these he sought to expose the crisis conditions of his state of ‘I’. More recently he returned to the subject in a benign series of self-portrait photographs called simply Good Boys (2003), and which were subtitled ‘an author’s page in a fashion journal’.(8) Since his sense of self has to work within a pre-determined boundary, namely the organism that his body, his sense of a differentiated self (the inner sense of formed identity) challenged this limitation. His approach was to use the conventions of the passport photograph and a grid-like presentation. Collating twelve photographs taken over a ten-year period from the years 1992-2002, the artist presents himself in all the different styles of his appearance undertaken in that period. But whereas with a fashion magazine the desire is to create a sense of consumer similitude through difference (while still maintaining the illusion of difference), Raidpere inverted this by creating a sense of difference through sameness, for the same open-eyed stare predominates in each photograph. Yet by using the convention of the passport format of standardisation, the artist was also able to undermine what Roland Barthes once called the ‘unary photograph’, where “a transformation is unary if, through it, a single series, is generated by the base," and that “the photograph is unary when it emphatically transforms ‘reality’ without doubling it, without making it vacillate: no duality, no indirection, no disturbance."(9) Hence while we know that resemblance is about conformity for the purposes of identification, self-identity is about the different levels of individuation that constitute the ‘I’, thus something unique and sans pareil. Resemblance in this instance was intelligently obfuscated and put in a state of slippage.(10) While recognition remains (as signifier) it is confused by what amounts to Raidpere’s personal identity parade (as sign). Hence, contrary to Barthes, a feeling of vacillation and disturbance has taken place.

Against Raidpere’s earlier work “10 men” appears as paradoxically disguised self-portrait. The video shows men in Tartu prison who have been sentenced for violent crimes, posing to the photographer, showing off their tattoos and trying to convey the image of exaggerated manhood. Raidpere’s more recent, extravert and investigative works influenced by his film studies have a retroactive influence on his previous output – in that context his earlier works appear much more social as they otherwise might seem.

Projection and its role within the chains of psychical and emotional transformation in relation to self and other, is also relevant in Mark Raidpere’s video 10 Men (2003). It what amounts perversely to being a manipulated self-portrait by another means, the artist filmed ten violent male long term offenders in Tartu prison, simply asking them to present themselves to the camera and project what they wanted to be perceived as regards their persona. Unscripted and against the background of crackling music, reminiscent somewhat of a sentimental tune from a musical box, the prisoners posed and postured presenting to various degrees either their introverted or extroverted behaviour. Several showed their tattoos, some were coy, others semi-belligerent and absurdly masculine, yet others still appeared pathetic or sought empathy from the imagined viewer of the projection. What this film reveals at a literal level is the seductive role of the camera as the prisoners sit specimen-like before the mechanical gaze of its registration. No information is given as to the precise nature of their crimes, and no intimation as to the reasons for their confinement, who is a murderer, who is a rapist, who a robber, etc. The viewer is left to speculate, or, more likely, exaggerate on issues of crime and class, on the stupid facial expressions presented by some of the inmates, on who might be the sociopath and who the mere victim of social circumstance. The work tells us much that we have already discovered about Raidpere, notwithstanding that at the same time he was deeply involved in developmental film studies, namely a sense of a visual decoction, that is to say elements separated and distilled. Where we are left not so much with the narrative contents of what is presented, but the resulting components or disaggregated parts revealed through presentation. Hence I use the word ‘decoction’ deliberately, as in ‘to make concentrated’, to boil down and separate, and not least because it plays a transitional role in the alchemical process.

The video resembling David Lynch’s harrowing films offers us an insight into the private sphere of a representative of an East-European ‘lost generation’, a bewildered middle-aged man in the turmoil of rapid changes. The artist examines the environment of his father’s bachelor flat, full of various allusions to parapsychology and material borrowed from pop culture, all that mixed with naivist paintings executed during a recent bout of psychic illness.

Mark Raidpere’s use of his family as simultaneously text, context, and extended source material, their problems of reciprocal relations of intimacy and comprehension, has become a resonant theme that runs through several of his video films and photographic works. Indeed, in relation to his father you might say that it has almost been serialised. In the artist’s video called simply Father (2001), we are presented with an intellectual and emotional alienation read through his divorced father’s bachelor apartment, a red-walled claustrophobic space filled with the usual life effects, materials (sometimes sentimental) derived from popular culture, and with extraneous referents to the literature of parapsychology. We enter the scene through the anonymity of the elevator, and with an eerie pan of the camera we pass successively through the rooms of the apartment. At a give moment we see a series of gouaches or poster paint works executed by the artist’s father during his periodic bouts of schizophrenic illness. There is a sense of heightened sur-naturalism(11) - better still a David Lynch-like (sur)realism(13) - where the voice of Kubrick’s famous renegade computer ‘HAL’, and a female equivalent, interjects in a fragmented voiceover….’your shirt on my chair’. Presented as snatches that stand as autonomous fragments of narrative, we come to know of a young girl’s criminal disappearance by a newspaper headline and a synthetic voice fragment…’go in little girl get into the car. It’s a brand new Cadillac.’ The video finishes with a camera panning to the outside through the apartment window, juxtaposing inside and outside, as if to express the mental metaphors of the reduced or lost horizon that has become his middle-aged father’s unemployed world. He is a man who has been displaced by history and unable to come to terms with the realities of his life and the new order.

The artist’s father, posing with his latest composition, a little red painting he associates with his schizophrenic experiences.

The artist’s use of a synthesised reality permeated with a sense of ruptured narrative, a life experienced by the means of disassociated fragments, and which has meaning in parts but which do not add up to a coherent unifying whole, typifies Raidpere’s approach to video making. And, the video Father relates this situation most clearly. There is series of photographs, called Red (2001), that were executed at much the same time, and show the artist’s father posing with a small red painting - the colour red also acts as the leit motif of the video - associated and executed during his schizophrenic episodes. The video and photographs thus give credence to the view that,
"It is the schizophrenic, who lives the unliveable on the edge of total disintegration, because he affirms his fracture and lives at the edges. An unattributable, mobile subject, able to connect roles of possible lives without lapsing into identification, the schizophrenic is composed of the disjunctive syntheses of imcompossible points of view."(14)

The interview with the artist’s father takes us back to the conversation that took place a few years ago at the shooting of photographic series “Red” (2001). Father attempts to explain what happened to him in the course of a schizophrenic psychosis, to interpret the paintings and poems born out of his illness. Every time he approaches the key motif, his ideas about his son’s life as an artist, he collapses and starts to weep uncontrollably. Video is a close-up, the text is augmented by the old man’s sculptural features that reveal the emotions with great clarity.

Raidpere’s recent video Voices (2204), takes matter further in an interview with his father (framed to camera in the head and shoulders format) against the same red wall of the apartment. The different dynamics of this interview, as opposed to the staged affair with his mother in Shifting Focus, stands in stark contrast. It is not the shared co-equal arrangements of a table and the more subtle interactivity of son and mother. The father faces the camera in close-up as if he were in an automat or photo-booth about to take a passport photograph. In the course of the interview the father attempts to explain the stages of his schizophrenic illness, its psychotic phases of hearing voices, killings, and his own imagined suicide, and how it confused him while contributing to the contents of his paintings and poems. The experience is one of a pattern of stretched emotions and control. Each time the father Mati comes to the crucial issue of his relation to his son Mark, and his own attempts at art, he breaks down into near uncontrollable emotions, gesticulates, fidgets in the chair, and runs his hands through his hair, as he battles to regain his composure. There is again a sense of claustrophobia, brought about by the close proximity of the camera and probing nature of the questions of his son. The red wall colour beyond also heightens the psycho-physiological aspects, exaggerating a sense of visual affect, the facial expression, and the isolated enclosure forged and framed by the camera and the father’s emotions.(15) Hence there is a distinctly different quality and feel between the artist’s posed self-exposure, and self-reflexivity of the video Shifting Focus, from that of the son interlocutor in Voices. But in both cases there remains the predatory nature of mechanical registration recording the event. In this matter the artist Mark Raidpere shows us his opposing characteristics of personal involvement and professional ambivalence. Personal and affective involvement in the sense of both his using himself and his family as the subject matter of his work, and a distanced ambivalence towards the self-presentation and the family through the public exposure that will ensue from it. Raidpere therefore walks a very narrow line between what might be called art-based self-analysis, and the parading of artistic practices that disguise a form of personal psychotherapy.

Mother’s portrait was completed in 1998 as an intrusion into the atmosphere of Mutant Disco’s house party. Above the heads of the dancers in the dark hall, light was directed at a simple, life-size portrait of a middle-aged woman sitting primly in a chair. The unexpected opposition of text and context fed upon the effect of alienation between the images of mother and son that inevitably belong together in the vision of the artist.

While the affinity to psychology is self-evident in the artist’s endeavours, that pertaining to the simile of alchemy and the imagination is less overt. I retain the analogy, not least because alchemy has had a deep influence on the development of modern psychology, but because it draws together the sense of psychical flux and of the transmutation of feelings from moment to moment, instant to instant, that is found in the artist’s works. It would seem to mirror, if you like, the shift into what seems to be ungraspable is all of Raidpere’s work, the continued and ongoing ‘feeling of what happens’ in which we may at some level share, but yet simultaneously remain thwarted by the possibility of communicating precisely what is being felt. Another aspect of alchemy and its practice, material or otherwise, is that it supposes forms of human amelioration and change must be mediated through the nature of the world and its workings.(16) And, while it is ludicrous to us to think of transmuting lead into gold, the similarities and secret pathways of alchemical thinking still advances the imaginative practices of artists today. It is a way of thinking that has thoroughly influenced the developments of science and social science, and it is no surprise therefore that many of the great founders of science, such as Paracelsus, Boyle and Newton were co-equally fascinated with the subject alongside their fundamental theories which now serve as the basis of modern scientific thought.(17) However, what we are dealing with here is an artistic practice and not a social or scientific study. Notions of alchemical thinking were always inchoate and hermetic, frequently attacked, and rightly so, for possessing an "extravagant use of abstraction, allegory and analogy, and idiosyncratic displays of bizarrely fanciful images, symbols and riddles."(18) It is hardly surprising therefore, that alchemical thought in modern times is no longer commensurate with the rigorous methodologies of science, but used to unravel through analogy and simile the unpredictable mechanisms of the human mind and its emotional life. The most complex aspect of which is to understand less the processes of thinking and more those of feeling. From what depth of core consciousness, and from whence does it flow the first moment of a feeling? Is it just a simple but as yet unexplained biochemistry? Mark Raidpere’s use of minimal means, the film and the photograph, engages with, it seems to me, many of these fundamental questions as to what must be called a feeling consciousness. How do I feel towards myself, why do I feel it, and by extension what does it mean as regards understanding, myself, my family, and the greater world around me? Questions that would seem to suggest that any given moment we all live our lives somewhere in between the affective transmutation of lead and gold.

Sunday, 27 March 2005


(1) I am thinking here of Carl Gustav Jung’s large library of alchemical texts, and how they informed his ideas on the development of social and sexual individuation allied to alchemist’s processes of transmutation. Jung’s book Psychologie und Alchemie, which may be seen as one of the first interdisciplinary studies between psychology and alchemy, was first published in 1944; see, C. G. Jung, Collected Works of C. G, Jung: volume 13 –Alchemical Studies, New York, Columbia University Press, 1992.

(2) C. G. Jung, The Psychology of the Transference (Paper), Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1992.

(3) For an overview see, Henri F. Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry, New York, Basic Books [1970], 1981, and subsequent editions.

(4) Antonio Damasio, ‘The Making of Core Consciousness’, in The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness, London, Heinemann/Vintage Books, 2002, (pp. 168-194), pp. 168-9

(5) On might think here of language and the structuralist and post-structuralist discourses that dominated the second half of the twentieth century; for example Michael Foucault, Les Mots et les choses, Paris, Gallimard [1960], Eng. trans The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, London, Tavistock Books, 1970.

(6) The exhibition curator Isabel Carlos, quoting from Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza, (2003), in ‘On Reason and Emotion’, ex. cat., Biennale of Sydney, 2004, [pp. 24-27], p. 24

(7) Stanton J. Linden, ‘Introduction’, The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003 [1-23], pp. 18-19

(8) The work was in fact commissioned by the Estonian fashion journal called Style.

(9) Roland Barthes, La Chambre Claire, Paris Editions du Seuil, 1980; Eng. trans, Camera Lucida [1982], London, Flamingo, 1984, pp. 40-41

(10) For theories of ‘slippage’ between the signifier and the sign, it is best to consult the original source, Jacques Derrida, De la Grammatologie, Collection Critique. Paris: Minuit, 1967; Eng. trans, Of Grammatology, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977, and subsequent editions.

(11) The words ‘surnaturalism’ and ‘surrealism’ were both first coined by the Symbolist and Cubist poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The bibliographic literature on Apollinaire is enormous, see the official website for all the latest publications.

(12) For an interesting analysis of the operative conventions in David Lynch’s filmmaking, see, Slavoj Žižek, The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities (Occasional papers 1), University of Washington, Seattle, 2000.

(13) There is now a literature on the rationality and sanity of the supposedly rogue computer HAL, In Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001 A Space Odyssey, see, Clay Waldrop, ‘The Case for HAL’s Sanity’. I draw relevance to it here to problematise what sane or insane behaviour is in the frame of a schizophrenic episodes; an issue made even more complex when reading Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia, London, Athlone, 1984.

(14) François Zourabichvili, ‘Six Notes on the Percept (On the Relation Between the Critical and The Clinical’, in, Deleuze: A Critical Reader, Paul Patton (ed.), Oxford, Blackwell, 1996 [pp. 188-216], p. 203

(15) The literary trope and psychological impact of notions ‘red room’ and its use in English literature are considerable, for it permeates much of the nineteenth century theorisations of literary madness, emerging, perhaps first in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) The significance to visual literacy of the twentieth century is not without meaning either, thinking specifically of Matisse’s painting Red Room (1908/9), and later related works.

(16) Stanton J. Linden, ‘The imitation of Nature’, op cit, pp. 14-15

(17) For Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the founder of modern physics, ‘The Key’ and ‘The Commentary on the Emerald Tablet’ are among his most famous of alchemical writings; see, Betty Jo Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1975 [pp. 253-55], and same author, The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought., Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991 [276-77]. For Robert Boyle (1627-1691), the founder of modern chemistry, see, Lawrence Principe, The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and the Alchemical Quest, Princeton N.J., Princeton University Press, 1998. The literature of Paracelsus (1493-1541) is huge, a synoptical account is given in, Stanton J. Linden, ‘Paracelsus’, op cit, pp. 151-169

(18) Stanton J. Linden, ibid, p. 19