* First published in KUNST.EE 2017, No 4, pp 48–59.
On Neeme Külm's Main Obsession (9.8 m/s²), or in the Grip of the Deceptiveness of Gravity
The sculptor and installer Neeme Külm is not exactly a one subject artist. Again and again he comes up with something new, moves away, tilts into something else, such as politics or institutional critique, which takes us away from the basic, one may even say, from his obsession. This basic obsession is certainly there, I can assure you of that, after having looked through his personal photographic archive, which already covers 16 years, to refresh my memory. It is gravity as a partner in dialogue and as a determinant, which manifests itself as a subsidiary subject in his work even on those aforementioned irregular occasions. Perhaps this is what causes him to reduce his works to an absolute minimum. Consequently, it can already be stated in advance that what seems a well-practiced minimalist visual language, is rather an expression of an inner need for simplification.
I remember well the first work by Neeme Külm that I encountered. It had to be in May 2001 when "Capitalism in Ruins", an exhibition of interventions in the public space of Tallinn curated by Anders Härm, was part of the programme of the Estonian Artists' Association annual exhibition. To be honest, the work by Neeme Külm is almost the only one I remember clearly from that exhibition, and this is due to the direct and magnificent nature of the work and the use of one unified massive gesture, which is still characteristic of Külm's work. More specifically, Külm created an obstacle. Having used firewood in one of his earlier exhibition works, he then put a giant stack of firewood in Tallinn's Old Town, in a neo-gothic gateway separating Uus and Vene streets, thus filling an entire public passage with a very mundane material. The intervention was witty because the first impression it left was of some sort of a logistics or transport mistake, of a misplaced load of goods.
And what seems even more important now – this installation focused solely on one structure and material – the volume and mass of a stack of wood. So, even this work was characterised by its massiveness, not the kind that would emphasise a visual spectacle (from the works he has been involved in, only perhaps the "Gas Pipe" project exhibited at the 2008 Venice Biennale of Architecture did that), but rather a kind of silent dialogue with one of the most important markers of a sculpture – gravity. This is not only a recurring creative idea that I would love to talk more about here, but a constant addressing of one of the main parameters of an art genre that has become inherent to Külm.
I don't think we can talk here about all of Neeme Külm's works, installations, actions, videos, sculptures and situations that test gravity and cause the viewer/experiencer to go through a shift in their relationship to the ground. This "flirtation with Isaac Newton" is consistent and principled even in cases where it is not noticeable at first. Although Neeme Külm is basically an installer – and it's not surprising when installations put us in psychophysically unexpected situations, for example, perceiving the weight of our own body – regarding this subject, it is one of his works, "Anvil"from 2007, recreated in 2010, and addressing gravity, that first comes to my mind as very effective eye candy. A mid-waist high stack of A4 paper was topped with an anvil sculpture made out of hot red lipstick wax, as if waiting for a sharp blow, which would suddenly demolish this illusory robustness, or something gentler; for example, a heat wave, which would melt it and cause it drip down the white stack of paper that seemed like a plinth.
I do not know any other work that, when talking about the femininity-masculinity relationship, would enter into dialogue more convincingly with Marcel Duchamp's 1921 composite ready-made "Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?". And not only in Estonian art, but more generally, in the art of our day. In Duchamp's work the sugar cubes pressed in a cage with a thermometer were actually marble cubes. However, this came out only when you held the work, which, as you might imagine, is no longer possible considering the rules of a contemporary museum. This kind of unexpected perception of the weight when lifting the work in a rather weak grip had the same kind of joint action of vigour and tenderness as Külm's work. As a reverse effect, Külm's "Anvil" weighed visually and wasn't intended for touching. I don't think Külm took Duchamp's work as a direct partner of reference or dialogue, or if he thought of "Anvil" like that at all when creating the work – his mind is working completely differently.
Regarding gravity, not as the conceptual source for a work, but as a brutal force majeure, I remember a critical situation on the 5th level of Kumu Art Museum in February 2006, during the process of installing "Shiftscale", the opening show in the contemporary art gallery. It was perhaps the penultimate day before the official opening of the new building of the Art Museum of Estonia, when the installation team was pushing Külm's work, a large concrete block titled "A Cow Cast within Concrete", which unexpectedly, to the bewilderment of everybody involved, sank its wheels through the elevator floor. Of course, this very cumbersome situation, which stopped the functioning of the main transport lift for many busy hours, wasn't Külm's spiteful intervention; however, his dialogue partner, gravity, nevertheless established itself. So much for an anecdotal subject, which, in Neeme Külm's case quite often accompanies the complex installation process. Just try to figure out how his granite pillars for the 2016 installation project exhibited in "Between the Archive and Architecture", curated by Kati Ilves, made it to the 5th level of Kumu to embrace the regular concrete pillars, and how much effort was necessary and how close a call it was. The resistance to gravity while testing the floor's structural parameters was once again the topic. And perhaps the artist would not have brought it in if it was not for the previous experience with the sinking floor in the elevator. Who knows, right? Külm told me in one of his interviews that his creative process, at least its starting point, is like "suddenly hitting and hurting one's leg". This is followed by rationalization, purification and considering the technical solutions.
The artist's main obsession is again present in one of Külm's few videos from 2004, in which we see him hanging from the ceiling by his foot and moving in a slow rhythm back and forth on a rope with the music changing until he becomes completely still at the end of the video. The artist here is a dual Newtonian object and subject, who has decided to show himself ticking in this special way to perceive this absurd situation. Obvious common ground here can be seen with early Bruce Nauman studio etudes, which were the result of the feeling of being at a loss about the creative position of the artist, which ended in studio research based on the parameters of personal bodily materiality. While Nauman stumbled, dragged his feet behind him, marching in a square in front of the camera, or began increasingly intimate dialogues with the camera by making faces or using make-up to transform himself into a clown, Neeme Külm became the pendulum and let gravity exhaust the scenario. Until the logical end. And even without obtaining any release from the trap of reality and the rope in the end. The video itself is titled "Dance". In another video, "Beslan", from the same year – from the time when he was studying under Jaan Toomik in the interdisciplinary master's course at the Estonian Academy of Arts – the artist took on the weight of an oppressive political message in the act of carrying a coffin in front of the Russian embassy in Tallinn to remember the victims of the Beslan hostage case. Gravity is therefore also a metaphor for him.
While his steel mesh "House" (2014), installed on the roof of the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM) just a few years ago, seems to tout its lightweight lace-like transparent immateriality in front of the viewer, and obviously contrasts with the industrial roughness of the rooms inside that have been adapted to form a museum, creating an illusory continuation on the roof of those that function as some sort of antipode, then "Stage" (2009), constructed in the courtyard of the same museum, still fulfils the role of practical participatory art. Here, bands and DJs perform at EKKM's parties and the winners of the Köler Prize are also announced there. His work "Container" (2012), which was brought to a music party in the courtyard of the Patarei prison, perhaps it was during the "Kultuuritolm" festival, is also very down to earth in its core features. In their balanced position and "normal" function these two would not seem like Külm's works if we did not have other examples from the same series, rave-containers, which, being attached to a crane, swayed to the rhythm of the collective bodily vibrations of the party-goers, hinting at the tension present due to gravity and the temporary resistance of the lifting equipment, as if postponing a catastrophe. I've been in this kind of situation created by Külm myself in the shipping container "40' High Cube" at the festival "Seanahk" curated by Jaan Toomik in Haapsalu in 2009. The relationship between the effect of the space and the perception of gravity was special in every way. Perhaps it was also relevant that dancing in the container was quite exhausting, like climbing up a hill. Putting obstacles in the path of his audience is not an unknown strategy for Külm, and he also played the balancing game in the installation of Alice Kase's paintings for "House of Cards" (2010) in Kumu.
This hanging effect, as one of the structural attributes of gravity, floating with determination in the surface layers of Külm's work, returns in some of the works exhibited at "Between the Archive and Architecture" at Kumu in 2016. Although in itself it may not have been the author's intention to affect a shift in the perception register, it nevertheless modifies the sense of safety in the exhibition space and expands the existing exhibition design and construction limits of such high-level institutions. While the granite pillars from the Baltic Stock Exchange in London have been mentioned, Külm's most massive intervention took the audience that came to see the contemporary art on Kumu's 5th level and, by removing elements of the display, "suspended" them over the border to the 4th level using a crude cutaway to reveal the cheap construction of temporary exhibition architecture. The viewers found themselves suspended above the gallery of art from the Soviet era, very different from the contemporary art they had come to see, and even detached, from this exceptional and arbitrary perspective.
While the installation "Flowers for the Curator"from the same exhibition is primarily participatory art, which worked as a horizontal metaphor for the collectiveness of the exhibition format, as convincingly referred to by Maria-Kristiina Soomre in her catalogue article, then "Rope", the last intervention at that exhibition, plays again with both the potential for participation and gravity. The viewer was able to cause a rope to move on the level below, which appeared to hang from holes drilled in the exhibition on the 5th level. On the level below, from time to time the rope communicated signals from upstairs, that is from the contemporary art gallery, in the form of an uncontrollable jerking. People pulled the rope from time to time. The person "fishing" with the rope could only have guessed at the effect it was having downstairs, since the rope simply vanished into a hole in the floor. The actual sense and effect of the cord was apparent to visitors to the Soviet era exhibition, who may not have wanted to know anything about the contemporary art games coming from the gallery upstairs. No doubt the visitor perceived this as something unexpected and disruptive at first, but hopefully also as an absurd and comic gesture. Perhaps here, for the viewer, smirking involuntarily, the role of the invisible hand was visible just for a moment, something that Neeme Külm continually attributes to the all-coordinating effect of gravity.
And yet, next to the others, there is one installation by Neeme Külm that defies gravity, my personal favourite installation, which left me with an extraordinary impression at the time and which would've comfortably been my focus in this text, if the photographs had clearly brought back the feeling that I had once had while going through its spatial paradoxes. It would be a shame to finish this article without mentioning it. However, almost all the existing photographs point to the obvious fact that most of Neeme Külm's spatial effects and physical tricks are not that photogenic. It must be considered that the visual documentations of Külm's installations, no matter how well-photographed, inevitably capture only the surface effect of the works. This may work for an object such as "Anvil", if the viewer does not refuse to use their imagination, but it does not convey the human presence and bodily disposition of perception that enlivens these installations. At this moment, the reader must rely on a description rather than a photograph. The self-ironic yet neutrally descriptively titled work, "Shimmer on the Surface"(2012), unrecognisably transformed the spatial parameters of Hobusepea Gallery, as if replacing the staircase connecting the two floors ‒ well-known to frequent visitors ‒ from beneath, from the layers of the spatially symbolic unconsciousness, with a flood coming from the basement. The shimmer of the dark watery mass before the viewer's feet transformed the whole room, and this was amplified, firstly, due to the sound, intensifying in rhythmic intervals and pulsating, and transmitting a catastrophic atmosphere, and secondly to the anxious vibrations on the surface of the water. The only addition to this dramatic setting was the artist's book, exhibited on a pedestal, a black book with black pages and with meaningfulness weakening in the darkness. This may be my own private interpretation ego trip dominated solely by my experience as a viewer; after all, it was a typical opera aperta (Umberto Eco) – a work of art open to the free play of interpretations – but I was absolutely convinced as a viewer at that moment that Külm had achieved an exceptionally focused approach to the tragedy of the sinking of the "Estonia" ferry in the Baltic Sea in 1994. Even if the artist used very abstract means besides the particular shifting of space, no one had been able to approach the memory of the shipwreck disaster for me as he had, not even Markus Copper with his dead keyboard player reciting the ghostly death march in his installation "Kursk" (2004) at the aforementioned exhibition "Shiftscale".
The pinnacle of the strength of Neeme Külm's creative work is achieved when the artist has successfully synthesized the tragic note that is inherent to him with the technical skill of allowing the viewer to participate in it physically. Here is the crossing point of psychoanalytical discourse and the spatial shifting – creative strategies that are normally located a million miles away from each other.