CRITIQUE - Maria Arusoo. A black hole in the white cube: Neeme Külm’s total world(s) and new dimensions hidden in the depths. KUNST.EE 2012, 2, 60-62

Maria Arusoo writes about the exhibition "Shimmer on the Surface" at Hobusepea Gallery.

I am writing this article having seen the work in two different contexts: during a crowded exhibition opening and in the emptier privacy of the gallery. Two radically different expe- riences, but both of them total and transformative. A week before the opening of the exhibition I saw Neeme Külm wandering around deep in thought—you could see how the exhi- bition was being prepared in his mind. In fact, one part of it had been ready for some time already, but as we know, space is what activates a work. However, in the case of this exhibition we may rightly assert the exact opposite. As could be read in the press release and on the gallery window, the exhibition was called "Pinnavirvendus" (Shimmer on the Surface), and true, like the works on show in the gallery, the title also contained no redundancies. Clean, clear, well-formulated solutions pervaded the work in this exhibition while leaving a great deal of freedom and space for interpretation.

In "Pinnavirvendus", Neeme Külm combined the traditions of conceptualism and minimalism to create an entire space where the work is no longer a separate object, but establishes a dialogue both with the white cube and with the viewer. Such a work may be described in terms of the discourse of classic minimalism, where the viewer does not so much move into the work in order to find the artist’s prescribed meaning as moves within the work to face his or her own personal experience as a recipient. Külm created the framework and the environment and the viewer creates the meaning(s). The artist created the potential for an empirical journey in a physically small space (in terms of square metres), and it is here that "Pinnavirvendus" opens up totally new dimensions.

It is very likely that most readers of this text have visited Hobusepea gallery many times. So have I. I have visited the gallery tens, if not hundreds of times and thought about how difficult the space is for exhibiting. For me, gallery space has always been, above all, a passive backdrop, something unobtrusive and separate, and the focus is on the work. However, "Pinnavirvendus" was not just another exhibition presenting work; instead, and unexpectedly, it was as if a new space had been created, a space within a space. I would not like to reduce Külm’s work merely to the skilful use of space, but rather highlight the artist’s mastery in transforming an ordinary white cube into a "mystical" world, and this without imposed narratives or burdensome contextualising—in the exhibition, where the basement level of the gallery appeared to be filled with black liquid engulfing the viewer and compelling them into a never-ending gaze—that new age adjective inevitably trips off my tongue.

The gallery environment was activated purely by the strong images. Sound and light were selected as the main "levers" of the exhibition, and acting as "the intermediary" between them was a strange deep black liquid—a black hole in a white cube—from which emerged sounds that made the surface of the water shimmer. Light and sound employed in the service of the exhibition had been synchronised, resulting in a gallery space that was constantly transforming in a play of colour. The room was constantly shimmering, in the literal sense of the word, and each moment differed from the previous and the next. This brought about an overwhelming trance-like state, with one’s gaze riveted to the play of light and the bubbling depths of water on the floor. The pool of black liquid constructed over the stairs leading to the basement level produced an illusion of eternity—a desire to descend the stairs (which you knew existed, but which seemed at that moment to be totally under water) to see how far they went and whether there was a bottom at all. The rhythmic resonance heard from the depths that made the surface shimmer gave the impression of someone living down there (during the exhibition opening I heard people wondering whether the artist had hidden himself under the water and if he would emerge from "down there" into the room filled with visitors).

The work that concludes the exhibition (or introduces it— difficult to say within the framework of the whole experience) was an artist’s book—a 400 page offset printed volume with a completely black cover, the blinking light making it also "shimmer". The book, which according to Külm, "did not have a single superfluous word"—was totally filled with printing ink, and gave new meaning to the regular binary object-subject relationship between the observer and the object, especially presented as it was in such a classical format as a book.

During my second visit to the exhibition, when I ran through the gallery before my flight to London, and enjoyed "Pinnavirvendus" alone, finer details emerged along with what the artist himself might have intended. As a contrast to the hustle of the opening, the atmosphere was almost poetic. Observed in solitude, the bottomless pit filled with liquid, in which three loudspeakers were vibrating, was in particularly strong harmony with the daylight streaming in through the coloured plastic covering the windows. The colours reflected back off the black surface of the water and the white walls of the gallery, forming a new level, a new and independent "surface shimmer", which for me had been extinguished among the masses of people on the opening night.

Being in the gallery alone, the work indeed worked on a more sensitive level and defined itself more clearly, but even during the opening "Pinnavirvendus" captured the whole space, making the gallery disappear, manifesting itself as a totally alert spatial experience, the active process of creating the space. The exhibition transformed the gallery and the art experience we are accustomed to, and involved each viewer who entered the gallery. It was like an organic environment, which changed in time and space, altering itself in step with the daylight coming in and the people visiting the gallery.

Maybe I am interpreting Külm’s exhibition too narrowly, and from a personal viewpoint, but my goal is nothing more than to transmit my own experience, since to my mind this was one of the most important factors of "Pinnavirvendus"— the individuality of the experience and the freedom to inter- pret it. Külm’s bold experiment and uncompromised tota- lity achieved a great deal and I hope that the exhibition will be a cornerstone to even greater changes in the Estonian art scene—to more venturous site-specific approaches in the local white cubes.

Maria Arusoo is an artist and curator; she started working at the Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia as a project manager in 2012.