Andreas Trossek, Raul Keller’s Greatest Hits. – KUNST.EE 2/2012
Andreas TrossekdiscussesRaul Keller’sexhibition "KLANG!" (26. I–5. II 2012 Estonian Maritime Museum’s Gunpowder Store).
Raul Keller’s body of work generally fits into the category of installation art, or to be more precise, sound installation or sound art. In other words, he works with objects that fill a specific space with a specific sound or sounds. These sound installations or sound objects are mostly, but not necessarily, site specific––based on some specific architectural feature or space. Sound installations are generally different to other types of installation art because they fill the surrounding space with sound or sounds, without which the work would not be apparent to the viewer and their purpose would remain unclear. Yet, some of Keller’s sound installations are sufficiently "sculptural" that the viewer can, basically, grasp the idea just by looking at it. For example, his "Black Music Box" (2010)––a large black music box with a "score" conveying names of cities––which I first saw a few years ago in a waiting room at Riga airport, was virtually no different at his exhibition at the Maritime Museum’s Gunpowder Store (February 2012) or Kirke Kangro’s curated exhibition "The Exotic" at the Tallinn Art Hall (April 2012). After all, a music box is a music box. This sound object is little affected by its surroundings and would carry the same meaning even if some moving part in the music box became jammed and it no longer produced any sound. If we think of Keller’s work in terms of keywords––radio waves, music box, speaker membranes, a machine made from a gramophone and used for engraving records, and so forth––these are all objects that operate as symbols for sound, even when no sound is actually produced. Thus, Keller’s greatest hits-style retrospective "KLANG!" convincingly fits the visual art category.
Nonetheless, probably due to my background in art history, my problem with sound art has always been an inability to "tune in". I do not always understand the relationship between "sound" and "art", the audible and the visual in such works. Okay, I understand the Dadaists, the Surrealists, Fluxus, and Kaarel Kurismaa as an example from Estonian art history, and from the noughties Mooste art residency MoKS, but do I really? The history of sound art is entwined with the history of experimental music, and also rock music and popular culture. People like John Cage and Arvo Pärt, or Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson can be placed, not only in the history of music, but also on the timeline of art history under headings like performance art, sound installation and sound art. Consequently, treating a sound installation as visual art is just as silly as trying to write a record review about the same work in the weekly newspaper. The mixing of different art forms leaves its mark on the artist’s function, and no doubt Raul Keller has repeatedly had to defend himself and justify his position––is he an artist or an experimental musician (see LokaalRaadio, Projekt Unison, Paul Cole––Keller’s alter ego)? Is his grappling with different sound objects just a pretension towards "high art" or a matter of lifestyle, complete with motorbikes and leather jackets? What is clear is that there is plenty of rock ‘n’ roll attitude in his work. The title of his exhibition "KLANG!" may sound a little like Kraftwerk, Stockhausen and Schönberg, but if we rephrase the previous keywords––radio, speakers, record player––we end up with the basic features of 20th century rock and pop culture.
The strongest impression from the exhibition came from the first work "Torpeedod sees" (Torpedoes In) (2011/12), which comprised five torpedo-shaped sound objects and a fan system, which makes them wail threateningly. Under the title "Torpeedod väljas" (Torpedoes Out), this work was first shown at a sound art festival in Tallinn, where instead of a fan, natural air from outside was the "fuel". In the somewhat claustrophobic space of the Maritime Museum’s Gunpowder Store the effect was better. The work "Protsess" (Process) (2012) was also convincing. It comprised a hand-made record engraver made from a record player that, among other things, used the head from a computer hard drive. For me the work that had lost its magic the most compared to its original site-specific incarnation was "Tume disko" (Dark Disco) (2012), which was completed in 2009 for the Cēsis Art Festival. It consisted of two giant home-made speaker membranes with a diameter of almost one and a half metres placed across the gaping openings for fermentation vats in the floor of a former beer factory, turning the entire space into a gigantic reverberating sound box. In the context of 2012, the piece "ACTA I" (2012), with its old cardboard box for the legendary Goodmans speakers set side-by-side with new "pirated copies" was amusing and topical.
What can I say in summary? Theoretically, if something could threaten Raul Keller’s image in the Estonian art world, then it would be his two-fold profile as artist and experimental musician. Until now, Keller has not been examined very much as a visual artist. Simultaneously serving two separate muses is always difficult for the audience to follow, and people tend to speculate that sooner or later either the art or the music discourse will “win” the author over. Overall it seems that, compared with (the) art (world), (the) music (industry) has a greater influence on ordinary consumers. The effect is more fundamental, more appealing, more emotional and so forth––music usually "wins". In 2010, Maria Juur in her bachelor’s thesis on sound art in the Estonian context undertaken at the Institute of Art History at the Estonian Academy of Arts complains about the lack of research in this field––whereupon she moves to London, and starts a successful career in music under the name Maria Minerva, leaving local art history to its own devices. I rest my case.