In 2001, when Robert Storr curated a show at MoMA––the Museum of Modern Art in New York––a show that was practically the first personal exhibition in the United States for Gerhard Richter, the veteran of European painting who had just turned 70, Tõnis Saadoja had already started his studies in painting at the Estonian Academy of Arts. The exhibition, dedicated to a considerable purchase of Richter’s work by MoMA, was met with surprisingly sharp criticism in the US. It was even written that Gerhard Richter was nothing but a cheat disguised as a painter (the term originally used was bullshit artist); or perhaps more diplomatically, that in reality Richter was not really the ‘great artist’ who could change the way we view art and the world. The voluminous catalogue compiled by Storr and published in connection with the exhibition, was viewed merely as an articulate justification of the Richter purchase. It is somewhat difficult to believe that the Conceptually ego-less, manifestly anti-original photo-based manner of painting typical of arguably one of the most important contemporary European painters, could still create problems for some people at the beginning of the 21st century, and this in New York, the metropolis of the world––but it did.
Nevertheless, when Tõnis Saadoja was planning to put up forty-eight portraits of Gerhard Richter at his solo exhibition at Hobusepea gallery in Tallinn in May 2006, there was probably nothing in this megalomaniacal, almost maniacal enterprise in itself for the local viewers. With this series of 16 paintings (a third of the initial number that finally became executed through several circumstances) he was paraphrasing Richter’s series 48 Portraits, displayed at the Venice Biennale in 1972. Richter's series was based on photographs of 19th and 20th century historical figures borrowed from an encyclopaedia, and his selection or rather the randomness of the selection continues to baffle critics to this day. Yet Saadoja’s portraits as well as the choice of his model apparently baffled nobody here, because no reviews were written about the exhibition, although it was an attempt by Saadoja to hold a ‘public dialogue’ with perhaps his one and only art father figure.
Saadoja painted his ‘Richters’ with excellent care, as if putting together a catalogue of Richter’s arsenal of stylization techniques––every move has been tested with painstaking care and archived as an example. The basis of his paintings was one and the same, like a rather random portrait photograph of a smiling artist, also taken from some encyclopaedia and accompanied with a very significant word as the title of the series: Mainstream. According to all the rules, Richter should have become a mainstream artist a long time ago, but it seems that this is not so obvious for some conservative Americans. Yet, what does it mean? What is mainstream? Mainstream is a word that can be used to signify a domineering style or mentality––something that should be easy to define. But what Saadoja seems to be asking is whether it is at all possible to use that concept in the case of such an unattached artist who changes styles as easily as he changes his socks. What is the dominant factor here? That question can actually be answered: the dominant thing here is the lack of the dominant. After all, Richter has been trying to evade all kinds of ‘streams’ all his life, and it would be too much of a simplification to compress his work into some inadequate ‘Richter style’.
It was about time Saadoja sorted out his relationship to Richter before the critics started ‘blaming’ him for copying his idol in one way or the other. Based on random snapshots, mostly black-and-white and ‘non-painting-like’, the pictorial aesthetics of Richter reduces the procedure of painting to pure craft, that is to say to the technical realization of a piece, and definitely has that certain quality which makes Richter an unavoidable figure in the art of the second half of the 20th century. Although, since the Mainstream series, Saadoja became clearly distanced from Richter––along with his games on the border of documentary and performance––his moves became more and more wild and his aesthetics drier. But let’s start at the beginning.
Saadoja started his art studies in 1999, at a rather bad time––in the void between the powerful nineties and the invigoration of the middle years of the next decade––when the art scene was relatively meaningless and monotonous, as if by force waning back towards the Soviet era. Therefore, it’s not at all surprising that every artist among the younger generation, who was even a little more Conceptual and intriguing, stood out at once against the background of the prevailing boredom. In this case it resulted in the ‘arrival’ of two second-year painting students, namely Tõnis Saadoja and Maarit Murka, in the middle of an exhibition at the Art Museum of Estonia dealing with Estonian art since World War II. At a time when no descendants of the generation of the nineties were to be seen, the Photorealism of Saadoja and Murka had an unexpectedly fresh impact. The period is marked by two joint-works, the first of which consisted of four paintings and was completed in 2001––based on a rather random shot of a bourgeoisie-like house together with a grove of trees and a car. The artists exposed the photographic motif in positive along with a mirror image and both of them took one of these photographs each and copied it using their best painting skills at the time. After that they gave up the photos, switched paintings and produced the next versions––this time copying each other’s paintings complete with all the mistakes made the first time round.
This experiment was followed by Saadoja and Murka’s joint-exhibition Estonian Boy. Estonian Girl (2003) at Vaal Gallery, which attracted rather a lot of media interest. The artists took a bunch of shots of Estonian boys and girls, out of which they selected ten, each making five paintings––Saadoja five girls and Murka five boys. With moves and switches like these, Saadoja and Murka fashioned for themselves a thoroughly de-romanticized starting block. The working process was nothing more than a chain of certain Conceptual decisions and the painting was merely the realization of the end result, where uniqueness and idiosyncrasy had been replaced by reproduction––as precisely as possible––lacking any kind of personal impulse. Inspiration equals work. And the artist’s ‘touch’ is nothing short of a mistake.
Saadoja has been systematically eliminating everything painting-like from his paintings. In the context of recent Estonian art, where in spite of a strong Hyperrealist tradition (the word ‘painting' was primarily used as the title of Hyperrealist works in the seventies and eighties), paintings that concentrate on the artist’s personality and signature style have always dominated; and it is for this reason that Saadoja stands out as a relatively exceptional artist. Even despite frequent comparisons with their teacher, professor Kaido Ole, whose work may indeed convey some similarities with Saadoja, but whose artistic logic stands on totally different grounds, Saadoja’s works from his time in art school, such as Let’s Go! (Homage to Miljard Kilk) (2002), Three Girls (2003), Merit & Edit (2004) and the series Like a Video (2002) and Breasts (2002) all play with the form of photography and video and look like stills from the blackout of an over-sexualized final phase of a school party miraculously preserved. Saadoja paints the naked desires of these images with merciless indifference.
He, like Richter, seems to be interested in the random, uncomplicated composition of amateur photographs, which seem to convey nothing, and yet something. In the words of Richter: “I like un-composed photographs. They don’t try to do anything more than announce the event.”(1) Yet all of them have some sort of punctum, a turning point that triggers the fantasy the artist finds appealing: be it the distant formal analogy of Miljard Kilk’s cult painting from the seventies Let’s Go! (1979) using a photograph of a party scene, or the intriguing lack of logic in a frame, where the photographer’s objects of desire ‘fall’ out of the frame, as in the source material for the painting Three Girls. The photographs forming the basis for these paintings are characterized by a certain open-endedness and randomness, which do not allow the motifs to become solidified into clear-cut allegories or symbols, but at the same time keep the desire machines constantly at work. The only slip-up the artist makes in this sense is an untitled diptych from 2005, where his manner, copying Laurentsius, and the allegorical symbolism of the apple motif, tend to wind the work up––because Saadoja’s strength has usually been in the open-endedness of his motifs, in their randomness and openness (to interpretation).
If there is any clear line running through his work, it is the ‘experience of seeing’. This is what he wants to share with us most passionately. Seeing as a subspecies of thinking. To see the important in the unimportant, the poetic in the random, the erotic in the poetic, the trivial in the mythological, etc. In the end, only one question remains, and the question is not so irrelevant: why paint photographs? The reason is that “even if I’m painting an exact copy, something new still manages to sneak in, whether I want it or not: something I don’t understand myself”(2). Naturally, these were Richter’s words, but I am sure Saadoja completely agrees with him.
Saadoja is at his best when some intriguing visual motif is associated with a similarly strong Conceptual dimension. Two of his most important student works are a series of paintings about a melting ice cube, consisting of twenty pictures (2003), and his diploma work, the site-specific painting project Exercise (at Tallinn City Gallery, 2004). In the former, he describes the process with Conceptual consistency, where the energy and work invested in it create a complete contradiction with the meaninglessness of the selected motif. In painting the ice melting, and fetishizing the smallest thinkable transformation, a micro shift is expressed, as in the performance Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing (Ice), Part I (1997) by Francis Alÿs, where the artist walks along the streets of Mexico City pushing an ice cube in front of him until it completely ‘dematerializes’. There is an appealing everyday poetic dimension to Saadoja’s series as well as to Exercise. In Exercise he began his working procedure by defining the relationship between himself and the context in which he primarily displayed the work; the piece was the final work with which he graduated with a bachelor degree from the department of painting at the Estonian Academy of Arts, thus being the last exercise before his ‘independent life’.
After that he divided the process into parts, which goes hand in hand with the making of a painting, displaying unfinished paintings at various stages of completion. Although the final ‘completed painting’ was only displayed through its inclusion within the subject matter of another painting hanging in Tallinn City Gallery. The series consisted of five works, reflecting the painting process from the initial drawing to the exhibited piece. One painting in five ‘acts’! The painting itself depicts a random fragment of fence – so it seems the figure of speech ‘fence-painting’ inevitably becomes an ironic metaphor for the department Saadoja was graduating from.
Saadoja’s most important personal exhibition so far was in October 2006. December 9th 2005 / My Notebook at Tallinn City Gallery was based on two projects the artist carried out in 2005 and 2006 while studying in London. Taking place six months after Mainstream, it marked an important change in comparison with his earlier work where next to the simple ‘motif buzz’, the works focused on the integral ideological question of the art of painting. The two projects, on the other hand, dealt with the problematics of private and personal (writings of) histories as well as ‘small histories’. Here the artist attained a certain substance, making it possible to see something in his paintings he has always strived for – a certain instrumentality.
In the exhibition, Saadoja displayed two installations as variations on the theme of diaries. The first one, My Notebook, was directly based on the artist’s recordings made over a certain period in London, while 'in exile'. Notebooks, travelogues and diaries are, after all, the romantically archaic attributes of being on a journey and documenting it. A diary should be an intimate and personal form of story (and history) writing, the truth value always remaining outside the possibility of doubt and allowing us to believe that the writer did indeed feel, think and reason at that moment, on that day the way s/he wrote it down. Keeping diaries has probably never been as popular as it is now, at the peak of blog-mania. Yet moving the culture of diaries over to the Internet has lost a lot of its truth-value, because it is no secret that when we are cognizant that another person’s eyes are focused on us, we tend to begin staging our own behaviour. It seems as if nowadays you have to prove the authenticity of your diary with verification methods borrowed from criminal investigators and gather evidence more scrupulously than they do in the cult TV-series, CSI. So, Saadoja took photographs of the 31 pages of his diary with all the random and less random information it conveyed and made a long row of drawings.
He also put the stumps that remained from the pencils he was using for drawing on display, as well as all the litter that was left behind from sharpening the pencils. Everything had been scraped together meticulously and placed separately in transparent plastic bags and sealed off – naturally the same bags that are also used to sell drugs. The items themselves, as well as the diary, were displayed as evidence is displayed on the walls at a police station.
The slightly earlier project, December 9th 2005 was, on the other hand, the artist’s attempt to present his version of the randomness of historical writing. “December 9th 2005 was a randomly chosen date, with the purpose of documenting a completely ordinary day and create a daybook in the form of an art exhibition, combining personal information along side that of strangers,” as Saadoja himself explained. The artist sent out an email with a request that people send him ‘souvenirs’ of that day, and processing the material provided a result that was in some sense fictional, and in another like a documentary narrative, in reality put together by a random group of people who happened to have the time or could be bothered to participate in the project. All in all, he took his Richterian snapshot-mania to a completely different level Conceptually. It would be rather fitting to draw a parallel with the more interesting ‘deconstructions of history’ from the middle of the nineties, by the ‘school’ of Peeter Linnap.
Saadoja’s installation I Was There (2007), on the other hand, tries to open up the mechanisms of the mythologizing manipulation of motifs and the mystifying of sites using a clear example. The artist borrowed his motif of a forest grove by the Maarjamägi Memorial near central Tallinn from Jaan Toomik, probably the best-known name in the local contemporary art scene, who uses it in his short film Communion (2007), as well as in one of his paintings. The specific atmosphere of the site depicted in both works is used to depict a dream-like, psychic personal space. Saadoja uses two frames to demystify the same forest grove motif, encoding a tourist-like picture regime around it and depicting himself standing in the very same spot that the main character in the film did––in the middle of his surreal fancy. By using a simple gesture à la ‘Здесь был Вася’ (Vasya was here – an archetypal Russian graffiti), all the metaphysics of Toomik’s motif are expelled. The artist then sent the photographs in an email to two-hundred people and referred to them in the installation via 200 yellow post-it notes on the wall of the exhibition hall, having printed the feedback he received on fifteen of the post-it notes, in the same order as in his mailing list. Finally, he made two water colours based on the photographs and displayed them next to the post-its.
These days, Saadoja’s interest in the apparent unpretentiousness of photographic representation, and at the same time, in the power of a photograph to change and shape reality, has inevitably brought the artist to confront the questions of the certain truth regime of a photographic image, the desire for realism in connection with photographs and the techniques for producing photographs. On the other hand, his conviction that art is primarily an act has taken Saadoja’s creative process to an extreme Conceptual complexity, where no step is any longer possible without someone else’s reaction or intervention. This summons an ‘invasion’ of the random and uncontrolled elements in his projects––the actualization of someone else’s glance, opinion and question and through that the de-individualization of art practices. Looking back, it seems that ever since his joint projects with Murka, Saadoja has actually been moving in this direction, even if he has not always been aware of it. Although I have previously called him a Conceptual painter, in light of his recent works he might rather be called a relational painter – because what he does is peinture relationelle.
*This essay is an excerpt from a collection “Artists of Estonia 3” (Tallinn: Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia, 2007).
(1) Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings 1962–1993. Ed. Hans-Ulrich Obrist. London: Thames and Hdson, Anthony d`Offay Gallery, 1995, p. 23.
(2) Ibid., p. 24.