CRITICISM - Ellu Maar, Watching the ice cube melt: Tõnis Saadoja’s photorealism. – Estonian Art 2007, no 1

Tõnis Saadoja Tõnis Saadoja’s work could be briefly summarised as follows: he is considered a promising artist of the new wave of Estonian hyperrealism. In 2004 he graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts as a painter, and in 2006 he received his MA in fine arts at the University of East London. In a fairly short time he has had five personal exhibitions and has received some serious art awards.

Talking about Tõnis Saadoja’s work, we should start with the fact that he represents a painting practice where the revered values, the rhetoric of the ‘touch of a genius’, are overruled by conceptual and contextual thinking. In the Estonian art of the 1990s, abandoning painting focused on form and the beauty of colour, and turning instead towards social topics was reactionary. For many younger artists today, however, this is an obvious position. Saadoja says he feels no compulsion to fight against the auratic manner of painting: “My work is, naturally, partly based on that opposition, but this is not a militant position. I want to do what I do, and do it well.”

Tõnis Saadoja Saadoja’s attitude to transcendental and ‘poetic painting’ accurately characterises his latest project in which he starts a dialogue with the central image of Jaan Toomik’s last exhibition, a dream-like forest. Toomik’s image clearly comes from a kind of ‘beyond’, transcendentalism, where his protagonist goes into his dreams in order to distance himself from reality. Saadoja sent around an email with two photographs, the first showing his bicycle leaning against a tree in Toomik’s forest, the other showing himself in that forest. Toomik’s forest-image is so powerful that many considered Saadoja’s photographs to be montages. Saadoja says about the photos: “I am here, in Toomik’s dream forest – really.” A solemn metaphor suddenly becomes a most ordinary forest. This kind of approach characterises all of Saadoja work: finding subject matter in the mundane social reality. His works do not lose contact or float away into poetic obscurity.

Reality is, of course, a problematic category and Saadoja is not a complete documentalist either, although he largely works with documentary material. In 2003 he established himself on the Estonian art landscape with the exhibition Estonian Boy. Estonian Girl, where he, together with another young photorealist Maarit Murka, presented paintings based on photographs about boys and girls their own age seen in the streets of Tallinn. At that time it was quite a new approach, mainly because of its social and demographic topic, which seemed too mundane and not poetic enough to be called ‘art’. I asked Saadoja what role ‘real life’ plays in his work. “I use documentary material because this is like a ‘real thing’. It seems to contain a criterion of truth: if you deal with it you think you have got to the bottom of it. However, I do not think at all that any kind of documentary helps to grasp the essence of anything. Partly I do this out of weakness: I do not have too good an imagination. I think I don’t have the power to generalise. It would be immensely difficult for me to invent characters and situations that do not exist in my own life, to create a different world. I do not feel at home there at all. It is easier to borrow from our daily life. Painting after a photograph helps a lot as well. Half the content is there, and you don’t find yourself, in mid-sea, having to cope.”

Tõnis Saadoja Saadoja’s last personal exhibition in 2006, 9th December 2005/My Notebook, consisted of two parts. The first was a project where Saadoja had asked people to send him photographs about 9th December 2005. The result was a collection of random pictures that formed a collective document about the visual aspect of that day. Saadoja presented them together with pictures painted after the photographs. Saadoja explains: “I am not a very social person, but in this exhibition I had to relate to people and an environment – this was the key to the exhibition. I wanted mundane and real-life material from people.” This is a collection without one specific point of view, with emphases and a montage, haphazard clicks of everything that a large number of people saw that day. With this project, Saadoja set up a dialogue with the topic of reality and representation, which already existed in his work because he paints after photographs. What kind of world do the pictures create of a day, according to random pictures taken by random people? What do they really tell us about that day? Saadoja is primarily interested in pictorial reality, and not revealing the true nature of 9th December – which would be an impossible task anyway.

The second part of the exhibition relied on verbal material. Saadoja displayed his personal notebook, which he had photographed page by page and then did drawings after the photographs. The Notebook shows quite clearly that displaying personal material was a real effort for the artist. “Keeping a diary has always seemed rather bogus. I have never done it. In the strange environment of London, however, I felt the need to write something down in Estonian. I bought this notebook, as it looked rather nice. I began noting down essential information: dates, phone numbers, addresses etc, but also some random thoughts. At first it did not occur to me that this might become an art project, and therefore the notes are very honest. I kept the diary for about six months, finishing when I had the idea of turning it into a work. After displaying it at the exhibition, the diary is no longer private.”

Tõnis Saadoja Notebook consists of small drawings placed along the walls of the gallery, each picture showing one open page. Examining these, the viewer is filled with a mixture of guilt and curiosity, as if prying into someone’s private life. This work relies on trust between the artist and the viewer: the artist promises not to lie, presenting an honest reproduction of his diary, and the viewer promises not to abuse the received information.

Saadoja paints, projecting his photographs on the wall. The aesthetics of the paintings is minimalist; the works are black-and-white, with soft transitions. “My fondness for minimalism began at school. I do only as much as absolutely necessary. My pictures would not be more informative, better or wiser if they were in colour. Less is more. If I produce a colour painting, then it means that it cannot be done without colours.” The photographs on which the works are based follow a certain concept with an easily understandable logic that Saadoja has determined before taking the pictures and painting. “I try to make 90% of the decisions before I start painting, so that I won’t have to make big changes half way through the process.” A photograph as the basis of a painting is a natural tool that Saadoja turns into a painting, changing it minimally. Saadoja paints, quite strictly following the photograph, and does not deviate into picturesque self-expression or additions. This enables the viewer to believe that the painting was indeed based on the same photograph.

In several projects, Saadoja has been fascinated by the field of tension that emerges when a photograph becomes a painting. This method exudes the pleasure that the artist takes in painting, creating an image, successfully occupying the photograph, where the image has been captured on its way from photo to painting. One of Saadoja’s series depicts a melting ice cube on 20 square pieces of canvas. The process from a piece of ice to a puddle of water proceeds in the black and white and clinically laconic series with immense patience. Such asceticism on the part of the painter is quite touching at a time when nobody bothers to turn the camera lens towards such a boring process as the melting of an ice cube [see also EA 1/2005. Ed]. Saadoja explains: “Using photography in painting yields a highly effective result, but it is at the same time rather absurd. Completing the painting of a series demands huge concentration, discipline and systematic work. The amount of the absurd increases to an extent, when it becomes agreeable. The absurd contains asceticism and the sublime. This might be a therapy of self-pity – see what a stupid thing I’m doing! Like crawling from Tallinn to Tartu.”

Occasionally, Saadoja relaxes from this discipline of painting. At the 2004 exhibition Mainstream, Saadoja displayed a series of samesized portrait paintings of one of his favourite artists, Gerhard Richter, distinguished by the different scale of photorealistic techniques. “That series was largely born out of a joy of play. The way I painted before made me feel bored, completely empty. Technically, my works totally lacked any experimental spirit. Richter’s portraits focus on experimenting. I like to think of this series as potential growth.” Saadoja describes his search for new means of expression, as well as the resistance of material that creates tension in the whole creative process: “I am currently doing watercolours, hoping to find the weak spot in myself, and then follow that as best as I can. By purposefully obstructing oneself, the work acquires a positive tension.”

Saadoja works thoroughly, covering a research area with extensive series, single examples that form a long list. The photos made by a strict and positivist method often form quite large collections; there can be so many more photographs than paintings that finally make it to the exhibition. “A picture, in a classical sense, is a unit, a static object, and everything happens within these four sides. All my ideas now take the form of a series. Series produce a temporal dimension and one more door opens. Sometimes there is so much material that I must try to seriously hold it back. I like it very much when an artist is able to solve his problem like a sniper: one bullet – and that’s it. However, in some projects multiplicity is part of the whole idea.”

Working in series adds a temporal dimension to his works; their processual and linear nature is explicated. Something happens, not in terms of the tense narrative of the society of the spectacle, but on a grass roots level: the ice melts, the canvas is covered with paint, entries appear in the notebook. The viewer follows the process and perceives that the artist ‘has been painting’, a process of thinking and working has occurred. Using that method, the exhibition seems to unravel before the viewer: seeing a finished result, the viewer realises that at the other end of the ball of yarn there is a point where nothing existed before, where the first idea emerged, and the exhibition began developing. The viewer can, together with the artist, follow the ball of yarn in the opposite direction: from the completed exhibition back towards the initial idea, as if watching a rewinding video.

Saadoja thus seems like a documenter of daily life. He tackles topical and significant issues, but does that from a different position in terms of the rules in the society of the spectacle – painting images that have already been captured by the photographer, examining topics ignored by the mainstream, like a modern flâneur, observing people in the street, an insignificant assortment of random images, melting ice cubes.