Toomas Thetloff has emerged in the second half of the 2000s in the Estonian art scene with his text oriented art practice, which can easily be classified under the key concept of the “relational aesthetics” of Nicolas Borriaud, and in which the concepts of intentional error, productive error messages or the logic of (the) dematerialisation (of artworks) are often used.
First, it could be claimed that in its essence Thetloff’s post-conceptual art practice is primarily led by two “magic words” – error and emptiness. The artist knows that nothing irritates the ordinary viewer at exhibitions more than the quiet slow dawning that the artwork is either “out of order” (or works against the habitual presumptions and expectations in respect to the consumption of art) or that it has been entirely dematerialised (i.e. the exhibition is “empty” since the tangible object of art is missing). For example, in the exhibition curated by Maria Arusoo, “Continuum_ the perception zone” at the Tallinn Art Hall in 2011, Thetloff constructed a room installation by simply attaching a fan to the wall. Standing underneath the visitor could feel a gentle air flow – to explain Thetloff said that he wanted to create something non-physical that could not be directly seen or touched, as these two human senses are the most commonly attributed to how people experience the visual arts. This talk would definitely be pleasing to the ears of Sol LeWitt, the late conceptualist hero.
Toomas Thetloff studied psychology at Tartu University and photography at Tartu Art College. As of 2011 there are no solo exhibitions in his CV; however, his participation in several significant group exhibitions is there. For example, one of his most well-known works “Tõde ja õgius” was displayed in Tartu at a group exhibition “From Text to Machine” (Rael Artel Gallery) in 2007. In principle, it would be correct to claim that Thetloff belongs to a wider “school” or group of friends gathered around the postmodernist multi-talent Kiwa (Jaanus Kivaste), who emerged in the second half of the 1990s in Estonia and who has been able to divide himself with playful subtlety between organising contemporary art exhibitions, experimental literature and music, DJ-ing and working as an art lecturer.
In general, Thetloff is usually quite capable of creating situations that also make wider circles speak about his work. For example, in Paris at the group exhibition “Lack of Stimulus” (Gallery Rivoli 59) in 2010, Thetloff’s work “Watch your step!” became the subject to censorship by the gallery’s personnel. And all he did was raise a step on the gallery’s staircase in order to make it three centimetres higher! Perhaps Thetloff just wanted to show how difficult it was to “cross the threshold” of the art world of the elite, be it as a spectator or an artist, but the personnel at the gallery became worried about the safety of the gallery’s visitors. They might not notice the title “Watch your step!” and fail to see that the raised step was a work of art, they could stumble and fall and then sue the gallery. Later, Thetloff reported that his work was removed under the cover of night and hidden – a pre-emptive attack par excellence. For the common bystander it is difficult to understand what is more important for the artist – the raised step or the action-like story to be told later. What is in the context of a “work of art” – is it the object or the exchange of views released after exhibiting it? “Schrödinger’s box” by Toomas Thetloff and Taavi Piibemann exhibited at the II Artishok Biennale in 2010 was also at first glance nothing more than a closed box. However, without doubt the historic clue about the Austrian physician Erwin Schrödinger encouraged hot debate in the exhibition hall along the lines of what the box actually contained: either a poison ampoule (that would break upon opening the box) or a cat (dead or alive)? Even the blessed Marcel Duchamp could not have succeeded better in making the viewer think about what it is that we call art.
So, what kinds of conclusions can we draw from the above? Toomas Thetloff is obviously a trickster, a troublemaker, someone who turns things upside down, Topsy-Turvey Ted. As an artist he usually does not mix himself up in affairs that aim to produce something (à la a drawing, painting, video, object etc.) that can be re-sold in order to restore confidence in the concept that such units as society and “art”, economy and “art”, the individual and “art” exist, somehow trying to sort out their problematic relationships. Instead of stepping into the hot sweaty chat room, Thetloff pulls a trick, creates a situation that starts unrolling itself and may potentially become who-knows-what. And if there are no reactions, there is literally nothing to talk about – no earth, no weather, no “relational aesthetics” that would put things into the necessary perspective. For example, we may pose a hypothetical question: would Thetloff have cared to carry out his iconoclastic destruction of one of Estonia’s “founding cultural texts”, novelist A.-H. Tammsaare’s principal work “Tõde ja õigus” (Truth and Justice) from the beginning of the 20th century, if it would have left Estonians totally indifferent? Definitely not, but such a question becomes void since the artist could confidently count on the fact that the re-publication of the novel processed by the digital anagram converter would beyond doubt create a scandal. Moreover, nothing shows better the ridiculousness of serious things than imitating them at the cost of a tiny error or shift. Thus, could for example “Rahvusvaheline konverents, teaduslik konverents” (“The International Conference, Scientific Conference”) organised together with Erkki Luuk at Tartu University eventually leave an occasional visitor with the impression of a completely ordinary scientific conference? One for all errors, all for one error...