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Land art by Jüri Okas, 1979

The freedom of the loner 0

Q&A with Ragne Soosalu, one of the coordinators of Jüri Okas’ exhibition at the Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn

Jüri Okas

Kumu Art Museum, Great Hall (2nd floor)
Through August 27, 2017

A retrospective of the notable Estonian architect, installation artist, photographer and printmaker Jüri Okas (1950) will be on view at the Kumu Art Museum through August 27, 2017.

Okas is one of a group of artists who in the late 1960s and early 1970s, while still a student at the Estonian State Art Institute, set out to overthrow previous values – the principles of art-making drawn from modernist aesthetics – and replace them with the futuristic visions of pop art and the impersonal documentation of conceptual art.

Jüri Okas’ exhibition at the Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn. Photo: Helen Melesk

The current exhibition presents the work of Okas as an artist and does not concentrate on his successful career as an architect. The overview of his work – ranging from 8mm films, land art objects and installations (all photographically documented) to prints – provides convincing evidence that the artist seeks to define space, especially architectural space, in its very different manifestations. This is the source and endpoint for the artist.

Land art by Jüri Okas, 1979. Photo: Helen Melesk

What new and unique aspects does this exhibition reveal about Okas, who is a very well-known figure on the Estonian and Baltic art scene?

Perhaps the main, unintentional idea of this retrospective is to show how Okas started out in the early 1970s by reconstructing the Tallinn cityscape according to his own agenda, very much relying on an architect’s point of view, and how he gradually withdrew from it and became increasingly interested in the medium of photography itself. His intaglios lost their spatial dimensions, and a fragmentation of perspectives entered his art. It is exactly here that Okas manages to accomplish his underlying aim of escaping interpretation. He does this with repetition, intuitional randomness and diffusion of the surface of the photographic image.

Reconstruction B, 1974

Okas has always been a loner, working at the margins, even when he actually was, or now is again, at the centre of attention. He dwells in this position and says that it has given him a lot of freedom – coming from an architectural background to the Soviet Estonian art scene in the 1970s was nothing new or special, however, his visual language and unparalleled aesthetics were something that even Leonhard Lapin had a hard time comprehending, not to say analysing.

Untitled, 1993. Visby, Gotland, Sweden

Why do you feel that now is the right time to organise a retrospective of Okas?

The first invitation for Okas to Kumu was made by our master curator Eha Komissarov a couple of years ago. One of the reasons was to continue with the avantgarde classics series at Kumu (after Tõnis Vint and Raul Meel). But the more interesting reason was the current zeitgeist in Estonia. Architecture is very popular right now in every aspect – many young architects are doing very well at home and internationally, there are discussions about urban planning, smart architecture, etc. So, just like Katja Novitskova’s Venice pavilion this year is very on point on a global perspective, so is the Okas exhibition locally, introducing especially to the younger audience some philosophical aspects of space and architecture.

Untitled, 1996. Rostock, Germany

Furthermore, Okas has been a bit in the background as an artist for some time now. The first big solo show he had in Tallinn was in 1987. In 2002 Sirje Helme curated the first selected retrospective of his work, which focussed mostly on his early years. By 1995 Okas had finished his very last piece of land art in Tartu, and from then on he turned his focus entirely to his architect’s bureau (he insists on not using the expression “architectural bureau“, as is more common in the Estonian language). Thus began his successful career as a renowned architect and also the diminishing of his role as an artist.

Jüri Okas. The Concise Dictionary of Modern Architecture, 1974-1995. Photo: Helen Melesk

Could you give us a few highlights of Okas’ oeuvre that can be seen at this exhibition?

My personal favourite is The Concise Dictionary of Modern Architecture. It is a series of small black-and-white and also colour photographs, more than a thousand of them in all, a few hundred of which have been acquired by the Art Museum of Estonia. The series started in 1974, and in 1995 the book by the same title was released.

Reconstruction M, 1976

From a conceptualist perspective, Okas has said that The Dictionary is the visual equivalent of the essence of things. It visualises principles. What is seen in the photos is architectural mishaps, buildings with strange perspectives, abandoned constructions, old decayed houses fixed up in an odd way. They are so-called non-places, there is no way of identifying the function of the photographed buildings or ruins. But this plays no significant role for Okas. He has made a huge effort in minimising every aspect of meaning, trying to intentionally flee from any interpretation other than spatial, geometric and architectural. However, he is not completely successful in this, especially when each photograph in the series is loaded with bizarre and quaint objects (buildings) conveying uncanny emotion.

The second highlight is definitely his experimental videos. Six of them can be seen at the exhibition. Okas is undoubtedly the starting point of Estonian video art. The first video is from 1970 – titled Plastic, the three-minute video follows a piece of plastic flying around Vääna Beach. The other videos are conceptual documentations of happenings, performed mainly for the camera.

The public hands-on room for Okas’ exhibition. Photo: Helen Melesk

How would you characterise the overall feeling/atmosphere of the show?

The atmosphere is pretty straightforward, clean, extremely simple and massive at the same time. Okas has designed a simple maze through which he guides viewers pretty much the way he wants to. He has also created a maximum effect on the audience with a minimum of tools – he not only designed a space to hang his art, but very much also a space to directly influence the audience’s experience, movement and sense of space. The architecture is not a background to the exhibition; instead, fittingly for an architect, it is the key player.