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Badly Named Things ... 0

A Review of  “Clear and Fuzzy”, a Photography Exhibition by Thomas Mocaër, at Tartu Centre for Creative Industries

James Baxenfield from Tartu

 “Clear and Fuzzy”, a Photography Exhibition by Thomas Mocaër
Tartu Centre for Creative Industries, Staircase Gallery (Tartu Loomemajanduskeskuse, Trepigalerii)
February 3 – 24, 2014

In my line of work I inevitably meet a number of local and international artists. However, saying that, I'm not exactly sure what my line of work is. I'm something between a frustrated writer, a misunderstood academic and anything that lies between. My biggest problem is that people don't always appreciate the value of ideas. Or, in other words, it's hard being a renaissance man these days as everything appears to have been thought of already. Nevertheless, if someone were to devise a ‘profession’ for me, “meeting artists” would no doubt be somewhere in the job description.

Don't let me mislead you. None of my ‘jobs’ directly require me to be in touch with artists. It’s simply a coincidence that the places I go are the places that they hang out. Because of this, over time, I've picked-up a thing or two, but not enough to make me a real art critic. Learning something about art is one thing, but the pretentious language is another. Basically, I haven't quite mastered it yet. One day, maybe I will be able to write a high-browed review filled with a rich and varied vocabulary, using nothing-but-sophisticated-terminology, whilst making it so difficult to read because that will make me appear so very educated ... For the moment though, perhaps all I can do is offer an insight into a good idea or two.

I met Thomas Mocaër, a photographer from France taking part in the Tartu Artist in Residence (TAiR) programme, at Eesti Trükimuuseum (otherwise known as the Estonian Printing Museum). The latter is an independent museum which also doubles as an art studio and a nascent cultural centre. It generally attracts creative and social individuals, so it’s quite understandable that there are a lot of different events either going on there or connected with the people from there. As such, after meeting Thomas at the museum I met him again at a film screening, a dinner party, a launch event for a couple of Estonian literary journals (ELLA and JESS), two separate birthday parties and a sauna in Põlvamaa! And, of course, I met him again at the opening of his exhibition. Without a doubt, in his month-long tenure as Tartu's artist in residence, Thomas immersed himself in the cultural and social life of the city.

This immersion into a city that was new to him is reflected consciously in his artistic output. In his own words:

“My immediate environment has always been the basis of my work. During my one month residency [...] I have observed the functioning of this unusual place, the people who work there, those who are just passing through. I was interested in what is created in this place, and those who create it.”

As such, whilst he may not be an artist from the region, his work reflects his experiences in Estonia. Having met a number of international artists visiting different places over the years, his approach was quite refreshing. Instead of coming here and simply doing his own thing in a different place, he was keen to use his time in Tartu and the facilities at his disposal as an opportunity to develop his craft and experiment with new mediums.

On a couple of occasions he spoke about how he was aiming to translate his experiences through a reoccurring theme in his work: “the retranscription of memories and mental images”. It sounded clever, but what did he mean by that? The “ambiguity of memory” was how he termed it, which “results in fragmented images, partial memories, sometimes accurate, sometimes blurred”. Taking advantage of the resources of the Printing Museum and Paberimuuseum (Paper Museum) – another place in Tartu where more goes on than the name itself suggest – he produced a rather intriguing reflection of his experiences in Estonia.

Combining photography and drawing and utilizing handmade paper that he made himself along with printing and embossing techniques he acquired during his residency, he inadvertently created a four dimensional exhibition. Being no stranger to the world of printing I can affirm his assertion that “the photos are printed using an unconventional technical result of experiments and teamwork”. The ‘accidental’ fourth dimension to the exhibition came in the form of the faint aroma of nitro solvent – a chemical used in the process of transferring fragments of photographic images to handmade paper. During this process – through Thomas’ own innovation – the points on the paper where images appear are simultaneously embossed by using a press originally designed for gilding letters onto the covers of books. Despite forehand knowledge of printing techniques, the remnant scent of nitro was a subtle clue to how the images were transferred in a process that is by no means immediately discernible.

As for the works themselves, they are quite simply visually impressive and thought-provoking. Thomas focused on specific details which stuck in his mind from his time gallivanting around Tartu. From a pair of red shoes to the master print-maker of the Museum, Kalju Kütt, having his morning coffee. Viewing the exhibition I found myself wondering which details from my own interactions with the city are most prominent for me. Most of the images on display are familiar scenes to me – or at least elements of them – but I haven't previously taken the time to consider how I remember them; peripherally or otherwise. As such, the thought behind the exhibition along with the techniques used in the creation of the works are both novel ideas.

The majority of the pieces combine photography, drawings and the abovementioned unconventional embossing technique. However, a few of the pieces in the exhibition – at the top of the staircase gallery where they are on display – consist of fragmentary sketches on handmade paper. Whilst there is nothing particularly displeasing in these works, they somehow feel out of place surrounded by their more intricate mixed-medium counterparts. Nevertheless, that’s only my opinion. I neither have the ability to draw nor a staircase gallery to furnish with artwork. Perhaps if  I should acquire either of these in the future I will change my mind about what sort of artworks look good side by side.

Another minor quibble is the name of the exhibition itself: “Clear and Fuzzy”. Whilst there is nothing wrong with it, as such, I just don’t find it particularly attractive. Of course I get the title viz a viz the works: it’s subtly clever and unpretentious. However, personally I would have favoured something more enticing, along the lines of “Fragments” or “Remnants”. Nevertheless, maybe such titles are too obvious and have a severe sort of sound that would not be reflected in the exhibition pieces themselves. Perhaps the title of the exhibition was unconsciously inspired by Tartu. There seems to be a tendency of naming things badly. But, as places like the Printing Museum and Paper Museum (the latter of which could more aptly be called something in the vein of Extreme Origami Studio) demonstrate, great things can be found in places that could have been named better. Like Thomas' exhibition, the real measure is inside, in the detail.