Johnson and Johnson

Johnson and Johnson is made up of two artists trained as sculptors, Taavi Talve and Indrek Köster, who have been producing short films, videos, installations, sculptures, objects and context-specific actions since 2005. Their work displays a neoconceptualist criticism of institutions and media, a leftist struggle against market capitalism, as well as a melancholic fatalism. In their 2006 video “Kusagil Euroopas” (Somewhere in Europe), we find them drifting through the streets, squares and supermarkets of Tallinn, holding Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box. This symbolic object is being carried around aimlessly, purposelessly, without a clue what to do with the burden of meanings trailing along. In the 2008 action “Võimetus artikuleerida” (Inability to Articulate), however, we see them crumbling to dust among the permanent exhibits of the National Art Museum. J&J’s own comment on their latest piece: “On the one hand, this is a prank aimed at exposing the rules imposed by the public space (the institution). Although we were unaware of this while we were working on the project, looking back it is the same as the gang of thugs running through the halls of the Louvre in Jean Luc Godard’s film Bande à part, or Martin Creed’s athletes in the Tate Britain. If we were to offer an explanation that is truer to the title, the inability to accept art forms, norms or practices has always existed, as has the impossibility of ignoring them, plus the matter of patricide and the ring of guilt.”

Those writing about J&J have, somewhat lightly, combined the notion of Joseph Beuys’ social sculpture with Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics. True, the community-based project “Otsustamistahe” (The Will to Decide), for example, gives off Beuys’ everyone-is-an-artist optimism and life affirmation. The tiny sea town Paldiski on the northern coast of Estonia suffers from the estrangement of its mainly Russian-speaking inhabitants from local politics and the rest of Estonia. The city government is dominated by the interests of oil companies; the town space, on the other hand, is nothing more than a decrepit Soviet-era military town. Both the local Russian and Estonian population, however, are sharply aware of the fact that the pioneer of Estonian sculpture, Amandus Adamson (1855–1929), was born here, and that his work belongs to the opening chapters of national art history. J&J decide to bring this cultural consensus to life in order to rouse the local population to take part in shaping the life of the town. In 2006 they conducted a poll among the locals, asking which Adamson’s sculpture they would prefer to brighten the town space. Participation was massive; people discussed the future of their hometown with great enthusiasm, carrying out support and awareness events. In 2008, J&J carried out the final selection – the local inhabitants are asked to choose between three sculptures that have gained the most votes. The winner is The Ship’s Last Sigh finished in 1899 – a lyrical composition of a female figure drowning in storm waves. The entire town became involved, even the city government started to cautiously support the initiative and the Cultural Endowment of Estonia allocated a substantial grant to create a larger-than-life clay model. The social change that had sprung up from the artists’ initiative was well within reach. However, by 2011 the initiative remains in clay, Paldiski is still drifting in the backwash of oil transit, and the plans have remained plans. Beuys would probably be unhappy; not so Bourriaud – the experiment gave life to a process creating new social connections, people awoke to social discussion and put their political aptitude and organisation to the test.

Is J&J’s activity merely a posthumous pastiche to a modernist art programme in the sense of Frederic Jameson, or is it the productive practice of parody as defined by Linda Hutcheon? The undersigned is more inclined towards the latter opinion – parody without ridicule. In 2006, J&J shot a short film, “Mõrv striptiisi ajal” (Striptease murder) and created an installation “Igavus ja vägivald” (Boredom and Violence). Both are characterised by ambivalence, hovering between different roles and meanings. The former begins in the spirit of investigative TV journalism, promising a murder mystery and its solution, but in the end turns out to be a farce, bantering media sensationalism. The latter looks like an ordinary dispenser for the tabloid newspaper Õhtuleht, but is revealed to be a collection of Hakim Bey’s resistance culture texts, which attempt to reach the reader by hijacking the tabloid layout.

J&J’s latter works focus on left-wing social criticism, questioning matters of employment, the political role of workers and social stratification from the point of view of trade unions. Here too, the artists’ tongue in cheek sense of humour doesn’t fail them. In 2009 they conducted a competition via the Labour Exchange of the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund to hire Mrs Heli Allik, whose job was to recite Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work online. The reading took place in a rented office in the local WTC building, and lasted 40 days, Wednesday to Sunday, concurrent with the exhibition Blue Collar Blues (curator Anders Härm), with the online feed projected on the wall of the exhibition hall. During the interludes, the employee made cover designs for an audio book created according to J&J’s instructions. A unique 90-copy print-run was produced, which unfortunately disproves the claim of the American visionary stating the imminent arrival of the universal vacation.

The space dictates of museums and galleries came under question in 2010. J&J renamed Draakon Gallery in Tallinn as Gallery Petra von Kant for the duration of their exhibition, and conjured up a butaphoric environment with allusions to Rainer Fassbinder’s film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, claustrophobic decadence, dense psychological frustration from unrealised opportunities, and from the happiness that never materialised. On the floor of the new gallery we find another newspaper casting, this time of the business paper Äripäev from 6 June 2006, sewn from cotton batting and textile, on the pages of which we read the then current fantastical Estonian stories of success. J&J: “Various sculptural objects create both the film-like melodramatic space and the connection between the fall after the economic boom and the somewhat sad after party atmosphere. The key to the entire story is a newspaper sculpture that retroactively refers to the time when everybody was dancing, because the music was playing.” Of course, even here we find a conflict of meaning between the text and the context — life in Euro-Estonia in no way confirms the media's narration of overall happiness. Sadness and a hangover are leading the parade instead.

Johannes Saar