“Glass Struggle” is a continuous artistic search that deals with glass as a paradox: brittle on one hand, tough and extremely resistant on the other. For example, high security facilities are made of glass – and even the pope rides in a car reinforced with bulletproof glass. Innovative glass manufacturing technologies have brought along significant changes in production processes, in the quality of materials, and in their availability.
Glass can also be viewed as a symbol of democracy – as an open, transparent, and equal dialogue between the people and the state. But similarly it can refer to totalitarianism – to the divide between social strata and to the possibility of an incipient or already actualized corporate nightmare. Are any of us not transparent yet? Are there any that do not see their own (distorted) reflection from a screen, from a window?
To hide itself from public interest, the state apparatus uses a reflective-transparent camouflage. In architecture, this provides glass and windows with either an inclusive (transparent) or exclusive (reflective) meaning, creating either an open or an enclosed space. The pain points of “Glass Struggle” congregate around the binaries of the viewer/viewed and the observer/observed.
Glass has two different ontological statuses: material and virtual. Glass is liminal by nature. It can be viewed as a barrier between social groups. In the context of governmental, ruling, and/or financial institutions, the virtuality of the window manifests as a self-portrait that depicts the environment there and reenacts it as a play; this happens in both directions – depending on which side the observer stands and whether the surface is transparent or not. Or both.
One instrument of the powers that be is surveillance. During turbulent times, this also illustrates the vulnerability of power itself. Surveillance capitalism is growing fast, wooing people with promises of luxury in order to commodify them through their personal data. Data trafficking is a new hybrid form of human trafficking. The only apparent revolution we can imagine today is a privacy-based confrontation. This encompasses both daily life as well as a wider mentality and attitude. Data-peddling corporations that cosmically tower over us have to be made accountable for both the reliability of their content and the truthfulness of their tax reports – e.g. by way of compensations.
In cooperation with playwright and poet Maria Lee, the “Glass Struggle” satellite www.struggle.glass is available for viewing both on the web as well as in-person, as part of one of the sculptures (“S.D.O. or the Satellite with a Deviated Orbit”). The graphic designer and conceptualizer of the web version is Maria Muuk, assisted by Patrick Zavadskis. The designer of the exhibition is Arvi Anderson.
GLASS IS A BARRIER
We would not need glass if there wasn’t a conflict between two environments. “Trusting glass” is an oxymoron. Glass is used to simultaneously protect oneself and spy on the adversary. A window glass protects from the climate while allowing for a view. An aquarium glass or the glass between the predator enclosure and the visitor area in a zoo helps retain an environment and observe without risk. A bird does not see glass, it hits a window and dies. Glass is a human-made instrument of power.
When using glass to describe oneself – as a glass receptacle, a crystal ball, imprisoned under a glass dome – we usually try to convey brittleness, a need to protect ourselves from the environment while still remaining very vulnerable due to the two-way nature of power. We are afraid that we are too transparent. That each blow might shatter us.
It has its allure, however: there is no love without vulnerability; without smearing our blood and guts onto the other we are merely showing ourselves behind a glass, being completely visible, yet protecting ourselves and the other from total bonding and intertwining. This pain and beauty inspires art forms in their highest and lowest styles to experiment with the illusion of absolute transparency, be it using real glass or virtual, photo or video cameras – human as a zoo animal, an exposition that is taken out from the rest of its species; on the one hand, it is a humiliating, a totally vulnerable position; on the other, empowering – taking on the role of the protagonist, reducing the viewer to an anonymous mass. But what’s important here is the material or imaginary barrier. In theater, they talk about the “fourth wall”, which is essentially the same metaphor for glass, a window. We observe, but they “do not know” that we do.
Glass can also be an element that symbolizes something unreachable or solidified. To have glassy eyes is to have an impenetrable gaze that gives away no emotions. Ice as naturally occurring glass: to turn one’s heart into ice means to make oneself invulnerable, not receptive to any ripple of emotion, even metaphors of “ice queens” of different sorts, although here the focus is more on temperature and not on glassy invulnerability.
When the first automobiles were created, they used regular glass for their windows that in case of an accident broke into large sharp-edged shards so that if the casualty didn’t die as a direct consequence of the crash, they would die from the fatal wounds inflicted by the shards of glass. Today, we use tempered glass; in more demanding cases, laminated glass. Still, however necessary is glass to the person that operates with it and manipulates it, it starts to resist human power the first chance it gets; it can change from a weapon to the aggressor itself, rising up against misuse and becoming lethal as a mistake is made.
This, of course, is how any other resource acts. It wasn’t too long ago when we switched glass with the more durable and cheaper transparent plastic, and we’re already drowning in plastic residue in the most serious sense of the word. There is also, of course, the matter of glass as an illusion – as a reflector, a simulator that turns any phenomenon into a tangible 2D image. Narcissus looked at his reflection on the surface of a pond for so long that he died – a poignant metaphor, yet unconvincing psychologically. In the era of reflective surfaces, or even more so, of video and photo technology, we are all in one way or another narcissists on the brink of starvation, always aware that we might be observed, just as we ourselves constantly observe others. It is a two-way panopticon. Glass as a reflective surface makes us modify our demeanor, it forces us to fabricate our authenticity. More than ever before are we extremely conscious of how we look – we think about it constantly, most probably many times more than our ancestors centuries ago. If every thought is an action, then what action does thinking about your appearance represent? Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Those that live in glass buildings should not throw stones at all.
Psychologically, however, it seems that the more we deal with surfaces, the facades of ourselves and the others, the more we lose vigilance over the real substance. With each uploaded photo, with each movement on the web, we give away more of our privacy; when adjusting our appearance when passing by the display windows, we seem to forget the glassy-eyed cameras that watch our every step. We fool ourselves with the idea that we still have the power, that we are the observers; or sometimes vice versa – that someone would like to observe us, as we might seem interesting to someone, while the truthful reality is just that we are being observed all the time, we are the security risk, but most of the time it’s not a neighbor, nor satellites wandering in the heavens, nor god, not even our closest friend that is watching us. And devoting ourselves to glass surfaces we often lose sight of what actually happens behind them and we self-forgettingly start to observe ourselves as someone else would. Glass is a human-made power instrument, but are any of us still the people that have the power?
A SATELLITE DEVIATED FROM THE ORBIT
My heart is of glass and my nervous system is of glass and my consciousness is of glass and everything is fissured. Only my body, that amorphous, sometimes despicable entity that is still the only thing keeping me together and that also shows signs of decay, is unburnt clay and formless sand that goes with my glassy non-being from one catastrophe to another.
When once my body, too, becomes glass, it might take falling from a chair or a stumble on pavement and then nobody will be able to put me back together.
Maybe love burns, maybe guilt, maybe meaninglessness (although the latter seems more like water that polishes off all corners). Maybe fear, passion or loneliness.
Maybe some fragile, crystal glass inner awareness – or rather a hunch – of a world I would like to live in if I were born to another existence or matter.
For blowing physique to glass and breaking it into shards, along with everything else.
What really hits sometimes is the recognition of how separate we are as human beings, how immeasurable are the distances between us are even when we are in the most passionate embrace. That we always communicate with only the peripheries of our thought and everything else in us remains in ourselves like most ancient primitive animals in the texture of a stone.
Alone, when we wake up, put our clothes on, cry before the bathroom mirrors. Alone with our morning newspapers and coffees. Who, after all, sees us? Except for the ubiquitous, emotionless cameras grown into our blood vessels. Who sees into us when we, with no reason whatsoever, destroy our opportunities, when we sabotage ourselves because of some complexes and syndromes whose causes we don’t even remember.
Maybe they see us through to our bones, maybe the scan through our muscle tissue so hungry for tumours, through our ill blood, but do they see how much we actually try to deny ourselves, dedicate ourselves to the future? Are they able to see our love to which we still despite everything, hedonistically cling to? Do they see our passionate, desperate aspirations?
I’m afraid not.
If only we ourselves could see each other.
Departed – so cold a word, neutral, like something coolly virtuous; threw himself against the glass and broke both himself as well as the glass. The fissures in the glass manifested as the possibility of being utterly destroyed with the next attack; fissures in kindness as burning cold awakenings that coursed as veins in each expression of good will, in each act of tenderness. As a delicate spider web, a knowing of imminent betrayal started to trail through everything, and as a consequence, everything started to be dictated by cause and effect, strategies, agency. Strangely, life ceased to be the flow of a river or the sprouting of leaves in the springtime, rather it became the movements of pawns and knights, checkmates and seductions.
But no, this cannot be allowed: it corrupts minds and turns hearts around. No, back away from here, back away, let the doors close, let the light go out.
Back into the night where intuition leads; slatestone splits, ice shatters; no more fissures.
To fall without warning.
I went to school but I guess my mind was somewhere else, why else would I not remember what was to happen. Someone broke a door in the new schoolhouse. A professor said that all those fractures pointed to another catastrophe. That should someone only try to smash our tableware…
There were many of us in the hall once. We were resting and discussing. I was drinking some water. And then, suddenly – what happened to me? –, while explaining to a Russian-speaking classmate what the others had just been talking about, I let the glass of water slip out from between my fingers. It was half-intentional. It was impulsive. It was my glass. I didn’t think it would break.
But it did. I tried to pick up the pieces – nothing had ever broken into so many tiny shards – but no one would help me, and I didn’t really feel like doing it myself. Still it became apparent that something really pointed to the reorganization of deep structures and to the forthcoming era of destruction and cataclysms. And furthermore, I had caused it myself – not by accident, but purely out of my own sadism. It was not the game of faraway instances anymore.
We got a new door, and we got new curtains, even though these often fell off from the windows. But people only laughed about this.
In a dream, someone fell off a bicycle so the pupils of his eyes bent into ovals and he went blind; we lived in a passable glass cabin, covered our walls with curtains and locked the doors as if we weren’t at home; we had our friends make soup for us for we were starving; we met up in the security gates of a mall; we talked in hallways about all the things that made us mad.
The amount of enemies might be multiplied these recent times when I am not quite myself, much less somebody else.
The storm is tearing a theatre poster like a wind disguised as a big white cat, and I cannot deny that at some moments I wish I was somebody who didn’t believe such weather could exist.
Someone who is still young at 30.
Someone who’s not dragging along everything that ever went wrong.
Someone who will not commit suicide for beauty but for whom only one criteria exists: fun, interesting, joyful.
Because by defining beauty, expanding the definition, I’ve quite clearly done myself a disservice.
I believe – almost said I think but I don’t really think this, I just believe – that the Estonian adjective for beautiful, ilus, is in fact originally a word describing one’s position inside the beauty. If you are beautiful, it means you are in beauty, that is, have forgone yourself, no more you, but a receiver, open to the existent: the beauty. If you are truly beautiful – or in beauty – you don’t worry about being beautiful yourself. If you are truly alive, as in “in life”, or in Estonian, elus, you are not pondering whether it is you who is living. You cannot look at yourself from distance as someone who is, because you are immersed in it; as one is in a game, in enchantment, in a dream.
It might be seconds, it might be a lifetime – the moment of pure being. A moment that is not in time, is outside of time; is an Augenblick.
Beauty is ever-changing, non-fixable. It is not total or absolute, or the same for everyone. Beauty may be in anything – and it may not be. It may disappear as quickly as it manifested itself. It is an incessant dialogue between you and your environment, like sound waves or light particles.
In a dream, I had two brothers. One of them had recently died. The other had disavowed him right after the death and the general suspicion was that he had killed our brother. The first brother was an idealist and the other brother was a materialist. And then there was me. I either suspected it myself or other people did, that I would become the end of the other brother. I tried to explain – to myself, to the dead brother and the other brother – that we were all unhappy. The dead brother in his idealism, the other brother in his materialism. And then me. I tried to explain that the disavowal or ending, it was no simple satisfied solution. We were all sleeping in small elongated empty rooms, all alone, with our backs against cold walls. We had always slept like this, even though they were my brothers and they were in the next rooms. This is why all this had happened, after all.
One man wanted to be seen so much that he tore off eyes from his eyes and threw them around him in a dark theatre hall to glimmer and shine at himself, to look at himself; he tore thousands of eyes off his eyes until his face and hands bled and he didn’t see anything anymore.
The screams remain.
Utterly lost in a dream
only a speck remains here
everything else of them dispersed into
whether or not they will sleep
and how deep in the subconscious metaphors
this time they will delve
that side is somehow more real
Someone had a mirror next to their bed to reassure them, should they wake up unexpectedly in the middle of the night, that they still exist. It seemed reasonable: how else would you know that you exist if you don’t see yourself in the mirror. But why a mirror? Why not the soul? Why not everything of yourself you see without a mirror – arms, legs, stomach, breasts? Why not a lover, why not books, the piano, the cat?
No – I need to see my eyes; even when shadowed by the dusk, black from the darkness. I cross my arms on the chest, fixate both shoulders and wrists and feel once again that I exist. Half-asleep, I touch the rough plastered wall because it tells me that the world around me is real, even if it’s really not. The rougher the world, the more real it is; every softness gives away a lie. I dig my fingers into my body that is soft, false, illusory, nonexistent, and wait for the morning to ask again, continuously, what is real.
The most real is this reflection, so smooth that it mirrors, without a pore or a hole. Only this is real. Everything soft, porous, rotting, ageing is an illusion.
We bury it in dirt and water the burial mound. You, the deceased, are the ink in the fibers of our sweaters, in our blotting paper. Unfading and unreal.
It’s strange how sometimes I become a stranger to myself. Piece by piece. I lose myself: my hands look strange to me, I don’t recognize them anymore; my voice sounds strange; my face startles me in the mirror because it’s not my face; my handwriting does not look familiar; my name becomes weird and strange, like the name of an old acquaintance that I cannot put a face to, not even sure whether the first and last names match, perhaps melded together of two totally separate people due to some short circuit in the brain. My self-image disintegrates and disappears.
That sensation – something like a jamais vu – is not horrific in itself; horrific is the loneliness my self feels when its shell cracks. It is much like a breakup, when a few months after you wake up from a dream wherein everything was still alright and existent but it dawns that nothing is alright and nothing is existent – that the past and the present are separated by terrible conflicts, foul lies, and emotional drivel. This recollection makes you even lonelier than any breakup, a thing in itself, could.
Sometimes I go through longer periods with pieces missing of me: the back of my hand is un-me for weeks, my voice is mine only for a fleeting moment. Mostly, however, my self soon returns to its prescriptions, leaving only a residually fluorescent feeling of vacuum of how it could be if it wouldn’t.
Perhaps I think too much about myself because there is no one else to think of. Everything external is sewn into me like an ever-developing ego problem; all people are different, relatively random points on my self-image coordinate plane; I can receive the tactile world only as the hypothetical I could theoretically be able to receive it.
and there always has to be someone who sees, maybe a rear mirror, someone who’s holding a knife by my ear or theirs and someone who knows; who knew three years ago or thirteen years ago.
someone for whom it isn’t funny to see how I betrayed back then and how hard and how easy it is for me to be here now. someone for whom I am the embodiment of petty bourgeois idiocy and petty-mindedness, and who may be waiting for my death, whether literally or figuratively, with a deep humane empathy, waiting for my rebirth, for there were times when corners protruded from me that might have been grasped.
and maybe this someone indeed always exists, it is equally inevitable that I will betray them in every new incarnation, dreaming of vile strangers, for in my train mentality I ask for the rails; I am their puppet in foreign magnetic fields, deliberately broken between the two systems.
It’s all really about preparing to recognize the end of the world. And I’m pretty sure you’ll recognize it when it comes.
I don’t know how yet.
But I think it’s like this: one morning you wake up and look at the clock. And you look in the window and the clock again. And you realize that the clocks are falling behind. And the pictures fall from the walls. Glide off the walls. The walls break away from you and your pictures.
It all happens in complete silence.
Feathers slide from the pillows and leaves fall behind the windows.
And it’s very, very quiet.
I don’t know, but I think the first thing you recognize is silence.
And then comes the emptiness. First of all, from the windows, it flows, opening your eyes to the darkness, power lines and railway tracks and houses on your street evaporate to the fog. And there are no more trees. No more these sad soggy autumnal skeletal trees.
This is emptiness.
And quietly – you don’t move any more, you don’t breathe any more – it comes, slides along the walls, and licking into nothingness your earthly property. And you look and you do not feel. It eats up your mirrors and you lose contact with yourself. It devours your ever so intrinsic textures – your coffee cup, your bookshelf, your desk –, the framework of your symbolic being. Until you have nothing to touch.
And as long as you watch it all and the light is overwhelming over you, it will seep into your eyes and drip into your brain and be absorbed into your blood and spread throughout your body, painting it non-existent – mercilessly recording all you in the eternal registers of non-existence: all your eating, drinking, behavioural disorders, your scars and graces and neuroses, everything you ever did bad or good.
And when you raise your hands before your eyes, you only see the slowly blurring contours of the skeletons melting into the light that surrounds you, your hands become trees – and maybe for a brief moment you will still remember that with those hands you held the world – your hands become the space and city and universe.
Until you are merely a universe and an emptiness.
I think that’s how it goes when you wake up one morning and the clocks are falling behind.
EKA gallery, 28.09.–09.10.2021
S.D.O. – A Satellite Deviated From the Orbit
Sten Eltermaa & Maria Lee
www.struggle.glass, september 2021–september 2022
Texts: Maria Lee, Sten Eltermaa
Photos: Sten Eltermaa
Exhibition design: Arvi Anderson, Sten Eltermaa
Graphic design: Maria Muuk
Website: Maria Muuk, Patrick Zavadskis
Translation: Madis Kuuse (ENG), Olesja Semenkova (RUS)
Thanks: Maria Lee, Arvi Anderson, Madis Kuuse, Krista Loorits, Lauri Eltermaa, Sten-Erik Toos, Tõnis Vassar, Urmo Mets, Madli Ehasalu, Roman-Sten Tõnissoo, Pire Sova & EKA gallery, b210 architects, Kauss Architecture, KUU architects, Kolm Koma Architects, Ilmamaa Publishing House
Special thanks: Karmo Migur, Maria Muuk, Kadi Meriluht, Mary Magdalene
Supporters: Cultural Endowment of Estonia, MEISTRI, Salibar, Klaasissepa, joogipood.ee, nanoPruul, ÕIE, 3DLaser
The exhibition is part of the satellite programme of the Tallinn Photomonth contemporary art biennial.