Jüri Okas is one of a group of artists who in the late 1960s and early 1970s, while still a student of the Estonian State Art Institute, set out to overthrow previous values – the principles of art-making drawn from the modernist aesthetics – and replace them with the futuristic visions of Pop art and the impersonal documentation of Conceptual art.
Jüri Okas first showed his work to the general public in 1975 at the exhibition Event – Harku 1975 – Objects and Conceptions. By that time he had already produced some of his revolutionary artworks and had brought activities and concepts into Estonian art life which were absolutely new and difficult to decode at the time.
Jüri Okas’s work can be associated with Conceptual art, which, in its broadest sense, is characterised by the abandoning of the art object and subsequent movement into the world of actions, analysis and information. In the early 1970s Okas (who graduated from the Art Institute as an architect in 1974) produced land art works and shot a dozen 8mm films, to be used later as source material for his prints, and recorded various planned and unplanned actions, which would be classified as performance art today. Okas had discovered a largely deserted beach at Vääna-Jõesuu, which offered the young artist a wonderful opportunity for self-realisation. He explored and experimented with space – the void, in its origins – which could be subjugated and filled with signs, objects and activities. Landscape as captured in his photographs was transformed: signs, ribbons or grooves on the beach changed the sense of perspective and distance. The artist pushed more boundaries and experimented with the human capacity to perceive space, its emptiness and closedness, appearances and reality. The works, mostly made of sand and built on the beach, were destroyed with the passing of time, but the idea behind land art was not to produce an object for aesthetic enjoyment, but rather to observe the natural processes of change. What remained was information, the key tool for an analytically-minded artist. Next Okas started making installations and displayed them both inside museums (the largest was put up at the Pori Art Museum in 1991) and outside (for example, in Visby on the island of Gotland and in the Town Hall Square in Tartu).
After the initial period when his work revolved around the concepts of space, observation and analysis, Okas moved into the pictorial world in the mid-1970s. In 1974 viewers were given a clue to his artistic development when he showed his Homage to D. Judd, first in the form of a photograph and then as an intaglio print. The reference to Donald Judd, the leading figure of American Minimalist art, encouraged viewers to look for sources, but also demonstrated that the use of local material altered the meaning of the work, implying an ironic glance at the photographed environment (rubbish bins), as well as an analysis of the artist’s activity. At the same time, Okas began to create his reconstructions: he photographed buildings that are familiar to us from our urban space, as well as structures which we cannot tell whether they are still unfinished or falling into ruin. Architecture in this state of in-betweenness, whose status has been obscured by signs and lines known from Okas’s land art, remained with the artist as a theoretical issue for a long time, while he proceeded to depict engineering projects (overpasses and a road-cut in the Lasnamäe district), whose monumental monotony acquired existential dimensions. The issues of chaos and order, significance and insignificance, content and form have not been resolved; the aim is to draw attention to the hopelessness of such an endeavour. Okas summarised his observations when he collected his architectural photos (1974–1986) and published them in the book A Concise Dictionary of Modern Architecture (1995).
Jüri Okas was undoubtedly one of the most radical innovators in the early 1970s. A little earlier some young Pop artists had declared their opposition to the high aesthetic and started to use found objects and everyday materials, with a wish to participate in the renewal of the continuously changing environment. Okas went even further, abandoning the practice of previous art-making and its aesthetic and creating an entirely new art discourse, by relying on philosophical principles which put as much importance on viewing and understanding as on the work itself.
The current exhibition presents the work of Jüri Okas as an artist and does not concentrate on his successful career as an architect. The overview of Okas’s 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.
Coordinators: Sirje Helme, Ragne Soosalu
Exhibition designer: Jüri Okas
Graphic designer: Tuuli Aule