“As we were working with this piece, we were imagining all of the prisoners.”
“This I think represents me as an artist, at least this is how I feel I want to express myself in the future, I can’t go back to a gallery space.” – Maarja Mäemets
Located forty-five minutes west of Tallinn, Estonia, in a town called Rummu, is a quarry. Up until the fall of the USSR in 1990 and the subsequent independence of Estonia, the quarry was the site of forced labour of inmates at Rummu prison. Though primarily underwater, tourists can still see the decaying walls of the Rummu prison protruding from the waters of the quarry. It’s a popular spot for divers, swimmers, and paddleboarders to come and explore the decaying landmark that is so far removed from its original purpose.
As freedivers, Maarja Mäemets and Rait Lõhmus were inspired to use a space that had some exclusivity to it. The waters of Rummu, and the flooded Soviet prison provided the perfect backdrop. A team of SCUBA divers from the Rummu Adventure centre became the necessary support team for the two artists.
“Originally we thought the installation would take a day or two, and it ended up taking two weeks. We had a plan, but nothing seemed to go exactly as we had intended it to at the beginning, so there was a lot of spontaneity as well. On paper, it had seemed much easier but ended up being so difficult. If we wanted to sink a table, and it didn’t want to sink, then you have to spend so much time figuring out how to make the table do what it really doesn’t want to.”
The exhibition consists of installations on different levels, some located at up to 8 meters of depth, and some that could be clearly be seen from the surface.
“There is a sort of story that runs through these six spots, its like a journey and a story that you should travel through to get to the end.” The artists stated that “we dive here, but as we continue our journey there is a feeling of isolation that may be exciting at the beginning, yet the farther into the depths we descend, the deeper in melancholy we may find ourselves.“
One of the installations that has received a special amount of attention is the circle of hands reaching upwards. Rait stated that “as I was working with the piece I imagined all of the prisoners, I think this was the biggest influence for me. There is a longing to turn back at some point, that’s maybe what these hands were about, reaching back towards an unobtainable past and realizing that you have gone too far?” Rait described the location as “seeing the silence.” It seems fitting that the smoky clouds in the water around the hands come from decaying plants that are part of the sunken forest in the quarry.
Some viewers have been lucky enough to experience the exhibit from different perspectives. One is able to dive in the lake, but also to paddle-board along the surface of the water. Eerily, the crystalline waters offer perfect clarity and the viewer glides over the tops of trees and feels the sublime emotion of them reaching upwards, an entire world underwater. Glass sculptures which have been installed in the trees seem to behave as a teaser to gain intrigue, or perhaps as a siren calling us down to the depths. Shining so brightly as they capture the midday sun that they appear to be ghosts or spirits floating among the skeletal branches. This relationship between the levels of the exhibition was what made it so multifaceted. Being on the surface of the water akin to standing at the edge overlooking a precipice.
It was a new type of art, where the works were at the mercy of the world around them. Some artists may not like for their work to take a back seat to the world around them. Yet when I asked the two if they would ever go back to a four-wall gallery space, they both laughed and said “No, we are never going back. This was only the beginning.”