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The Instruments of Life

TALLINN – until 9 May at Kai Center

Spring is here, and now that we can enjoy a coffee on a terrace and galleries are open for limited numbers, one of the best options this week is to head down to Kai Center in Noblessner, where for just one more week (extended after restrictions have been eased), you can see the Patricia Piccinini’s exhibition, The Instruments of Life.


This exhibition, which includes a variety of works from Piccinini, is breath-taking and intriguing in equal measure. This is surprising considering that in terms of exhibition design, it is nothing more than a series of three-dimensional works (and one video in an adjacent room) placed on white plinths that have been evenly distributed about the main exhibition hall at Kai. But this is exactly why it is worth making the effort to see this before it closes on Sunday. In spite of an unimaginative and uninspiring exhibition display, the works themselves are superlative.

Looking at her work, it seems as if Piccinini just returned from a travelling arts scholarship (a sought after prize for young artists in her home in Australia) that took her on an inter-planetary grand tour introducing her to alien worlds. The exhibition hall at Kai is dotted with roughly a dozen works – some are fantastical objects that seem to be largely inspired by recognisable consumer items put through an alien filter, while others are hyper-realistic figures (a ’la Madame Tussauds) most of which are either clearly from a different galaxy or a different dimension, but in each case, there is enough humanity and enough familiarity that their strangeness or alien-ness is not estranging or alienating.

We know we are looking at science fiction but are simultaneously challenged to imagine a narrative. Many of the human-non-human figures are captured in a moment of heightened emotion, and we cannot help but be drawn into the drama of their everyday lives, until again we notice that they are different, as if we have stumbled upon abominations from the laboratory of Dr Moreau. The tone of the exhibition is bright and positive and the fantastical objects are plastic forms in bright, even garish colours. So none of the Wellsian darkness and malevolence is present. Nevertheless, the hyper-real detail is remarkable and we cannot resist getting in close to inspect these otherworldly creatures.


One piece of advice though as a kind of inverted spoiler alert. The exhibition includes a number of wall texts dotted around the venue. There is a large introductory text as you enter the space and then there are smaller texts to support each of the works. The large introductory text gives you some useful background and I would say there is no harm in reading that before or after viewing the exhibition. However, I would advise everyone to stay well away from the smaller texts next to each work. These are a perfect example of an arts institution trying too hard. The artworks are not difficult to read as artworks. They have plenty to engage with and they are laden quite richly with clues in the visual language, so coupled with the large introductory text, you have everything you need to enjoy the exhibition and plenty to take away and mull over. The small texts treat you as if your own brain is not plugged in at all and you need to have every single clue and nuance of every single work spoon-fed to you. Some even suggest how you should look and respond and think about the works on display! My advice is by all means cruise close enough to see the title of the works (in larger font), but don’t waste your time reading the small wall texts. Just look at the artworks and ask yourself what it is you are looking at and trust your instincts. You do not need anything else.


Patricia Piccinini’s The Instruments of Life is on at Kai Center until Sunday 9 May.


Posted by Michael Haagensen


The Instruments of Life

Patricia Piccinini

Until 9 May

Kai Art Center, Peetri 12, Noblessner, Tallinn

Mon–Sun 12pm to 7pm

Tickets 8 euros (concession 5 euros, family ticket 20 euros)


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