Zigong asked: “What do you think of me?”
Master replied: “You are a vessel.”
Zigong: “What kind of vessel?”
Master responded: “A sacrificial vase of jade”
I met up with Ruudt Peters to discuss his new collection of jewellery “Suctus”, presented for the very first time at Galerie Rob Koudijs at the end of February. We were flopped in our chairs in silent languor, both looking into nothing in particular in the distance and suddenly talking no longer seemed necessary. Ruudt had been labouring away on the collection for two years – he discovered, researched, struggled, felt disheartened, disassembled, analysed, reassembled in another way, blazed, dwindled and reignited. We looked at each other and realised it was too much to expect that he could put it all into words and tell me all about it in 20 minutes. What I see in the gallery is the result. But if it really is only the result we’re after, why should we as artists waste time on the process at all? If we know where the dance leads us, we could take the final position straight away. But no. Even if we know where the choreography leads us, we still choose to sweat, stumble and constantly step on our partner’s toes. We agreed with Ruudt that I would start tracing the gravity lines and the centre of “Suctus” without his guidance. To understand someone else’s work, I had to descend deep into myself and just as I had mentally prepared, I had to go really deep. I took a week and went to Haapsalu, a small town in Estonia, back to my childhood home, surrounded by walls of snow, where no one has lived for years, and focused on my thoughts.
The Estonian poet Mehis Heinsaar has said he is a gardener of fields of tension. The same could be said about Ruudt Peters. Everyone who has met him has felt his boiling energy. He never enters the arena quietly, always with a bang and a roar. The same uncompromising and self-defeating passion guides his creative work. Yet Ruudt’s jewellery is never visually loud. Having internalised the energy, it stands as silent witness to the past. Looking at Ruudt’s work, I feel as if the smoke and dust from a meteor impact have just dispersed and settled and the ground is giving off heat from the trauma. It’s like the moment after the final crash when the silence is deafening. Silently, the brooches of the “Suctus” series invoke past dramas like the grey plaster bodies from Pompeii excavations. Ruudt knows how to use the words of the past in a language of the future.
One of the most important working methods for Ruudt is wandering around in different cultures. An army of porcelain men and blind contour drawings engraved on stone slabs from China, mirrors of the soul from Japan, brooches inspired by the Jewish kabala. Like he has said, he travels to foreign countries, ingests cultures, religions and customs, travels back home, pushes it all through his digestive system and shits it out as jewellery. That doesn’t mean it’s all merely an interpretation. The pieces are Ruudt’s portraits. Self-portraits. In whatever corner of the world the traveller’s soul reflects from the surface of a lake, a river, a sea, a fountain or some other body of water, he sees his own glistening image. Nothing more, nothing less.
The “Suctus” brooches resemble vessels or funnels. Vessels have probably been metaphors for humans from when we first became self-aware. Ceramic vessels were often given human shape. Faces were drawn and bodies modelled. Our life from birth to death is intertwined with various vessels, corpora, shells and nests, but the principle remains the same. There’s something that holds and something that is held. An interior and an exterior. A keeper and a dissolver. A separator and the separated. A sustainer and the sustained. Vessels and funnels are like ravenous mouths that suck down and devour everything offered to them.
It is as if Ruudt had coded symbols hidden from me within “Suctus”. The Cabalist system of “Sefiroth”, the chopped-up crucifixes of “Corpus”, the phalluses of “Lingam” lend themselves to interpretations with more ease, whereas “Suctus” remains cryptic. In these brooches I see Charon’s boats, carrying the souls of the departed into the underworld along the river Styx or the small precious metal sacrificial plates of Celtic origin for the god of seas, Manann, to take the souls of the dead into the Otherworld. I see miniature symbolic models of everyday objects from many native cultures used in sacrificial ceremonies. The mythic Welsh Cauldron of Rebirth. The begging bowls of Buddhist monks. But I get the feeling that through the “Suctus” brooches Ruudt is referring to something more universal than the teachings of a specific religion. Just as all languages originate from a common language before the Tower of Babel, like all religions, when picked apart, lead us to the same primal god, just like before all states and nations a primal human existed somewhere in a primordial cradle, Ruudt, too, speaks about the primal source and essence of human souls.
Even more important than talking about jewellery is the silence around jewellery. In 2015, I had the honour of assisting Ruudt in creating the series of jewellery “Terram”. Over the course of the half a year thorough instructions and defining conversations became keywords and groans of various tonality, making up an alternative system of communication. Often Ruudt’s long agonised cry emanating from somewhere deep in his throat served as the only possible instruction to really capture the emotion. Wheezing, croaking, squealing and low humming was so much easier to translate into the foot-shaped brooches of “Terram” than clear instructions. And this is why I find myself lost, trying to find culturally relevant parallels. If I want to start a dialogue with Ruudt in my head, I need to talk in a way where carefully tuned wheezing or humming would work better than an explanation in words.
I sense that the jewellery of “Suctus” is like sacrificial bowls in an Eastern temple, filled during a ritual hidden from my eyes and now placed on the altar, but still suggesting a hint of the dust bare legs have stirred up during the procession, an echo of the songs of faith and the tension of twists of fate poured into prayers. Or they could also be the plate and chalice on the altar at the cathedral, filled with the sacral bread and wine. The body and blood of Christ, containing the spiritual remnants of the suffering of the Son of God on Via Dolorosa: the lashes, the groans of his perishing body, iron nails piercing his flesh, the thorns of the crown cutting into his skull and the endless mocking of the crowd, hungry for suffering. The drama is finished, the tension remains.
Looking at the hollow forms of Ruudt’s brooches, a question arises – what is more important, the vessel or the space inside the vessel? The drinking cup or the intoxicating wine in it? In some of the “Suctus” brooches protective walls have been removed. Only the insides remain. Bodies of water framed by imaginary borders. Tones of approaching sunset and crimson. But mostly deep blacks and opaque glimmers of late summer bog lakes and a murky barely tangible depth. Dull watery milk tones blend into dark mature layers. Like bog lakes they entice you to dive into an unknown darkness. Once surrendered to the seducing powers of “Suctus”, is there a way back? The worst that could happen is you return exactly the same person as when you entered.
Like all different waters in the world, Ruudt’s works serve as mirrors. Everyone will find exactly what they have offered up reflected back to them. A piece of jewellery, an allegory, an inner world... I am consciously casting the traditional art theoretical approach aside because what would I gain by trying to guess Ruudt Peters’ motifs and concepts, as the works reflect a piece of my own view of the world and the vessels in “Suctus” fill up with my own personal stories. I feel a little ashamed talking about myself so much when discussing Ruudt’s work, but I shield myself with the words of Henry David Thoreau: “'I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”
My vessels of the soul in “Suctus”:
The end of February, 1987. Around the same time the series “Suctus” is presented, only 31 years earlier. Coitus – orgasm – impregnation. In nine months a vessel is filled with a human being. October. It is time to make a sacrifice at the altar. What had previously filled the womb, has now been bestowed with the responsibility of becoming a vessel and carrying a soul through life. I will!
Teenage years. First unrequited affections. Nirvana. Kurt Cobain. “I´ve been locked inside your heart-shaped box for weeks.“ I discover cameras. What I have is a basic semi-automatic camera with a Soviet roll of film. The camera looks a little like pieces from the “Suctus” series. Both have a funnel that yearns for light. I turn my camera lens on a recently found friend. He stands in the thick smoke of a dwindling campfire. I press the button; the snare opens and closes with a smooth click. My friend is now caught in the light sensitive surface of silver halide. Many native peoples have thought that photography has the power to steal a part of their soul. He’s locked inside my heart-shaped box for weeks. I later realise he’s not as nice a person as I thought and I take a black marker to the photograph and draw him as a demon fumbling around in the smoke.
Christmas 2010. I stand before my grandmother’s coffin. I’m looking at her lifeless body. Is that her? No. She’s already gone. There’s nothing but a pile of soon-to-be-rotting flesh in the coffin. Corpus. “The vessel is empty, the person is no longer here,” say the Buddhists in the Tibetan mountains when they prepare to cut up the body and throw it to the hungry vultures piece by piece during the ceremony of Sky Burial. I close the lid of the coffin and screw the cross-shaped screws into the wood. One goes askew. I hope it didn’t go into her head, I think to myself. The body is cremated and later I receive it in a little wooden box. I wait for the summer so that older relatives from farther afield could come to the funeral. I keep the urn in my bedroom on a side table next to a cup filled with pencils, a cup of sweets I haven’t touched in years, a cup for rubbish and, yes, a cup with my grandmother.
The end of Master’s studies. Depression and anxiety take over. Panic attacks hit me like shots from the dark. I feel like I’m in a blurry mass. Reality shifts. Everything seems as in a fog. For the first time I don’t recognise myself in the mirror. Until now I have thought of myself as a whole; now, however, my mind and body seem separate. Bodily pain fades. I touch my arm with my hand. This is not my arm. I am the one inside this arm. I am trapped inside my body and my limbs feel heavy as lead. My body is like a tank and my eyes like sight holes with me peering out from somewhere deep inside.
2016. Late summer residency in central Italy. While hiking in the mountains I find a building complex with Faliscan stone tombs. I enter the cave through a rectangular opening. I see rectangular recesses at about the same height as my waist. Pre-Roman funerary recesses. To my eye one of them seems exactly my size. I set the timer of the camera in my phone and place it on a rock. The space is once again pitch-black. I climb up to the recess and shift my body until I feel the opposite wall damp and cold against my hand. The hole is as if made for me. Spider webs touch my face and stick to my hair. The moisture from the stone permeates my shirt and invites the cold into my bones. I inhale once more and a sharp flash of light splinters the eerie atmosphere, I hear the shutter. The light is absorbed and it’s all dark again.
Without even being aware of it, these are the stories Ruudt Peters tells me through his new collection, “Suctus”. When I shared my thoughts at the exhibition opening with Ruudt's husband Leo, he found that most of my ideas are related to death. First I did not want to agree, but some days later it still kept bothering me. Why death? I felt like word death goes about something final. End of an process. But when I think back to Ruudt's pieces, the kind of death they are dealing with is not final. Stones in the center of the brooches are swallowing light. They reflect it to the inner side of the surrounding frame. It's in the same time beautiful and eerie like the colorful gleaming light inside a cathedral. Once Ruudt told that in the future he would like to buried under a tree. He is fascinated by the idea that roots would grow through him. Next to my house in Tallinn there is a childrens playground built on a former graveyard. Even some of the gravestones and iron crosses are still there. Some people feel it's creepy. For me it's rather poetic.
While walking around in the gallery during the opening, everybody seemed to have their own vision about Ruudt's pieces. „Those are little baths“, I heard from one collector. „It's a megaphone, that amblifies the power of the stone“, said another. And they were all right. Roland Barthes has written about the death of the author. Every artwork is in a dialogue with many objects and meanings from the past. From the moment when artwork leaves studio and gets exhibited in the gallery it becomes autonomous. Even tho Barthes is writing mostly about literature, it could be also applied to visual arts: „the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.(Barthes 1968)“ And it is a beautiful bright kind of death, that is a part of eternal life.
Urmas Lüüs, artist