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Estonian-born New York-based artist Jaanika Peerna’s work crisscrosses the boundaries of drawing, light installation, performance, sculpture and video.  These disparate disciplines are drawn together and meshed inextricably in a way that makes them clearly the work of one artist.  They are also linked by intention.  Whether creating lines with light, placing works within a space in the form of an installation, or responding to that space in performance, she intends the work to be seen first and foremost as drawing. In this she is right in tune with current perceptions of what drawing is. 


The nature of drawing has changed in the last couple of decades. It is no longer the Cinderella of the art world, but is regarded as a discipline in its own right but without the baggage associated with pronouncements of the ‘Death of Painting’ or heavy-duty art historical research.  Drawing defies categorization and escapes personification, being both a noun and a verb, and it offers no easy limits for its practitioners.  Major drawing shows now include video, sculpture, installation and what would previously have been called painting. If there is anything that sets drawing apart from the rest of art practice, it is the significance and centrality of the concept of line.  


Line, curved or straight, is an overarching element in Jaanika Peerna’s work and it loops, flows, curves, and folds back on itself, always with an elegance and grace. Her work is achingly beautiful, evocative and ephemeral. 


I am constantly drawn back to her piece Liquid Storm.  It is very beautiful, very sculptural, morphing between sculpture, drawing, light installation and textile in a different way from her other three-dimensional work. Constructed from hand-cut translucent Mylar strips in different lengths bending and falling in linear patterns, it is lit by three points of light on a constant loop of moving luminosity and fades, while part of the artwork is intermittently projected as shadow on the wall behind.  It seems to continually almost disappear and then re-emerge, suggesting weightless fabric in its billowing fragility and a transience reminiscent of the ungraspable shadows created by Gego’s wire constructions. 


Quiet Storm is like a stepping-stone on the way towards the fully three-dimensional works that currently accompany her performances. Like the rest of her work it consists of more that one element, with a complexity that encompasses light as well as volume.  It is both ethereal and solid, with iridescent lines that characterize her more recent lightweight forms which defy the received opinion that sculpture means weight and monumental solidity.  These works have a weightlessness and otherworldliness. They rebuff the possibilities of what they purport to be.  She is posing questions about the nature of things.  


Jaanika Peerna’s move from New York to Berlin for a year in late 2013 was a watershed moment in her work. In New York five years ago she was working alone and embedding the movements that she was making in the practice of actual drawing.  Movement was being subsumed into the surface of the material on which she was working.  Citing her studio isolation as one of the reasons for changing direction, she moved into collaborative performance, while continuing to use her signature, curved lines. Her first performance was with a dancer and she realized that through this collaboration she was releasing the movement so it was travelling from her into the drawing and out again through the medium of her collaborator. As co-performers they responded to each other’s different modes of expression. 


However, despite retaining a record of this transference of response to movement onto paper she still sensed that she needed to adjust the individual components of the performance. The dancer’s movement through air was a separate entity, impossible to pin down, a fleeting moment experienced in real time which appeared to have more validity than the notational recordings of that experience on paper or Mylar. It was a conundrum Peerna needed to solve. She continued to experiment with different stimuli, movement in response to sound or light, occasionally achieving a self-referential manifestation in a drawing, which caught the essence of that split-second in time. 


Since arriving in Berlin, Peerna’s focus has changed. There has been a conceptual shift.  There is an acknowledgement that the issue is evoking a curve, not illustrating one. It is about a straight line existing in space, creating its own volume and filling that space.  The curved lines have been replaced by straight ones that are drawn as long as is physically possible without a straightedge.  She extends their length by pausing and reprising from that point so that there is a hiatus in the drawing that marks a beginning and an ending, an brink that indicates the limit of her reach. This is the place from which she extends the drawing so that it is no longer associated with human scale. 


What results is a majestic sweep of drawn lines which flows out from the supporting wall and fills the space. Peerna’s lines are straight but the curves have not disappeared, they now exist in three dimensions.  The support on which she is working, is being curved, bent and manipulated into voluptuous generous forms which relate to the bend and curve of a body in motion in a much more physical way than in her two dimensional work. Increasingly this sculptural element is being allied to architectural contexts.  Her performances are leaning toward the site-specific.  


The spaces she uses have become an additional element that she is now taking into account not only as an environment that facilitates movement, but also as a receptacle for the physical drawings that are created during that process.  The structural attributes of the building, the position of walls and windows, the interconnectivity of rooms also play a part, not least in the way in which they can dictate the nature of the audience and their response.  In the performance accompanying her solo exhibition Avanzare e Arretrare curated by Chiara Fuschini at Galeria Ninapi in Ravenna, Italy in March 2014, she was not only responding to the location but also weaving and interacting with strips of Mylar that she had suspended from the ceiling. Like all of her work this exhibition was part performance, part practice, part experimentation with the potential to be changed, developed, refined and inevitably transformed into a next incarnation. 


During the Italian Drawing Biennale in Rimini as few months later, Peerna drew on a glass wall in the Primo Piano Gallery, a performance that nearly didn’t happen because of health and safety issues.  However it did go ahead but the requirement to treat the wall with great gentleness led to a softer piece, creating a tenderness that elicited an empathetic audience response.  There does not seem to have been any palpable fear that the glass might break. 


In contrast her Berlin performances have taken place in more physically robust but grungy environments, leading to more physically explosive performances and no doubt this has had an effect on her audience.  Berlin historically has had an underbelly of artistic practice that has fostered experimental approaches and collaboration, perhaps born out of an economy in which ownership is not seen as anything essential. In this climate it was perhaps inevitable that Peerna would welcome the opportunity to take greater risks.  


In Mixed Media on Paper – four Live Performances curated by Teena Lange at MPA-HUB in Berlin the performance consisted merely of sheets of paper on the floor and a parallel interaction with three other artists, also making a performance, though not directly related to hers. The connection was that they simply shared the space. The denial of collaboration and lack of interaction with the others isolated what she was doing in a fascinating way, taking her forward into a process that became internal and reflexive. The four artists drew on into dusk, that crepuscular hour when shadow and light exchange places and when to turn on electric light would be an assault, stealing the dimness and destroying the moment. Figures moved through the thickness of such gloom, creating a set of references swinging from night time scenes in the paintings of Georges de la Tour and Van Gogh, to Caravaggio’s use of Chiaroscuro to Zola’s Germinal, Dickens’ London, and so many other precedents of the gradual descent from light into dark which provoke meditation, reflection and sometimes fear. 


Performance can be photographed, but such documentation as appears in this book has a different function. What remains, post-performance, is a volatile memory of what took place accompanied by a parallel physical residue, the trace of movement that started from the core of the artist’s body and emerged through the fingertips onto material.  The product is not the experience.


Peerna’s studio drawings, two-dimensional and manipulated into three-dimensional forms, possess an evanescent quality which echoes the flickering of light and the moving of images in her video and light installations. In performance, one after another images float in front of the viewers’ eyes only to disappear, lost forever in a memory that cannot be truly recorded: your presence is essential.  After fleeting moments of sound and movement, like the intangible senses of touch and taste, the energy of her performance lingers—an afterthought, an afterimage, which perhaps can only be recaptured through closed lids.  The marks on paper, the residue of chalk on floors, the suspended strips of Mylar, are certainly evidence.  They are the discarded clothes, the shed snakeskin, the exquisite detritus of something that no longer exists. 


In Peerna’s work there is a gap, a space between the personal and with time to edit, to pause, to take stock of where each mark will go next.  Public performances change according to the environment in which they are played out. Once she is in front of an audience she relinquishes a measure of control. Her collaborative drawing performances comprise four essential elements: the artist, the drawing, the collaborator and the audience. To what extent an audience is necessary? Does our presence sustain her during a grueling four hour long exercise?  It is impossible to do a controlled experiment omitting any one of the four elements. Clearly she can change the location, the audience, or the collaborators but the public is another part of the collaboration. 


Returning to the definition of Peerna’s practice, it is essential to situate it in the context of other artists whose work encompasses performance and in so doing begin to realize that Peerna is right to continue to place what she does within the context of drawing. One major link between Peerna and artists whose work is solely defined by performance seems to be physical endurance. Marina Abramovic has a history of using her body in ways that go beyond simply pushing the boundaries of what people think is possible. They deal with the moment and the elasticity of time, and are not a stage in the production of a physical artwork.


The duration of Peerna’s performances sometimes requires a physical push to a point of complete exhaustion, a catharsis both for her as the artist and her public as observers. There is a precarious balance between lyricism and endurance. If the latter takes precedence there is the possibility that Peerna will sacrifice the tenderness of her lyricism in favor of the grittiness of stamina. Allowing one quality to subsume another is not necessarily a bad thing.  She uses her whole body to create marks rolling charcoal or graphite with hands, feet, back, forehead so that her skin becomes so deeply engrained with the residue of these media that her body becomes as significant a receptacle for her mark-making as paper or Mylar.  The body moves through a series of degrees of permanence.  From the ephemeral impermanence of movement, through the relatively short-lived role of her skin as material, to the artwork which has longevity and can be preserved as evidence of the process. 


Jaanika Peerna’s work appears to be moving more towards performance, an evolution from the placing of two-dimensional works on gallery walls.    The shift towards the sculptural element is significant and leaves the framed drawings somehow displaced.  The cones and sweeps of Mylar, a material eminently suitable to three-dimensional weighted curves, embrace the fluidity of movement and durability.  In the gradual paring down of her work into its bare essence, it is possible that for the time being this sculptural manifestation of her thought processes may no longer appear as an afterthought to her performances. This reductive process may lead to a separation between the two aspects of her practice so that she exhibits two and three-dimensional works in one space and reserves a clear unencumbered other space, a white cube for example, as a tabula rasa on which to perform. However, she moves so swiftly from one performance to the next taking conceptual leaps that provide an impetus to develop new strands in her work that there is no telling where she might go next. 


Whatever direction she chooses to take will have a logic and a truth that will sustain and hold its validity within the context of her practice as an artist. Jaanika Peerna does not offer answers, she asks questions. Her work provokes debate both in herself and in her viewers and as it is constantly evolving and changing like a river flowing towards the sea. Until she abandons her attachment to a physical result which endures beyond the confines of the performance, her work will continue to stay within the orbit of drawing and it remains to be seen whether this will happen, or not.


            —Fiona Robinson, essay, Jaanika Peerna: Storms and Silences, Terra Nova Books, 2015

jaanika peerna: drawing or performance?

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