Andris Gauja: “Stretching my mind around Tartu”

13. Sep 2022 | Andris Gauja | News

Latvian minds have a long history of going to Tartu to try and make themselves for an inch brighter. It was the second half of the Nineteenth century when many of the New Latvians, as they are called now, went to the Tartu University seeing it as a promising place of education. And it didn’t take long until they gave birth to what is now called the First Latvian National Awakening. Back in the day, it played a crucial role in reestablishing Latvian language and culture into the regional cultural landscape after being oppressed for so many centuries by several foreign oppresive colonist reigns.

I also went to Tartu to stretch my mind in a way, although it was nothing like an academic study. What I did was a research residency for my upcoming film idea, a concept for the upcoming Tartu 2024 documentary program Art of Survival. This was one of the rare cases when I already had an idea in my mind and I mainly went to dig deeper and check whether my concept has a fertile ground in the Southern Estonia. What was this concept?

I thought it would be great to make a film which plays with scale, by juxtaposing some very small scale to a very big scale — I think playing with scale is very important in filmmaking. I had developed curiosity about a fresh trend that the nature lovers tend to have nowadays— it’s about observing ‘slime mold’. It’s half-mushroom, half-animal, half-plant which abides in old forests and constantly transforms itself from one form to another, trying to survive — starting from a crawling and bubbling slime, moving from one surface to another, then turning itself into a fruit body, exploding into spores, only to start its next cycle of existence. I knew that in the Tartu region, there is a special buzz around the slime mold. There are artists like Laura Kuusk, collecting the slime mold and making meditative installations offering people to lie down on the floor and feel themselves being like slime mold for a while. There is also serious scientific research of slime mold being conducted at the University of Tartu, especially by the young Ukrainian scientist Iryna Yatsiuk who took me to the most wild ancient forest I have ever been to — it was the Järvselja forest near the Lake Peipus. Not only I experienced a record amount of mosquitos sucking my blood, but I also observed how wonderful it is to see beauty in the most tiny organisms living in the forest. And somehow everything started to fall in place. There even came an announcement of an international slime mold congress planned to take place in Tartu next year — slime mold researchers from around the globe with backpacks full of magnifying glasses and microscopes will dive into the forests of Tartu in their search for the micro scale beauty. My first encounters with the slime mold appreciators made me realize how subtle these enthusiastic people are. They realize how gross we, human beings, are in comparison to the tiny unprotected micro world we are constantly destroying; and also what happy and comfortable lives we have. Seeing how the tiny slime mold hunts food and is being hunted by other tiny organisms constantly, maybe there is not that much for us, humans, to complain about. Iryna, the slime mold researcher, even told me that her curiousity about the slime mold helps her to survive the ongoing war in Ukraine in a way; otherwise she would have to think about it non-stop.

I also went to discover the large scale — it turns out that not only Tartu has one of the biggest observatories in Europe but that there are also lots of people who, regardless of their age, regularly go out to observe planets, stars, moons and galaxies with their telescopes. In a way, they are just the opposite to the slime mold appreciators who want to see the micro world through their microscopes; but, actually people with telescopes and people with microscopes have some basic feature in common: unceasing curiosity. I had the precious opportunity to meet the renowned senior Estonian astrophysicist Jaan Einasto who is a brilliant mind and a great example for all of us — despite his almost 93 years of age, he is still actively doing research in the observatory. He and his daughter Maaret Einasto are amongst those physicists who see the universe as a cosmic web. They see order and structure instead of random chaos there. And Maaret, similarly to me (intuitively in my case), sees similarity between the small scales and the large scale of the universe — there are structures appearing and disappearing, always in motion, never solid, never really catchable; it is all utterly impermanent and empty of any independent or solid nature. And what is a human being? What is a human being, as seen from the large, intergalactic, perspective? It’s such a tiny miracle, almost infinitely small in size and super short in its lifespan. How do we dare to stress and worry about our everyday troubles if we compare them to the big scale of the galaxies whose light, in the very moment as we see it in the sky, was actually emitted way before even the Earth even formed, not to speak about our individual present lives.

This is how I stretched my mind during my residency in Tartu — and I really came back richer and happier than before. I believe it’s a good practice to play with the scale even in some mundane everyday situations. Tartu experience made me remember that I actually practiced something similar already when I was a child — during long and boring walks (as my family didn’t have a car), I imagined the grass beneath my feet to transform into forests, little puddles became lakes and sees, and flying insects turned into dangerous predators. There was no such thing as boredom anymore — life was fresh and meaningful again.