Gregor Taul

Curator’s foreword

Brick by word



This exhibition is an essay with a touch of mystery. Three main characters help frame the story: a runner along the border, a rat catcher and a bricklayer. They are determined, mobile and helpful masters focused on their work. However, it seems people do not properly appreciate their contributions. They feel almost like strangers in their settings. It is not impossible that they are refugees. Fear, instinct for survival or desire for adventure: what is it that drives them?



A bricklayer is an ancient professional, whose activity expresses the duality of organising a living space inherent in humanity: on the one hand, walls ensure the preservation of the structure; on the other hand, there are (partition) walls that are not essential for the survival of the building, but erecting these signal people’s changing aspirations for separation and integration. Walls and masonry provide psychological security, but they may also inhibit communication or even have a suffocating and confining effect.



Building a wall, especially laying a brick wall, is a monotonous yet reconcilably ritual activity. It is a social activity that corresponds well to the parameters of the human body. It is charmingly processual, but it is also frightening how an idea forms a wall. A wall can be laid carelessly (see One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn) or like a true artist (see The Man of Marble by Andrzej Wajda), although both works may be overlooked or cause anger in some. Bricklaying can be both forced labour and useless work in the service of the authorities. Removing a brick or a larger part of the wall causes confusion.





Travelling by train from Chandigarh to New Delhi, theatre director Andres Noormets writes in his journal: “I see a man building a brick wall back into stones. The wall becomes a pile of stones. Definition decreases, potential increases; entropy and negentropy.”



When portable radios were confiscated from people on the streets during the Prague Spring, people began to walk around with bricks on their shoulders as a sign of protest and irony.



When East German politicians decided to build the Berlin Wall in 1961, the 500-kilometre structure was obviously not built overnight. However, they did manage to form a human wall, which consisted of military personnel, militiamen and workers. In doing so, they were guided by the words of Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta, an infamous city not surrounded by a wall, who said that a city is best fortified when it is surrounded by brave men and not by bricks.



After Donald Trump began building “the Wall” in January 2017, design critic Ian Volner compiled the book The Great Great Wall, analysing the psychological, social and economic causes and consequences of erecting walls. In the conclusion he writes that the futility of walls can actually be much better understood by putting together an overview of all the walls that were never built. World history as a story of non-walls.





Or semi-walls. Hadrian’s Wall, for example, was said to be symbolic as a defensive structure. As the Scots could not be subjugated, they had to be defeated by cunning, showing how powerful, resourceful and determined the Roman state was. Come over to our side, serve 25 years in the military and you will have the opportunity to become a citizen! Invisible walls can be the most insidious and cruel.

The media tell us about migrants who either succeed or fail in entering the European citadel, by crossing the sea or across land borders. However, we may not be aware that the European Union as a whole and its members separately are spending hundreds of millions of euros in sub-Saharan Africa to keep Africans from coming here. Stephen Smith, in his book The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on Its Way to the Old Continent, cites many disturbing stories of how European taxpayers’ money is being used to support dubious paramilitary groups to take on the task of deterring or even eliminating people.



However, it has probably been the case since the beginning of time that when someone accumulates wealth somewhere, it provokes an attack, and in connection with this, people erect walls and monuments in self-defence, or to justify their militancy. Warfare has been particularly inherent in Europe. However, there are cultures where walls are perceived as something much more ethereal. For instance, the translucent sliding doors (shōji) in Japanese interior architecture speak of an idea of walls as movable social membranes.



Compared to a bricklayer, a rat catcher today is a rather forgotten profession. Skilled rat catchers were needed in the Middle Ages, for example, when people discovered that in addition to other harm, rats also spread diseases. It is surprising how enduring folk stories from almost a thousand years ago are about the miracle works of rat catchers – but also about the crimes they committed.



Perhaps one of the best-known stories is about the rat catcher in the small German town of Hamelin (in German, Der Rattenfänger von Hameln; in English, Pied Piper of Hamelin). What makes the story special is the exact date and the preserved archival documents. In the spring of 1284, the inhabitants of Hamelin were struggling with a fierce plague of rats. Nothing helped, until a piper appeared who promised to lure the rats out of the town with his music. When he had managed to do this and the rats had been drowned into the river Waser, the townspeople became greedy and refused to pay for his hard work as promised. The rat catcher got angry and promised revenge. On St. Peter’s Day that summer, when the adults were at church, the rat catcher returned and led away 130 children with his pipe playing. There are many versions to the story, but according to the most common one, only three children, the blind, the deaf and the lame could not follow the others and were left behind to inform the parents of what had happened. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, this story has offered inspiration for hundreds of cultural texts. Mehis Heinsaar’s adaptation of the Hamelin story, Toomas and the Rat Catchers is special in that it is told through the eyes of a child.



Historians and folklorists have dozens of theories about the rat catcher and his child theft. The truth is probably somewhere in between. More precisely, seemingly completely arbitrary and independent events may intertwine in folklore. For example, it has been argued that in the Middle Ages, the elimination of rats meant defying the plague epidemic; therefore, the rat catcher could symbolise death. The procession of a rat catcher as a kind of danse macabre for children.

An explanation has been posted on the website of the town of Hamelin according to which the demographic explosion (which doubled the population in German-speaking areas from 6 to a 12 million in the 12th and 13th centuries) led to a situation where the eldest son of the family inherited the household, but there wasn’t anything much to do about the other children in the family. As one solution, they were settled in the newly colonised areas in Eastern Europe, including Estonia. The website also claims that Hamelin’s children may have actually meant all subjects of the city.


However, the source of inspiration for the piper could have been a “relocator” at the time, a persuasive person and instigator whose job was to attract people to move to colonised areas. Later, in the 14th century, when plague epidemics began to spread and professional rat catchers indeed came into the picture, their activities may have intertwined with those of the former migration.



However, there are also versions according to which these were real children who went on a pilgrimage, on a campaign or even a crusade. It is known that in the Middle Ages there was no childhood as we know it today; children were perceived as helpless adults. Several cultural historians have linked the procession of Hamelin to mass psychogenic illnesses (mass panic, mass hysteria, dance mania) observed in many parts of Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries.

For example, it was documented in 1237 that a group of children, skipping and dancing madly, travelled 20 kilometres from Erfurt to Arnstadt. Jacques le Goff argues that in the Medieval times people lived in constant hunger or fear of starvation. This put particular pressure on children and the poor. Physical weakness, stress and anxiety on one side, and extreme religious excesses on the other, led to sudden collective crises that could infect dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people with dancing mania (also known as dancing plague, choreomania, tarantism). They danced for days, weeks, even months. There was no proper treatment; therefore, different methods were tried, including the help of musicians, but sometimes this led to the opposite results.



It has also been suggested that eating grain contaminated with ergot fungus may have caused hallucinations, as well as encephalitis, typhus and, even worse, forced cannibalism. As another explanation, hunger and poverty became a scourge for the inhabitants to such an extent that urban folklore describes the cleansing of the city from starving people, just like in the legend of Hamelin. Yet another, more insidious theory is that this entangled mess of misery, disorder and fascination was simply a staging, so that people could just let it all go in these distressing conditions, just as during the Bacchanalia in the good old Roman times.



Which brings us to the wine god Dionysus, praised by Friedrich Nietzsche. Emphasising the negative attention that Dionysus has received, Nietzsche calls him (in an ironically approving tone) “the temper-god and born rat-catcher of consciences”, or elsewhere, “Hey, you rat-catcher, what are you up to? You, demi-Jesuit and minstrel – almost a German!” The Dionysian philosopher strived for cosmic innocence and more playfulness. Nietzsche himself was a dedicated wanderer, claiming that he did not trust any thought that was not born while walking (he also had to do it to suppress his mental illness). As such, he is reminiscent of the runner along the border in the short story by Peet Vallak, a strangely elitist and arrogant individualist who has no problem sharing the location of his fortune, yet who comes and turns your house upside down to find a piece of bread.



Continuing on mythological paths, the runner along the border is a messenger, someone like Hermes, who, as a contradictory deity, symbolises both creative thinking and cunning deception. In fact, Hermes became a thief on the day of his birth, stealing a herd from his brother Apollo as his first act. But before Apollo could punish him, Hermes invented a lyre that very much pleased the god of light. In return for the lyre and the later invented flute, Apollo taught Hermes all sorts of dubious arts, such as divination and alchemy. 

For example, Hermes learned to seal a glass tube with his secret seal – hence the word “hermetic”. Hermeticism signifies mystical, magical and occult teachings, whereas hermeneutics deals with the unravelling of these mysteries. Seeing that Hermes was a skilful communicator and trader, Zeus used him as a messenger to the gods of heaven and the underworld. Hermes also showed people the way to the underworld, thus becoming a protector of travellers. Shrines dedicated to him were traditionally built at crossroads. The Greek word for a landmark is hermei. Also erected in honour of Hermes were hermae, squared pillars with a head at the top and male genitals carved at the front.



I do not know how well Vallak knew Greek mythology. Daniel Palgi does not talk about this at all in Vallak’s biography. In his lecture in the Ööülikool (Night University) radio broadcast, Jüri Ehlvest discusses Vallak’s short stories through mysticism and Arabic parables. According to Ehlvest, the writer instinctively caught these archetypal narratives from the air; perhaps he came across these centuries-old stories when talking to Jews and gypsies in the Pärnu market. According to Ehlvest, the story of the basket weaver and runner along the border, in particular, is one such ancient narrative that has been passed down from generation to generation. Who knows, maybe he was also told about Hermes, the god of the four winds, who gathered knowledge about every direction and realm of existence. However, the stories that came with the wind could also turn people against each other, as these cryptic messages could be heard and interpreted in many ways.


Gregor Taul

January 2022