Raul Meel is primarily known for his graphic art and concrete poetry. More recently, he has branched out into performance art, specifically into the unique genre of “fire performance,” where he crafts a bonfire and records the burning of it as an event.
Meel is a self-taught artist, which caused difficulties for him when he first began his career. Without any official training, the artist was not accepted into the Artist’s Union, and therefore did not have access to a studio or supplies. He studied electrical engineering, and his scientific background resonates through his prints and drawings. The artist came under the scrutiny of the authorities several times, for various reasons. After he and a number of artists sent works abroad to appear in the Venice Biennale of prints, they were scolded for exporting art; later, postal workers were warned not to send any of Estonia’s art or cultural products abroad. Later, the various symbols appeared in Meel’s work that the authorities took issue with, namely, the colors of the Estonian flag and the outline of the geographic borders of Estonia.
Despite this nationalistic imagery, there are simple explanations for the appearance of these colors and shapes in his work, outside of the overtly political. For example, the colors of the Estonian flag, blue, black and white, are features of graphic and technical drawings. The outline of Estonia, combined with other graphic images, such as lines and grids, emphasizes the map’s spatial connotations. When one considers his graphic work in the context of his concrete poetry, it becomes clear that the artist is interested in structures and the abstract expression of concrete elements. Meel himself has described his work as “visual expressions based on structures of language and unifying scientific experiment and literature.”
The progression from graphic work to fire performances might seem uncharacteristic at first, however, the artist felt that, by that point – in the 1990s – he had achieved all that he could with graphic art. First he began to experiment with painting, and then settled on fire performances as a way of further developing his artistic oeuvre. The creation of these fire performances requires technical precision and scientific knowledge. While fire is something that is unpredictable, it can be controlled if the setting and situation is just right. Therefore, the structure of the bonfire has to be carefully erected, and the fire needs to be maintained through the duration of the burn. Meel’s fire performances attract huge audiences – people who have been coming to them on a regular basis for years to watch them burn. One of his more recent larger-scale fire performances was The Boat of Life (2013), which involved the artist as the captain of the “ship” of his life. In the center of the fire was a large log, on a spit, to which the artist attached a wheel at the end, in order to steer. Because of the thickness of the log, the “boat” took several hours to burn, and the audience, along with Meel, stood or sat patiently, waiting for the piece to end. The meditative quality of the performance echoes the introspective and absorbing qualities of the artist’s earlier graphic pieces. But the additional element of fire, with its capricious and whimsical character, provides a strong contrast, and enables the artist to burst out from his quieter two-dimensional works into the vivid world of live performance.