WE ARE GLAD IT'S ALL OVER
What about the link to the place, the Baltic countries ... you talked about the Swedish floor ... (Audience laughter.)
Sune Nordgren (curator of the Baltic Center, GB): I´m sorry, it said BALTIC on the building when I arrived here, I couldn´t do anything about it. What I´m hoping for is that it will be shortened even further to just "B." But it is BALTIC and I can´t do anything about it for the moment. There is a museum in Denmark called Louisiana, and it works quite well. (Audience laughter.)
The Producers: Contemporary Curators in Conversation. University of Newcastle, 2000
My parents were entirely Nordic, which is to say idiots.
Henry Miller, The Tropic of Capricorn
When preparing for this essay we came across a weird article written by our friend and beer buddy Johannes Saar, the most distinguished Estonian art critic of the 1990s. His contemporary articles, in which he uses the approach of critical theory, have been a great pleasure for us. Saar is applying Bourdieu´s distinctions of taste and class and Foucault´s body politics for analyses of 90s art and society. By inserting both local and national tendencies into the process, he has developed one of the most fruitful positions in current art criticism. It is not often that we are forced to think about the changes that have taken place throughout the decade. It was astonishing for us to find this early article by Saar, in which he uses lousy nationalist rhetoric rooted in the romanticism of the nineteenth century. The article, entitled Long Awaited Reunion with Europe, was written in 1992 for the catalogue of Myth and Abstraction Contemporary Art in Estonia, the biggest touring exhibition of the early 90s. This catalogue was quite prestigious, and it contained several weird essays.
Suddenly it was obvious that centuries had passed during the last ten years. And we remembered those dead-serious talks about how we should relive all the stages of modernism we missed behind the Iron Curtain. And then, if we ever reach modernism, we should go on to re-experience all the stages of postmodernism as well. Blimey, mates, we are glad its all over now!
BECOMING A BEDOUIN
To tell you the whole story honestly and clearly, we must start from the very beginning. In the beginning of the 90s, there were the late 1980s. That was the period when national fervour in the manner of early Johannes Saar was absolutely predominant. It was a time when people still liked to wave flags and gather on Governmental Hill to join hands in solidarity. The State and the Nation were one.
Before the 90s there were no themes in art criticism except formalist concerns, such as how the paint was dripping on a canvas. The only issues to contextualize the making of art were questions of national identity. And the freshest trends in late-1980s Estonian art neo-expressionist painting and ritualistic performances, which both relied heavily on mythological allusions made a perfect match with the nationalist project of searching for the roots of a newly claimed national identity. As a counter-project, bouncing away from this monotonous background, Group T did their Guide to Intronomadism. Although it was planned as a grand exhibition in the Tallinn Art Hall, a prestigious venue, the project was actually carried out as series of performances and live events taking place every afternoon for two weeks. Behind the rhetoric introduced through this project, we could recognize the handwriting of Hasso Krull, the philosopher and post-structuralist thinker of the 90s. In his creative application, the Deleuzian themes of nomadism and rhizome were offered as an alternative to the national and the search-for-the-roots. At the time, the leading figures of Group T Raoul Kurvitz, Urmas Muru and Peeter Pere were highly concerned with their bodies without organs. Since nobody then had heard of the liberties granted by The Thousand Plateaus, these artists probably sounded as if they had invented their own language. Most of the art critics, at least at the private moments when they could allow themselves to be a little bit lost, probably thought of Group T as a lounge of upgraded Freemasonry.
Group T was already a collective of great importance, having introduced several previously unknown discourses since 1987. One of their characteristics, which has remained influential, is their strategy of distancing themselves from their own accomplishments in changing the art scene. As soon as they noticed a group of followers growing too large, they shifted their position and claimed that they had never had anything to do with the theme they had introduced. Indeed, they were tongue-in-cheek pop stars. From 1986 to 1996, Group T went through several mutations: they did neo-symbolic paintings in the manner of trans-avant-garde installations with Beuysian allusions, performances mixing Gothic Rock imagery with ritualistic body art, a public image campaign in which they changed their masks in the media, experiments in public television and transcontinental satellite TV performances and post-minimalist and neo-conceptual traces that marked a fatally distancing subjectivity. In 1994 they enjoyed their broadest influence during the Unexistent Art exhibition curated by Urmas Muru. They totally dissolved to the themes inspired by The Face rather than those of Artforum. After that they ceased to exist.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?
The period from 1991, when independence was declared, to 1994, when things became more stable, can be referred to as the most influential for the establishment of the political and economic foundation of the cultural life of the Second Estonian Republic. This was the period of applied nihilism an idealized nationalism mutating into the official state parlance that covered up the only remaining motive of the righties to regain the property that had been nationalized from their grannies. During the last years of the 1980s, the main industry had already become recycling the metal crap scavenged from the ruins of the Soviet Empire and selling it to the foreigners for their real money. Everyone suddenly had a distant cousin hoping to get super-rich through a vague plutonium deal with the Russian mafia.
Let us tell a typical story from the early 90s, when the ideological and economic vacuum was most intense. One of us remembers working for a film crew making a documentary about Johann Köler, the mid-nineteenth-century academic painter and the founder of the national painting style. While filming the statue of Köler that had been erected during Soviet domination, members of the film crew were attacked and accused by a passerby: Are you the bloody rogues who have stolen the brush of our artist? This was far from being the only statue castrated or decapitated by eager bronze-hunters. Although times have changed, the artist Köler is probably still missing his brush.
The key words to describe this period are grey market and shadow economy it was a time of pirate industries that boosted deliberately misspelled Polish fake brands such as Adobes and Panesonic. It was also a time when heaps of money were made by importing and selling humanitarian aid and third-rate western crap. The slogan of the liberal theory of science anything goes meant very specific everyday para-practices.
The conditions for making art were extreme everywhere in eastern Europe. Nevertheless, there were some focused responses to the situation. Let us draw an example from the Russian scene. The young artists of a generation that had been brought up to fight American imperialism in Afghanistan had to face the collapse of the official Soviet ideology and the treason of their former dissident heroes. At the harshest time for the east, Kabakov, Bulatov and some other communal-apartment conceptualists were probably having cocktails in Malibu and surely having exhibitions wherever it was prestigious to have one. This bitterness gave birth to the most vital school of nihilist Moscow actionism, heavily drawn to Molotov cocktails. Kulik and Brener were the most renowned of these Russian vacuum-cleaners.
Estonian avant-garde stars such as Leonhard Lapin, Raul Meel, Jüri Okas and Siim-Tanel Annus couldn´t possibly inspire such envy, despite their success in Finland. Lapin, Meel and Okas had close and warm relations with Kabakov and other Russian artists in the 1970s, also sharing a father figure Ülo Sooster an expatriate Estonian artist who lived and died in Moscow.
The most radical example of nihilist adequacy in Estonia could be found in the early work of Jaan Toomik. He made a piece called May 15th31st, 1992, in which he exhibited cans of his daily excrement and the corresponding menu. Despite the very clear social reference to a situation of near-famine, Toomik himself is referring to it as great Zen piece. At any rate he is working directly with the juxtaposition of materiality and the stinking spirit. It is no surprise that parallel to Toomik´s late-1990s success rumours on this work became a yellow press that covered the whole field of contemporary art. There are other early works in which Toomik displayed core gestures of radical subjectivism in art an empty gallery, a bloody canvas and canned shit.
WHEN IT'S IMPORTANT TO BE SEEN!
Until the mid-1990s, it was quite common for visiting western curators to complain about the absolute lack of an anti-commercial, anti-advertisement spirit in Estonian art. No wonder. The first outdoor advertising campaign in 1992 was for billboards by Wennegren-Williams that bore the slogan: When it´s important to be seen. Nobody here had seen billboards before and it was a mind-expanding experience. It is probably even harder for westerners to imagine the city-space without commercial advertisements as it is for us, now. A few months later, in quick response to the billboards, a small and quick artist, Mart Viljus, exhibited his slide-installation about the importance of being seen. He had photographed all the billboards in a very similar manner the black background and white block letters were so predominant that each photo showed only a glimpse of the site where it was taken.
The initiator of the new left discourse, Peeter Linnap, a photographer and curator, was one of the first who pointed out that aesthetic qualities of art, so highly valued during Soviet times because they served as a safe escape from ideological pressure, had now been taken over by advertising. In one of his articles he advised artists in future exhibitions to better consider the changing environment, because the city looks nothing like it did in the 'golden sixties and 'shitty seventies.
A counter-discourse to the iconoclastic neo-conceptualism represented by Viljus, Linnap et al., was provided by Destudio, photographers Peeter Maria Laurits and Herkki Erich Merila. Destudio, a group of artists with clearly definable statements, was also one of the first advertising companies to dive eagerly into the new orgy of media-glam. In their series of photocollages, Diseases and Metamorphoses (1993), they put together fragments of religious, commercial, fashion and pornographic origin into large works. On the heap of proliferating consumer crap there was Laurits, shouting orgiastically: Give me some irony! Give me consumerism! Their pictures from the series Fables (1994) carry characteristic titles: War and Peace, Wash and Go, Cain and Abel.
CENTRAL EUROPEAN INFLUENCES
Let us take a step back to the time of an ideological and institutional vacuum the early 90s, when all the local institutions had lost their significance because they had no means of fulfilling their mission and being important. In those years, Estonian art got cheaper and cheaper to produce and almost disappeared.
In 1993 a fresh player, the Hungarian entrepreneur George Soros, emerged to flush the barren eastern European plains with a flood of money. Suddenly the Soros Centre of Contemporary Art in Estonia was the only production company in the field of visual art. Sirje Helme, the director of SCCA, has written that even in 1995, the total sum of money allocated to contemporary art projects through the Ministry of Culture was 473,800 kroons, whereas the SCCA gave more than 600,000 kroons just for grants in the same year. In addition there was the annual exhibition budget of about 500,000 kroons. There were separate funds for documentation, which provided the authors of articles with significantly higher fees than were generally expected at the time. No wonder some of the older-generation artists, who had lost their symbolic capital because of the paradigm change, immediately started to become very contemporary. It´s unbelievable the kind of curiosities you can find in the catalogues of those annual exhibitions.
The Soros exhibitions from 1993 to 1997 introduced the notion of the curator, in the contemporary sense, to the aborigines. Along with the exhibitions, Soros organized training camps for art critics. In 1993 all active critics at the time were recruited for a few months of rigorous training at the Central European University in Prague. They returned enlightened and victorious, importing a dozen fashionable names such as Derrida, Habermas, Lyotard, Foucault, Baudrillard, Eco and Kristeva. Whoops, now it seems that one guy was missing
He was called Barthes, Roland Barthes. It was a period during which every dignified daily newspaper was publishing an article entitled What is postmodernism? at least once a month.
Now those days are over. In order to gather points in the race for membership in the EU, our former neo-liberal-anti-art-pro-patria government stated that Estonia is now ready to take care of cultural production. Poland and Estonia are the only advanced eastern European countries with no Soros whatsoever in the arts. The Centre of Contemporary Art is still running. It has a temporary deal with Hansabank to curate exhibitions at their gallery and spend their money. The Centre is also responsible for representing Estonia at international exhibitions like the Venice Biennial.
Among the most important events in the 90s, we must name two Saaremaa Biennials: Fabrique d´Histoire (1995) and Invasion (1997), curated by Peeter Linnap and Eve Linnap (now Eve Kiiler). These events marked the internalization of the codes of contemporary art. They were typical post-colonial biennials with international playlists and stars such as Christian Boltanski and Victor Burgin. (For one of us, Hanno, this exhibition even replaced boxing courses with lessons in post-colonialism, and for the other one, Anders, it temporarily replaced art history with a mind-expanding discovery of the sign systems). The plain fact that this kind of event could be organized in Estonia was a good boost for self-esteem. The exhibitions were luckily accompanied by international seminars on theory, which included Jon Peter Nillson, among many leading theorists in Nordic postmodernism, as well as representatives of the local school of semiotics, initiated by Juri Lotman. Due to the permanently drunken presence of the New York art critic Thomas McEvilley, Art in America published a feature article on the Estonian Biennial. The curators had indeed scored!
THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE SAME AND THE OTHER
There are hidden connections behind everything. In the case of two important institutions, the Art Academy and the Artists Union, both remnants of the Soviet past, its not hard to find a basis of common interests pension fund is a key word. Their institutional structure and subdivisions are identical to the point of caricature. The interest groups representing different preferences in art-making practices jewellery, sculpture, textile, painting, etc. all fight for the well-being of their discipline and status quo in art education. Naturally a brighter student becomes immediately paranoid when s/he recognizes the well-greased life, starting with the first steps in the Academy and ending with a funeral in the artists cemetery. Imagine the faculty and the fellow professors who are still alive waving goodbye, weaving wreaths and singing in chorus: Break on through to the other side! We are reminded of an artwork done in 1994 by Marko Laimre, back then a student in the Department of Painting. He tore a tile off the floor of the Academy hall and replaced it with a granite memorial stone commemorating the historic moment the act of establishing the Faculty of Cave Painting.
FROM TIGER'S JUMP OF FEMINISM TO THE CAESAREAN BIRTH OF INTERACTIVE INSTALLATION ART
An American book, Post-Soviet Feminist Art in the Baltics and Russia, published in the late 90s, consists of interviews taped with female artists in the mid-90s . No interviews with Estonians got published. All of the artists approached, even Liina Siib, a photographer from the younger generation who now works mostly on gender issues, took great pains in claiming that they had nothing to do with feminism whatsoever. Nevertheless, great efforts were made with the exhibition Est. Fem (1995), curated by Eha Komissarov, Mare Tralla and Reet Varblane, to draw feminism out of nothing. From that, a trend of creating autobiographic arts and her-stories was launched. Although most of the early works are reminiscent of installation art à la Soros, more rewarding pieces made in that spirit emerged after a few years. An example of this is Kai Kaljo´s video Loser (1997), probably the most popular work of Estonian art abroad. She tells the entire story of her life in seven sentences, each of them followed by a fit of canned laughter. For example: I am thirty-eight years of age and I am still living with my mother, or I am working in the Art Academy for ninety dollars per month, or I think that the most important thing about being an artist is freedom.
The activity of drawing feminism out of nothing is quite characteristic of the entire out-of-synch period of Estonian art, which lasted until about 1997. The radical practice of establishing certain tendencies as pure exercises in willpower is clearly visible in all the discourses, and paradoxically, in a way, it has succeeded.
In 1990 the artist Tiia Johannson (19672002), a student of the Art Academy back then, decided to take a course on video art in a Finnish art school and applied for a year off from the Estonian Academy. She was refused, on the official basis that her intentions to study making TV programs has nothing to do with art and by making this choice she should consider leaving the Academy. By 1995, with the first level of Estonian video art successfully completed, video is claimed to be a drastically out-of-date medium by leading local net activists Tiia Johannson, Raivo Kelomees and Ando Keskküla. Keskküla, the initiator of Interstanding, a regular media art event that began in 1995 and the importer of radical activists and theorists, leads several secret lives. He was simultaneously the rector of the Art Academy, a member of the factional rightist Pro-Patria Party in the Municipal Council of Tallinn, the artist representing Estonia in the Biennial of Venice and the person who represented the interests of contemporary art in the real estate business. He is also the boyfriend of Sirje Helme (see above). In a word, he is the most established and institutionalized guy in the art world.
FROM OUT-OF-SYNCH TO GLOBAL CRAP
We have focused on the first half of the 90s, which serve as a subconscious for the present situation. By now, with the art world generally homogenized with internalized western tendencies, and with local real-life experience underlying art life, we could generalize a bit to say that we now probably have the same shit over here, with little difference. The gallery system and the art market seem quite miserable. For example, artists usually have to pay rent for a show at Vaal, the most respected gallery in the local scene, despite the fact that the gallery hardly bothers to represent the artist. This demands a completely different mode of work. Strangely, the same system operates in neighbouring Finland, although the art market feeding the galleries is on quite another level.
On the positive side we could boast of a Cultural Endowment, in which boards summoned from the ranks of creative people meet and decide how to allocate grant money. The complete budget for the visual arts for the year 2001 was 8,445,499 kroons.
But we are not going to leave you without any clue to the present condition. To help you in further investigations we have compiled some catchwords.
GLOSSARY OF KEY PLAYERS AND APPEALING NOTIONS
Art Museum of Estonia: Temporarily out of order. Building its new headquarters.
Tallinn Art Hall: A beautiful example of 1930s modernist architecture.
Estonian Art: Texts are exclusively in English. Published by Ministry of Propaganda. Fetch your copy from Estonian embassies all over the world or check the web site www.einst.ee.
Kunst.ee: Bilingual quarterly in Estonian and English. Features a special theme in every issue. Despite the name, it has no connection to the Internet.
Eha Kommissarov: Representative of hard-core attitudes in curatorship. Particularly sensitive to new tendencies. Contemporary Art Curator at the Art Museum of Estonia.
EneLiis Semper: Creates video installations of high quality, deeply investigating bodily issues. Always looking good in white cubes. Requiring the most powerful beamers. To investigate further, look for the catalogue of the 49th Venice Biennial, Plateau of Humankind.
Jaan Toomik: Creates video installation pieces of utmost simplicity and a pantheist spirit. For technical requirements see Semper (above). To investigate further, see Fresh Cream, Phaidon Press, 2000.
Young Mockumetarists: Andres Maimik and Marko Raat are the most influential among them. The latter´s For Aesthetic Reasons, a piece addressing Danish immigration policies, has been the great pleasure for many visiting curators.
Southwestern Estonian Anarchism: Agrarian and collectivist tendencies by the Group Nongrata. Real gourmet shit for marginal hunters. Attention: hard to find, but easily definable. You can consult Mari Sobolev, an art critic and patron saint of the marginals. If you are already among them, look for Andrus Joonas.
New Media and Net: Fictional artist Nelli Rohtvee, now half dead, consisting of Raivo Kelomees and Tiia Johannson. Then there is nasty woman Mare Tralla. For locating them we suggest Google and Alta Vista search engines on the Net.
Noise Virtuosos: Neofuturist post-techno developments in bleeping experimental music, closely connected to the art scene. Representatives Andres Lõo and Kiwa 54.
Erki Kasemets: The most systematic among the marginalized. Possessed by a great collecting habit, gradually turns everything into art.
The coolest painter: Definitely John Smith, a fictional character of hybrid nature consisting of Kaido Ole and Marko Mäetamm.
Multikultuurimaja: An artist-run community lab, the first attempt to put Estonians and local Russians to work in one space. Two professional psychologists supervise the project. Slightly inspired by the idyllic image of Soviet-time summer camps of Boy Scouts and practising multiculturalism from a distance. By chance, exclusively white and male.
TV generation: A term covering a vaguely related bunch of young artists, who have worked manipulating old TV images using good old scratch a lot. Sometimes they might get too nostalgic about their childhoods. Representatives are Jasper Zoova and Kiwa 54.
Contemporary sculpture: Anu Põder, Jüri Ojaver and Paul Rogers represent the old school you can trust. We also recommend Toomas Mikk.
Valie Export Society: An item of true connoisseurship for everyone interested in remakes. Having personal and conceptual relations to Valie Export, a radically feminist artist from 1960s Austria. Valie Export Society consists of Mari Laanemets, Killu Sukmit and Kadi Estland.
Nu Neurotic Naivism: Trend in painting represented by August Künnapu and Kiwa 54.
Violent Autistic Subject: Trend of the late 90s, in which psychic problems are worked out physically. They seldom talk. Representatives are Mark Raidpere and Ene-Liis Semper.
Raoul Kurvitz: The only good expatriate artist living in New York.
Marko Laimre: An anarchist, a great master of floating signifiers and experimental semiotics. The only artist in Estonia who can clearly summon his political views, he is for leftist anarchism without trade unions.
Kiwa: Multi-talented media persona, object of secretly burning passions of all teenage girls. Has been active in the fields of poetry, punk rock, DJ-ing, art criticism, video art, modelling, sculpture, painting and, of course, fashion design (see also above).
And now, welcome to Estonia.
[high-quality trouble since 2001]
Hanno Soans and Anders Härm
troubleproductions (Anders Härm & Hanno Soans)
2002 X mistakes Y for Z, Rotterman Salt Storage, Estonian Museum of Art,
2001 Analogue TV: Screensaver, Wäino Aaltonen Museum, Turku, Finland
2001, Performing Nothing for OP, broadcasted on the Estonian State TV
2001 Multikultuurimaja on the Wheels, Narva Jõesuu, performing Nothing in
a live concert.
Blur Conference special issue of the magazine Kunst.ee 3/2002
Analogue TV video-collection, troubleproductions, 2001
Screensaver- Estonian Art 2/2001 pp. 1-2
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