The first time Estonia participated in the Venetian Biennale has undoubtedly been an important event for the Estonian art public. It has even been important to the extent that representatives of other arts, such as musicians and theatre people, began to grumble that they also exist and their activities and achievements should also be covered on the arts pages of major newspapers. Indeed, reviews, introductions, on-the-spot commentaries, etc. poured in from art critics. There were six of them from Estonia, which is not bad for such a small country as Estonia. Echoes of the Venetian Biennale in Estonian media were really impressive. But this was, after all, the first time ever, was it not?
It is also symptomatic that our appearance on the art parade mentioned above did not take place in an air-conditioned exhibition pavilion which is normal for ‘old-timers’ but on the embankment of the Riva dei Sette Martiri, the promenade leading from the central part of Venice to where the exhibition pavilions were clustered. The newcomer would have no residence to settle down to and very often no money to rent a local palazzo, which is what the newcomers generally prefer to do. The site was superb, since the people who attended the Biennale could not help but take a look at what was literally standing in their way.
The works themselves showed signs of hasty decisions made by the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, who had financed the artists, on account of a lack of adequate funding. The initial idea was to select three Estonian performance artists whose entrance fee did not include the rents for galleries, transport of materials or maintenance costs during the three months that the show was open. By these criteria Siim-Tanel Annus, Raoul Kurvitz and Jaan Toomik, experienced performance artists, were selected. Later, however, the organizing committee changed horses in mid-stream, demanding that something should be left behind, that the exhibits should be on display until the close of the Biennale. So the three artists added some scenic design to their performance, which would remain on the embankment for the three months as a sign of their presence. Jaan Toomik redesigned the whole of his show – instead of a performance he presented an installation, while the other two devised a backdrop to their performance art,- a backdrop which also had some artistic value in itself.
Toomik’s solution was the easiest, and total and mystic to the extreme: 22 (a magic number) coffins lined up in an upright position with the upper and bottom boards removed so that through them you could view the Campanile on the St. Mark’s Square from one end and the lush gardens of Giardini di Girardini, which sheltered the exhibition pavilions, from the other. It was a purely site specific object and it captured the genius loci of Venice which, according to the artist, fills ‘an interim space between life and death’. This idea, beautiful and total, impressed and scared those who had come to take a stroll over the bridges.
The project of Raoul Kurvitz was also site specific although by far more complicated, as it contained staged actions, and was not always to the liking of the local carabinieri and municipal authorities. We know that, in addition to the death theme immortalised by Thomas Mann, the current image of Venice has been shaped by its artistic past, to an extent which does not leave room for the present. The city, which is steadily sinking, is brimming over with historical buildings – churches, chapels, cathedrals, palaces, monuments and profane architecture starting from the Renaissance times. These in turn are crammed with the works of Tintoretto and Canaletto – two most famous Venetian painters throughout the ages and their present-day imitators, making the whole one-dimensional. ‘Let us cleanse Venice of her historical make-up,’ exclaimed Raoul Kurvitz after his first visit to Venice and, in his mind’s eye, he saw a symbolic act of washing Venice … An artist, grabbing a pressurised-water hydrant, washes the faded façades of the Doges’ Palace and the Campanile of St. Mark’s Square, that is, all the historical, time-worn buildings, the whole of Venice, which becomes one large, transparent watercolour, having nothing in common with the cemetery for art lying among the stagnant waters. ‘Painting Venice!’ became the motto for this enterprise. The idea was brilliant, but when the municipal authorities saw an unknown person, holding something which resembled a shotgun (the hydrant!) under his arm with a hose attached (a chemical weapon!), running towards the historical Doges’ Palace, they gave him short shrift. As with the Padanian separatists, who had waved a flag from St. Mark’s spire and were brought down by force, Kurvitz was grabbed and made to lie face down on the tarmac and even detained for a few hours, until it finally became clear that he was an artist and not a terrorist. Kurvitz’ later water rituals were performed in a reduced format, he picked out the façades of buildings of less importance and, on the media days, painted with water the scenery built of plexiglass and iron plates on the above-mentioned embankment. In a booth beside him he showed a video of his earlier encounters with the carabinieri and the concerned city-dwellers.This video, together with the glass-panelled object, remained on the embankment to represent his ideas after the artist himself had left.
Siim-Tanel Annus’s performance entitled Crescent was accompanied by Sven Grünberg’s Oriental-flavoured and meditative music, the artist himself continued his theme of aspiration towards the light. On this occasion the light was embodied by a light-coloured wooden crescent (a brilliant piece of handiwork) which the artist tried to reach in spite of all hindrances. The chief hindrance was a rubber rope tied around the artist’s waist which, when the artist tried to approach the crescent, pulled a huge mountain ash bow, located at the other end of the stage. The closer the aim the more difficult to reach it. A symbolically accentuated performance, although its effect was diminished as part of the props were stolen the night before the opening.
All the three artists had found places on the embankment with an interval of one hundred metres. On the media days, when Annus and Kurvitz appeared every now and then and when frightful screams (casse di morta!) sounded from the lips of those passing Toomik’s installation, it seemed that the Estonian artists had managed to set their own rules on a small piece of land, for a brief period of time. The spectators as well as, allegedly, some internationally renowned curators, just stumbled across Estonian art, business cards were exchanged and contacts were made for the future. Let us wait and see.
Everything in Venice was lovely but the tragic finale arrived after the international experts and artists had left Venice and the exhibition was opened to the general public. A week later Venice was flooded, heavy showers and squalls swept the Estonian art from the embankment into the Gulf of Venice. For me, this accident deepened the morbid image of Venice. To think how much work, money, nerves, international bustle had gone into it all, and in no time the result sunk into the void. Death in Venice. Now, in addition to the first appearance of our artists on the Venetian Biennale, we could also talk about the first sojourn of Estonian art at the bottom of the Gulf of Venice.