On 10 July the most prestigious exhibition of contemporary art, the Saaremaa Biennial, was opened in the mediaeval castle of Kuressaare. The title of this biennial carried on the theme of the previous, 1995 biennial: Fabrique d’Histoire – Fabric of History. At a time when history is being re-written both in Estonia and over the whole of Eastern Europe, artists and theorists are fascinated by the question: what is the post-Cold War interpretation of history and how should we cope with the tough psychological, political, economical and everyday problems that we have inherited?
Since the modern world is orientated towards constant change, the aim of such art is to preserve a vision of history so that as society rushes into the future it may maintain a realistic perception of its own essence amidst the ever increasing simulations of the information society.
On the world scale the Saaremaa Biennial belongs to the numerous younger biennials or triennials – in addition to the large exhibitions in Cairo, Kwangju, Istanbul, Johannesburg et al, there is now a Florence fashion biennial, a Berlin media biennial, and the Rotterdam Manifesta in Europe, and a Santa Fe Biennial in the USA. The Saaremaa Biennial is the only one of its kind in the territory of the former USSR or in Scandinavia. It is an exceptional event in many respects – grown out of a festival of photography, the curators Eve and Peeter Linnap started with conceptualist photos and extended their interest to installations, films, and paintings; in comparison to the other biennials mentioned above, Saaremaa Biennial is a very small and concentrated event. This time, 37 artists from 10 countries participated.
Disappearance of the enemy
When an art exhibition carries the title Invasion, it may seem at first sight that it is dealing with a dangerously militaristic topic, and indeed, one can find such art in Kuressaare, which is based on documentary material: museological installation by Anto Juske and Lennart Mänd which shows how the German troops conquered the islands off Estonia’s western coast in 1917; Estonian geopolitical history as visualised by Marko Laimre; Jaanus Vald’s work based on a military dictionary that was supposed to help Russians to occupy Estonia in 1940, etc. But the contemporary notion of invasion is broader – it encompasses different forms of violence, such as criminality, assaults on works of art, covert or direct everyday and psychic terror, forced migration or invading foreign territory, tourism, and so on.
Any invasion presupposes the existence of polarity, where those taking part have been cast in the roles of a conqueror and a victim, but the roles are naturally not strictly fixed. During the Cold War the world was divided into two antagonistic camps and both treated the other as ‘the enemy’. Such a mentality was also expressed in art.
In the period after the Cold War, a terminological shift has taken place. ‘The enemies’ have suddenly disappeared without trace, there aren’t any left! Theoreticians refer to all kinds of otherness, categorising those as ‘Others’ who live right here next to us. The importance of being well-disposed towards the ‘Others’ and not behaving aggressively towards them, is being emphasised. The philosopher Andrew Benjamin spoke about invasion as the crossing of some real or imaginary border, whereas there are no pure identities anywhere. The identity of the ‘other’ becomes part of ‘my’ identity – ‘the other’ is both “apart from me” and “a part of me”.
Assaults and strategies of survival
In an art project, the opposition between ‘me’ and ‘the other’ creates the intrigue, which causes an impossible situation: ‘the other’ cannot be clearly separated from ‘me’ and ‘me’ cannot be clearly identified, because there is an ever continuing process of mutual influence. These works demonstrate all kinds of assaults, whether on art, personality, culture, territory or people.
Any assault presents a challenge that cannot be ignored; the victim has to cope somehow. At the biennial, artists consciously detach themselves from the mentality of a victim, instead they analyse the current situation and possible ways of escape.
Incorporating the assault and creating a new identity
Felix Gmelin (Sweden) re-creates works of art that have been assaulted, showing the creative dialogue between the assaulted and the assaulter. Lizzie Calligas (Greece) interprets a burglar’s attack on her work of art as part of its identity. Maria Hedlund (Sweden) follows the barely visible traces of a stranger in her home.
Moulding invasion into a work of art
Anto Juske and Lennart Mänd (Estonia) analyse sine ira et studio the conquest of the islands off Estonia’s western coast in 1917, and Marko Laimre (Estonia) presents an even wider general picture of Estonian political history. In the photos of Mari Laanemets (Estonia), children’s hands have scratched part of their faces white, since they are dealing with the dead. Roman Stanczak (Poland) has turned his aggression against Soviet period furniture as a symbol, destroying the angst-inducing anonymity of mass design. Martin Sjöberg (Sweden) shows brutal street violence, associating it with the violent nature of pop music.
Opening the abscesses of historical taboos and national complexes by surgical intervention
Boris Mikhailov, Sergei Bratkov and Sergei Solonski (Russia) ease the tension between Russians and Germans using gross humour. Jan Kaila (Finland) analyses Finno-Russian relations, focusing on the former secret military base in Porkkala, not far from Helsinki. Jaanus Valt casts light on a document which has long been a taboo – a Russian-Estonian military phrase book from 1940.
Showing the deep tragedy caused by historical invasions
Gintautas Martynaitis (Lithuania) has drawn up from memory what he experienced in his youth in Siberia. Ernest Pujol (Cuba/USA) also exhibits the tragedy of refugees, based on autobiographical facts – as a four year old boy he emigrated with his two year old brother from Cuba to the USA. Tiny white children’s shirts are like the spirits of dead children. Anthony Haughey shows forced migrations from his homeland Ireland as part of a bigger picture.
Making invisible invasion visible, i.e. to become aware of it
Killu Sukmit (Estonia) and Thierry Geoffrey/Colonel (France) visualise tourism as one aspect of invasion. Ann-Sofi Siden (Sweden) brings to us the persecution mania of a demented New York shrink, who was especially suspicious of his neighbours. Vibeke Tandberg (Sweden) parodies Western missionary activities in Africa, whose role is not so much helping the needy as satisfying their own narcissism.
Real problems, not ‘art’ problems
In the background of such works are often autobiographical motifs, either personal or national experience that lends such art suggestiveness. Those are real problems, not ‘art’ problems, and the role of an artist is to alleviate tensions, explain the torment of collective unconsciousness.
As for Estonian artists, it seems, strangely enough, that their relationship with the most painful topics of our own past, such as mass emigration to the West and deportations to Siberia, has remained indirect, almost non-existent. Although those large-scale topics have been tackled in detail in written form, they have not been visualised in art. The reasons are worth analysing. Therefore it is especially edifying in the local context to watch a video by Victor Burgin titled Venise.
Most popular of the mystifiers, Joan Fontcuberta from Barcelona, represents a distinct movement in contemporary art: by creating apparently credible simulations of a non-existent Russian astronaut Yuri Istotchnikov he reveals the mechanisms of lying.
Whereas Soviet ideology legitimised huge historical lies by substantiating them ‘scientifically’, the lies which circulate in today’s media, business and politics do not need any justification and everyone has to discover them on his own. Lauri Astala (Finland) shares Fontcuberta’s thoughts by looking for a mystical formula of history with the help of Umberto Eco and so does Andrus Kõresaar (Estonia) who displays the non-existent hierarchy of a non-existent insect civilisation. Both works are very powerful both visually and conceptually.
The Saaremaa Biennial is at present the most successfully functioning event of contemporary art in the Baltic countries and fully merits its excellent reputation. Estonia does exist on the map of contemporary art.