The Tallinn Triennial of Applied Art titled Useless Things was one of the largest exhibitions in Tallinn last summer. It opened the doors of the traditional triennials of Baltic applied art to wider international participation. Such exhibitions which have taken place regularly since 1979, were always outstanding art events, demonstrating European art traditions and offering artists a chance to communicate professionally within the closed Soviet system. It was no coincidence, in the closely integrated art world of the Soviet Baltic republics, that Tallinn was elected as the best place for organising joint exhibitions of applied art.
The Estonian State Art Institute had become one of the most prominent schools offering higher education in applied art, a field in which Tallinn was considered as something of an intellectual centre. A moderate share of common identity, and equally moderate share of national differences provided the Baltic applied art triennials with the highly charged atmosphere of a creative meeting place. The opening world of the late 1980s and early 1990s offered new opportunities and challenges, but also introduced competition.
The success of Estonian artists at prominent international exhibitions, and also the emergence of a young and strong generation in recent years who were able to relate with the world as a matter of course, unmistakably signalled the necessity of changing the tradition of the Baltic applied art triennials.
The Tallinn Applied Art Triennial was organised as an open contest, without any geographical restrictions. 304 artists from 24 countries expressed their wish to participate. The international jury consisting of Nils Jockel from the Hamburg Museum of Applied Art, Merika Alber from the Tallinn Museum of Applied Art, Helena Dahlbäck-Lutteman from the Röhss Museum in Göteborg, Lolita Jablonskiene from the Soros Centre of Modern Art in Vilnius and Krista Kodres from the Estonian Academy of Art, selected 79 artists from 16 countries. As expected, the largest number of participants, two thirds, came from the Baltic states and Finland. The exhibition’s theme, Useless Things, which simultaneously was a provocation and a key to interpret contemporary applied art, was phrased more like a question rather than offering any answers.
Today’s world, constantly in a hurry and down-to-earth, does not actually need the things that the artists of applied art create – this is a perfunctory claim that is often heard, an argument that comes from stereotype attitudes about applied art, i.e. the comparison of original luxury items to serial design. Since during the last few decades applied art has outgrown those limits and the general notion has vanished, the traditional approach is no longer possible. Applied art, with the emphasis on the last word, is primarily an art form in which an object and material convey ideas and messages and where the question of the utility value (or lack of it), of a piece of work simply does not arise. Far more important here, is the diversity and significance of the material world and man’s relation with things. But the emergence of conceptuality need not rule out professional handicraft skills and aesthetic values. An adequately realised original idea corresponding to the theme, was the jury’s main criterion. The exhibits can be grouped in several ways – for example the more conservative and the more innovative. In the first group might belong Dorothee Wenz’s (Germany) ceramics, Elna Kaasik’s (Estonia) fabrics or Sara McDonald’s (England) glassware; in the second group the installations of Lennart Mänd (Estonia), Vesa Varrela (Finland) or Irena Biechonska (Israel).
One can find here reflections of different cultural traditions, or confront social sensibility with meditative seclusion. What comes forward strongly, is the notion of time – the past. One’s own traditional past is being explained and re-interpreted, the changing of the value and status of things over time is being tackled. Personal recollections and allusions to the past constitute the central axis of several artists’ work, although they have used different means of expression. Anu Soans (Estonia) has glazed fragments of weatherbeaten bricks and has them on the floor, forming the silhouette of a coffee cup, also momentary and transient. What remains of them later, is the idea and the basic element – clay. Gabriela Felgenträger (Germany) has made ornaments from things she has found or in other words, from scrap metal – a broken cogwheel, a bolt, a cylinder have been united with silver, and the things meant for destruction have acquired new meaning and new life.
The Last Performance, a work by the Israeli artist Dorota Bielas, an installation made of old useless chairs, makes one see parallel ls with human relations. These are only a few examples of the fact that “things are not good or bad by themselves. They simply are. Only a human glance gives them expression, function, significance” (Fanny de Sivers, in the introduction of the catalogue). Although contemporary applied art has moved further from producing practical, functional things, the artist still relates to the world of things from the standpoint of a creator rather than a consumer. Giving a novel meaning to things that are useless in everyday life, and appraisement of ordinary materials, also means drawing delicate attention to the fact that such notions as useless and useful, valuable and valueless are really quite relative.
The same message is contained in the Finnish glass artist Timo Rytkönen’s Angelglasses, crocheted from glass thread, where the association of the habitual types of form, technique and material is presented wittily and defyingly. To experiment with materials in modern applied art is usually not an aim in itself. Often the material is the most significant part in the conceptual whole of the work. For example in Kaire Rannik’s necklace I and my hair (this received special recognition from the jury). Signe Kivi’s Carpet of Shavings made from shingles (a triennial award) is a surprisingly simple and monumental work, uniting both the experience of a textile artist and her own memoirs of her childhood shingle roof. Ase Ljones’s (Norway) forms made of fishskin and an inner tyre could be regarded as experiencing and exploring materials which are so different, even contrasting, and in a sense belong to different epochs.
The main award of the exhibition went to Astrid Bärndal’s (Germany) installation. Here hundreds of upsurging white sleeves, those aesthetically impressive and at the same time universally understandable images, turn towards the tragic aspects of the human existence, crossing the traditional border between applied art and free art.
The Estonian Artists’ Union and Cultural Endowment of Estonia awarded the three main triennial prizes to Astrid Bärndal, Signe Kivi and Timo Rytkönen. The sovereign Tallinn award went to Kaie Parts, an jewellry artist working in Tallinn. Naturally, an art exhibition can not be compared with a sporting event, therefore those awards do not represent any ranking list, but are simply a recognition of some of the more remarkable works of art.