First published in Postimees, 17 September 1996
On 9th September 1996, a Pan-Baltic art exhibition opened in the Zache,ta gallery entitled Personal Time – a broad and fundamental look at the poverty of existence during the fifty years of Soviet occupation. The exhibition was an attempt to trace back the cultural parallels in all three republics, which would ultimately become the bridge between the former independent statehood and the regaining of independence. The private life and the intellectual and spiritual aspirations of various artists were early substitutes for true independence, and became the seeds of rebirth. According to the original concept, the exhibition was an attempt to highlight specifically those who owed nothing to Socialist Realism, or to the Western artistic trends of the time, and avoided all points of contact with cultural empires. This meant that it was not possible to show here Estonian achievements in the Pop and Op art of the 1960s, and allowed Latvia and Lithuania to conceal the lack of parallel phenomena in their countries. A large part of the exhibition was devoted to the so-called village idiots who tried to re-invent the wheel in a climate of total cultural isolation.
Estonia does not have enough “yokels” because, as was said above, Estonian art followed closely the art literature which managed to filter through the Iron Curtain. At the same time, those few we had – e.g. Lembit Sarapuu and Raul Rajangu – managed to outstrip their Latvian and Lithuanian contemporaries with their unprecedented visual language. These artists were the only ones who caused the exhibition visitors to mutter – wherever have such men emerged from? The rest of the exhibition suffered, in the opinion of the writer of this article, from a failed formal structure. The art of three different countries was thrown together for the benefit of the public to create one joint display – “Baltic Art” – which was a surprise for Estonian critics, to say the least. The only excuse can be a political one. For years, there has been talk of “Baltic Unity” and joining NATO and the European Union simultaneously. This does not, however, mean that all three cultures are on the same par. One Lithuanian curator could not bring himself to “appreciate” the tedious repetition of geometrical patterns in Estonian art, and did not think it at all exaggerated to use the epithet BORING. The Estonians could not help pointing out the down-to-earth coarseness of Lithuanian sculpture and the eternal masculine love of stone. The Latvians came with a relatively flexible exhibition, blending into the general picture as effective and original interludes. Reciprocal trials of strength are everyday phenomena amongst neighbours, and did not drive a wedge between us and our southern neighbours. We have the saying “Latvian taste” and our southern neighbours know what constitutes “typically Estonian art”. Unfortunately, out there in Europe, the concept of Baltic unity is also becoming an aesthetic truth.
Among the Latvians, my greatest discovery was of Miervaldis Polis, the only artist who completely fitted the concept. In the mid-1970s, he entered the world of art with his hyper-realistic paintings, soon moving on to a self-centred conceptualism. Wearing a Rembrandt beret, his brown locks flying in the wind, his self-portrait appeared in mediaeval still lifes, Renaissance engravings, travel guide illustrations from the 19th century – always hyper-realistic, faded by the dust of ages. Polis is a master at projecting his own face into the art of any age and making convincing simulations. A credible fiction, incredibly realistic, which is nevertheless a studied fake. A space not subordinated to any outside intervention, elusive and not visible to the ukaze of any Central Committee, nor burdened by a rationality of logic. Mythologising one’s own person and merging with all ages but one’s own, is what Polis’ art is all about. Naturally, politics does not concern conceptualism, but the emergence of what is described as run-away-reality in art was clearly influenced by outside pressure.
The Lithuanian artist closest to the general tenor of the exhibition was Mindaugas Navakas, the leading name in Lithuanian sculpture, and a conceptualist at the same time, who did not give his creations names on principle, since this would circumscribe them right from the start. All the more imposing is the sheer physical size of Navakas’ sculptures – they are of gigantic proportions, which was never the concern of the censor. Hence the easy application of conceptualism. Navakas’ ultra-right-wing views are well known, just as his leading position in local art is undisputed. His giant metal constructions have appeared at all the major art centres in Europe, and they have left their mark on the youth of Lithuania.
At the same time, Navakas’ participation in the “Personal Time” exhibition is questionable, since the form of his conceptualism is the same – as like as two peas – in fact, as that of the metal monuments exhibited in the United States in the 1970s. There is not much personal time involved here, it is simply solid Western art. The dissatisfaction of our curator Sirje Helme was restrained because we Estonians too have fielded such players as Raul Meel and Jüri Okas who have their whole lives looked towards Western historical trends for their inspiration.
The differences in accentuation were also particularly striking. The Latvians and Lithuanians brought what was in principle good, acceptable art of the last couple of decades out of their galleries to Warsaw, and in no way adhered to the concept of “village idiots”. Political profit was obviously considered – the exhibition is one huge demonstration of strength. If only Sarapuu weren’t there – those naked bawling atavistic Kalevipoegs could quite well torpedo “Baltic Unity”…