If I did not know where Estonia was situated. If I did not know any Estonian artists. If none of my relatives had anything to do with art. If I did not read books, magazines, newspapers. If I were not an artist. If I were not an Estonian. If I weren’t a human being. Just an animal in the tundra, searching for berries. Or a polar bear, diving into the water catching seals. Then it is obvious that I would not know how to write. Nor would I know anything about mankind, Estonia or Estonians. I would try to keep alive, but would not be conscious of the fact that I wanted to, I would simply “fight for survival”, as people say, among them Estonians.
And I would write (if I were able):
Taking part in the 4th annual exhibition of the Soros Centre for Contemporary Arts in Estonia Estonia as a Sign are Estonians who have no idea of the bleakness of the tundra, with its memories, obsessions (about nation) and mythological elements. These Estonians deal with the deepest and weightiest layer of idées fixes, fears, idols and memory.
In this exhibition the artists work with materials which have influenced our collective memory for decades. Work with themselves. With their own era. With something that is hard to put into words. They try to astonish and shock. Try to take the “Estonian stuff” into pieces. This is no longer particularly effective since the context has changed, no one is either interested in, or shocked by anything.
Survival is the main task of every human being. This is a depressing and pessimistic point of view: nothing remains forever, both literally and metaphorically, and it is an especially bitter feeling when you once flourished but have now died away. You retire since there is no place for you. Time is like a bulldozer, pushing you aside. Those with sponsors are brought forward; paid triviality rises to the surface. That is how you feel, when bulldozed aside by time.
What is the point of such utterances? Time like a bulldozer? My initial thought: the artist (and art itself) are changing phenomena, never standing still. A second thought: chance occurrences can prove crucial in artistic activity. A third thought: the self-expression of an artist is conditioned by factors of time, climate and geography. This is perhaps the same as the second thought – the dominance of chance (but a presence of regularity). A fourth thought: the art world, art itself and culture which is a collective activity is nonetheless very private. The sum of the world views of both tiny, unimportant individuals and great, deep personalities. One should not, however, understand this whole as the sum of its parts, they prevail against one another, breaking down and building up, destroying and creating. As with Estonia itself that as a sign and concept consists of differences and oppositions, yet not being a vague conglomerate, which holds true for many other associations of mankind.
The stager of the exhibition, Ants Juske, has not had in mind a typical response to this challenge. He has sought out new nuances, and taken ideas from a field of thought with which he sympathises – semiotics, that of the Tartu School and Yuri Lotman. Perhaps this preoccupation with the symbolic side of semiotics is superfluous from the point of view of the artists, but as a guiding principle of the exhibition and artistic discourse productive nonetheless. The artist does not “understand”, he or she “feels”. It could, however, be concluded that he neither understands nor feels when keeping up to date is a question of changing media and an illusory mentality that changing the media is the same as being modern.
NATIONAL TRAUMAS, MOURNING, DEPRESSION, CRIMINALITY
Looking at oneself is forever topical, but at the same time concealed in the title of the exhibition lies an opportunity for narcissistic mirror-gazing, as well as for masochistic self-torment. These need not be mutually exclusive: a body covered in weals can be transformed into an exhibition, into admiration and cult object. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who has the toughest life of all? Here you see a dark blue weal, the wreck of the car ferry “Estonia” and the hundreds of people drowned, and there a purple streak – 50 years of Soviet occupation, and a dotted yellow line – 700 years of serfdom. Being an Estonian, is certainly beautiful!
The work of many artists seems to aim at bringing to the fore a kind of “profound monumentalism”. But without irony, which is a significant fact. Maybe this exhibition is the first where artists turn to such an emotionally “clear and understandable” event as the wreck of the “Estonia”. Attempts have been made to express oneself and not to feel ashamed when mourning because of the national trauma. Can an artist deal with the particular questions of art when the effect of reality weighs so heavy in the scale? For this reason it is understandable – especially as the exhibition coincided with the anniversary of the disaster – that Eve Linnap, Tiia Johansson and Peeter Linnap have tried to touch on this. Eve Linnap is without doubt direct, open, and very moving. Under this heading there is also room for Liina Siib’s Disidentification which seems to be a portmanteau word combining difference and disinfection. Two heads, one from a work of art, the other from contemporary life (forensics), certainly a blatant and hideous combination.
BOUNDARIES AND BOUNDARY-CROSSING
One category which is symptomatic, and undoubtedly lends itself to self-irony is that of “Going to Europe”. This is reflected in Mare Tralla’s performance The Estonian Dream(s) and Annika Tonts’ From Estonia to Europe in Ten Moves – hopscotch in the centre of Tallinn. The latter is an interference with urban life whose scarcity in previous exhibitions has always been criticised.
Here the peasant anguish of “do I belong among the better folk” can still be felt, together with a faint hope to find one’s way into “respectable society”. The same themes can be detected in Urve Küttner’s video.
During the conference which was held in conjunction with the exhibition, Tom Sandqvist named introspection as a means of imagining oneself as someone else. Kai Kuusing’s Exile undoubtedly corresponds, despite its political sloganising and artistic poverty, to arguments influenced by the texts written by Sandqvist, Kristeva and Freud. One’s identity is mainly defined by the fusion of self and other or the lack of opportunities for this. Freud’s “heimliche” – house, home and family and the sense of familiarity also contains its opposite “unheimliche” which brings the constituting alienation and dread. This Freud sanctified in his article Das Unheimliche (1919) focusing on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story Der Sandmann which clearly echoes the will to castration of the little man who sprinkles sand in the eyes of children and threatens to remove their eyes: “Eyes here, eyes here,” cries the lawyer Coppelius in the tale, a man who resembles the Sandman.
IMAGES ETCHED ON THE MEMORY AND PRECEDING IT
Archetypes of national self-awareness were presented in Peeter Linnap’s monument of Kalevipoeg and his pictures about national awakening which are etched on the memory of the nation. Marko Laimre’s ironic Red Arrow – an ethno-masochist flour mill linked to the national anthem, enabled visitors to the gallery to experience the rural interactivity which our forebears practised for centuries. Leonhard Lapin’s contemplative sign-material – objects which made one think of a period of prehistory and was one of the focal points of the exhibition.
The content of Anu Juurak’s Express in Tartu Shopping Centre was circumscribed – a line through Estonia – but the opus was made powerful and striking by the 20 monitor screens of which the object consisted. Mari Kaljuste/Mari Kurismaa attempted to evoke the spirit of metaphysical homesickness. Ilmar Kruusamäe’s The Estonian Era as a set of traffic lights in the Estonian national colours – blue, black and white – standing at a crossroads brought a new context to these culturally charged colours in an attempt to ironise the fact that these colours have become normalised, hence invisible, by the nation. Raoul Kurvitz’ Sus scrofa or the wild boar as painter referred unerringly back to the 1960s. References to Beuys were incorporated – his hyenas in a gallery – and to Muehl and Nitsch’s excremental mode of painting. The wild boar as a being which shared the territory with the forebears of the Estonian people, some 5000 years ago. The wild boar was already a good painter long before the birth of a national school of painting. The same type of playful treatment of Estonian materials could be seen in Ene Luik-Mudist’s work: Estonian Matter. (A Quote from Keila-Joa).
One symbol of any country is undoubtedly a map showing its contours. Italy as a boot, Spain as the hide of a bull, Russia as one-sixth of the planet, Africa as a skull, Scandinavia as a leaping lion. A playful approach to Estonian maps and everything national has been employed in the works of Raul Meel, Silver Vahtre & Tõnu Noorits, Marko Mäetamm & Mall Nukke. Silk-screen prints of the Estonian map have long ago been used as avantgarde symbolism. Meel is here concerned with self-destruction, trying to destroy them, taking them to pieces, behaving as a true classic who is turning towards his work of earlier periods.
Marko Laimre’s work chiefly features a subjective map of the country. Such drawings represent a private conception of space, an object of interest for environmental psychology. A certain stylisation is present in Laimre’s maps à la old maps, but this is no doubt highly objective – space is perceived emotionally, which means that more significant areas are in our individual universe also physically larger.
MENTALITY AND RECENT HISTORY
Society, recent history and an examination of mentality have featured in the works of several artists: Piret Räni’s Celebration analyses the occupation of architecture and urban space with personal signs. Kadri Kangilaski referred to the book Everything about Marriage which acquired mythical significance in Soviet times, being the only book during the 50 years of occupation, about “what the grown-ups do”, and influencing thus both the young and their parents. (It is not known whether this book had any influence on population statistics.) Next we can group together Laurentsius’ alienating drawings Saku Wallpaper I-III, Inessa Josing’s scandalous shop window designs, Ene-Liis Semper’s Let’s Have Fun – fragments of erotic reality and Jaan Elken’s Mother Strikes and other works.
I would like to point out some works which are difficult to label, but which strike one simply as good art. Ann Põder’s The Cut of Clothes as Symbol can definitely be linked with the winter jerkins of country folk and the typical appearance of peasants during the last century and contains references to a physically oriented feminist art. Rauno Remme’s Peep-tower with its jolly music and enjoyable out-of-civilisation nature was a peculiar experience since the intellect cannot get a grip on the work.
For some strange reason, semiotics and playing with words was meagrely represented, although Ants Juske had dealt with this area in previous exhibitions himself. This fact meant that the visual material attracted more attention. Happily, neither urban society nor the media were entirely ignored, with the exhibition paying heed to previous criticisms in this area. Two events distancing themselves from the gallery space were Aire Luik’s art maxims which were scattered from a helicopter, and Kelomees-Kivisildnik’s News which could be seen on Channel 2. The latter turned out almost a pollution video, reflecting the worrying present burdening of Estonia with maxims and images.
Sven Kivisildnik who had consciously been included in the last project, and who is probably the only media artist who occasioned a discussion involving the whole of society. It is a pity that the exhibition did not succeed in starting up any Internet project, although various principal suggestions were made, though admittedly only verbally, to the stager of the exhibition.
The theme was a straightforward and a sound one. Everyone can relate to something. All participating artists were Estonian. But pictures of foreign artists living in Estonia would also have been interesting. Clearly, Estonia for the Estonians is not such a concentrated sum of symbols and images (if symbolism is to be understood in such simple terms), inasmuch as it is the spectre of hundreds of pictures, sounds, feelings and memories, creating an image of a country and its people. Estonia can be a dullish and limited symbol for foreigners, consisting of something clear and understandable: Singing Revolution, the blue-black-and-white colours of the flag, the wreck of the “Estonia”, an incomprehensible language, the frequent use of the swearword “kurat” (devil), discrimination against Russians, the industriousness of the people, etc. The role of the artist in this exhibition has perhaps been more difficult than that of the bystander: to make possible a new way of looking at familiar things and at oneself without shunning the use of past events and images.