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"I have used the comparison of [---] perforated skin, which does not cover, hide or adorn but rather hints at the internal." – Reet Varblane answers Hedi Rosma's questions about Anu Põder, whose works have been included in "The Milk of Dreams", the main exhibition of the ongoing 59th International Venice Art Biennale. "Untold backstories: Anu Põder (1947–2013) and her posthumous rise to international fame" (KUNST.EE 3/2022)


// <Hello, World!>*

Kaisa Eiche (2/2021)

Kaisa Eiche writes about Peeter Linnap’s retrospective solo exhibition "A Man through History" (and also conducts a social experiment).

7. I–20. II 2021
Gallery Pallas
Curators: Andrus Kannel, Peeter Linnap

Peeter Linnap's reception and the body of text he has produced is massive, substantive, thorough, passionate, critical and well argued, so starting this piece of writing here, I need to ask myself if there is anything left to add at all. The art critic Thomas McEvilley has said that Peeter Linnap is a man who has gone through history, through the material he has worked on as an artist, a critic, a professor and a curator.1 In the last decade or so, Linnap has mostly focused on research, writing and publishing on photography theory. I have also been Linnap's student – I studied at the Tartu Art College (Pallas University of Applied Sciences since 2018) photography department from 2002 to 2007, led by Linnap, and this is also my position as a writer here.

Peeter Linnap's retrospective pleasantly surprised me. I have only seen his works as examples shown in slideshows in lectures and heard stories about intrigues around some of his works, but this was the first time I had the opportunity to physically see these works and that was important to me. At Gallery Pallas, the exhibition was presented on all three floors and felt fresh despite the fact that the works had premiered already in the previous century. I liked the fact that the works were not displayed as reproductions (very easy to do with photos these days) but instead, what was shown were the old and weathered pieces that had probably been damaged during their travels all over the world from one gallery to the next. The works have stood the test of time in more than one sense.

In an autocommunicative interview published in the photography magazine Cheese in 2006, Linnap was asked why he does not make exhibitions anymore and he answered as follows: "An exhibition is a form of activity. Every format of activity must have a reason – an idea – why it is done. And the activity must also both have a motivation behind it and receive feedback. Speaking frankly, in Estonia artists are not respected, at best they are simply used. I do not want to nor can I identify with people who provide art as a routine – make exhibitions out of habit and just keep the institutional machinery of art going, benefitting officials more than artists."2

Timing and context have a key role in empowering a message. Fifteen years later, the same issues are still relevant, invariably burning and current. In the meantime, the number of people with the ambition of becoming an artist has increased significantly. Artists as freelance creative workers are still the last in the food chain and have to make their living from occasional project funding, rare sales or the state's temporary support schemes. How many more generations of artists have to scrape by on the brink of poverty? "The art world is structural violence," Linnap has said.3 He is right – still right.




So, it is appropriate to ask about the timeliness of Linnap's retrospective exhibition at Gallery Pallas in 2021. Let us ask using his own words: "Who is speaking to us?"4 And what is the message of this speech act?

The works exhibited at Gallery Pallas have been publicly presented between 1988 and 2000, being among the most emblematic by the author. In a 1994 interview given to the art historian Heie Treier, he contemplates his artist position: "I am living in this moment in time. I research Estonian potato salad and the work is titled "Estonian Studies". It is a massive project about Estonia, Estonians and Estonian art, lasting for years."5

Peeter Linnap's critical art is based on sociology.6 This interdisciplinary field researches human behaviour, relationships, resources and institutions. Critical thinking, validating other perspectives, linking influencing factors and consequences are the basic tools in sociology. However, unlike the American sociologist and photographer Lewis Wickes Hine, to get his message across, Linnap photographed himself, asked someone else to take his photograph or used (photographic) material by third parties according to copyright laws (or not – when it came to found photographic negatives, for example).

In Linnap's work, the question of who took the photograph is never primary, as we are always addressed by Linnap himself, deliberately and without filters. He creates an artwork, because above all, he has something critical to say about something. And often, his conceptual works are inspired by meaningful objects, photographs, relationships or values, so that he points out associations, he takes them apart and documents them.

But still, this is not all. Linnap is not interested in one-directional communication when making exhibitions – exhibitions for exhibitions' sake and art for art's sake. As a doctor of semiotics, he provokes and guides communication processes both within the limits of and outside of artworks.




"Concealed Landscapes" (1988), "Self-portraits as Soviet Citizens" (1989), "Our Man to Moscow!" (1990), created during the final years of the decaying totalitarian regime, had a radical effect both on the art field and local audiences in general. Forbidden physical and psychological territories and questions of identity made him an internationally recognised artist in the late 1980s, whose works were later included in the post-colonial art discourse.

In the context of social awakening, art that was critical of the Soviet regime was no longer disapproved of, quite the contrary. For many years, disapproval was directed at the form instead – the gatekeepers at the local exhibition spaces did not accept photography as an artistic means of expression. This very same issue inspired Linnap to co-organise the 1992 Saaremaa photographic festival,7 which grew into a contemporary art biennial. "Rock-Watcher" (1991) was originally exhibited with a large rock in front of a series of photographs with Linnap's portrait, eyes wide open, peeking from under the rock8 – it was an act of self-assertion at the crossroads of the Western art discourse and photography as a citizen of the free world.

"A Day in Tallinn" (1992), "Estonian Kitchen" (1993), "Kalevipoeg: de facto" (1996), "A Short Emblematic History of Estonia" (1996) and "Homo EKAdemicus" (1999/2000) look at the identity politics of the state and the nation in Estonia as well as at the curiosities of the rehabilitation of image production in the 1990s. Jan-Erik Lundström, a former curator at Fotografiska Stockholm, art historian and critic, has admitted that living in Estonia under the totalitarian regime and in the pivotal 1990s, much more intelligent and documentative attention should have been paid to local life.9

"Summer 1955" (1993) is the artist's best-known work, which was the first to receive feedback from Western audiences and critics; Linnap has said he did not exhibit the work in Estonia until 1997. The work seems to have been created for a Western discourse: the fears and traumas of a postcolonial state, playfully presented by young men under a colonial regime, touching the souls of the viewers. In an interview with the art critic and curator Mary Ann Lynch, the artist has described how in Germany and Estonia, the work resonated with painful memories of historical events, while in Finland, the UK and the US it was seen more as a joke.10

"Le Top 50" (1994) was also essentially an act of communication management in order to establish contact with the elite of the Western art world at the time, which is the whole idea behind the work. All kinds of halls of fame and rankings also exist in free market economies to establish power structures. Linnap was also interested in how to interfere with the Western establishment, both as an ambitious artist and an organiser of an international biennial. Browsing the magazine Beaux Arts he had found in the French Embassy by chance, the artist saw the list of names and passport photos of 50 agents of the art world, so he had the idea to write them and ask three questions: 1. Have you ever heard of a country called Estonia?; 2. Have you ever heard of Estonian art?; 3. Would you like to say something to Estonian artists?

"I got the idea that the only way to become known was to write to these people directly... All of these 50 people who know nothing about Estonian art will know something after these questions. They will know that there is an insane person or a con man or a genius who has created an artwork, in which he asked them these questions," explained Linnap.11 So self-sufficient, desperate, monumental... and in the mind of any self-respecting Estonian, definitely an inappropriate plan!




Peeter Linnap
Le Top 50 (detail)
Photo installation
Gallery Pallas exhibition view
Kaisa Eiche






When I saw this work at Gallery Pallas, I got an irresistible urge to repeat the artist's idea as an experiment, since I assume probably every artist and curator has a certain projection of occupying territories of established norms and practices. I wrote to Linnap about this idea but he seemed sceptical, and rightly so, since "Le Top 50" was carried out via snail mail and fax, while today, all this kind of information can be found in seconds via digital search engines or with the help of the virtual assistant Siri.

Nevertheless, I could not resist the desire to experience the same communication process in the digital age, so I compiled a new email, looked up the addresses of directors of art organisations on their websites (which, as it turned out, are often not public) and sent out a message asking 50 art institutions from Japan and Australia to Brazil to participate in a self-initiated survey regarding Estonia and Estonian art. My hypothesis was that I will receive around ten curious replies, as Linnap once did.

And now (drum roll, please!)...

No one has replied to me in over two months! (I set a deadline of one week.) Except for a couple of auto-replies that promised to contact me in up to five days. So the technological process and faster processing of information has in no way brought a peripheral microworld closer to the rest of the world. On the contrary, organisations are often represented by entry level personnel – customer service representatives who act as the first level of filters behind the organisation's e-facade and the anonymous info@email addresses. Of course, there is a risk that our good intentions were identified as spam by a basic cyber security system and it never even reached a customer service representative. In some organisations, the general email is probably never read – it is a write-only address.

However, the most likely scenario is that replying to the email just was not a priority for the organisation's staff and they decided not to waste their time on that. It is likely that similar or even sillier emails are received by these organisations daily. It is possible that the directors of these organisations feel harassed by such hopeful proposals that flood their inboxes. The competition for exhibition slots is remarkable even in Estonia. Yet public thresholds or criteria for applicants have not been announced. For some reason, institutions are very careful not to position themselves in any distinct way. So we can only imagine what is happening in the exhibition spaces of major cities, which, in addition to the local artists, artists from the rest of the world also try to conquer.




What was so fascinating about Peeter Linnap in 1994 for those who replied will remain a secret. But there might be a speck of truth in a comment by the art critic Michael Köhler, who has said that to be a "Baltic artist" is nice but it is the lowest possible status. And what happens when the interest for this particular locality cools down? Political and exotic explorations have known to switch targets.12

In diplomatic relations, prejudices are broken down by mutual political and/or economic interests, project-based appropriate (art) events and, of course, personal relationships. In international business relations, Estonians are still strongly recommended to replace their phone numbers using +372, the Estonian country code, with phone numbers using +44, the UK country code, on their websites. The art critic Reet Varblane stated already in a 1995 review that social research similar to "Le Top 50" should be repeated.13 Global competition is still ruthless and since Estonia is no longer interesting as a novelty ("Estonia – what's that?"), it has become practically invisible on the world map today.




Linnap's "AfterMonuments" (1999) is a self-deprecating and metacritical photographic series. It is a parody of the hunger for power, partly induced by the process of subjectification: in the turbulence of the new national awakening in the young state and democracy, in the increasing economic neo-colonialism and in the re-evaluation of left politics, local art writers took defensive positions against Linnap, who they thought desired to demolish everything that is holy.

"Sanctuary" (1999) is a collective artwork (with Arne Maasik, Tarrvi Laamann and Jasper Zoova), and is among the most fascinating, being less pointed and also less of a statement. In conversation with Professor Victor Burgin in 1997, Linnap discusses spatial categories in postcolonial situations and the construction of space through social relations; for example, how the colonial period in Europe began at the same time as the "discovery" of one-point perspective.14 And so the eye captivated in the focal point of "Sanctuary" is hypnotically frozen and immediately and willingly subjects itself to the conqueror's position, even though that has not yet taken any distinct form. In this paradigm, a plurality of perspectives is, of course, difficult to handle.


* "Hello, World!" is the simplest software testing program, created by Brian Kernighan. If this string appears on the computer screen, the software developer can be sure the program is working. Linnap's artistic actions functioned similarly: if cultural communication works, audiences react, critics write, and so on, then you can say the preparations have been successful.

1 "Teadlased: Peeter Linnap". Written by Kristina Veidenbaum, directed by Mati Kark. Estonian Television, 2008; Peeter Linnap, A Man through History. Tartu: Tartu Art College, 2017, pp 5–6.

2 Peeter Linnap, Kultuuri plahvatus on vaid aja küsimus. Professor Peeter Linnap iseendast. – Cheese 2006, No 16, pp 21–23.

3 Reet Varblane, Kunstimaailm ja meie. – Kunst 1995, No 2, p 12.

4 Mary Ann Lynch, Peeter Linnap: orbiteerides Eestit. – Peeter Linnap, A Man through History, p 12.

5 Heie Treier, Peeter Linnapi Eesti-uuringud. – Hommikuleht 31. XII 1994.

6 Hanno Soans, Videointervjuu Peeter Linnapiga. Kunstnik kui kriitiline institutsioon. – Ed. Peeter Linnap, Silmakirjad: intervjuud visuaalkultuuri intellektuaalidega 1992–2010. Tartu: Tartu Kõrgema Kunstikooli toimetised 2011, No 4, pp 279–282.

7 Peeter Linnap, Tähenduste konstrueerimisest Saaremaa biennaalile. – Ed. Peeter Linnap, Silmakirjad: kirjutisi fotograafiast ja visuaalkultuurist 1986–2006. Tartu: Tartu Kõrgema Kunstikooli toimetised 2007, No 3, p 277.

8 See the photographic documentation of the exhibition: Peeter Linnap, A Man through History, p 107.

9 Peeter Linnap, Teised meie fotost. – Ed. Peeter Linnap, Silmakirjad: kirjutisi fotograafiast ja visuaalkultuurist 1986–2006. Tartu: Tartu Kõrgema Kunstikooli toimetised 2007, No 3, p 276.

10 Mary Ann Lynch, Peeter Linnap: orbiteerides Eestit, pp 10–11.

11 Reet Varblane, Kunstimaailm ja meie, p 11.

12 Peeter Linnap, Teised meie fotost, p 276.

13 Reet Varblane, Kunstimaailm ja meie, p 13.

14 Peeter Linnap, Invasioon. Teleintervjuu professor Victor Burginiga. – Ed. Peeter Linnap, Silmakirjad: kirjutisi fotograafiast ja visuaalkultuurist 1986–2006. Tartu: Tartu Kõrgema Kunstikooli toimetised 2007, No 3, pp 309–319.



Kaisa Eiche is an artist, photographer, art organiser and laureate of the inaugural art critics scholarship awarded by the Estonian Centre for Contemporary Art and the Estonian Society of Art Historians and Curators.




Quote corner:

"We were coming from a pivotal background. In linear time, an artist is born, gathers strength, culminates and then quietly fades. From time to time, with decreasing frequency, the artist is remembered, and if they are lucky, rediscovered in a new context. The historical background provides a balanced sensibility.

Jaan Kalviste (Kranig), who defended his doctoral thesis in chemistry at the Sorbonne, and Harry Malm, editor of photography magazines, were among the first people who brought photography into our universities. That happened already in the 1930s. In Estonia, we have people like Ragnar Nurkse and Bernhard Schmidt, who have had an impact on world economic theories, and even had the knowledge to improve the German optics industry (Zeiss!). Minox, invented by Walter Zapp, is also a legend. Why do we know so little of this past? Not to mention our art history: if we do not thoroughly teach Estonian art history, how can we establish permanent value systems? How will cultural memory be accumulated?

At my show at Gallery Pallas, I am mainly exhibiting works from the 1990s and the 2000s that caused controversy at the time they were created. The art world then was rooted in mythology, nomadism and other "peaceful" apolitical themes. That is why my art felt so sharp. Controversy is neither good nor bad. History is made up of periods of great change. We had the dynamic 1990s, now society is stable and in a period of static or conservative or all-set existence. The present favours thinking deeply but does not favour radical turns as it did when Martin Parr photographed Estonia and the international guests of the Saaremaa Biennales discovered us. Right now, it is us who have to set big goals."

Heie Marie Treier, Praegu tuleb endil suuri eesmärke püstitada (interview with Peeter Linnap). – Sirp 12. II 2021.

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