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FROM THE ARCHIVES: "In the capital, only a few steps from the sea, there is a small international art institution, which has, in its own way, become dear to all members of the local art scene during the ten years of its activity." – Marika Agu, Siim Preiman, "A "phantom platform" as an Art Institution for All" (KUNST.EE 2017/2)

 

Alcodiplomacy

Andreas Trossek (3/2017)

Andreas Trossek has not yet visited the group exhibition "The Travellers: Voyage and Migration in New Art from Central and Eastern Europe".

 

 

25. VIII 2017–28. I 2018
Kumu Art Museum

Artists: Adeìla Babanovaì, Daniel Baker, Olga Chernysheva, Wojciech Gilewicz, C.T. Jasper & Joanna Malinowska, Flo Kasearu, Karel Koplimets, Irina Korina, Taus Makhacheva, Porter McCray, Alban Muja, Ilona Németh & Jonathan Ravasz, Roman Ondák, Tímea Anita Oravecz, Adrian Paci, Vesna Pavlović, Dushko Petrovich, Janek Simon, Radek Szlaga & Honza Zamojski, Maja Vukoje, Sislej Xhafa.
Curator: Magdalena Moskalewicz.

 

 

The following is not a review of an exhibition. At the time I am writing this there hasn't even been an official press tour of the large-scale international exhibition at Kumu entitled "The Travellers: Voyage and Migration in New Art from Central and Eastern Europe". That said, one event, which has been widely previewed in both the Estonian and Finnish mainstream media, is part of the exhibition. It is a boat trip by Karel Koplimets on 9 August this year from Helsinki to Tallinn (more precisely from Porkkala peninsula to Rohuneeme harbour). The trip was made on a raft called Ale made of beer cans filled with polyurethane or PUR-foam, the documentation of which; that is, the raft itself and a video installation entitled "Juhtum nr 13. Taarast laeva oodates" (Case No 13. Waiting for the Ship of Empties, 2017), can now be seen at Kumu. "The trip took more than 8 hours and the average speed was 3.8 knots," concluded the artist on the social media platform Facebook in regard to the most important outcome of the trip. Thanks to Taara!1

If something sounds like a joke, looks like a joke and makes you laugh like a joke, then most likely it is in fact a joke. Even if it is a form of gallows humour on a serious subject. Namely, we can boldly assume that it will take on average of half a second to one and a half seconds for an Estonian or Finnish citizen looking at Koplimets' work in the exhibition space to solve the arithmetic sequence. It's elementary: Helsinki, Tallinn, sea, ship, alcohol, empty cans. Furthermore, Ale, the name of the boat, means discount in Finnish. As in his summer solo exhibition at Tallinn Art Hall Gallery "Juhtum nr 11. Talsinki" (Case No 11. Talsinki), the artist has already alluded to the fact that the trip across the Gulf of Finland and alcohol go together like hand in glove.2 While documenting what is now known as the pendulum-worker phenomenon aboard the Tallinn-Helsinki shipping route – tens of thousands of Estonians from construction workers to doctors work in Finland for better wages – he could not avoid the fact that the second largest target group for the wealthy Estonian ferry businessmen is Finnish alco-tourists. Studies show that as much as 80% of Finns return home from Estonia with crates of alcohol. Which of course doesn't mean that the Estonian pendulum-workers don't also think to take cheap alcohol with them to Finland, far from it. Everything seems to be almost governed by the laws of physics: due to the fact that the density of water is higher than that of alcohol, the spirit fumes always rise to the surface and people are "the furnaces" that break down the ethanol. Only empty cans and bottles are left.

The moral is therefore obvious: we drink too much. According to official data 10 litres of pure alcohol are consumed in Estonia per adult citizen, and a little under a fifth of the population say they don't drink at all. In Finland the number of litres of alcohol guzzled per person per year is slightly lower, but due to the alcohol excise tax having been considerably lower in Estonia for many long years, Finns come to Estonia to "tank up" as Estonians have only recently started doing in their southern neighbour, Latvia. In sporting terms this phenomenon is called a "vodka rally", which in addition to alcohol addiction is also fuelled by the miserly desire to get what you need and pay less. This is no secret nor is it news, in fact, every new study into the over-consumption of alcohol or opinion article on both sides of the Finnish Gulf signals a strange numbness and morally ambivalent resignation to the fact that at least at drinking we are the world champions.

However, the title of the project "Waiting for the Ship of Empties" also refers to the tragi-comedic hope of the disciples of the prophet Maltsvet, who in the 19th century waited for a "white ship" on the cliffs of Lasnamäe, to take them to the "promised land", until the Tsar's police disbanded them. Maltsvet may have been speaking about the Crimea, but never mind it: during the 20th century a cognitive shift took place in the collective memories of Estonians, which culminated in the conclusion that the free Western world begins with their northern neighbours. It had to be attained, it had to be reached and it could be reached across the sea. The museum pedagogues at Kumu can present Jaan Elken's canonized "Kajakas" (Seagull, 1982) as an example from deep in the Soviet era, longingly depicting the passenger boat Georg Ots, which served the Tallinn-Helsinki ferry route at that time, or Ando Keskküla's triptych "Tallinna sadam lõpetamata meremaaliga" (Port of Tallinn with an Unfinished Marine Painting, 1980/81). Koplimets' boat was initially supposed to be wind-powered and the sailing motif leads the viewer straight to the boat called Lennuk described in the Estonian national epic "Kalevipoeg", the painting of which from 1910 by Nikolai Triik quite naturally drew inspiration from Akseli Gallén-Kallela, the illustrator of the Finnish national epic "Kalevala". Kalevipoeg's Lennuk was also depicted among others by Johannes Võerahansu, Eduard Wiiralt and Kristjan Raud, who all belong to the cream of Estonian national art.

Therefore, Koplimets' boat also refers to a certain collective feeling of indebtedness, which Estonians feel towards the Finns – we have copied quite a few things from our northern neighbours.3 Or perhaps here a symbolic circle closes? Doctors, educated with money from the Estonian taxpayer, go to work in Finland to treat Finnish taxpayers for complications resulting from the over-consumption of alcohol, the money for which has been buried in the state budget of Estonia. In these terms, Aki Kaurismäki was a prophet on this already in one of his early films, the wonderfully absurd comedy "Calamari Union" (1985), in which a group of working class guys called Frank get up to all sorts of idiocy in Helsinki and in succession, drown in the waves of life, the final two doing so on a desperate boat trip to Estonia.4

 

Andreas Trossek is an art historian, who works as editor-in-chief for the art quarterly KUNST.EE.

 

1 Taara or Tharapita was apparently the name of the main deity in Estonia before Christianisation (comparable to Thor in Scandinavian and Germanic mythology). Nowadays, in contemporary Estonian "taara" is also used to mean containers and packaging, including empty cans and bottles, which are encumbered with a state deposit, which can be reclaimed by returning them to a recycling point or using recycling machines. Alas, I was unable to find a satisfactory answer to why empty alcohol containers and an ancient Estonian deity are signified by the same word.

2 This project by Koplimets reminds me quite explicitly of the solo exhibition "Tallinn-Helsinki-Stockholm" by Paco Ulman at Tallinn City Gallery in 2011, where the artist photographed interiors of the Baltic ferries whilst in port, i.e. without people, in the "non-place" character of this kind of transit zone.

3 A good illustrative example here would be the humorous joint exhibition in 2008 at the Tallinn Art Hall Gallery entitled "Boulderheart", for which Villu Plink and Silja Sarepuu transported a large rock, weighing a couple hundred kilograms, that had ended up on the shores of Estonia from Finland due to the ice thousands of years ago, back to Finland in a wheel barrow, because debt is its own stranger.

4 The influence of Aki Kaurismäki on re-independent Estonian film could be the subject of an article in itself. Let's limit ourselves here to an anecdote that if you see a film at an international film festival that looks like it could have been made in Finland, but isn't, then it has most probably been produced in Estonia.

 

 

Karel Koplimets

Karel Koplimets
Case No 13. Waiting for the Ship of Empties
2017
video documentation of a performance
Courtesy of the artist

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