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From Representation to Obliteration

Hunter Braithwaite (2/2014)

Hunter Braithwaite interviews Katrin Koskaru, a young Estonian painter living and working in London.

Warning! This interview was prepaid by the Estonian Contemporary Art Development Center (ECADC)


Can you tell me how you arrived at this point? You mention that you gather source material from newspapers, but have you worked with collage, found images or other types of appropriation?

My work has previously been figurative. I had a great interest in getting to know painting in its classical sense. I truly enjoyed painting as a craft and the science behind it all. I still do but it kept me all excited to that point where the representation became harder. How would painting fit into contemporary art? Painting has "died" many times in the last century, so how do you go on from there? Well, I don't have answers. But it's interesting enough for me to confront those questions.

How do you confront the questions surrounding painting’s alleged death?

I think it's interesting to deal with the information and references rather than being concerned with my own individual style.

You paint industrial or military structures that are relics of the 20th century. How does painting them complicate or define our relationship to them, especially as opposed to photography – say Paul Virilio's "Bunker Archeology" (1994) or Bernd and Hilla Becher’s documentation of industrial ruins?

Those military structures I'm interested in are not only relics of last century. Military power is stronger and bigger than ever. There are significant quantities of military training sites built around the world – high-tech sites. Their aim is to offer good and adequate military training. There are architectural features as complicated and as challenging as the real-life urban environment with its entire infrastructure. Many of those training sites employ actors to play "the enemy", so that the experience is even more real. Those sites are usually very well managed, hidden away and highly secured, so it is hard to get anywhere near the area. But there is a constant preparation for war on the one hand and a continuing reproduction of fear on the other. As an artist, I find it engaging how to respond to this information. I try to take my material apart and see if there is a way to enter the subject from different sites. And then by adding or taking some of it away, something different might occur.

But do you think painting these sites places them in history, as opposed to the other way that artists could respond to them? I'm thinking of Trevor Paglen's photographs – which use super high-tech lenses and attachments – of secret military sites. How does the form match the subject matter?

I don't think this is what painting has to do. At least I don't try to do that. Rather, I like to see painting as a tool to connect different spaces. I am trying to look for diverse relationships between things.

I enjoy how your pieces are displayed. For example, your painting of the Kreenholm Factory from your RCA show last year was propped up on cabinets. Can you speak about how you want the viewer to confront your paintings?

I try to see the exhibition space as a part of my work. I consider what is already there and how it accommodates the work. This particular space was a room built and used by a previous person as a darkroom for his video work. It was a nice asymmetrical room with carpets on the floor and a sitting area. When that exhibition was on I decided that I would like to exhibit my work there. But on the day I arrived with my paintings all the carpets had been torn out and the nice dimmed light that came from the video projector was gone. Also the wires that fed the projector had been torn out. You could just follow the white mark that had been left behind on the dark grey wall. The floors were full of nails and used black tape. The room looked destroyed. So everything I liked in that particular room had now been removed. But since I was interested in contemporary ruins it made sense to me to show my work there, the way it had been left. I got carried away with the atmosphere and added those cabinets and my paintings. I must say that later I tried to construct the same room or a similar atmosphere myself in a different building and I failed. So I learned my lesson. Each space needs to be approached differently.



Katrin Koskaru Fort J

Katrin Koskaru
Fort J
painting installation
Courtesy of the artist



Can you tell me about how the architecture of your youth in the USSR compares to your present location in London? One need only to read J. G. Ballard's brutalist triptych from the mid-‘70s ("Crash", 1973; "Concrete Island", 1974; "High Rise", 1975) to see that inhuman architecture knows no political boundaries.

London is a very interesting city to live in. I have resided in various parts in London. At the moment I live in Hackney. It is a borough of London that has a lot of housing estates. The neighbourhood where I grew up in Soviet Estonia was part of a big urban design development. It consisted mostly of five and nine story buildings. They all looked alike and were planned to cover huge areas in the 60s and 70s. I was born in Tartu, which is the second biggest city in Estonia. There were four districts planned in Tartu, but only two were finished. The main idea was to accommodate lots of people but also to have all the facilities on hand: schools, kindergartens, clinics and supermarkets. It was very much like the "High Rise" scenario, but in a slightly more horizontal way. The houses were made of concrete panels. This repetition of identical housing blocks and the fact that all the streets within a certain radius had the same name created quite a bizarre understanding of the space. Another interesting and distinctive thing about Tartu was that the city was closed to tourists due to its proximity to a Soviet Air Base. The military was very present, constantly creating an additional layer of atmosphere. On certain nights of the month, the army flew their planes over city, making a horrible noise. I think I was awake each of those nights.

And London, how does your work relate to that architecture?

I can't help but feel quite nostalgic and sympathetic towards those housing estates in Hackney, although they are very grim looking. But there is another newly developed area in London, which represents contemporary urban planning with all the security measurements taken into account. It's a big banking and business area called Canary Wharf. If you go for a walk around there in the normal working day then the experience can become quite intimidating. Already the fact that you are not wearing a suit makes you feel out of place. It's not really a place you can hang around. It's almost like you become a piece from a little architectural model and you've been directed safely through "the zone" without you making any unnecessary or spontaneous moves. You can feel security guard's breathing down your neck all the time.

Speaking of the Zone, Andrei Tarkovsky does stalk some of your paintings. Can you speak about that influence, or perhaps other cinematic realities you are drawn toward?

I like the sound in Béla Tarr movies – the sound that accompanies those long takes. It is often minimal but at the same time as expressive as the visual elements. His films are very atmospheric. Chris Marker's "Sans Soleil" (1983) and "La Jetée" (1962) are also striking.

Can we speak about how you reduce architecture to certain formal elements in your paintings? Similarly, your paintings move from more traditional landscape to showing abstracted and decontextualized elements of the same landscape. How do you see this move from representation to obliteration of the traditional view?

At the moment I find abstraction is the most interesting for me. But the starting point is not abstraction itself. My paintings always seems to start with architecture and finding information about how military power is reflected in the urban environment or in the landscape. I'll then develop the collected information into a specific work. I don't have an exact prescription of how the final work should look; I try to keep an open mind regarding medium and representation.

"Duga-3" (2013) depicts a part of a Soviet-era radio tower near Chernobyl, a site today synonymous with radioactive contamination. While researching the tower, I found that its radio signal was capable of interrupting Western radio and television broadcasts, and this interference led to its nickname "The Russian Woodpecker". Could you speak about contamination, distortion and interference in your paintings?

It is a project I'm still working on. But this radio tower is absolutely fantastic! Like subtle lace stretching from the ground towards the sky, it suggests so much drama and melancholy. The tower was not active for very long. Not only because of the contamination in the area but because technology changed and satellites came along and were much better at detecting the enemy. It's a great monument from the not-so-distant past to show Soviet military equipment. This contaminated area with this "woodpecker" and all the other deceased buildings looks very apocalyptic. I can't help but think that maybe this is a rare view of a future landscape. Before radar came along, here in the UK they built sound mirrors along the southeast coastline for the same purpose. I find those concrete structures to be equally impressive. They also didn't last long because of the rapid development of technology. Lots of old military training sites in the UK have been turned by the state into some kind of nature preserves – bird watching areas, for example. Sadly, when the Soviet army left Estonia they weren't really keen to preserve the environment or take care of the damage they had done to the landscape. They just poured concrete into underground bunkers just to cover their activity.


Hunter Braithwaite is a writer who lives in Miami. He has covered the arts in Shanghai, Paris, New York and Miami for various publications, including Art in America, Artforum Online, Modern Painters and the Wall Street Journal.


Katrin Koskaru (born in 1977) is a painter. She has studied art in Tartu, Tallinn (Estonian Academy of Arts) and London (Royal College of Art). In 2013 she received the Valerie Beston Studio Award. Her next upcoming solo show will be at Marlborough Fine Art, London. See more:

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