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How to Clear the History of Art from Traumatic Metaphors

Heie Treier (4/2012)

Heie Treier delivers her diagnosis concerning the context, sources and impact of 1990s art scandals in Estonia, whose influence is still felt among the general public and the art world.

 

The 1990s have left a traumatic trace in the experience of the art world, and not only in Estonia. It was a period of infancy for our contemporary art as we now understand it – a period whose traumas have haunted our collective subconscious for years. The curator of the exhibition "HUH? PHOOEY! YUCK! OH! WOW! Classics of Estonian Contemporary Art" for the "ART IST KUKU NU UT" art festival in Tartu, Rael Artel, who previously focused on young artists, unexpectedly decided to take on "not her own artists" but those born earlier. In hindsight it seems logical still that she was motivated by young artists and the collective psychotraumas they inherited against their will. From the 1990s, Artel dug up two particularly traumatic works associated with a series of art scandals in society, and an internationally successful video. Each work is accompanied by a cloud of documents, newspaper clippings and comparative material, a selection of which was on display at the exhibition.

As curator, Artel commissioned commentaries on the traumatic works from two younger artists and a duo. The result was three pairings: Jaan Toomik’s installation "15. mai–1. juuni 1992" (15 May–1 June 1992, 1992) and Flo Kasearu’s installation and video "Creative Estonia" (2012); Kai Kaljo's video "Luuser" (Loser, 1997) and Anna-Stina Treumund’s video "Luuser 2011" (2011); and finally, Raul Meel's mixed media series "Eesti apokriivad" (Estonian Apocrypha, 1997) and the audio installation "Eesti rapsoodia" (Estonian Rhapsody, 2012) by the duo Johnson & Johnson. As the location for the exhibition, Tartu Art Museum is suggestive of an academic atmosphere, where passions have been tuned down. The anti-intellectual title "HUH? PHOOEY! YUCK! OH! WOW!" addresses the "non-art audience" and emphasizes the wishful thinking that all traumas should have a "happy end". This article continues the discussion after reading the interviews and texts in the Estonian and English versions of the exhibition catalogue. For me, three crucial issues arise: analysis from the perspective of the 1990s, analysis from the perspective of the present, and finally, "therapy".

How To Explain Jaan Toomik To A Dog
oil on canvas, Ø 120
2008
private collection of Māris Vītols & Irina Vītola

 

Analysis from the perspective of the 1990s

In retrospect, the art scandals of the 1990s, rather than being provocative acts intentionally staged by curators or artists, were actually media scandals (in contrast to, for example, the infamous 2001 mock exhibition "Young British Art" at Tallinn Art Hall, which was a manifesto of the new generation of the 21st century). Background: As art from the Soviet era had been painting-centred, a different logic was required in order to engage with video, installation and other new forms as they took centre stage in the 1990s. There was no up-to-date art education in the schools, no continuing education for artists and so on.

The mass media logic of scandal is best illustrated by the Toomik case, which is summarised well in the "HUH? PHOOEY! YUCK! OH! WOW!" catalogue. At the time of its presentation in 1992, a work of art made of excrement was not scandalous. The installation only became a scandal in 1995 when it was mediated by the weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress. Established during the capitalist independence period, the popular weekly paper was, and continues to be, owned by author and "media mogul" Hans H. Luik, at whose initiative the culture desk at Eesti Ekspress developed a new type of cultural journalism. The mentality of the Eesti Ekspress culture desk and that of the venerable cultural weekly Sirp were like day and night; the opposition to Sirp was intentional. It was in fact objectively an altogether new way of writing about culture, a much more aggressive, colourful and sharp approach, where humour was sometimes considered more important than factual accuracy. It should perhaps be described as postmodernist (cultural) journalism.

In the 1990s, there was also a hangover from the sudden freedom of speech following the departure of the censorship of Soviet journalism. Everyone said what they wanted and words were cheap – it seemed that they made no difference. Through Eesti Ekspress, Toomik and the art of his contemporaries generally got stuck with the "jar of shit" metaphor, which came to signify everything that seemed incomprehensible or disturbing in exhibitions. Similarly, the media labelled the feminist artist Mare Tralla with the abusive phrase "ilge naisterahvas" (disgusting woman), which also stuck, and which Tralla skilfully transformed into a positive trademark through her work. By and large, however, only now in 2012, do we understand how violent (media) definitions can be important and may turn into a hindrance to the development of the cultural sphere for a small country.

In the international context, there was no shortage of scandals in Western art in the 1990s either, which was one of the most cynical decades in recent history. Art-based media scandals were generated both by Young British Artists (YBA) and companies like United Colours of Benetton. In Russia, the performance artists Oleg Kulik and Alexander Brener were fuelling passions, while in the US Andres Serrano was infuriating people. And yet, the substance of the scandals in Estonia was different to those in other countries. Here, there was the national flag, nationalism and the material of art (i.e. art as something other than painting); elsewhere, religion, porn, sodomy, paedophilia, criminality (topics, which in part arrived in Estonian art with the beginning of the 21st century).

The gulf between the artists and the public in the 1990s was probably also due to the finance model. Back then, new art in Estonia was not supported by the tax-payer or the state (let alone auctions), but the Hungarian-American business magnate and philanthropist George Soros from his New York headquarters. Similarly, the YBA artists in London were funded by the advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. This may have been a possible source of anger against the artists, who seemed to lack ties with the "local".

At the same time, there appears to be a historical symmetry here. With the arrival of the postmodernist model at the end of the 20th century, the same things that occurred with the arrival of the modernist model at the beginning of the century repeated. Recall the "media scandal" of the 1919 panoramic exhibition – an event that began with the best intentions but led to three key artists, Ants Laikmaa, Nikolai Triik and Kristjan Raud, being deliberately jeered by the Siuru authors and leaving the art scene. Tartu Art Museum restored the 1919 panoramic exhibition in 1999, stressing the significance of the original exhibition in its time. Back then, the only artist to remain on his feet and go on to do his best work was Kristjan Raud. I experienced a broadly similar hatred from the media when curating the exhibition "Valiku vabadus" (Freedom of Choice) with Anu Liivak at the Tallinn Art Hall in 1998, compiled again with the best intentions to present contemporary success stories of an independent Estonia. Like "mottoes" for the exhibition, we displayed "Luuser" by Kai Kaljo and "Eesti apokriivad" by Raul Meel. Incidentally, Meel had just received an important state award, which was to be followed by his "roller coaster ride" in the media.

What is more, the personal relationships in the 1990s Estonian art world were very sharp, intense, pedal-to-the-floor. At the same time, the modernist idea of a "universal" and unique "truth" had survived, with everyone in the art world imagining that their own understanding alone was "true". The more the interest groups in the art world became alienated from each other, the more fervently they wrote articles about each other in the print media. So communication with each other carried over into the media and the source of the scandals was repeatedly the same – "my people" not the "others". The 1990s media was extremely focused on art. The more the artists were dealt abuse, the better the mass media felt. Regrettably, there was a lack of unanimity even within Estonian cultural circles. Respectable writers tended to join the abusers.

Although there is no direct connection here, it is astonishing that as soon as George Soros withdrew his funding from the art field at the end of the century, coverage of art in the local media dropped. Over time, the newspapers got rid of art editors and the cultural pages filled with performing arts for large audiences: film, theatre, music. The same pattern appeared in the UK – as Saatchi withdrew from actively promoting the YBA generation, large-scale national and international art scandals disappeared.

 

Analysis from the perspective of the present

The artists chosen by the curators of "HUH? PHOOEY! YUCK! OH! WOW!" (and the inclusion of works by young artists) seems to promote and cement the interpretation that a whole decade of art history was defined by media scandal. This interpretation is not accurate – the fundamental problems of 1990s art lay elsewhere altogether. It was a period of seeking new goals for art at a time when the economy, politics, philosophy, culture and other such areas were building up a new body, as it were; it was a decade of intensive learning. The scandals were an "added bonus" that continue to cause artists to suffer even today.

It was shocking to hear Raul Meel’s confession in an artist talk on the opening day of the exhibition: the audience learned that the "Eesti apokriivad" scandal in 1998 had had far-reaching consequences for him, regarding both finances and personal relationships at a very high level. A former member of the Reform Party, the artist distanced himself from politics and official state functions since then. Estonia’s first president, Lennart Meri, only forgave him for making "Eesti apokriivad" on his death-bed. Still, the artist has no regrets today because he had had a message for the public.

In the eyes of the public, however, the scandals came to define the art world as a whole. Within the broader cultural sphere, artists experienced a degree of isolation, and this caused obstacles to the building of the Kumu art museum, which fortunately were not insurmountable. But it is a significant fact that after the Raul Meel incident (with Meel receiving a state award in 1998 and being accused by the media in the same year), artists have been collectively punished to the extent that all through the 2000s they were denied several important cultural awards by the state. The Young Cultural Figure of the Year Award, presented by the president of Estonia, was first presented to an artist only in 2012, when it was received by the jewellery artist Tanel Veenre. Coverage of art in the media has fallen drastically, with negative news and artists’ obituaries rather than awards or creative achievements making it into the news. I would add to this list the demolition of the old building of the Estonian Academy of Arts in 2010 with the hope of building a new one, an effort which, however, has been beset with unexpected obstacles and confusion. For some reason, young Estonian artists of the 00s (with the exception of Külli K. Kaats in 2004) also dropped out of sight for the curators of the "Manifesta" contemporary art biennale.

The scandals also caused micro-ripples in people's minds. There were active critics of contemporary art who sharply pulled away from the field. (With this in mind, reading the fairly traumatic article "Eesti kujutav kunst – põranda alla?!" (Estonian figurative art—going underground?!) by Raoul Kurvitz in Postimees on 6 March 1998, one gets the feeling that the article had precisely this outcome.) After the 1998 exhibition "Valiku vabadus" at Tallinn Art Hall and the 2000 show "Duchamp's Suitcase" at Arnolfini in Bristol, I myself, for example, made a very conscious decision to withdraw from curating exhibitions. The list of such withdrawals could probably be continued.

The logic of the postmodernist model – "no consensus!" and the aspect of nihilism – has turned out to be a particularly sharp spike in the Estonian art world, as anyone that chooses a direction that is different from the ideal in the mind of the speaker is punished for it. This is superbly illustrated by the old newspaper clippings displayed in the exhibition "HUH? PHOOEY! YUCK! OH! WOW!". A good example is a survey conducted among colleagues by the art editor of the cultural newspaper Sirp and printed on 6 March 1998 under the title "Monumendid Eesti Vabariigile" (Monuments to the Republic of Estonia). The editor asked leading critics and artists how they would have curated the exhibition "Freedom of Choice", expecting a negative assessment of the whole exhibition. What emerges from the mass of text is that five out of the six art critics had ideal models for the exhibition, which differed from the actual one and from each other. No one, however, realised that the principle was to highlight the success stories of 1990s Estonian art and to increase its potential audience, to create a good feeling within the local art world.

"HUH? PHOOEY! YUCK! OH! WOW!" then, returned to the "scene of the crime" and asked the question: How do we relate to these old scandals today? While Jaan Toomik, Kai Kaljo and Raul Meel were seeking radical "honesty" and "documentarity" in the 1990s, we are surprised that the critical message of the works has not lost its freshness in 2012, rather the opposite. Still, as a recycling of the language of art, the model would probably no longer work today. In the exhibition, we see that the young artists of today have given the 1990s works an ironic twist; as if using a documentary description of reality, which, however, is completely fake on the inside. Now Flo Kasearu in her video "documents" the production of jars – decorated on the outside but content-wise empty – as a metaphor of our contemporary art. Anna-Stina Treumund "documents" macho attitudes, presenting them "autobiographically" as describing a hetero male. The sound art by the duo Johnson & Johnson plays with local and international relevance, presenting them through the relationship of natives and colonists.

 

"Therapy"

"HUH? PHOOEY! YUCK! OH! WOW!" also has a therapeutic effect. As therapeutic as the video by Marina Abramović (displayed in the same rooms of the Tartu Art Museum during last year's "ART IST KUKU NU UT" festival), where the artist holds a white flag while sitting on a white war-horse with her back held straight.

The key question in 2012 is: Will this exhibition change anything? Can contemporary art on Estonian soil be cleared of the "jar of shit" connotation? And if so, how? In the editorial for the previous issue of KUNST.EE (2012/3), Andreas Trossek asks language experts to explain the use of the word "purkisittuja" (someone who shits in a jar). We are told that it is a vulgar phrase. On 28 September, this fresh piece of news was picked up right away by Eesti Ekspress. A consensus was reached by KUNST.EE and Eesti Ekspress: "Please, don’t use this word any more." This sentence should be framed in gold and hung up where everyone can see it.

On the other hand, it could also be a lesson for the Estonian art world – if you do not respect each other among your own ranks, then society too will see no reason to respect you. A call on the art world for mutual forgiveness and tolerance should also be framed in gold.

Let us dream on. The permanent exhibition presenting the art of the 1990s and the 2000s at Kumu will be wisely selected. The Estonian Academy of Arts will have its new building. The public will be educated about contemporary art at school. Cultural politics will rush to help. And the media will understand their mistake and correct it.

 

Heie Treier is docent in Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts, Tallinn University. She was editor-in-chief of kunst.ee for 2000–2008 and art editor of the weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress for 1998–2000.

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