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Köler Prize, the Annual Spring Chariot Races

Liisa Kaljula (2/2014)

Liisa Kaljula writes about this year's exhibition of the Köler Prize nominees.

26. IV–15. VI 2014
Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM)
Nominees: Jass Kaselaan, Kiwa, Kärt Ojavee, Visible Solutions LLC, Johannes Säre.

"Art paintings make the same kind of joy through the eyes, as beautiful music through the ears, for those who understand such finer taste," wrote Johann Voldemar Jannsen about Johann Köler's paintings in the Postimees newspaper in 1871. For Estonians the art of painting was foreign and Johann Köler was better known at home as a national activist and defender of peasant's rights, than as a famous and successful Estonian artist living and working in the capital of the Tsarist empire. Furthermore, it was uncertain how we should call this "something" that was more concentrated than life, more beautiful, stranger, that could surprise or astound the viewer or make them gasp in wonder or vexation. The German word kunst was faced with a battle with the Finnish taide and the Estonian võide. Everything was still in flux. Things could have turned out quite differently. In the local cultural context, it had not yet been decided whether this strange, foreign, and primarily extravagantly useless phenomenon should be identified by a strange and foreign word. Kunst. Weil ich das kann. Võide. Sest ma võin. – Art. Because I can. And in Estonian this also means "I have the power or the force". Võidenäitus. Võidekriitika. Eesti Kaasaegse Võide Muuseum. VÕIDE.EE.

On the whole I agree with Janar Ala, who wrote in Postimees that the Köler Prize, in its fourth year, is a way to popularise contemporary art. A contest is something that speaks to the broader public and the annual Köler Prize is no less a spectacle than say, the chariot races of antiquity, where at one time there were five drivers with horse-drawn chariots and the competitors had to be fast, skilful, brave and dashing. And another thing – and maybe this is what makes the race difficult – points can be scored for competing graciously. For example, in the "Ekraaniproovid" (Screen Tests) documentary that accompanies the Köler Prize exhibition, the competitors are put in a situation where they have to talk about the other artist's work and empathise. Seeing art people speak approvingly about each other's work creates, after the "arrogance" of the nineties, a certain warm-hearted feeling that rattles the widely held image of contemporary art as lacking empathy, being self-centred and even possibly egomaniacal. All this is undoubtedly good for the image of contemporary art. Yet the Köler Prize, as an image-maker, also holds certain dangers. For example, the Köler Prize can become a playground game, where artists from the same school, connected to the same art centre and who think in roughly the same way about art are each in turn pushed to the centre. Strictly speaking the Köler Prize is of course a privately funded award and as such can quite freely be a social party game. However, if the ambition is to map and represent current local contemporary art, then it is important to be careful about retaining an openness. This year Jass Kaselaan and Kärt Ojaver's inclusion satisfy this requirement. While Johannes Säre, Kiwa and Visible Solutions LLC, who have already been closely connected with exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia, reduce this conditional indicator of openness.

Both the Köler Prize and Artishok Biennale (though in slightly different cycles) are taking place this year for the fourth time and both are alternative art events that with the continuing support of Estonian Cultural Endowment satisfy a role as youth exhibitions. If we take a look at the list of artists who have taken part in these two exhibitions, then the Köler Prize seems to deal more with artists who have, to some extent, already proven themselves. For example, last year's winner Jaanus Samma was selected this year to represent Estonia at the next Venice Biennale. Briefly, and to make a broad generalisation, the Köler Prize prefers artist practices with dominant genes, while at the Artishok Biennale artists with non-dominant genes are also considered exciting. The fact that internationally well-known artists such as Marko Mäetamm and Marge Monko, both previous Köler Prize nominees, have not been winners is nevertheless an indication that the organisers want to give a push start to artists whose lives would be changed.

This time it is the turn of Jass Kaselaan, Kiwa, Kärt Ojavee, Johannes Säre and Visible Solutions LLC, and as ever, looking at the whole, it seems that within this competition format the artists with a more extrovert art practice have the advantage. It cannot be helped if Jass Kaselaan comes crashing down in the middle of the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia with impressive monumental works, so that everything shakes and the plaster falls from the walls. After such a crash it is virtually impossible to remain sensitive towards Kärt Ojaver's minimalist work, which stands right next door. A work where the viewer can half-tactically, half-virtually take care of a man-made stone that has been taken into the forest or a moss-covered stone that has been brought into the museum. Of the artists on show, Johannes Säre is most clearly associated with the contemporary metamodernist approach, where a clean modernist aesthetic is mixed with a surprising and humorous moment, often conveyed by technology. Kiwa brings a video potpourri from his "nothingology" collection, where a pseudo-Žižek rap-like refrain "sometimes-doing-nothing-is-the-most-violent-thing-to-do" haunts echoingly, and also his earlier landscapes that are translated into "error" language and which are irritatingly superficial. Spatially, Visible Solutions' pavilions have impact, but their sarcastic/intellectual position could create an impediment in the context of this prize, because a prize is after all a "big narrative".


Jass Kaselaan The Square of Dolls

Jass Kaselaan
The Square of Dolls
Exhibition view at EKKM
Courtesy of the artist


I actually think prizes are appropriate in contemporary art, and for some time now it has been strange in public spheres to come across the modernist myth of the suffering genius, who can only manage to create great and meaningful works in extreme situations. Recognition, when it comes at the right time; that is, neither undeservedly early nor unappreciatedly late, is necessary for artists because on the whole they do not work only for themselves. And if anyone claims that Estonians are not ambitious by nature, then it was, I think, Rudolf Paris, according to whom everyone in the Noor-Eesti generation wanted to become a wrestler, a weightlifter, famous in art or on the stage – for young city people of the time it did not really matter what – as long as he/she became world famous!


Liisa Kaljula is an art historian, curator and critic, and works in the painting collection at the Estonian Art Museum.

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