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A man like an orchestra

Mari-Liis Rebane (4/2018)

Mari-Liis Rebane writes about the work of Kaarel Kurismaa, who is known as the father of Estonian kinetic and sound art, in the retrospective exhibition "Kaarel Kurismaa – Yellow Light Orchestra".


14. IX 2018–23. II 2019
Kumu Art Museum, 4th Floor, Wing B
Curators: Ragne Soosalu, Annika Räim


The museum doors open before me like jaws and invite me into a grand, dark space. On a giant pillar little cupids proudly greet me with trumpets and I see an enticingly lit altar with Venus-like figures. Chalky hands dance around a finger-length elf. As I fixate on this scene, surrounded by the structures of the museum, I feel like a tiny Thumbelina held in Pekka Vapaavuori's (Kumu architect – Ed.) hand.

From somewhere I hear the rumble of motors and my eye is caught by a pulsating light-object that blinks like a lighthouse inviting me down the corridor. "Come here, come here" the blue lighthouse seems to signal, and echoing sounds call to me from afar. In the distance, little motors and components are constructing whirring patterns of time. It seems that the place I have arrived is a land called Kurisland*.


Kinetic connection with oneself

"Eternity stands next to every telephone / And wants to make contact with itself," says Ilmar Laaban (1921–2000) in his poem "Mikrokosmos" (Microcosmos).1 In amongst Kurismaa's works one gets the feeling of a Lewis Carroll-like world, where one reality can easily be exchanged for another – the variations in scale that the artist works with contribute to this feeling. Tiny objects alongside huge ones, dolls that fit on your palm side by side with life-size mannequins ("Härjapõlvlane" (Dwarf), 1974/1996) and little models of trams from animated films ("Trammivasikas" (Tram Calf), 1983) suddenly expand into large sculptures in the public space ("Tallinna trammi objekt" (Tallinn Tram Object), 1993).

The general tone of the exhibition is pleasantly mysterious – visitors to the exhibition are greeted by reddish walls that surround objects that have a soft geometry and are lit using festive lighting, which seems to stop time and casts an enchantment over the viewer so they become part of the artist's world. In Kurismaa's work there is a distinctive stylistically refined unity – an environment not comprised of single objects, but which forms an entire universe of its own.

It seems to me that Kaarel Kurismaa's machine-like objects seek connection primarily with themselves. This connection is sought through a medium that in its essence seems to have a precondition for connection and communication. Telephone, radio, film – in all cases they are mechanisms of communication that require a "receiver" somewhere. There is someone somewhere who notices and hears.

As an artist Kurismaa is known to unite platforms and one might say that because of this his work has extended everywhere that was at all possible for an educated, experiment-loving artist to extend his reach in the 1970s. There were many opportunities for exploration, but opportunities for self-expression were limited. Kurismaa's work combines design, science, mechanics, architecture, sound and film and also a performative approach. One might claim that Kurismaa's work also touches upon theatre because, as Ragne Soosalu, one of the exhibition curators mentions, his objects are as if they were "staged". A man like an orchestra.


An inventor of structures and a visual storyteller

In spite of an absurdist element, Kurismaa's works are carefully structured – there is always a certain compositional structure that maintains an architectural tension in the work. In a way, Kurismaa's works are, in today's terms, both "retro" in the sense of being reminiscent of 1970s–1980s industrial design, and "futurist" in terms of their unusual inventiveness. The clean forms in his work have the effect of a moderate sterility, and this maintains a certain contact with techno-utopianism.

In an interview with Kaire Nurk, Kurismaa describes how all available material at that time was sourced from Soviet industrial design – Salvo, Estoplast, Norma2 – and was collected with the help of friends because there wasn't much else in the way of source material for readymade art. There is probably something of the inventor in him and he had a passion to break free from Soviet mass-produced objects and give them a new aesthetic value and function that was rich in fantasy. The word "avant-garde", which can be applied to Kurismaa's work, in the Estonian cultural space at that time meant everything that was different or underground.

Kurismaa's interest in creating worlds is also apparent in the period when he worked at the film studio Tallinnfilm. Even though his career as a director of animation films was short-lived and possibly does not have much significance in his work as a whole, the medium of animation can nonetheless be considered a key pursuit of artists – the dynamism and multi-layering that animation allows was for artists at that time clearly a positive challenge. Kurismaa can also be considered to be one of the pioneers, an example for the next generation of directors of animated films who shaped the future of Estonian animation. In the exhibition, there are three animations which are perhaps as important for their content as they are noteworthy as an artistic statement in relation to Kurismaa's work. In a sense, animation provided him with the opportunity and freedom to apply his experiments to materials, forms and architectural models, and express his interest in the movement of objects.

The nature of moving objects – this is precisely the essence that characterises Kurismaa's work. And everything that moves, also makes sound.


In the garden of dripping sounds

As I move through the rooms I comes across "Dwarf". Having walked past a stepped plinth with the work "Pürgimus" (Aspiration, 1975) and the objects that decorated the concert stage of the progressive rock band Mess, I finally reach the place which beckoned me from the entrance, into the centre of a labyrinth of sounds. I have arrived at my favourite spot on this journey – the garden of mechanical sounds.

Raivo Kelomees has remarked on the strong impact of the mood in "Gertrud ja Heldur vihmas" (Gertrud and Heldur in the Rain, 1995), a work accompanied by a receding ticking sound and suggestive of the freshness and calm after rainfall. He says, "it is possible that in Estonian art there is no comparable technological artwork that is so emotionally affecting".3

On the floor, little "cranes" with necks made of drumsticks move with electronic motors and hit their heads on metal plates to make sounds that vary in intensity – sometimes sharp, sometimes dull. "Intermezzo", shown for the first time in 1997 at the NYYD festival under the artistic directorship of Erkki-Sven Tüür, has a robust simplicity and nakedness that still has a contemporary feel to it. Next to these, "Helisev hall" (Ringing Grey, 2008) enters into a dialogue with the little cranes and another work, "Alma raudtee" (Alma's Railway/Underground Railway, 1997) with a sound made using pipes imitating the sound of railway tracks also enters the discussion. From time to time "Viiking radio" (Viking radio, 2001–2003) captures our attention as it emits sighs from a kinetic sound-object that was attached to the escalator of the Tallinn Post Office (1982, escalator no longer exists) and which I only remember as a silent sculpture. Each work in the orchestra plays its own role – the score follows the patterns programmed into the objects, but also allows random sounds to enter. Objects that have the ability to make sound all speak in the "language of Kurisland".



Kaarel Kurismaa
Sound Dripping Device
Sound object, 103 x 103 x 58 cm
Art Museum of Estonia




Trust and curiosity

The key in Kurismaa's case is curiosity and openness, and the exhibition proves this has not diminished over the years. For me this was evident from a personal experience at the end of 2016, when as a master's student in the Department of New Media I was fortunate enough to take part in "Timer", a group exhibition at the Tallinn Art Hall Gallery, which invariably had the work of Kaarel Kurismaa on centre stage.4 Kurismaa was in no way unmoved by the work of the new generation. The love of play hovered above him, friendly like the cupids in "Amori sambal" (Amor Pillar, 1973) and his lively antenna of curiosity reached as high as the "Põhja Kõrgepingevõrkude objekt" (Northern High Voltage Network Object, 1981).

Kurismaa was way ahead of us – his work stood ready, leaning against the walls, while our minds were still grappling with the concept. But he was ready to think along with us. I remember how one of the first ideas that I suggested as part of the exhibition concept was about repurposing slot machines, and how in our next meeting Kurismaa had brought inspiring postcards of old-fashioned musical boxes and early slot machines that his wife Mari had brought from abroad.

Now is the moment to mention Kaarel Kurismaa's wife, the talented artist and interior designer, Mari Kurismaa. This is a collaboration where can see indication of complementing each other to make a whole. Compatibility in certain artistic aesthetics can also be seen when we look at each artist's work separately. It is not for nothing that they have expressed their compatibility as artists and partners in their collaborative works. Maybe Kurismaa's work is the way it is because of this personal background strength, which is expressed in their relationship?

Kaarel Kurismaa's work is always harmonious and his sense of the absurd expresses an encouraging warmth and trust in his surroundings. It is as if he is holding a machine-like technological dream against a warm bloodstream, or is warming ice-cold metal in warm soft hands. Kurismaa's work has balance; it is cyclical and dynamic. Over the years Kaarel Kurismaa has not lost his sense of direction and he has moved, compass in hand steadily on course, with full awareness and keeping to his own path.


* In Estonian maa, the ending of Kurismaa's name, means land. (Translator's note.)

1 Ilmar Laaban, Mikrokosmos. – Ankruketi lõpp on laulu algus [1946]. Tartu: Ilmamaa, 2008.

2 Kaire Nurk, Pürgimus. – KUNST.EE 2010, No 1–2, pp 41–47.

3 Raivo Kelomees, Postmateriaalsus kunstis: indeterministlik kunstipraktika ja mittemateriaalne kunst. Tallinn: Eesti Kunstiakadeemia, 2009, p 147.

4 The curator Tamara Luuk had a vision of an exhibition that was inspired by the playful and free, life-affirming (a term, which in the various texts about Kurismaa's work, has many a time caught my eye) work of Kaarel Kurismaa, and which would be united by a sound-art platform. Together with Karl Saks, as representatives of the young generation and students of Raul Keller, we were able to take part in this opportunity.

Mari-Liis Rebane graduated from the Master's Programme in New Media at the Estonian Academy of Arts with a focus on sound art. Prior to that she studied animation.

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