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Fresh issue still on sale! "I will leave this page open, looks like it's not loading. Let me know when it's working again." – Taavi Eelmaa & InferKit, "Triaad" (4/2022)

 

Andy Warhol’s second coming to Estonia

Andreas Trossek (3/2016)

Andreas Trossek ponders why import is always important for small countries like Estonia.



"Some tribes, however, on the coast of the Baltic, acknowledged the authority of kings, though without relinquishing the rights of men."
Edward Gibbon, "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" (1825)*

 

I

On 20 August this year, 25 years had passed since Estonia had regained its independence, which had then been quickly followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the occasion of this national anniversary, one local newspaper enthusiastically reported that the first generation of Estonians, who apparently do not know how to correctly pronounce the initialism ESSR have now grown up. And like all good headlines (N.B. In the media industry headlines do not always necessarily need to be true.), this structure created an ideal auditorium: those who instinctively remember that it stands for Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, and probably look tenderly at the young, much as one would look at kittens or puppies. The cute-o-meter automatically overloads, because half a century of occupation, in other words, Estonia's Soviet past, will probably only be truly forgotten when the average young Estonian does not differ from the average young American in regard to knowing who Joseph Stalin was or why people about to be deported to Siberia did not call the police.

By the same token, these people most likely know both now and in 25 years' time who was, for example, Andy Warhol – a leading figure in American Pop Art, as important for the second half of the 20th century as Picasso was for the first.

 

II

So far there have been two Andy Warhol retrospective exhibitions in re-independent Estonia. The first Warhol retrospective took place in Tallinn at the Rotermann Salt Storage in late 2000/early 2001. At that time, from 12 December to 23 January, these rooms were under the control of the Art Museum of Estonia; today the building is occupied, literally from the cellar to the roof, by the Museum of Estonian Architecture. There were close to 21,000 visitors to the exhibition, which in the Estonian museum system at that time was a record. The second Warhol retrospective took place this year in the Pärnu Museum from 14 July to 14 August. There were nearly 6,000 visitors – on average two to three hundred visitors per day. So the first record remained unbroken, but in the Estonian context it was nevertheless a considerable number.

Having said that, it is actually difficult to compare Warhol's first and second coming to Estonia, which are separated by nearly 15 years. Firstly, because the former was put together from numerously reproduced paintings and prints, which brought Warhol world fame, whereas the retrospective this year exhibited his films, which are less known. Secondly, the first exhibition was organised by the US Department of State with work from the Warhol Museum collection in Warhol's hometown, Pittsburgh, and it toured a dozen Eastern European countries, while the recent exhibition was staged essentially on the initiative of private individuals (curator Marian Kivila and artist Sandra Jõgeva). Thirdly, Tallinn is not Pärnu – the registered number of inhabitants alone is ten times greater in the capital.

Last but not least, Estonia is also no longer the same country it was 15 years ago. To be honest we are no longer as poor or such uneducated "barbarians", nor as far behind "those people in the West" in our standard of living. Life has simply become more joyous, comrades. Import no longer means what it once used to, either. We have, figuratively speaking, all been to New York at least once and bought those same tins of Campbell's soup, with their reference to you-know-who, as souvenirs for those at home. Estonia, which gained its independence in 1918 and then re-gained it in 1991, has been a member of the European Union since 2004, which means that Estonians enjoy visa-free travel and can do business almost anywhere. (The affect of Brexit, the most important acronym on the political landscape in 2016, on Eastern Europe will not be clear for some time.) Since 2004, Estonia has also been a member of the North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which means that the umbrella of NATO protects Estonia from the anger of the many times Russian president Vladimir Putin, who called the collapse of the Soviet Union as the "greatest catastrophe of the 20th century". So, we have nothing to fear as long as "those in the West" have not forgotten how to pronounce the two words "cold war".

 

III

This year also the 2nd part of the 6th volume in the series "History of Estonian Art", which addresses the post-war period, was published in Tallinn on 14 July. It is a very important book. A number of known and lesser-known local art historians have dealt with different art manifestations from the "golden sixties", which followed Stalinism, right through to re-independence.

Quite correctly it has been said that a book should not be judged by its cover, but I still do. The cover has a black and white print by the emeritus professor Leonhard Lapin, who this year had his 100th solo exhibition. The print is from his short but very productive pop art influenced "hippy period" in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Pop art generally had a strong influence on and unified the generation of Estonian artists born in the 1940s – in spite of the paradox that they lived in the Soviet Union behind the iron curtain. A number of groups were formed and young artists held semi-legal exhibitions: ANK '64, Visarid, SOUP '69. One of Lapin's most well-known works from this period is the black and white SOUP '69 exhibition poster showing a Campbell's soup can – it has been opened with a tin opener and above it hovers a teaspoon. Slurp! But what does it all mean? Campbell's products were not sold in Tallinn at that time – of that we can be quite sure.

 

 

Lapin_Original poster for SOUP'69

Leonhard Lapin
Original poster for SOUP'69
1969
indian ink on paper, 61,2x32,3 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Art
Museum of Estonia
Photo by Stanislav Stepashko

 

 

The first thing that is clear in the comparison between Warhol's and Lapin's soup can images is that one is coloured and the other black and white. One is earlier, the other later. One is like an advertising poster, the other like a caricature of that same poster. One looks like it just came off the press, the other looks like the result of a hand-drawn and adjusted copy of a poor quality reproduction. One is like an original, the other a mutation. In any case this process could be described as import, albeit an intentionally distorted import.

Unfortunately, I have only managed to read fragments here and there of this nearly 500-page art history book. Yet even a cursory glance inevitably reveals two a priori principles: 1) local art history is mainly based on political history; 2) local art history is based on imported terms, with the endeavour of synchronising them, on the one hand, with local political history, and on the other, with developments beyond the iron curtain, to which Estonians had no access, and yet despite this they collectively felt like they essentially belonged. "Remain Estonian, but also become European!" was the call by Gustav Suits published in 1905 and since then often quoted in varying contexts.

Consequently, today there is a narrative about post-war Estonian art, which regardless of the political restrictions, managed to keep pretty well in step with the free world, or only slightly behind it, without being squashed by the communist party chain of command. The prescribed variables that featured in this equation were import and chronological lag (as an unavoidable feature of import), but which was redeemed by the nationalist insubordination to the ideological imperatives of the Soviet empire. An important, though less dominant factor, was the artist's "originality", which was expressed through the idea that the import should not simply be a (pirate) copy, but had to contain, whether intentionally or not, an "accident" by the artist, a mistake in translation, an interpretation, a deviation, a mutation or something similar. So import was, and remains in a small nation like Estonia, a fairly delicate game: a copy that is too good would be scary, like an assault by a clone army; on the other hand, a reference that is confused or too late, would just get lost in the act of communication.

If one would generalise a little, then this many-pronged yet actually quite simple narrative – that if you import something from the metropolis, then there must be a reason for it in the village – is still alive and kicking even today. For example, this summer, I read an interesting newspaper review about Anu Vahtra, a young artist, who has recently gained recognition mainly for site-specific installations, and who on this occasion had conceptually shifted the usual spatial affects in Hobusepea and Draakon galleries. In other words she exhibited these rooms as though they were "empty", the visual conditions of the clean white cube, although those familiar with these two prominent Tallinn gallery spaces probably noticed that the Hobusepea gallery stair rail had been temporarily placed in Draakon Gallery and that a fragment of Draakon Gallery's ceiling now covered the hole where the stair rail used to be in Hobusepea Gallery. The review firstly mentioned that in the "free West" there are plenty of examples of similar approaches and these were done many decades previously, the most obvious being Michael Asher. So, a late import? No, not so. The reviewer solved the problem elegantly: the young artist, within the current context of dominating art politics continues to be radical, because with a gesture such as this, she refuses to produce more "art blobs", empty "aestheticized rubbish" that you could sell on art fairs.

As such an import is always also the creation of a context and sometimes out of this process new meanings can be born, but sometimes not. Anyway, we can boldly predict that from the verbal arsenal of local artists, defensive slogans in the style of, "Yes, essentially the same things were done in Berlin/London/New York a while ago, but here in Estonia I was the first! And actually I did it differently as well, you know!" will not yet disappear.

 

IV

One word commonly used during the Soviet period, which is connected with import and whose meaning 25-year old Estonians today evidently no longer really understand, is deficit. In the "deficit economy" foreign imported goods were, in retrospect, of unbelievable importance. Stories of Western jeans or runners, which on the black market cost more than a month's wage, are part of the treasury of Soviet folklore across the Eastern bloc. Economic causes were undoubtedly among the collective processes that ended in the collapse of the empire. If the Soviet Union had developed into something like modern-day China, where communism and capitalism appear to form some strange symbiosis, then Estonians in the 21st century would be travelling to Moscow to see the Warhol retrospectives and not Tallinn or Pärnu – of that we can be sure. (And for example this quarterly would only be in Russian and not jointly in Estonian and English.)

Having said that, import as a keyword in re-independent Estonia definitely exists, although it most likely relates less and less to the word deficit. In the Art Museum of Estonia's new main building, Kumu, which opened to the public in 2006, there is a special position for costly international exhibitions; no museum can operate seriously without an import component. Moreover, Kumu knows very well that in the current museum landscape, which has undergone innumerable self-reflective post-modernist theoretical turns, they can depend on public interest if they show not only modernist classics (Joan Miró, 2008, 25 000 visitors), but also vintage fashion and historical costumes (Aleksandr Vassiljev, 2015, 44 000 visitors) – visitors still gather in their thousands if the brand is famous enough. Stylish imported exhibitions will always be shown ¬– there will always be a market for them.

Naturally, there have also been many exhibitions in Estonia starring artists who in one period or another made a name for themselves in the free world and who had to be imported back home at some stage. For example, Kalev Mark Kostabi born to an Estonian refugee family, who – maybe one can be so arrogant as to say – clearly would not have achieved success in the 1980s in New York if it were not for Warhol. Or Raymond Pettibon, with Estonian roots on his mother's side, who at first glance is like a harsher punk era and more poetic version of Roy Lichtenstein. Or for example, Ilon Wikland, who became famous in Sweden as the illustrator of Astrid Lindgren's books. Or Edmund Valtman the only Estonian Pulitzer Prize winner.

 

V

Of course there are always exceptions. Sometimes import and its antonym export are so intertwined that it is difficult to determine which category something belongs to.

For example, next year Estonia will be represented at the International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia, by Katja Novitskova, a young artist born in Estonia, but who has gained recognition as one of the rising stars of post-internet art on the Berlin and Amsterdam art scenes, and whose work has recently been shown in the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). Estonia has been participating officially in the Venice Biennale since 1997, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that until now the Estonian pavilion has been seen as a one-way launch pad for artists who, having made a career locally, now hope to make a name at the international level in the wake of the biennale, if they are lucky. Yet this time, Estonia will "launch" onto the international scene an artist who on the opening day of the Biennale already has an international career and exhibiting in the Estonian pavilion will only provide further impetus. And this situation is new and interesting. In addition, this will thoroughly shuffle the cards on the usual export-import spectrum, because Novitskova has until now exhibited relatively little in her homeland and her presence in the Estonian pavilion (read: export) could also be freely interpreted as a state sanctioned import attempt à la "Bringing the talents home!".

 

VI

Of course the situation is actually like this, that if a group of art historians start to put together a near 500-page follow-up to the series "Art History of Estonia" and write about the beginning of the 21st century, then it is hardly likely that anyone will spend too much time on the import-export question. Import and export is most likely a narrow topic primarily of interest to border guards, customs officials and economic analysts, isn't it?

In the current context of a more or less globally open market for education and art, it is even funny somehow to think of these things in such a linear fashion. Or rather, it recalls the principle of communicating vessels: everywhere the pressure is the same, but it is just that the self-esteem of Estonians is "lower". In fact it is even hard to speculate whether it is theoretically possible for a young artist today to become famous first in Estonia and then internationally, and in that strict chronological order. Nevertheless, this geopolitical determination has dictated the career trajectories of local artists generation by generation. Difficulties in exporting are also difficulties in importing: one could freely prepare a lecture about Andy Warhol's art without once mentioning Estonia, but one could hardly manage a good lecture about Estonian artists of the second half of the 20th century without mentioning Warhol. And how will it be with the 21st century, we will just have to wait and see.

 

Andreas Trossek is the editor-in-charge of KUNST.EE.

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