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"Artmix" Manifesto on Pirita Road in 1992

Raivo Kelomees (3/2012)

To celebrate its anniversary, Raivo Kelomees writes in retrospect about "S & K 2 – Artmix" – an exhibition that considerably enriched Estonian art discourse.

6. VI–15. VI 1992

The 2nd Pavilion of the Estonian Fairs

Exhibition organizers: Tiia Johannson and Raivo KelomeesArtists: Tiia Johannson, Kai Kaljo, Raivo Kelomees, Renee Kelomees, Agur Kruusing, Kaido Ole, Tuuli Puhvel, Nelli Rohtvee, Virve Sarapik, Tiina Tammetalu, Jaan Toomik.

 

The current year not only marks the 20th anniversary of the Estonian kroon but also that of the exhibition "S & K 2 – Artmix", which was held in the second pavilion of the Estonian trade fair exhibition halls (Estonian Fairs Ltd) in June 1992. Introduced via a manifesto in the weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress, reviewed in two articles while the show was open and given a summary in the almanac Kunst in 1993, the exhibition, like many others, has disappeared into the vast sea of art history. The lasting significance of this exhibition in Estonian art of the last two decades can be seen in an explicit and derogatory term "jar-shitting" that emerged from it. The following should clarify my point. In the art community and on the pages of KUNST.EE, people may make fun of the term, but outside the art community it is used in all earnestness to denote art that apparently has no need for skill in the traditional sense. The term comes from Jaan Toomik’s work "16. mai–31. mai 1992" (May 16 – 31 1992) presenting the artist’s excrement in air-tight glass jars accompanied by descriptions of what he had previously eaten.

 

"S & K"

The name of the group "S & K" was the result of a purely practical decision to unite the art community before the first exhibition in 1991 – a name had to be taken. It was a parody of the naming-craze among artists’ groups of the time. S and K originally referred to 'siga' (pig) and 'kägu' (cuckoo) [after an Estonian saying "like a pig and a cuckoo" to ironically comment on two people with no apparent similarities. – Ed.], symbolizing a group of artists that do not have anything in common. Thus, the name was an inside joke; later on, people started looking for new meanings for the letters by trying to match them with the names of the participating artists. The first exhibition "S & K" took place between 18 June and 18 July 1991 at the Tammsaare Memorial Museum, and was organized by Tiia Johannson and Raivo Kelomees. Besides the organizers of the exhibition, artists such as Kai Kaljo, Renee Kelomees, Kaido Ole, Tuuli Puhvel, Nelli Rohtvee and Virve Sarapik also took part. The 1992 exhibition on Pirita Road was joined by Agur Kruusing, Tiina Tammetalu and Jaan Toomik. The organizers were the same. Today, such an exhibition would have been defined as a curatorial project with all the usual organizational issues and financing. The poster and invitation for the exhibition were designed by Virve Sarapik.

 

The costs

The rental fee of 60,000 roubles agreed upon with Estonian Fairs Ltd, soon became 6,000 kroons, since the national currency of Estonia was re-introduced on 20 June and the exchange rate with the rouble was 10 to 1. The money came from Tiia Johannson’s father, Peeter Johannson, a wealthy businessman. In the economic context of the time, this was an astronomic amount of money. Nevertheless, the financial reality remained somewhat incomprehensible as everyone was used to the worthless rouble, which had rather limited use anyway. In comparison, the Estonian Prime Minister’s monthly salary in September 1992 was 1,600 kroons; this was said to have been the Prime Minister’s very first salary. In December 1992, the President’s salary was 4,536 kroons. The cost of a 4-room apartment in Lasnamäe or Mustamäe was 90,000 kroons. The exhibition itself was held before the arrival of the kroon, and so the invoices had to be taken care of afterwards. Hypothetically, the costs could be expressed in present-day terms based on the current salary of the Prime Minister. The budget of the exhibition was 3.75 times the amount of the Prime Minister’s salary and considering that the Prime Minister now earns 5,200 euros, the total would be 19,500 euros or 305,000 Estonian kroons.

 

The Manifesto

Before the exhibition, a baffling compendious manifesto "Mis on ARTMIX" (What is ARTMIX) was written by Raivo Kelomees and published on 5 July in Eesti Ekspress. A mixing of art [disciplines] was in the air and the English word "mix" was an apt way to mark a period of searching as the old rules were starting to fade and the new not yet established, although the title was originally taken from a then-popular brand of margarine called Voimix. The following is an excerpt from the manifesto.

 

From the Encyclopaedia of 21st century Art (vol. 1, p. 37) we can read:
"artmix" – an art form integrating figural, temporal and spatial arts. It began at the end of the 20th century and declared itself to be "a productive assimilation of all art forms, a complete mimicry of art." It strived for constructive obscurity and vagueness, the object of creation was a transformed art history that was interpreted with whatever media was to hand (painting, graphic arts and different mixed forms – text, plaques, installations, video and interactive art). A. came into being in Estonia and was especially popular among artists 1992–1999. In theoretical statements, artmix opposed fetishized forms of art, post-socialist kitsch and the anachronistic system of art education.


Description of the exhibition

Alongside her paintings Tiia Johannson exhibited copy-art – photographic compositions created using a copier at home. Although it was known that the fax-art and copy-art of Pati Hill and David Hockney had already been shown in 1983 during the "Electra" exhibition in Paris, using photography, video and photocopies in Estonia was neither expected nor possible.

The exhibition also included Raivo Kelomees’s "Dry Video Art", or video art without a camera. To make reproductions, the artist had photographed the television screen, then a composition was created, combining the photographs with reproductions of Carl Gustav Jung’s "Psychology and Alchemy" (1944). The result was mystifying: the documentation of a video project without the video. Kelomees also exhibited a series of copies of one of his lost paintings and three versions of the etching "Põrgu" (Hell) by Eduard Wiiralt (1930 –1932, etching, copperplate), where different areas of the picture were coloured, although in retrospect what was implied by this treatment is difficult to recall. This probably had something to do with the desire to see the most famous Estonian etching as a sketch for a colour painting. Nelli Rohtvee exhibited three stuffed animals that were a continuation of the taxidermy composition from the exhibition "S & K" of the previous year.

Jaan Toomik’s "16 May – 31 May 1992" had a dominant presence in the centre of the exhibition and included 16 jars containing excrement. Although a similar work called "Merda d’artista" (Artist’s Shit) (1961) by Piero Manzoni, where the artist sold 90 replicas at a price that corresponded to that of gold, is well-known, the reaction to Toomik’s work in non-art circles was explosive. The work is still used to describe the type of work contemporary artists are said to create. In a bizarre way, the project was not sensationalized in the summer of 1992; reviews by Ants Juske, Heie Treier and other critics were contemplative and understanding. It was only later that Toomik’s work was incorporated into a vulgar folk tale and dubbed "jar-shitting". The exhibition of this work was said to have taken place in the Tallinn Art Hall, the Art Museum of Estonia or in some Estonian gallery, it was even rumoured that Toomik had sent the jars to an international exhibition to represent Estonian art. In any case, I recommend Googling the word (in its Estonian form 'purkisittumine') to see how wide-spread its use is – 276 hits if written as two separate words; over 1,000 hits as one word.

The majority of the artists exhibited paintings that became installations when hung on walls or placed on the floor. Sarapik’s works were displayed on the wooden floor so that they continued its patterns. Kruusing painted on non-geometric wooden stands. Ole’s paintings on plywood hinted at his future developments and experiments with different surfaces. We can see proof in his recent works – a mix of design-like painted surface and chaotic vivaciousness. Tammetalu’s paintings displayed the beginnings of the minimalist approach that can be seen in her work today. There was also a found object between two paintings by Renee Kelomees – a once sodden frame reminiscent of a wooden ethnographic detail.

 

Reviews in the Media

Besides the manifesto in Eesti Ekspress, there were three other articles about the show: Heie Treier’s "Encyclopaedic text as art’s protective shield? The problem of being an artist" in the cultural newspaper Sirp on 12 June, Ants Juske’s "Kindlamat kätt Kelomehele" (A firmer hand to Kelomees) in Eesti Aeg on 17 June, and another, considerably later article by Heie Treier "Kaks näitust Pirita teel" (Two exhibitions on Pirita Road) in the first issue of the almanac Kunst in 1993.

In Sirp, Heie Treier dedicated a whole page to the exhibition – Toomik’s work being considered the most scandalous: "...despite the general lack of food, he has exhibited his excrement in 16 jars and alongside them listed the food eaten". Later in the article she posits: "This is a broader psychological problem: under what conditions would someone start producing such a reaction?"

In her view, the principles presented in the Artmix manifesto primarily correspond to the works of Toomik, Johannson, Rohtvee and Kelomees, while the others exhibited more or less traditional paintings. "We see a blending of different means of creation where similar ideas travel from painting to text, text to photography, photography to photocopies, from one to another, and then to another. The confusion could have even been greater if the artist had had the chance to use video recorders – that would have opened up many possibilities." In regards to Kaido Ole, Treier is trying to figure out a term to describe a practice that, from her point of view, has not yet reached maturity. "The artist is obviously trying to solve some awe-inspiring problems, however, at the same time, he seems to be eliminating his personal experience; he is manipulating sterile forms that have been purged of any kind of theory, teaching or humanity. Kaido Ole’s paintings are extremely indifferent and that is somewhat intimidating." Treier also mentions that Tiina Tammetalu’s paintings "are becoming increasingly barren and equally refined. After she parted with figurative painting, all that remain are large ethereal surfaces of thick paint, the tension between the paintings themselves and meagre and precise articulation." She also praises the "stunning" colours in Virve Sarapik’s paintings and the use of words in her paintings. Treier claims that words are central to Sarapik’s work and describes it as "light" and "airy".

In trying to define the exhibition, Treier writes that the common denominator could be the individual, a person or organism, an anonymous everyman, my grandmother, my son, Jakob. She points to the obvious – the artists taking part in the exhibition might not have even read the programme. "Even so, these kinds of declarations are almost part of a convention, a public necessity that ensures that artists will be taken seriously. Is there anything that could seem more reliable that an encyclopaedic text from the 21st century art lexicon?"

Ants Juske starts his seemingly appreciative yet biased article "A firmer hand to Kelomees" with a question – was "Artmix" an art event? He goes on to say it was indeed, but also mentions that everyone has the right to a different opinion. Juske sees the show as part of a long line of conceptual exhibitions that are no longer a novelty in Estonia. At the same time, he also refers to the "collective body" that no longer exists, and says that now everyone has the opportunity to present their ideas for exhibitions. The "collective body" Juske mentions is the official exhibition board at the Artists’ Union during the Soviet era that used to organize national art exhibitions. Juske thinks that the main problem is the contradiction between the idea and the material – the idea and the works presented. "The idea for the exhibition might even have been good, but it is not always possible to bend the art to suit a preconceived idea," writes Juske. He looks back on the exhibitions "Forma Anthropologica" (1992) and "Mütoloogiline ja allegooriline noores kunstis" (The Mythological and Allegorical in Young Art) (1992) that had to tackle the same issue, so Juske probably wanted to convey that if the idea is too narrowly formulated, the works may not all fit.

Juske acknowledges the manifesto as "an elegant move" that predicts the integration and mixing of the arts that will take place in the 21st century as claimed in the manifesto. This was said to have been "a clever move that positions the exhibition in the future". Nevertheless, Juske does not see very many examples of such mixing in the exhibition; the works are mostly traditional. According to Juske, the exhibition was divided into two blocks: one in the centre of the pavilion and other on the sides, hidden. For Juske, Toomik’s work definitely stands out, but he has trouble classifying it: "After all, what is it then – an art work, an installation, ready-made or something else?" Juske refers to the previously mentioned project by Piero Manzoni where the artist displayed a collection of his precisely weighed and packaged excrements and then goes on to say: "It is a challenge and I cannot imagine the reaction of a delegation from the Ministry of Culture or the Tallinn Art Hall sent out to buy a selection of works."

The previous thread now seems characteristic of the era of transition, the 1990s – the buying committee as an organisation of the previous century versus an exhibition displaying immaterial works of art, difficult to subject to the transaction of buying and selling. When writing about Tiina Tammetalu’s "new method for making paintings with a clear image" and Kaido Ole’s "increasingly pop-like solutions", Juske talks about "young painting". "In the local context, the trouble with that," he says, "is that the previous generations of painters are well established and have over many years created their own signature styles: blades of grass, flowers, angels, striped women, hermaphrodites, different kinds of abstract shapes and so on. The market is full, the critics have their favourites and it is not easy to surprise anyone in painting, it is easier to do it the way Toomik has." Finally, Juske concludes that the exhibition was a memorable event and hopes next time the organizers have a firmer hand in defining the concept.

In the article "Two exhibitions on Pirita Road", Heie Treier writes the following: "The biggest bombshell was "16 May – 31 May 1992" by Jaan Toomik, which exhibited his excrement. Is this an innocent meditation, as the artist claims, or is it the need to be obscene in order to relieve psychological tensions?" Treier goes on to mention a caricature by Priit Pärn called "Don’t give a Shit!" (Sitta kah!) (1987) and Mare Mikof’s "national turdsculptures" from 1987, but also the Estonian translations of Milan Kundera that include a long discussion about excrement in his " Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí" (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) (1984). Treier also refers to the ninth "documenta" of 1992 where an installation called "The Toilet" (1992) by Ilya Kabakov was displayed – it was an ordinary Soviet public toilet furnished as an apartment, a place for living, presenting a metaphor for Soviet life. The theme of excrement and toilets was in the air.

Treier searches for opportunities to place the work in a political context: "It seems as if the young artists of the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s are in hopeless conflict with each other – their art is disparate, there are no shared ideas, styles or metropolis, no place to take after. Still, it only seems this way. I would express the common factors, the collective experience in one question: how do we get rid of communism? There are innumerable solutions – there are those who defiantly isolate themselves on an island of hedonism where everyone can feel like a millionaire, but there are also those who reduce art to the most basic vital functions in order to analyse existence in all its complexity."

 

Conclusion

As a co-organizer of the exhibition, it is impossible to assess objectively what has been done. However, 20 years is long enough to allow the filter of art history to decide whether something remains important or fades away. Most of the contributing artists have been or are still visible in the Estonian art scene. The exhibition was one of the first that had no official board and was self-financed. The place for the exhibition was not chosen at random, a fact that should be stressed, as the pavilions on Pirita Road are not given prominence as exhibition halls in the annals of art history. Nevertheless, the list of national and youth exhibitions held there is rather long. Also, the 2nd pavilion, the venue for "Artmix" was regularly used for national exhibitions of paintings and applied art. The pavilion was an established and well-known exhibition hall.Although the "short descriptive term" for Toomik’s work as a by-product of the exhibition became a popular synonym for contemporary art, we could still ask, how many success stories or top works in Estonian art do we really know that have become famous in the collective mind of the public and are used to refer not only to "incomprehensible" visual art but also to the processes taking place in the broader sphere of culture?

 

Raivo Kelomees is the head of the department of New Media in the Estonian Academy of Arts.

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