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Aspiration

Kaire Nurk (1-2/2010)

Kaire Nurk interviews Kaarel Kurismaa

 
When we were arranging this interview, you mentioned the ‘absurd’ as being more or less the key for understanding your creative work. You have not only been the most consistent absurdist kineticist in Estonian art, but also the most consistent non-absurdist abstractionist. Did absurdity convey your rebellion against the Soviet regime, or is it the joy of the absurd itself that counts most for you?[i]
 
It has to be the joy of the absurd. After all, rebellion in itself is something that everyone has inside. You want to do things differently; you want to do something else. During my time at the Estonian State Art Institute I used to work with Jüri Kask. He did everything his way, as a protest against the academicism of the university at the time. Võerahansu was a very good professor; he paid attention to the inner force and contents of things. His famous saying: “Paint the apple – be a man!” encouraged us to experiment and take different positions. I liked metaphysical art, Mexican monumental painting, abstract style and a milder version of absurd.  
 
At Tartu Art School our mentor was Alfred Kongo, who also emphasised capturing the essence of things. In addition, going to exhibitions, concerts and the theatre – and especially reading – were mandatory for students. Kongo’s mission was to shape us into comprehensively educated individuals. Before we set out to paint a still life or a model, he would approach and ask which book, painting or piece of music had fascinated you, and why. You were supposed to be able to answer these questions. And thus, little by little, the concept of understanding the essence of things was added to the manual skills. In the dormitory of the Art School, on the second floor of the current Kivisilla Gallery, the lights stayed on all night to illuminate our thoughts in discussions about art, music and literature.
 
Do you see your absurdity as a negation, a wish to do things in a different way, or rather, as an affirmation of absurdity and play? Is it pro or contra?
 
Things could be seen from both angles. It was intended to be against something, perhaps against a phenomenon you disliked. Affirmation is a different thing.
 
Is Aspiration (1975) a criticism of Soviet ideology or a personal aspiration?
 
In my view it is a personal aspiration. If we think of Camus – of climbing the mountain – then the composition of Aspiration is something that just leads one upwards in one’s aspiration. True, it depends which side you approach it from – perhaps you are descending. It depends on how you look at it.
 
Like Sisyphus.
 
Yes, indeed. It is a game – homo ludens – above all else. It is the same with the forms and things that you discover or that are simply there – you start by considering what to make of them. Something might seem interesting, but would be insufficient by itself. Then you begin making assemblages, experimenting. I try to combine different things, materials and ideas, to see where it takes me. It is a sort of joyful play.
 
And the narrative aspect, the stories?
 
There is a story in Trumpets [A Gadget Dripping Sounds, 1975 – K.N.] for instance; a narrative of its own. The trumpets were made from cone-shaped plastic chair legs by Salvo, turned upside down, and then attached to the curved door of a bedside cupboard and a semicircular tabletop.
 
Are these the same trumpets – the big, dripping instruments and the ones held by tiny angels? What does a trumpet represent?
 
First of all, a trumpet is a sound-maker, a carrier of sound. As it is, angels and trumpets are inseparable. They have a message to deliver. The sound of trumpets is truly loud and pervasive, demanding instant attention. Trumpets always emerge most vigorously from among groups of other instruments. Kandinsky identified the sound of a fanfare with the colour yellow.
 
Are there other associations?
 
The fact that the trumpets started dripping, instead of producing sounds, for instance – that was an achievement. The story would have been different if there hadn’t been drops. My initial plan was to equip the trumpets with a sound of wind blowing through them, inspired by Isao Tomita’s electronic music. I asked the electronic engineer Härmo Härm if he would please produce sounds of wind blowing and sighs. Instead, Härmo came up with blip-blop-blip-blop and a trilling sound, so I said ‘ok, let’s stick with this’.
 
Among some old junk I also found the drop-shaped wooden figures. Some good friends brought me boxes of defect plastic details by Salvo, lampshades by Estoplast, toys and souvenirs by Norma, etc. The materials began to accumulate. I installed clamps to my writing desk by the window. My tools were an electric drill, rasps, files, sandpaper, filler paste and paints. That was all; so it was rather depressing to see on Finnish TV the commercial Two Hands with Black & Decker. Indeed, the objects I produced during the 1970s were created in a small, 15 metres-squared room. I hung the completed works on the wall.
 
The dolls of Havoc (2009)?
 
This is interesting. I have a photo of me as a child, holding a small doll in my lap. Some twenty years later, I noticed some ball-jointed dolls on a shelf in a toy shop, which were similar to those my sisters played with when we were kids, and standing dignifiedly beside them were little white doves. And it was there, in1973 in Laste Maailm toy shop, that the idea for Amor Pillar was born. I cut out the angels’ wings from children’s toy baskets. The plywood column was made in the carpentry of ARS factory.
 
What was the intention underlying Havoc?
 
The very same dolls from Amor Pillar have now started to wreak havoc; they are unhappy about their obsolete traditional role. I decided against placing them on top of a column again, and instead created a small stage so that things could be played out differently. I also had in mind The Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France, but that was purely political. Many composers have used the motif of havoc in their music; it is more impetuous and still involves some kind of mess. 
 
In a way, it is an intensified situation; the fighting figures are dolls a.k.a. angels!
 
Yes, a violent fight, with tail feathers torn out and epaulettes ripped from shoulders. Perhaps she once conveyed a positive spirit, but a downtrodden angel no longer has wings. The drama is intensified by clouds of smoke. The result was more impetuous, allowing for multiple interpretations.
 
Smoke? To me this seemed like a cloud of steam rising from bodies amidst a heated battle. Alice Kask also showed very social paintings at her most recent exhibition in Vaal Gallery.
 
Yes, a headless man – it’s amazing.
 
What were Heino Mikiver’s stagings like during the time you were working together in Tallinn Department Store? What was his ‘code of absurdity’?
 
Basically, his blood ran with situational absurdity. In some stagings, everyday life, love and power were mixed together. For example, the characters included the Grand Emperor, Semi-Emperor and Tall Princess. There were also stagings made using a serial method: someone proposed a number, the other person would announce the next one, and so the entire play consisted in counting numbers. His performance at the boarding school in Uus Street was the epitome of absurdity: wearing a dark suit, white shirt and tie, he sat in a tin bath filled with hot water, while coarsely singing: “Swatting boughs and fresh hot douse, last night our neighbour Ants came by our house.”
 
Was it thanks to your co-operation with Mikiver that you acknowledged absurdity, or was it already there?
 
No, it was already there. I could go back a long way. My father was very keen on absurd; he would pick up on some particular aspect of his surrounding environment and present it in truly comical way. To be a violinist had always been his dream. By profession he was a pastry chef and he told us how he had become mired in pastry dough and could no longer fiddle – his fingers had become too floury.
 
When A Gadget Dripping Sounds is placed horizontally, the drops seem to be crawling back inside the trumpets. By the way, Vilen Künnapu has interpreted several Estonian artists Ülo Õun, Lembit Sarapuu, Andres Tolts through the notion of absurdity.[ii] Would you compare your own use of absurdity with that of any of these artists?
 
This is very good, that the drops seem to be crawling back inside the trumpets. That way the trumpets not only resonate from outside, but from inside too.
 
The above-mentioned people are all very good artists and I wouldn’t like to make any comparisons. In Father and Son [1977] Õun depicted the boy as larger than life, while I presented myself as a small figure [At the Edge of a Summery Field (1973–74) from the self-portrait series Seasons – K.N.]…
 
Did you have the idea for that first self-portrait of 1974 from the outset?
 
I can’t say I did. That mannequin had been in a corner gathering dust for a long time. It was no longer in use and the paint had faded. I realized that I could turn it into a self-portrait. In the basement of the department store, which served as a storage room for artists, life-sized mannequins could also be found. If you just gave them a face you would be among the cream of hyperrealists. However, I was interested in that small broken mannequin of a child. I painted my own face on it and then took it to the edge of a field.
 
The figures by Alberto Giacometti, compressed into almost invisible vertical lines, can be interpreted as a consequence of the pressure society imposes on individuals. Perhaps we should see a parallel here too? Is there, to any extent, a rational origin present in absurdity?
 
“When you think, you shall see.”
 
The best examples of the absurd usually emerge from out of the blue, or when you find yourself in a situation you haven’t thought about rationally. At other times, you may be thinking rationally but hardly ever able to get a result. Maybe sometimes, while writing, you may desire for no particular reason for your writing to strongly deviate from real life.
 
Shadows of Speech (1995),[iii] although seemingly surrealist on first reading, is in fact a very programmatic text.
 
Yes, it’s almost autobiographical. It concerns my creative journey, my quests and aspirations. The reason I use texts is like foreplay, an extension or a sequel to an object or painting: the before or after, and the intertwining of these two. All these things together, or separately.
 
Shadows of Speech compels one to imagine colours and sounds. Thus, the text should also be seen and heard, otherwise it cannot be understood.
 
Yes, it’s a game in which you step from form into shadows, then return to light and colour and also to sound that is driven by the voice.
 
In his review of your solo exhibitions at Tartu Art Museum and Tartu Art House, Indrek Grigor has drawn attention to the synergy or ‘stereo effect’ between the various media you use in your works.[iv] Beside colour, a gradually developing play of sound and light solutions in different rooms plays an important role in your exhibitions. At the exhibition in the Art Museum the harmony of the display was strengthened by the recurrent wave motif.
 
All three halls of the Art House were filled with booming sound, creating an impression of a chaotic ensemble, which is exactly what was intended. Only the rhythms of Alma Railway (1997) were missing, which would have tamed that group more effectively. In the halls of the Art Museum sound also played an important role, blending with the video of Echo Far Away (2005). The wave motif allowed me to bring together different works, and yet simultaneously keep them apart. That motif was also important to Leonardo da Vinci, for example, and to his ancient source of inspiration, Socrates.
 
How should we understand the rotating ‘crown’ on the celebrant’s chair? Is there a connection with flowing?
 
A life cycle also consists in flowing – it is the flowing of time.
 
Is that why your series of self-portraits is titled Seasons?
 
Everything passes through different seasons and yearly cycles. Everything flows and moves. This is approximately how these connections work. And maybe the circular forms are related to this to.
 
So, it was not so much a question of 1970s industrial design, but more importantly the circular forms, or more specifically, of flowing!
 
Yes, the circular form was there and I liked it; so I rounded it off even more. Where it was possible to make waves, I made waves.
 
Do you paraphrase, to a certain extent, the wave motif more broadly in your video Racing the Waves (2001)?
 
I would call it the ‘little absurd’. I have my own little waves by the great sea; I can jump over them with my own power. Iwould not attempt to jump over a very high tide. There is also the play of shadows, adding seriousness to the game. And of course there is sound -- the sound of the sea accompanied by my own ripples with a low rumble of tin; my own small music against the crash of sea waves.
 
Is there no feeling that the waves are carrying you forward?
 
The waves of the sea roll to the shore, whereas river waves head towards the sea. Sea waves roll over the sea toward the opposite shore. A certain connection; vessels in commnication; circulation. According to the laws of nature, everything is connected and constantly flowing all around. How can this be? Perhaps the most apposite examples are subterranean springs and the lava deep below the Earth’s crust.
 
So is it in this way that nature is important in your series of self-portraits?
 
The title of the exhibition – Man and Field (1974) – inspired me: How can these two be combined? Daisies grow along the edge of my field. Perhaps the entire field is full of daisies. What could he hold in his hand, considering his gesture? A clock?! Hold on a moment... who goes about, following a clock? But a compass, that’s good. This already shows that the man is not standing at the edge of the field just like that: he is following a compass.
 
Should the association with the compass be left unclarified? Did it perhaps entail a hidden irony about the existing ideology?
 
Indeed, a compass serves as a small, solemn accessory to prevent you deviating from your own path.
 
In that respect, it might be appropriate to draw a parallel with Searcher (1978) by Ülo Õun regarding the self-perception of the artist?
 
Certainly.
 
In Gertrud and Heldur in the Rain (1995), viewers are able to produce and play with sounds themselves.[v] Where did you find the names for your characters?
 
Previously Reet Varblane had organised a watercolour exhibition in Rotermann’s Salt Storage and invited me to take part in it. Watercolours and rainfall began to resonate in my mind. I used large bent tin boards in combination with wind-up clocks. The sound of tin was amplified through the ticking clocks. The more clocks you wound, the stronger the rain shower grew. Those bent tin boards together with mechanical clocks were also displayed in the foyer of the Estonia Concert Hall during the Nyyd Festival in 1997.
 
Gertrud and Heldur is the second version, realized in a different key. The first version was softer, like a lily of the valley, whereas the second resembled a stiff arrow. From there, orchid pink and pale blue colours were transcribed into the text of Shadows of Speech. The names Gertrud and Heldur sound nice. At the exhibition in Riga it was Gertruds und Hendurs; not Jane and Jack. Gertrud is associated with Scandinavia – an ancient Viking name. I wondered whether I should personify in this way, but sometimes you can do that.
 
Fluxus tried to acknowledge the aesthetics of the everyday. If every sound in our immediate environment has a subconscious affect upon us, we might then conclude that Fluxus worked with the subconsciousness – hence the influence of John Cage’s music?
 
The French musician Michel Colombier is interesting in that respect. Quite unexpectedly, the last song on one of his progressive rock albums is dedicated to a creaking door -- how it opens and closes with a creak; the way the situation is tightened up. That record was a genuine rarity during the 1960s.
 
No Fluxus, the work made in co-operation with Tõnis Vint and Kiwa, and displayed at the Fluxus East exhibition in Kumu Art Museum (5.09–23.11.2008), pointed to the connection with Nam June Paik. The designer of the exhibition placed our works side by side. The green colour uniting Nam June Paik’s violin case-lining with my melancholic alarm bells was not the most important thing, but the sound. Nam June Paik dedicated his work to a young violinist who was killed in a tragic car accident. He has placed a strand of his own black hair next to the broken violin as a ribbon of mourning, and beside the installation alarm bell ring sympathetically.
 
In Double Light (1997–2009), a trio of works, something very interesting is projected on the wall. Are they film reels?
 
These are tiny boxes of printer tape, with rays of light directed through them. Every now and then I have tried to present the subject of light and shadow.
 
There are no shadows in the darkness, but there are shadows in the light – is it the light that causes shadows?
 
There are no shadows right above your head.
 
A phenomena of exceptional brilliance will be equipped with shadows?
 
Yes, then its brilliance will be emphasised. We can also bring light into shadow.
 
Bring light into shadow to light up the shadow?
 
Yes.
 
Which place is more interesting: shadow or light?
 
There are secrets in the shadows. Perhaps there are more yearnings hovering there, whereas in the light everything is visible, perhaps even too visible.
 
Unless the light is not blinding?
 
When you look straight into the sun, your eyes will be blinded – also, it causes colour plays.
 
Mari Kurismaa returns and now participates in the interview. – K.N.
 
‘Unfinished’ is a term often used in describing your painting style. Do you feel the same way yourself?[vi]
 
Mari Kurismaa [MK]: It is very difficult to decide when a project is finished.
Kaarel Kurismaa [KK]: An unfinished work is a work of no meaning; we could talk of meanings being lost. Sometimes I overwork.
MK: I always try to interupt at the right moment, saying: now, let’s stop here.
KK: I can’t. I’m not happy.
MK: In fact, later the freshness will be lost. This is precisely the balance between spontaneity and elaboration in painting. Kaarel is not happy, but in fact, at some point you have something you will no longer have later. Spontaneity and immediacy will end up being under so many pressures.
KK: Perhaps the poured works create the impression that I could continue with them. At the same time I will not keep working on paintings such as Blossom (1976) or Current (1976) that are already covered with thick layers.
MK: Kaarel’s best paintings are those with wonderfully transparent jazz rhythms. To succeed, he has to create a large series of works. He has a tremendous need for freedom, he must be allowed to act outrageously and to focus at the same time.
KK: There must be havoc.
MK: Exactly. For example, he creates good works while renovating the house -- making his painting during the same period. Otherwise, he will just sit down and start fiddling. The better works always seem to be made in parallel with something else; then he manages to find unexpected angles.
 
... and how do you feel?
 
KK: I am feeling fine; I am willing to continue working on these paintings, when it feels that there are still other solutions, unanticipated possibilities to be found.
 
Do you attach importance to transparency?
 
KK: No, I don’t.
 
I thought that this transparency is a sort of…
 
KK: Aim of its own?
 
… spiritual necessity?
 
KK: Yes, that could also be the case. I agree.
MK: I think so too. Translucent canvases create a light impression.
KK: But after all, everything entails lightness from one side, and heaviness from the other.
 
In Blossom, the way the paint is crumpled up is interesting.
 
KK: Yes, you can see a contracting image in the thick layer of paint on the left side, where the paint is presented in a bitter and inward-looking way. Or it might be gathering strength to again dissolve and then fling to the other side in the next burst.
 
So is it true what Johannes Saar wrote about you: ‘an anarchist for 30 years already’[vii]?
 
KK: I have no idea whether I’m an anarchist or not.
MK: In some respects you are, indeed.
 
What is anarchism, anyway? Does it convey protest?
 
KK: Grotesque?
MK: He does not like the existing traditions or technologies. If anything, he wishes to attack them. Perhaps this is a characteristic of his generation. In contemporary art you should be trying to break free from everything, from any restrictions, prejudice, meanings and values.
KK: Camus also talked about heroics. In my ‘hero’ video I also appear as one. I am no hero in the mainstream sense, nor on the main street, but I am a hero on the side-road. On meine Straße – that would be even better; my street. It was here on the corner of Spordi Street that the video was filmed. I used David Bowie’s Heroes as a soundtrack, and gradually a bucketful of liquid paint (black nitro paint – K.N.) is poured over me, against the lyrics “I wish I could swim like the dolphins, like the dolphins can swim through nothing”.
 
Was your collaborative work Die zweite Unschuld  (2006) about the criticism, or rather, the apologetics of Nietzsche?[viii]
 
KK: Yes, Mari could talk about this.
MK: It seemed to me that it is very important to both of us. Nietzsche had an idea that you must not burden yourself with all sorts of knowledge; it is our heavy load. People in recent times have needed freshness to cope with their lives. Only the innocent person can be fresh enough. I would even suggest that this has to do with Kaarel’s sense of irresponsibility.
 
To maintain irresponsibility?
 
KK: The courage to be free.
MK: We know eall about how everything should be done and how things work. Nietzsche described all aspects of a society that has lost its values and notions. What interests us is that, regardless of everything, you can still be unbelievably positive and all of the time, internally – indeed. The thing about irony is that you cannot hide from it. It surrounds you like a sort of veil. Doubled, cultivated simple-mindedness – the second innocence. These topics started to emerge from the old cultural space. Here, however, we prefer analytical philosophy.
 
The POPart Forever! exhibition at Kumu Art Museum could be perceived as superficially playing with the signs of youth culture, but perhaps we should instead emhasize play over superficiality?
 
MK: And I thought that Pop Art was made cheerfully and superficially – an era-specific thing.
KK: And there was no other goal. We visited the exhibition of psychedelic art (Summer of Love, Kunstalle Wien, 2006 – Ed.) where Pop Art was mixed with numerous other directions in art that emerged during the same period. It was an era-specific phenomenon, and at the same time a timeless one. The exhibition created a good impression.
MK: It was totally your time.
KK: My time – my garden. All right.
MK: I mean, I enjoyed seeing it together with you. I have always felt that the late 60s and early 70s were a better time. Every now and then I ask people where they were in 1968, when the sunlight of world revolution was shining directly onto all of us.
KK: I was at home.[ix]
 
The interview took place 21.01.2010 at the Kurismaas’ home in Tallinn.
 
Kaire Nurk is a general historian and painter with a cum laude Master’s degree. Currently she is working on her Master of Science thesis in art history: ‘The Road to São Paulo’ by Jaan Toomik – possibilities for interpretation.

[i] See also: Tõnu Viik, Uus essee absurdist: ilma humanismi üleva müüdita. – Vikerkaar 2004, No. 10–11, pp. 172–180.
[ii] Vilen Künnapu, Absurdikujund kunstis. – Kunst 1985, No. 2/67, pp. 35–39.
[iii] Kaarel Kurismaa, Varjud kõnest. – Kineetiline kunst. Kinethic art. Tallinn: E-Meedia keskus, 1999, p. 7; see also: Johannes Saar, Mu pilk on selge kui kellaviietee. – Postimees 7.03.1997.
[iv] Indrek Grigor, Kurismaa invasioon Tartus. – Sirp 27.11.2009.
[v] Raivo Kelomees, Reeglipõhised ja generatiivsed meetodid Eesti kunstis II. – kunst.ee 2007, No. 4, pp. 38–48.
[vi] See, for example: Anu Liivak, Kaarel Kurismaa. – Eesti kunstnikud. Artists of Estonia. Johannes Saar (Ed.). Tallinn: Sorosi Kaasaegse Kunsti Eesti Keskus, 1998, pp. 65–67.
[vii] Vt Johannes Saar, Mu pilk on selge kui kellaviietee.
[viii] Tiina Kolk, Hõbepulm idüllilises kodus. – Äripäev: Puhkepäev, 28.04.2006; Andres Lõo, Kurismaa reinkarnatsioonid kujukestega. – Postimees 25.04.2006; Ave Randviir, Mari ja Kaarel Kurismaa eneseteadlik teine süütus Linnagaleriis. – Eesti Päevaleht 25.04.2006; Reet Varblane, Surm kevadises Tallinnas ehk Kunstnike valuline reaktsioon meie ajale. – Sirp 21.04.2006; Teet Veispak, Süütuse kodu. – Eesti Ekspress/Areen 27.04.2006.
[ix] In the intitial interveiw situation Kaarel Kurismaa stated: “I was on the barricades.” – K.N.
 
30.10.2009–11.01.2010
Room of Second Innocence
Tartu Art Museum
 
 
15.10– 8.11.2009
Double Exposition
Tartu Art House
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