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Flo Kasearu’s reach

Jan Kaus (3/2020)

Jan Kaus’ personal insight into Flo Kasearu’s work.


A few months ago, we made a small bike trip around the backwaters of Lasnamäe. The initiative came from a friend, the artist Anna Kaarma, who lives in Lasnamäe. The three of us – Anna, my partner and I – cycled around various interesting places.

The highlight of the trip turned out to be unexpected, though; when it was almost over. We stopped at an empty plot behind a Prisma supermarket and Anna told us that there had only recently been a forest there with a nice pond. She said that together with her friends they had once discovered paths, buildings made of stones, twigs and branches, bridges, fences and storerooms that someone had built in the forest. Someone had established their own little world in the thickets between Punane, Taevakivi and Osmussaare roads and Mustakivi. It turned out that it had been an older Russian man, who actually lived in Õismäe, but regularly visited the wood behind Prisma weaving the paths and other features.

At some point the forest was cut down leaving a nondescript wasteland; the kind of desolate and clear landscape that is becoming more common in Estonia. Today, there are a few pine trees growing by the patchy plot, behind which there is a monstrous tennis centre, one of those pretty "suburban blocks". We traipsed around the mounds and holes with Anna and found many signs left by the unknown Õismäe man by the pond, relics of his artwork, mostly segments of paths and fences made from twigs, which had once stood in the shade of trees.

Why do I bring this up here? I think that the old Russian man was trying to do something similar to what Flo Kasearu managed at her House Museum on Pebre street – to renew the landscape without destroying it, preserving its nature while giving it new value and new meanings. Both were motivated by creative intrusion or intrusive creativity; that is, an intrusion into everyday urban life, not by destroying, but through addition, by adding layers.

The difference between Kasearu and the unknown old man is primarily the fact that the former has managed to legitimise their intrusion. While the crafted paths and bridges by the unknown man are destined to fade, and most of which have already been bulldozed into the past, Kasearu's House Museum has forced itself deep into the fabric of Pelgulinn. It is hard to imagine the broader context of Pebre street and Pelgulinn without considering Flo and her activities.




If we consider the Flo Kasearu House Museum in the context of her work, it is in no way an exception – Pebre 8 is not only a grand creative act, but also a statement of intent as a location that presents a certain world view. Since I lack the specific vocabulary to analyse Kasearu's art – or anyone's for that matter – I can say little more than that the entirety of Flo's work is based on a comprehensive need for "reach". It seems that the question of constant reach of art characterises Kasearu's pictures, videos, performances, installations as well as everything else in between.

It is not only about the ability or need for art to reach beyond its usual designated social space (the gallery, which needn't be despised nor ignored), but a desire to change the reach itself – to make such attempts tangible, cause them to affect landscapes, spaces and bodies, using reach as a permanent link. So that the borders between art and the reality beyond art become blurred, the transitions from one to the other become smoother and more natural – or simply unimportant.

This does not only refer to art as social commentary, critical attempts at intervention and the subsequent spatial alterations and bodily impulses, but a permanent repetition, an entire lifestyle, a constant translation of one's mental state into physical reality, the range and continuity of art's reach in time and space. In the case of Flo Kasearu, this means a calm yet focused attentiveness, an ability to react which encompasses every moment in time and space – if you look at or walk around the aforementioned House Museum, it is rather difficult to differentiate between residential and art spaces. They are one, intertwined, reaching beyond each other. But this does not infer the approach that "everything is art", but rather that "art can happen anywhere"– art exists around the walls as much as between them.

With this I am not saying anything new, of course. Although, due to reach playing such an important role in Flo Kasearu's art that it can be considered the central axis in her artistic contribution, I will try to describe the divergence of this axis a little. I have managed to notice four main tangents.


I. Reaching landscape

This reaching is the easiest to notice in Kasearu's work. It is not difficult to ascertain that a remarkably large proportion of her artworks up until now are not meant to be exhibited between the walls of a gallery. As I mentioned above, the Flo Kasearu House Museum is simultaneously a residential building as well as an art object and it seems that the artist has purposefully amplified this ambiguity, art reaching into everyday life – down to the smallest details.

For example, we find the house number for Pebre turned on the side on a green post box with the address for the building becoming the symbol that denotes infinity. The post box also has "no advertisements" written on it, but not on the metal surface, but cut out of a piece of paper stuck onto it. There are three sharp cones above the text, as if a child had attempted to cut out the crown of a fairy tale king or a fire. And indeed, considering the appearance of the sign, we can imagine that this is a post box where junk mail becomes incinerated mail.

Or a second, grander, example – those who have been to the backyard of the Kasearu House Museum have surely noticed the massive tree, which fell into the garden of Pebre 8. Instead of clearing the tree away, Flo made it into an art object: the top part of the tree that broke off has been painted and resembles a blazing torch, as if the tree were a cosmic object, which fell directly from the wastes of space into the courtyard. Kasearu's personal guarding spirit. Thus, the artist has turned an accident in her favour, turned a coincidence into a meaningful coincidence, reacting to the unpredictability of the world with her own spontaneity.

I will highlight two art objects that have reached out to the landscape beyond the House Museum. First, the work titled "O" – a huge black textile ball created with Andra Aaloe, Aet Ader, Grete Soosalu and Kaarel Künnap, which appeared in a number of cities, including Tallinn, in 2011, which may have provoked opposing opinions from viewers when it appeared in the cityscape ranging from an undefined fear to ironic smirks. The massive ball would have drawn very different connotations in various landscapes – resembling an attraction meant for children in a park while being a Muscovite cannonball attached to Toompea castle, directly under Pilsticker tower.

Kasearu produced another remarkable work during the same year, which extended into the landscape. This was the video of a galloping horse projected onto the walls of buildings in Riga titled "Riga Runaway" (the Riga version on the 2010 video "ESC" – Ed.). The flickering white horse on the walls of a dark city, chased by two BMWs, is a striking example of Kasearu's desire to melt the artistically poetic quite directly with everyday life in real time. Why not say that the phantasmal figure of a horse sliding across the walls can be seen as a possible symbol for the effectiveness of art – something that is ephemeral, undefined, requiring a separate attentiveness, while momentarily illuminating the dark everyday.


II. Reaching amongst people (social reach)

One of the most interesting of Flo Kasearu's works in which she aimed to reach a landscape as well as the communications of people inhabiting that landscape was titled "Vabaduse plakat" or "Freedom Poster", which was created in 2008 with Andra Aaloe, Tanel Rannala and Juhan Teppart. In connection to the controversial Victory Column at the Monument to the War of Independence (Vabadussõja võidusammas), Kasearu and her cohorts put up white paper posters around Tallinn with "Freedom: announcing a competition for the best solution" written along their top edge (in Estonian). This allowed anyone and everyone to write or draw something on the paper, be it connected to freedom or not. Thus, first the artwork reached out to the landscape because various objects in the cityscape were covered in posters – walls, doors, advertising spaces, rubbish bins, wooden fences, circuit boxes, eaves, bus stops, construction fences – which was followed by reaching into the social lives of people, awaiting their reaction. And luckily, a degree of reacting to their expectations.

The most direct example of Flo Kasearu's ability and/or drive to make people's social behaviour part of an artwork – or indeed the artwork itself – was the performance (human installation) "Artificial Queue = 100 X 100 kroons" (in collaboration with Andra Aaloe, Aet Ader and Grete Soosalu), which took place on 5 April 2010. The artists announced that the first one hundred people to reach the Tallinn Art Hall on Vabaduse väljak would receive money. This caused a queue of people to appear in front of the Art Hall – a layered (self-)ironic commentary concerning the effectiveness of art and the roll of money as well as the connection between the two.

If a more critical viewer may perceive this undertaking as fooling people, it must be noted that Flo Kasearu has also brought her own skin to the art market, quite literally, when she portrayed a living sculpture in 2006. In her work "Estonian Sculpture" the artist stands atop a plinth wearing national dress with a sign around her neck saying "I am dead", thereby commenting on the constant, although mostly latent, fear among Estonians that their culture will disappear; an idea which occasionally gains prominence.


III. Reaching within people (psychological reach)

Fears seem to be a constant theme in Kasearu's work, which she returns to time and again. Kasearu has several remarkable series of drawings, which have allowed her to confront fears relating to various areas of life; for example, "Fears of a Homeowner" (2013) or "Fears of a Museum Director" (2014–2016).

At the centre of the latter series is the crooked yet elegant building of the Tartu Art Museum on Raekoja plats, which is also known as the Barclay building. My tiny art collection includes a piece from this series titled "Mosque" (2016), which depicts a fear that has become rather topical and received much social attention these days. The drawing style is sketchy, a little childish. It has a double effect: some fears seem exaggerated or even ridiculous; however, the childish style of the pictures amplifies how captivating, effective and deep set the fears are. The specific expression of the fear may seem ridiculous – who would want to ram the Barclay building with a plane or attach minarets to it? – but the fear itself, the existence of fear is universally accepted. Who among us does not have fears?

It is interesting that among the thematic unity and multi-genre approach of Kasearu's solo exhibition "Endangered Species" at Tartu Art Museum (Tartmus) in the first half of 2020, one could still find a series of drawings about fear ("Little Grocery Store Fears"). If we compare the series of drawings tackling fear, we see that many themes (war, fire, 9/11, tornadoes) repeat. Such a repetition reveals the general perception and common nature of fears, and therefore also their unabating power.

IV. Reaching society

With this I don't simply mean art's social quality, but the direction of the social message and it's medium, how it reaches the core of social issues. Since I mentioned earlier Kasearu's calm yet focused attentiveness, this stance is exemplified very well by the aforementioned exhibition "Endangered Species".

Kasearu often tackles subjects which are complicated, even bothersome, the position of which in society is often paradoxical: these are often such deep problems that it is often easier to ignore them. After all, denial is one of the most common human states. It also appears in "Endangered Species", which looks at the difficulties experienced by small entrepreneurs, especially women entrepreneurs, in Estonia. The subject has a broad reach – over 90 per cent of Estonian companies are small enterprises – but this seldom comes up in public discussions.

The "poster girl" of the exhibition is actor Marika Vaarik, who Kasearu has collaborated with before. Upon entering the exhibition space, the assistant/guide portrayed by Vaarik greets visitors with the sentence, "I am sorry, but our personalities do not match." This can be interpreted in a number of ways; for example, as an expression of the apathy and grumpiness of the typical Estonian service person, and in this case, it may become apparent at the exhibition that there is a basis for the apathy and irritation. It may also become apparent that the visitor is, in fact, the problem, not noticing that the service person was dead-tired from the non-stop drudge of everyday work.

This feeling may arise or be amplified while watching the video "Soft Landing", which depicts Vaarik's small shop owner finishing up for the day, quite literally tying up loose ends – with a very expressive torpor, Vaarik pushes and pulls empty shelves, scrubs the floor and cleans the surfaces. There is nothing freeing in pushing, carrying and scrubbing things, the dirt that has gathered under the till over the years is like a layer of dust from broken dreams.

The simultaneously oppressive and grotesque feeling is amplified by the other character in the video, the screeching violin of a small boy called Vint Narro, two monotone notes, which are as unclean as the floor under the cash register before it is scrubbed. This effective short film, in which Marika Vaarik manages to play a wonderful part through her glances and body language, poses the fundamental question of "Endangered Species" – is the free market and freedom at all reconcilable? Are the forms of modern slavery different to earlier forms of forced labour only through an element of hypocrisy, external choices?




I was recently able to become personally acquainted with Flo Kasearu. The backstory to this is a rather brief collaboration, which took place in autumn 2016 at the Artishok Biennial. Ten writers – including myself – would write about the works created for the biennial by ten artists – including Flo. Flo contributed to the biennial with a performance titled "Illustrating the Request for Privacy", in which women who had been the victims of domestic violence read out the court transcripts concerning their cases.

Such a focus and choice enabled Flo to implement two types of artistic reach: a socialising move (or in fact an incision) into people's relationships, which are more convoluted than may appear at first glance, and a societal reach to immediately tackle the topical, unresolved, constantly understated societal problems. For me as a person working with language, the bureaucratic jargon in Flo's work was especially effective – this is also expressed in the title of the work, marking a physical attack. The juridical euphemisms spoken by the women seemed less to solve violence than to multiply it in its own way.

Anyway, the text I wrote was noticed by Flo as well as her mother, the manager of the Pärnu Women's Support Centre, Margo Orupõld, one of the most assured people enlightening the public on the subject of domestic violence. Some time later, Margo brought Flo and myself together to continue work on the subject of domestic violence, to find lesser used artistic approaches to the subject. As a result of our exchange of ideas the book "Vangerdused" (which roughly translates as "Regroupings") was published under the auspices of the Pärnu Women's Support Centre in the summer of 2020. I wrote around twenty short pieces for this collaborative work, which were based on the real-life stories of women who had sought help from the support centre.



Crowds in the hall: on 12. X 2016, Flo Kasearu, in cooperation with the Pärnu Women's Support Center, organized a performance "Illustrating the Request for Privacy" in the chamber hall of Theater NO99 within the framework of the
V Artishok Biennale
Photo by Paul Kuimet




In addition to the stories, there are some drawings by Flo in the book, the style of which resembles that of the three aforementioned series on the subject of fear. Although I am a little disheartened by the fact that the drawings in "Vangerdused" are seen as illustrations for a literary work. I don't think it is so; Flo's pictures do not comment on my short pieces, instead they approach the dilemma from a different direction, telling a completely independent story.

While the common motif in my texts can be considered to be the description of the injustice and terror in Estonian homes told through techniques characteristic of fairy tales and their tendency to distort reflections of real life, Flo looks at the nature of domestic violence as spatial relationships, sharing territory, observing the battlefield of personal relationships. Therefore, her works can be viewed independent of my nightmarish fairy tales, as parallel expressions of thematically linked stories.

One could also say, if I speak of that which happens backstage, then Flo shows that the backstage is indeed much more important than the stage. In conclusion, the pictures in "Vangerdused" are not so much illustrations as an independent holistic view, the view of a sovereign artist on a sensitive problem, the solving of which should permeate society, invading the senses of every person.


Jan Kaus is a writer, musician and translator.

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