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"Free drinks all summer long!" or how the nineties will never come back

Johannes Saar (1/2021)

Johannes Saar analyses Kumu’s permanent exhibition "The Future is in One Hour: Estonian Art in the 1990s".

 


Open from 16. II 2020
Kumu Art Museum, 4th floor, B wing
Curator: Eha Komissarov
Permanent exhibition team: Tiiu Parbus, Annika Räim
Artists: DeStudio, Inessa Josing, Toomas Kalve, Kiwa, Marco Laimre, Laurentsius, Anu Põder, Mark Raidpere, Ene-Liis Semper, Liina Siib, Hannes Starkopf, Jaan Toomik, Mare Tralla, Mart Viljus, Toomas Volkmann



There was a time in Estonia when it was natural for public communication to involve incitement to sexual intercourse, gulping down alcohol was a sign of normalcy and hard-handed action was the go-to solution for everything. By the end of the day, the art agent of the nineties reeked unmistakably of the daily special and cigarettes, with a fading hint of potato salad. The street scene was shaped by gangs, cooperative shops and the seemingly ubiquitous candyfloss stands. And also ex-communist new money, now flourishing by applying their talents in scrap metal and real estate.

Some struggled out of poverty into the calm waters of big money; some got stuck in the rapids of transition and met their maker. Some suffered mental trauma, others physical, and all came away with a memory of a time when "everyone had a chance" – or that's what they used to say anyway. In reality, this period was like a bottleneck, but paradoxically one that only the biggest fish squeezed through.

 

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The art of the nineties has now found its way to the permanent exhibition of Kumu. Curator Eha Komissarov has done a good job, squeezing this diversity of life through the bottleneck of memory and putting out the "biggest fish" for viewing. There are no surprises in the exhibition, no first meetings either, only "old friends" from the nineties, now elevated as part of the canon. They have found a place of their own in a good neighbourhood: across the corridor on the same floor lives and flourishes Kumu's previous permanent exhibition "Conflicts and Adaptations. Estonian Art of the Soviet Era (1940–1991)";* the art of the nineties is its chronological continuation. Peeter Linnap's series of photographs "Summer 1955" (1993) and Marge Monko's video work "Nora's Sisters" (2009) form a delicate bridge between the two exhibitions; defying chronological order, they are positioned as an introduction to the Soviet-period art to emphasise the perseverance of cultural memory even where politics has drawn a red line.

Of course, the diversity of real life was always going to be left outside the museum door. Put up on the pedestal are those works that were originally intended to destroy all artwork-centred thinking – another paradox! – and depose the triumvirate of painting, sculpture and printmaking, breaking into the wide open waters of video, installation, photography and performance. This they achieved, too. The annual exhibitions of the Soros Center for Contemporary Arts successfully hijacked all media attention, and the Estonian Artists' Association's annual shows, once the highlight of the year, were diminished into "a salon of the outcasts". The outcasts did not hide their disappointment under a bushel, though; the innovation launched with the help of fresh money was vocally criticised.

 

Public anger – out

Hence my first reservation. If there is anything missing from this exhibition, it is the public outrage. It has not found its way into this permanent exhibition; it is not remembered by the history of art that has found its place in the museum. And yet, the public reception of the contemporary art of the 1990s, the rage that ordinary viewers expressed in the emerging online comments sections, the cool contempt of literary intellectuals in the mainstream press, and the confused indignation of the older artists at these "cans of s**t" that were passed for artworks shaped a universal pattern of consumption that continues to plague the understanding of contemporary art in Estonia.

This furious denial was also part of the atmosphere of the nineties, perhaps a "tainted part" that must necessarily be left behind the museum door. The museum's permanent exhibition and collections must be stored at a constant temperature and level of humidity – flying spit and icy contempt are out.

 

Schizospeak – the cultural cost of globalisation

Video clips from art programmes in the nineties from the Estonian Television (ETV) archive bring some levity to the otherwise hermetic sacrality of the museum, introducing some live voices and smiling faces from the period. And that's good – they bring with them life, the pungent taste of a cigarette filter, and of course the people whose activities make up this otherwise so voiceless exhibition.

They are still hopelessly young in those programmes, of course, not ailed by a bad back or threatened by wage poverty. Precarity does not weigh on them, nor does the need to earn a daily living. Cigarettes and alcohol have not yet taken their toll; they are not yet killed by sleeplessness or worn out from being overworked and overweight. The ETV art programmes, which at the time were produced as an after-thought, a secondary by-product of art life, have withstood the call of oblivion. In fact, they have now shifted from the margins to the centre of attention. They are part of the exhibition itself. They are a memory trigger that releases a series of dusty associations from a time when "everyone had a chance". Or that's what they kept saying, anyway.

Among others, the programme "Elustiilid" (Lifestyles, 1993–1996) in particular. Watching it again now, it contains information that seemed like noise at the time. Those interviewed by Raoul Kurvitz are obviously aware of living in a double translation zone, a cultural limbo born out of a sudden exposure to globalisation. Above all, it is apparent that they are straddled on a linguistic border between Estonian and English; their speech is schizophrenic, consisting largely of patching up English terms with Estonian and vice versa. Their facial expressions betray that for them the Estonian language represents a simplistic understanding that is sinking into the past; they imitate its jargon with a benevolent smile, only to then quite naturally replace it with sounding Anglicisms, which obviously represent the language of the future for them. They live on the threshold of two languages, of the past and the future, weighing the meanings of words. They are looking for a global language to be used as a norm, in a situation where stereoscopic vision has collapsed; there is double vision, and the whole optics of their worldview needs to be readjusted.

I will give examples from memory. Take Raul Saaremets. He talks to the camera at length about ambient, rave and techno music, and then describes encounters at linguistic boundaries, "Friends often ask me, "What is ambient?" So, I tell them in very simple terms that, well, it's electronic dance music." And he smiles benevolently, because it's really much more complicated, right? Or take Allan Hmelnitski. He gives a long, animated account of camp lifestyle, colourful examples of which, he says, are found in "Western discotheques", and then quickly corrects himself, "These places are called clubs now." Then he takes another drag on his cigarette and smiles at the camera.

It was obviously a time when the meanings of words required constant clarification, because "Nobody knows anything here!" and "Nothing like this has ever been done in Estonia!". The people live, if not in a vacuum of meanings, then certainly in a landscape of sliding meanings. What else could explain the recurring terminological explanations and definitions as they talk? It has to be the conviction that the power of words will once again crystallise the world as a kingdom of definite meanings. As a provincial boy, I was amazed at the time that Kurvitz would go to the fringes of the art world to find out about the meaning of these words: cartoonists, attic bohemians, indie bands, lingerie models, punk queens and DJs of subcultural club music. Only he knows what on earth he was hoping to find there.

For me, though, these are first and foremost people for whom life at the time was a constant process of language learning and a search for meaning. The art of the period also faced the same challenge. With George Soros' money, local art critics were sent on six-month "immersion courses" organised at the Central European University in the early years of the decade. Soon after, the cultural outlets Vikerkaar and Sirp published epic pieces with titles like "What is postmodernism?" or "Quo vadis, Estonian people?", making enthusiastic leaps towards Old Europe just like the Young Estonia literary group had at the beginning of the century. Popular enlightenment knew no boundaries; and the people, in turn, also felt an urgent need to express their opinion about art. The debate was nationwide: no one stayed home, and everyone picketed somewhere in a newspaper column or an online comments section.

 

Melancholy – the 1990s daily special

The "culprits" are now museum artefacts, historicised, their struggles over. But the selected 16 artists were not enough to reproduce the 1990s idiom; the organisers still felt the need to add some critical chatter, because in addition to the popular outrage, the exhibition also lacks a memory-political context.

As you may remember, the early 1990s were filled with the rhetoric of the legal and historical continuity of the Republic of Estonia. This also came up in art, in the form of a rebirth of the 1960s – as a dolling out of historical justice to the previously repressed (semi-)underground artists and (almost) outsiders. In fact, it would be impossible to understand the first half of the decade without acknowledging that this was a period of the vigorous revision of art history, rehabilitation of repressed patterns of memory and a mental return to the pre-war Republic of Estonia as a haven of Western European culture, simultaneously sharing ideals with artists like Ülo Sooster and Joseph Kosuth.

This geographic expansion is another aspect not present in the Kumu permanent exhibition, and probably rightly so, as the decade in question did not belong to the artists rehabilitated during that time. Rather, it belonged to those coming of age sometime in the late eighties. The art veterans were simply lucky in the early years of the transition: they finally received the flowers and medals they deserved (some also state funerals). In magnificent retrospectives, memorial exhibitions and catalogued memoirs, the public could now see the underground art revolutions and private sketches of the 1960s generation, now at the very centre of art life, in the best exhibition spaces of the nineties, in a newly independent Estonia.

Today, another twenty years have ticked away, and history is once again claiming its share of the present. It's again time to give flowers and medals, and hold national memorial ceremonies. Happily, the permanent exhibition has made room for extended discussions from two art events in Saaremaa in the middle of the decade – the biennials "Fabrique d'Histoire" (1995) and "Invasion" (1997) curated by Peeter Linnap. I think that was the first time the whole decade in Estonia looked in the mirror and became aware of itself as an object of self-analysis. I believe it was there and then that the historisation of the decade began, and this happened in a heightened awareness of fabrication as the main tool of making history.

Some of the period's fundamental doubts about the reliability of history and the essential deception of photography has carried over into this exhibition. But it is embedded in the iconographic structure of the pictures; it only reveals itself to us in a close reading of the images. In fact, today's curators have only accompanied the images with a generic narrative of "the generation of winners" – we hear a story of pioneering trailblazers and great explorers, legendary rebels, art innovators with a "keen sense of social justice", "radical expanders of the art scene", bringers of artistic independence. As familiar and heartwarming as this endlessly repeated story is, isn't there a less triumphant rhetoric available for art historical self-reflection? Something more critical that would help us break out of this impasse of self-praise? Is heroisation the only way to write history?

No, it is not the only way. The schizophrenic discourse described above did not come out of nowhere. It was intermingled with morbid self-destruction, resignation, blasphemy, self-deprecation, furious travesty, inner demons and heightened awareness of the disruption of the physical body in the tensions of social conflict. How can this be overlooked? How can this be kept quiet? How can it be forgotten so quickly that the art of the 1990s was a pure discourse of disintegration, as deconstruction, simulacra, schizoanalysis, the cancellation of metanarratives, the "end of art", the "death of the author" and nomadic existence in a mishmash of empty signifiers marked the mainstream? In fact, there was nothing else on the menu. Fin-de-siècle melancholy was the daily special of the 1990s, and I didn't smell it in the texts accompanying the exhibition. So it looks like there is a break in our memory; our memory pattern has been overwritten.

Quo vadis, Estonian people? Which cultural memory have you chosen to wear today? Obviously not the one from the nineties. And how would that even be possible? In today's Estonia, it would be impossible to pull up a blue-and-white slogan reading "Free drinks all summer long!" across a street, which the camera then pans over for an art programme later to be found among the national television's archival footage. You can't even smoke on your balcony or drink vodka on the street anymore. Your jacket now has no distinctive smell at all, as the endless tidal wave of advertising for detergents and bleaches has done its job: we live in a deep-cleansed Estonia now. Society is a sanitised, well-ventilated, low-alcohol political-corporate body of control. Drug addiction is a bigger problem than ever before, but some of it will probably be decriminalised in the near future, for purely therapeutic purposes. All these measures have borne fruit, just like Ülo Kiple's graffiti with proposals for the "treatment of diseases" put up across the country once did. Having put the transition of the nineties behind them, people have found peace again, drowsily tucked away in the warmth of their homes like potted plants. Status quo, Estonian people?

 

 

 

DeStudio
Röövel Ööbik. Raul Saaremets
1993
photo collage, 97 x 149 cm
Art Museum of Estonia
Photographer Stanislav Stepashko

 

 

 

A final bow to the new veterans

Many of the artists in this exhibition do one thing – they discuss the possibility of life in the context of commercial aesthetics. Mart Viljus, Inessa Josing, DeStudio (Herkki Erich Merila, Peeter Laurits) and Toomas Volkmann have all in their own way engaged with beauty produced with a business agenda. The first three tend to repel it, using the tactics of the absurd, pastiche and parody, but Volkmann amplifies the aesthetics of advertising to a level of sensuality at which "Sex sells!" is the only rhetoric remaining in the image.

Mare Tralla, Liina Siib, Mark Raidpere and Ene-Liis Semper, on the other hand, discuss the gender roles assigned to them; they scrutinise gender and body, and the "jobs" assigned to both of these categories like a knife in the back. Here, too, resistance is the driving force, as none of them welcomes the national programmes promoting the traditional family model and "nation breeding" with open arms. They all prefer liberal freedoms, feminism and silent LGBT protest, some also voicing more abrupt retorts against the patriarchal arrogance occasionally spreading its jaws on Toompea. The works of Mare Tralla and Liina Siib in particular are a diagnosis of gender discrimination, the pay gap and low expectations for life instilled in women.

Having since become a father of three daughters myself, I know from personal experience that there are still other reasons why the nineties will not be coming back. The thing is, in a sense, they've never left. Estonia continues to rank among the highest in the world with its state-sanctioned gender pay gap, and I'm not sure if my children will have any other "job" to do in this "eastern sharia" besides forced pregnancy and forced delivery.

The rest of the artists in the permanent exhibition defy easy classification into specific categories; they stay on their own special paths, one by one or in pairs. For example, Anu Põder has never had a place on the village swing. Even before perestroika, she kept her distance from her colleagues as a sculptor. She was always shunning classical figure modelling, instead opting for objects and installations, taking an interest in the ability of materials to remember the human body. Abjection, the horrifying emptiness of objects that have fallen out of consumption, their torn anatomy and the apprehension of someone having died always haunt her work. The purposeless afterlife of things and people, questions about the possibility of life outside the expanding bubble of consumer society have been Anu Põder's playground, a melancholic micro-history of the temporal traces of the body in material culture.

Posthumanism, or a farewell to anthropocentric culture and the anthropocene, was another outlook conceived in the 1990s, and it is this zeitgeist that is greeted by Kurvitz' dispassionately machine-like computer installation "Pentatonic Color System 07-11" (1994/1999). But let me say just a few more words about the disintegration of figurative sculpture. In the nineties, Hannes Starkopf discovered ways of synthesising classical modelling with pop art and psychedelia; on this colourful trip, he met the then young prince of neo-pop Marko Mäetamm, and the result was an exegi monumentum – a worthy epitaph for both artists' past work.

Kiwa, a chameleon-like trickster who constantly changed performative identities, models busts and heads in this exhibition, but only to indicate that personal identity emerges in interaction with others, in the opinions of others. At the end of the day, it is the others that decide if you are really Napoleon or just a megalomaniacal lunatic, or which glass ceilings you will hit your head against and which ward you will be locked up in after you do so.

Toomas Kalve and Laurentsius (the latter is here represented by an atypical work unsuitable for a retrospective) have always taken a trans-avant-garde path through the pictorial culture of a more distant past. Kalve has consistently celebrated the fragile silver-coloured aesthetic of the century of the birth of photography, while Laurentius has played hide-and-seek with painterly references to art history. The works of both artists feature a decadent manner and a tragic sense of history, a feeling that our genuine connection with the past has been lost and needs to be revived in some way, even if this amounts to pointing out the "end of history". After all, the entire decade was marked by universal finalism, a conviction that with the end of the century we had reached the "end of art" – that the 2000s stood like a wall before us, and all we saw reflected on it was the path of those we had left behind. There was no choice but to accept what this wall of mirrors had to offer.

Marco Laimre, by contrast, puts the viewer face to face with a different kind of mirroring – the arrival of 1990s Estonia in the hegemony of media reality, a situation where seriality creates reality. And not some alternative reality, but the one and only autocratic reality; for example, the media reality of the TV drama "Õnne 13", which has run on national television since 1993. Laimre's wall of cardboard TV sets in itself conveys a sense of reasonably priced cheapness, and the frozen narrative on the screens also tells a story about the everyday life of the "little people". The existence of a "generation of losers" (which Kurvitz' lifestyle explorations also touch on, by the way), an army of the new poor, for whom life in the nineties was not much more than stumbling through snowy streets with a bag of shopping, cancels out the decade's hopeful exaltation and testifies to the birth of a caste society in the shadow of Estonia's official success story.

Jaan Toomik, despite his democratic attitudes and the morbid motifs in his work, successfully represents Estonians making their way into the "wide world". If it were a one-man job, he alone would best personify the idiom of the nineties. It was Toomik in particular that the public outrage in Estonia was directed against, but he was also the focal point of the global biennial circuit; it is his work that certainly reflects the depression and angst lurking behind the decade's success cult, the existential questions of personal coping at a time when "everyone else is doing so well". In this Kumu permanent exhibition, he is the one that ensures a funereal mood in the best possible way, and it is his works that lay the nineties to rest in the dark, earthy grave of the museum – in an appropriately black mood.

 

* "Conflicts and Adaptations. Estonian Art of the Soviet Era (1940–1991)". Curator: Anu Allas. Exhibition team: Maarin Ektermann, Liisa Kaljula, Eha Komissarov, Elnara Taidre. Kumu Art Museum, 4th floor, A wing, open from 17. II 2016.

 

Johannes Saar is an art historian, critic and lecturer; he holds a doctoral degree in media and communication studies from the University of Tartu.

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