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Köler Prize Is Boring?

Indrek Grigor (2/2015)

Art historian Hanno Soans, who has written on all the Köler Prize exhibitions and compiled the 2013 Köler Prize catalogue, discussed at length the pros and cons of the prize with art critic Indrek Grigor.

25. IV–14. VI 2015
Contemporary Art Museum Estonia (EKKM)
Köler Prize 2015. Exhibition of Nominees
Artists: Kristiina Hansen, Edith Karlson, Tanel Rander, Anu Vahtra, Ivar Veermäe
Grand Prix: Anu Vahtra
People's Choice Award: Edith Karlson

Indrek Grigor (IG): From 25 April until 14 June, the Contemporary Art Museum Estonia (EKKM) showed an exhibition of the nominees for the Köler Prize, one of the art events that receives the most media coverage in Estonia. The most striking idiosyncrasy of the Köler Prize is that its format has remained virtually unchanged throughout its five-year history, and we could say, with a little exaggeration, that this has robbed the event of its content. What is left is the competitive element. Art critic Liisa Kaljula has already written in KUNST.EE last year about this as a kind of horse race1 and you, Hanno Soans, have also referred to the Köler Prize as a competitive sports event2. Even though the event has earned the reputation of being boring for art critics – partly because of its voluminous (and hard to beat) catalogue introducing the work of the nominees –, when we look at the broader perspective, the Köler Prize still plays an important role in the vitality of our arts community. Most of the nominees are young artists who are offered a relatively professional description of their creative career so far. At the same time, the competitive aspect of the exhibition places them in a situation, where something actually depends on the exhibition. Even if this "something" is eventually nothing more than heightened attention.

Hanno, you have written several articles about the Köler Prize and, to be honest, you have already highlighted all the questions regarding the event that I find interesting, but let's see if I can make you see some things from a new angle. Even the very fact that the questions and answers that seem appropriate when talking about the Köler Prize exhibition have remained the same year after year is something we should discuss. Anyway, the Köler Prize seems to be the most popular exhibition for EKKM. What do you think is the reason? Is it really as simple as that the media likes money and that's it?

Hanno Soans (HS): I do not have statistical data at hand to prove that the Köler Prize is the most popular exhibition for EKKM, but it is true that, statistically speaking, it is the event that attracts the most media attention. However, I would say that it isn't actually important who will win the Köler Prize and who will receive the money. First and foremost, it is a project of emancipation for EKKM as an institution. The Köler Prize is used to maintain the museum's position as an institution so that it would not remain a single building with an intriguing and ever-changing layout of rooms, but would one day have an additional exhibition hall. The Köler Prize is the most important lever in this process.

I wouldn't say that money makes things banal. Money is the measure that shows when, and to what extent, contemporary art is being accepted here. The increases in the amounts for the prize are not the result of inflation, but rather an indication of the growth in trust between the sponsors and the institution.

To me, the Köler Prize is above all an emancipation project that helps EKKM to move closer and closer to the mainstream. And I am not here to disparage the mainstream. I believe that we would all like to see the fascinating young Estonian art that is displayed here being placed somewhere in the middle, so that we could then decide what could be categorised "classical" and what "experimental".

What has always intrigued be about EKKM is that, on the one hand, it opposes itself to what is done at the institutional level – EKKM was basically established as a counter-reaction to the exhibition politics of contemporary art at Kumu Art Museum. On the other hand, this reactionary stance – we cannot say it has disappeared, but it has certainly transformed. The problems have changed; Anders Härm (member of the Board at EKKM – Ed.) is trying to turn the unrenovated industrial building into a Kunsthalle.

Yes, but he is not moving towards Kumu, is he? One thing specific to Kumu is its long production cycles characteristic of a big museum. EKKM is able to play a much more dynamic game, and it does that for the sake of increasing the stakes.

If we look at the Köler Prize as an event from this position, one thing that stands out is that it has remained unchanged and is repeating itself to a downright extreme level. The catalogues of the Köler Prize, when we read them in one go, seem almost identical: they all include an introduction about the statute of the prize and the format of the exhibition, which has remained virtually unchanged over the years. On the one hand, I understand that it indeed cannot change. On the other hand, however, I would still like to ask: how should we approach this repetition?

I think we should be patient and keep Köler Prize unchanged for at least another five years. Things could change, for instance, if an extension were built to the museum, or if Anders Härm grew tired of organising an annual exhibition in the same format every time.

Also, the thing is that change is impossible; all the game rules are in place. It has become like a sports competition, where the same parameters must be applied to all contestants.

Looking at the Köler Prize as an exhibition format, it occurred to me that we do not have that many similar group exhibitions that focus on Estonian artists.

And which, at the same time, would focus on describing the positions of the artists as clearly as possible. The exhibition catalogues take us back to the works from their student years, drawing a line from there to the new work displayed right here at the Köler Prize exhibition. This is accompanied by a "screen test", in which the artists are placed in the role of critics or outsiders with respect to their competitors, thereby testing their ability to verbally express themselves and find something in the work of the other artists. This is a very comprehensive package, and perhaps I would also like to see a catalogue with a completely different agenda compiled for, let's say, the 10th anniversary of the event, which would then become an incentive to do things differently from then on. Yet, for a certain time, I believe it is necessary for the prize to remain unchanged.

But what do you mean by saying that we do not have other exhibitions of similar format?

On the one hand, it is a group exhibition; on the other, it is a strictly curated display. There are indeed very few group exhibitions that focus on Estonian authors. The only parallel that crosses my mind is the spring exhibition (Annual Exhibition of the Estonian Artists' Association – Ed.).

I think it would be nice if the exhibition format of the Köler Prize would replace the spring exhibition.

The format of the spring exhibition, which actually has potential, is a separate problem, but I stressed the uniqueness of the Köler Prize, because when I ask about the need to change the format, I am not really sure whether we should do it or not because as an exhibition it fills a rather unique niche.

Talking about the selection of artists, this year's Köler Prize is the 5th, and so far, no artist has been nominated more than once. The nominees are selected by the Board of EKKM, which, in a way, ensures a conditionally stable image of the event. In an article3 published in Estonian Art last year you wrote yourself that, besides having a consistent creative agenda, the artist must appeal to the Board of EKKM in order to be nominated. Looking around the Estonian art scene, I have to wonder, when will we exhaust our reserves? We cannot produce five artists every year. Or should we even worry about it?

I think we should, a bit.

The Köler Prize, especially this year, has left the impression of being an exhibition of predominantly young artists. So far, there are actually only two exceptions: only Kiwa and Marko Mäetamm have applied for the Köler Prize, after previously going through several creative cycles. Widening the age range could be one way to expand the selection of artists. At the same time, EKKM has so far managed to surprise and convince me with their choice, so I guess the deficit has not yet become a problem. However, I know that the curator Anders Härm has mentioned this possibility, and he is dreading the moment when he realises that there is no-one else to choose. The question what to do then is yet to be solved.

As you mentioned, there are only two artists that have participated in the Köler Prize, after having already gone through several creative phases. This can inevitably be noticed, and to me, this is also one of the pathological idiosyncrasies of our art scene. Also evident is the fact that there has only been one painter among the nominees throughout these five years. What attitude should we, in your opinion, take toward the nomination process in this context? On the one hand, the Köler Prize is a project by EKKM and I fully accept that the choice of artists must represent the agenda of the institution. On the other hand, we have discussed this with our Latvian colleagues – mainly for the sake of good neighbourly relations – and to compare the Köler Prize with the Purvītis Prize in Latvia, with its specially formed committee that nominates artists based on exhibitions held during the previous two years. What I like about this is that I can see a clear reason for the nomination, whether I accept the decision of the jury or not.

On the other hand, Anders Härm, the curator of the Köler Prize, has repeatedly stressed the importance of a new work commissioned for the exhibition. And I must admit that these new works are important indeed. At least one of them, the 2011 winning work by Yevgeny Zolotko, now belongs to the Art Museum of Estonia, and perhaps it will soon purchase another winning work, Jaanus Samma's further development of his Köler Prize project, which is currently representing us at the Venice Biennale.

And I think in many cases – for example, with Yevgeny Zolotko, Jass Kaselaan and now Edith Karlson too – we can see that the new work has served as an excuse for starting something new. The format of the Köler Prize seems to somehow make artists want to show what a long way they have come from their earlier key work.


Edith Karlson

Edith Karlson
2015, installation
Exhibition view at EKKM,
photo by Johannes Säre
Courtesy of the artist



I would like to be a little provocative at this point. As the winner of this year's Köler Prize is yet to be announced at the moment of our talk (13. V 2015 – Ed.), we might speculate who it will be. When I checked out the nominees at home before going to the exhibition, I was rather hesitant, but after reading your article in Eesti Ekspress4, where you introduced their works, and having now finally visited the exhibition, I would dare to predict that the winner will be Anu Vahtra. However, this decision will be surprising in a way, since for the very first time the prize will be awarded for an old work.

Yes, I also believe that Anu Vahtra will be the winner, and the People's Choice Award goes to Edith Karlson.

I totally agree (29. V 2015 it became clear that these predictions were correct – Ed.).

But we shall see how things look to the panel of judges who haven't seen the original version of Anu Vahtra's work, which clearly affects our assessment right now.

An international panel of judges is another thing I have always liked about the Köler Prize. While I praised the Purvītis Prize for the fact that the nominees are selected based on a specific exhibition, so that I understand the reason behind their nomination, I still believe it is a much better solution for the sustainability of the event that the panel of judges primarily assesses the exhibition itself and not a new presentation of an earlier display, which may or may not work in the new space.

The paradox I tried to point out is that Anu Vahtra's reproduction is better than her new work. All in all, this competitive context in which the Köler Prize gives reason to strive for a successful exhibition, is very fruitful. In the case of the Purvītis Prize, the eventual exhibition is much more determined by whether the designer and curator of the exhibition will succeed in their work or not.

Even the fact that everything is summarised in the catalogue will place artists in a position where they have to think about their next step. It doesn't happen very often here that the entire body of work of predominantly young artists is summarised and they can leave behind this stage in their creative career.



Anu Vahtra

Anu Vahtra
The Walls Stand,
Speechless and Cold
2015, installation
Exhibition view at EKKM,
photo by Johannes Säre
Courtesy of the artist



I have one more question. We have been picking on the artists as well as the format of the Köler Prize exhibition, but now would be the time for some self-criticism.

I understand the format and function of the Köler Prize catalogue: basically, it is a means for introducing the nominated artists to the international panel of judges. The authors of the catalogue texts have changed from year to year, but when it comes to the content, there have only been minor changes over the years, and the texts themselves, let's face it, are simply boring. I was struck by self-critical depression when reading these. Hanno, you were the author of the 2013 catalogue. Tell me, are we really that boring? I am convinced that my own writing in the same situation would be equally dull.

But let us be boring then! The format serves a certain function. Perhaps you phrased it even more straightforwardly than it was generally meant, but this is precisely its function. To talk a little behind people's backs: last year, when Andreas Trossek wrote the catalogue, Visible Solutions LLC expressed their dissatisfaction that Trossek's views could be interpreted as a critical position, which is not appropriate considering the format of the Köler Prize catalogue. We can assume that Trossek tried to bring more life to the format. But it seems to me too, that criticism is not an appropriate position in the Köler Prize catalogue, because it places artists in a different light before the panel of judges, and we lose the neutral tone which, in a way, inevitably means that the task is correctly completed in a school-like manner, but there is no intrigue in it...


Indrek Grigor and Hanno Soans are art historians, curators and critics.


1 Liisa Kaljula, Köler Prize, igakevadine hobukaarikute võiduajamine / Köler Prize, the Annual Spring Chariot Races. – KUNST.EE 2014, no 2, pp 67–69.

2 See, for example: Hanno Soans, Köler Prize'i neljas raund – nominentidest. – Eesti Ekspress 14. V 2014.

3 Hanno Soans, About the Köler Prize, generally. – Estonian Art 2014, no 1, pp 15–17.

4 Hanno Soans, Koos Köleriga nüüdisaega. – Eesti Ekspress 7. V 2015.

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