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Kurvitz is Kurvitz is Kurvitz

Maarin Mürk (2/2013)

Maarin Mürk deconstructs the comeback by Raoul Kurvitz.

 

18. I–21. IV 2013
Kumu Ar Museum
Curator: Kati Ilves.

It must feel great to be Raoul Kurvitz right now. His sizeable and popular solo show has just closed at Kumu Art Museum, the public’s interest rekindled, all eyes on him. Margus Tamm has accurately summarised Kurvitz’s creative career, dividing it according to a rise-fall-comeback pattern based on the logic of pop culture (Eesti Päevaleht 5. II 2013). The pop star Kurvitz also carries a fair amount of modernist artist-genius – someone who does not want be limited to the particular time and space accorded him. Grandeur suits Kurvitz, his ideas start to work when presented in larger quantities and in excess. Yet, the "problem" lies in the local context, since Estonia does not know what to do or how to handle megalomania of this kind. It is extremely hard to fill the category of a pop star in our small country because of the lack of distance necessary for creating an aura. Estonians are characterised by a "slow and cautious" attitude; charisma, however, requires audaciousness and playing across the safe lines of good taste. Moreover, a persistent lack of human resources complicates the process of establishing an elementary fan-base.

The period when the local scene and Kurvitz were most in sync was at the end of the 1980s and the 1990s. The end of one form of society and the beginning of another generated the necessary dramatic background, the breaking point needed intensity, you could set your own rules, and the fact that different life-styles, attitudes and choices all arrived at once created fitting opportunities for personas like Kurvitz. There was also an external demand for this type of creative personality – at the time, a certain amount of madness was expected from post-socialist countries to enliven the Old Europe. The exhibition at Kumu Art Museum was dominated by works from that period. Through those pieces, Kurvitz appears to us as a shaman performing cryptic rituals, leaving behind signs in the form of paintings and installations. Interacting with the public was not important – the viewer could only observe the spectacular revelation, and become a part of the moment when energy and personal references exploded. At the same time, passive viewers have a noteworthy role because they are a testament to the event having taken place, and through not participating they secure the detached position of the artist. Without witnesses, without an audience, the ambition of the artist loses its point.

 

Kurvitz_Ararat

Raoul Kurvitz
Ararat
Performance
8.III 1991
Tallinn Art Hall
Courtesy of the artist

 

In the 1990s, the different lifestyles and positions that would not have come into contact with each other in a "normal" situation were mixed together, but at the time they were all new and equal. The ecstatic nature of Kurvitz’s performances could have very well been like that of a rave, merging performance, narcissism and role-play; the androgynous figures with green and blue lips in his paintings seemed to have stepped off glamorous catwalks, etc. During that period, the category "famous artist", referring to artists familiar to a wider public and the entire field of culture alike, was working in the Estonian art world. Now, the Zeitgeist has changed and the dramatic and grand emotional line Kurvitz kept then seems rather time-specific and only relevant to put on view in the museum. As the convenor of this exhibition, Kumu plays an even more decisive role than with the other members of the "generation of winners" from the 1990s, whose position the museum is systematically establishing. Compared to Ene-Liis Semper’s and Kaido Ole’s solo shows, held in 2011 and 2012, respectively, the Kurvitz exhibition is the most retrospective of the three. Yet, it was particularly Kurvitz who needed his position to be re-established after years of silence. The installations and performances that the younger generation had only heard of were rebuilt or re-performed in Kumu.

Of all the possible roles, the museum chose that of the perpetuator of the legend of the pop star, putting up a greatest hits-style exhibition. A new perspective was added through the booklet containing Ingrid Ruudi’s view on Rühm T’s spatial practices in the context of architectural theory, all other interpretations supported the legend that had already been constructed. Future researchers and art lovers can also rely on the new film about Kurvitz published on DVD alongside the booklet (authors: Kati Ilves and Mati Schönberg). When the camera is directed towards someone so vain and charismatic, the film almost produces itself, and Kurvitz really does present his biography in a manner equal to "The Lives of the Artists" (1550) by Giorgio Vasari. According to Vasari, the characteristics of great artists are already revealed early in childhood: the future artist is special somehow and that is manifested through glorious and meaningful occurrences. In the film, Kurvitz recalls stories of his birth: he was said to have been born exactly at midnight, the umbilical cord twisted around him three times. The rest of the narrative continues in the same mode and Kurvitz openly discusses his time at the top, the difficulties, his position in society, relationships and so on. Inevitably, one needs to ask why only two of his ex-girlfriends/muses were given air time, while none of the other members of Rühm T, his contemporaries or art historians were included. Again, a wider context is missing. Kurvitz establishes his own legend and the museum amplifies it across the threshold of public attention.

Considering how enthralled the media mogul Hans H. Luik and the popular author Kaur Kender were by the exhibition, it seems their whole generation needed that affirmation. And that is exactly what the museum can provide – yes, you are important, your actions are legendary; you, the former rebels and bad boys, you belong to the national shrine of culture. These pivotal times and possibilities will never return but at least they are ceremonially written into history. Life can go on according to what is offered in the field now.

Publishing a best-of compilation of past hits is actually more like crediting the comeback and Kurvitz’s steps towards music taken in recent years seem to be a great move toward re-establishing himself in the wider field of culture. Performance as an art form has dwindled in Estonia, performance art events are decreasing in number and so the audience has lost the will to appreciate them. The ritualistic grand performance with a strong mystical artistic stance seems to be a phenomenon of past decade(s). In music, however, the position of the "great creator" is (still) viable. Furthermore, the current trends generally support Kurvitz, as the wave of "bedroom musicians" and the fetishizing of lo-fi and amateurs is becoming increasingly mainstream. So everyone who has been sure their whole life that they cannot sing could find themselves releasing solo-albums (NB The first album Kurvitz released was titled "Forbidden to Sing"). His experience as an artist adds performative elements to his work as a musician and that blurs the lines between performance art and concerts. It is a win-win situation – the audience finds the shift in categories interesting and Kurvitz find himself in his own element once again.

Maarin Mürk is a freelance critic and curator and founder of the art blog Artishok.

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