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Let’s talk about nationalism: between the national robot and cyberpunk

Anneli Porri (1-2/2010)

An exhibition analysis by Anneli Porri, or why it is still important to talk about nationalism three years after the ‘Bronze Night’
Let’s Talk About Nationalism: Between Identity and Ideology is a very good exhibition. In democracy, it is said, the voters are worthy of their government. At present, Estonia is worthy of this exhibition, which takes place three years after the so-called ‘Bronze Night’, during a period in which the defence minister of the Republic of Estonia uses the expression ‘triumph of national will’; when there is a national fiasco in the shape of a monument on Tallinn’s Freedom Square (the new monument to the War of Independence), and when it is considered an intolerable heresy to discuss the issue of nationalism in Estonia publicly, argumentatively and critically, without a blue-black-and-white pathos.
Nationalism entails a circle of problems that are difficult to address because of the multitude of active discourses and target groups, resulting in a broad semantic field of various discourses involving differing use of terms and concepts; words communicate completely different messages to the respective users and vary in tonality and emphasis. When confronted with the topic of nationalism, positions derived from ‘gut feeling’ and academic positions usual in social and humanitarian theories all meet at a dead end. Such positions may often be mutually exclusive, and yet simultaneously present in one person. I support the rights of self-determination, equality, cultural diversity, contemporary ethnography and world culture. At the same time I mistrust my neighbour, refuse to allow strangers in my personal space, have no desire to emigrate, prefer to communicate in Estonian, happily wear socks with ethnic patterns, find the ‘Mulgi’ potato and barley porridge an excellent dish, and the music group Zetod is driving me crazy. On the other hand, rhetoric such as “we must fill our country with children”, “only our Estonian identity has saved from extinction” and “I hereby dedicate this medal to the Estonian nation without whom I could not have achieved this success”, strangles me like the starched blue collar of a Soviet school uniform.
Ethnocentrism, which sounds politically incorrect in the context of today’s multi-cultural world, may also have its positive side. In study-texts on sociology, and in the writing of Homi K. Bhabha, we find that nationality plays a role in uniting society and groups. For example, it provides security to individuals regarding the righteousness of their behaviour and beliefs, and strengthens their aspirations to live in unison with society and to defend that group as a whole. In monocultural societies ethnocentrism also forms a strong basis for social solidarity. In Estonian society, and in others that have similarly undergone dramatic change, there is fertile ground for nationalism and ethnocentrism: nationality provides a stable and reliable pole during an otherwise insecure economic situation or where there is an inadequately socialised community. Integrating one’s self-image with a national identity, including subsequent glorification of the latter, serves as a convenient route for individuals for whom the community has failed to offer viable alternatives for ethical standards and public approval.
Art, nation, criticism
The exhibition Let’s Talk About Nationalism! was preceded by a series of seminars titled Public Separation, which served both to guide the curator in preparing the exhibition and to educate the potential audience – an audience that shared the same values and had already begun to consider the issues. I disagree with Teet Veispak’s criticism of the art gallery as a potential public space. Galleries, as places where artists display their professional work, are certainly public spaces. Perhaps Veispak’s refusal to believe this reflects his mistrust of artists as public spokespersons, and also expresses the general marginal position of contemporary art?[i] 
Contemporary art surely belongs among the tools useful for introducing what is ‘foreign’ and, among other things, for interacting with other cultures and the carriers of culture, irrespective of their immediate acceptability. World music festivals, folk and film events and ethnic restaurants often provide a pleasing presentation of exoticism. Although such situations often tend to be smoothed and sanitised, enjoyment of them may still require a degree of tolerance and openness to new experiences. Contemporary art allows us to talk about things that have acute importance without reducing them to the merely ‘cute’.
The exhibition, in an approach characteristic of art, takes off from the relations between the signs of the visual world and ideology. By means of deconstruction, paraphrasing, or some other rhetorical and figurative tools, all the works in the display present visual images with ideological power projected onto them. These images can be roughly divided into iconoclastic and iconodulist – images intended either to be attacked or praised, but the choice between these two depends on the position of the viewer.
Artur Żmijewski’s video Them (2007) sets the ambient tone of the exhibition, showing how these two iconographic positions are related to one another. In his video four Polish groups with different views are designing their ideological emblems and are later allowed to interfere with the images of other groups in order to ‘correct’ them if they wish – and oh how they do! The poster-painting workshop results in a small, improvised fire accident. The video clearly demonstrates that visual images carry an enormous ideological power, although the general public might not perceive it as something dangerous or affecting practical decisions and actions. It shows clearly why schools need to pay greater attention to relations with visual culture and the means of visual rhetoric. Next, the works by Csaba Nemes and Danilo Prnjat demonstrate how the press reflects terror based on national grounds; John Phillip Mäkinen and Audrius Novickas use the colours of national flags; Johannes Paul Raether and Shlomi Yaffe show how identity is associated with clothes and other external attributes; Eva Labotkin and Raul Keller address the propaganda of ‘soft values’ aimed at the general public; Jens Haaning, Katarina Zdjelar and Nanna Debois Buhl engage with the way ideology works surreptitiously through the way things are named and expressed; Twożywo and the R.E.P. Group, as well as Tanja Muravskaja, have reduced the ideological process to an understandable system of signs.
Besides visual tropes, the works at the exhibition are also united by the following: discussion of topical and unsolved issues from recent history and in the present, the use of motifs of physical and mental violence, and involvement of artists with cross-cultural experience.  
I suppose that both the curator and the artists faced tricky dilemmas in laying down the initial assumptions and focal points for the exhibition and in producing the works. The most important issues concern how to talk about nationalism – how to create and conceptualise a speech that would avoid the errors and pitfalls so often evident in the comments sections of our daily press.
In her introduction, curator Rael Artel states that the exhibition offers neither final answers nor standard solutions – there are only questions. Personally, I am not greatly convinced of the power of visual culture to pose questions. Rather, I tend to believe that an artwork is most often a graphic illustration that confirms a question, requiring a contextual explanation if it is to reach the addressee.  
The works at the exhibition are soberly calculated, scarce in words and often aphoristic. Perhaps their calculated nature is the result of a working method that involves seminars: phrasing the question from a position of extreme neutrality follows the initial articulation of the theory and problem. Unlike the artists themselves, none of the works displayed express a clear and unambiguous position, for or against. All the works could be read either way: the Turkish line ritual, the burning of Gypsies’ homes, the regimented march of the Hungarian National Guard, German football fans, a Jew dressing as a neo-Nazi – each image could be interpreted as critical of what they depict, but also as presenting a justification for it. True, in the catalogue it is clearly stated that all of the artists featured in the exhibition are engaging critically with their material, but if the viewer chooses not to read the essay, do the works continue to speak for themselves? Let us check the potential solutions: metaphor, ambivalence and potential for multiple interpretations are important and valuable characteristics of an artistic text. However, in dealing with such a difficult topic and with the need to explore more obviously controversial aspects, the exhibition would risk failing its main imperative if it over-emphasised ambivalence. Then again, treating such topics unequivocally would in effect serve as propaganda and would thus fail to communicate by means of contemporary critical discourse. It would be a dead end, and the most likely solution for escape would probably be the one presented by the exhibition: the artwork represents a neutral position, but is accompanied by a descriptive catalogue text that determines the recommended interpretation. Naturally, there is a good chance that the works will become instrumental in bringing forth the concept of the exhibition, but curated exhibitions are in any case determined according to a clear purpose, to speak about certain things in a certain way.
The curator, in collaboration with Kumu, has gone to great lengths to make the exhibition articulate within the context of an art museum. Visitors can pick up a simple catalogue designed by Jaan Evart, providing an effective introduction to each work and participating artist and enabling them to view the exhibition at their own pace in the company of a personal guide. The exhibition is introduced by an essay in which Rael Artel offers a simple explanation of the rationale behind the exhibition, as well as her curator’s position. Both the catalogue and the videos are all translated into Estonian, Russian and English. I know that all cultural institutions are short of money and human resources, but it is the ability of viewers to actually follow the textual information provided in a film and not only a decent art education, that serve as the prerequisite for the contact between social critical art and the audience. This is also a clear ideological step: to avoid discrimination regarding any of the three biggest presumed audience sectors of the exhibition. At the same time, if you wish, you can also see the most ‘Estonian’ gesture here, because no other international exhibition this far has been so thoroughly translated into Estonian. I would also like to mention the excellent impressum of the catalogue and the exhibition, listing all persons involved in the preparation of the show – from working teams to the participating artists and technical staff. Exhibitions should not differ from film production; here too everyone has their own professional tasks and responsibilities.
Besides my joy over excellent works by Eva Labotkin, Shlomi Yaffe, Katarina Zdjelar, Audrius Novickas and John Phillip Mäkinen, I also have some doubts:
1) Jens Haaning’s work consisting of the slogan ‘EESTI’ painted on the wall (Estonia, 2010), dominating an otherwise empty exhibition hall, is an image that points to the prevailing and ubiquitous nation-centred ideology. The artist furthers this image with clippings from local newspapers. The word ‘Estonia’ is printed in different sizes, fonts and colours, yet it appears frequently enough in printed media during a single day to compile an A3 format collage from newspaper cut-outs. The accompanying essay in the catalogue explains the work in terms of the constant, silent presence of nationalism in the form of national flags, but this essay misses something important about Haaning’s piece. Besides nationality, ‘Estonia’ also refers to an administrative unit, and the clippings are taken from local newspapers which primarily deal with local issues. Indeed, the meaning of some ‘Estonias’ might have been highly ideological and nationalist, but without a specific context the ideological sharpness will be reduced to a mere political-geographical concept. Of course, we could – and should – ask who is is flourishing in this administrative unit, and under what conditions. However, the collage does not do this by itself.
2) I also share Teet Veispak’s views, published in Sirp newspaper, regarding Tanja Muravskaja’s photo series Estonian Race (2010),[ii] the aim and statement of which is quite unequivocal.[iii] However, I cannot fully sympathise with either the curator’s or the artist’s motives in emphasizing such obvious parallels with Nazism. Even the catalogue text fails to give an adequate explanation. Such demonstration of ‘correct’ racial features, as if borrowed from a film by Leni Riefenstahl, feels discriminatory both towards me and the models featured in the work. What we should probably read from this is the artist’s attitude towards the environment she lives and works in, i.e. her country. Even if I do not support the official policy of Estonia or certain monumental images that have reinforced Estonia’s reputation as a nationalist country, drawing such parallels seems deliberately offensive and liable to promote hostility. On the other hand, I do not share Veispak’s skepticism about Muravskaja’s other work, Monuments (2008).[iv] It is an outstanding poetic reduction of the so-called ‘monument conflict’, realized in minimalist style, and the work should have lasting artistic value. 
3) Joanna Rajkowska’s video installation Airways (2008) presents two beautiful images. In the first, the narrow airplane cabin as a metaphor for society, bringing together different ethnic groups that have must cope with co-existence in a shaky and insecure environment and tolerate the gender, nationality and sexual identity of their fellow passengers. In the second, according to the background story of the work, the artist made this potential multicultural bomber-plane fly over a public square that is hosting a professional march. The video of the latter constitutes a silent opponent to the one showing the passenger flight. Unfortunately, the artist’s advice on how to read the work is insufficient for viewing the two images simultaneously. Perhaps this is also due to the fact that the videos are projected on opposite walls. Currently, the artist has left it to the viewer to decide which screen to follow. I suppose the overall impact would have been more emphatic if the two films were combined as one.
4) Another case in which the artist has asked to much of the viewer’s capacity to assemble the presented images into a significant text and to plot the intrigue is Peep-Show (2010) by Raul Keller. The slide painting by Tõnu Virve and the media broadcast of the President’s reception as a concession to a voyeur, with the former First Lady Helle Meri as a link between them – this I can understand. But a fatal error occurs when Keller claims that both the exhibition held in the national gallery and following the TV broadcast of the reception serve one interest only: to see what people are wearing. Rather, I would say it is to see who is present…
Secondly, opposing Artel and Keller’s claim that the use of folk patterns is a neo-conservative phenomenon, I would, rather, argue that folk patterns have recently moved from ‘alternative’ to ‘mainstream’. Yet, a fashion that spreads in the form of random fragments among limited circles can hardly be called ‘conservativeness’. The ‘kaleidoscope of folk patterns’, as something that restrains us from living as free people, is of course an easy route for a copywriter in an advertising agency, as this solution is vividly aesthetic, mostly ethical and functions visually. Wearing sneakers with folk patterns hardly makes anyone a national robot; rather, it is a matter of thinking. These sneakers are more likely to be worn by people who also have a bright-coloured Nepali jacket and a shibori scarf in their wardrobe.
Lacking a positive programme
It is with the aforementioned schizophrenic attitude of ambivalence that I viewed this exhibition. I know that nationalism causes discrimination and violence.[v] I don’t know whether to believe that there can be a positive programme to come out of it. Virtually all the questions about nationalism, state, identity and repressions I have entertained during recent years have also obtained illustrative material in the form of artworks. As I said, I have no final answers and coherent explanations in response to any of those questions, nor do I have any fierce theories about them. 
Still, let us try to think of alternatives: philosopher of history Jörn Rüsen sees a principle of mutual recognition of differences as a way out of the ethnocentric world, making people’s self-image more ambivalent by integrating negative historical experiences into the master narrative of one’s group identity, emphasising that a chain of historical events could have alternative scenarios, and also stressing the importance of multiple perspectives and positions. Giving up on the universalising approach to history on behalf of multiculturalism also requires withdrawal from the pretensions of truth. “But this relativism would open the door for an unrestricted clash of civilizations. If there is no possibility of integration and agreement upon a comprehensive perspective, which may mediate and synthesize cultural differences, the last word concerning the relationship between the different perspectives is pluralism and competition. Under certain conditions this would lead to struggle and mental war.”[vi] This sounds like a classical cyberpunk scenario, and indeed seems a very plausible future. Currently, the simplest way for an individual to overcome ethnocentrism is by creating a virtual communication network in the neo-culture of cyberspace, one which does not surrender to spatial, linguistic or temporal obstacles. The number of experiences shared by society is constantly decreasing, but people have a chance to choose their own experiences by travelling and building professional contacts which, in turn, may bring us all into closer contact with ‘strangers’ than with our former class-mates, for instance.
Thus, it turns out that the only thing separating us from cyberpunk fantasies is not the ability to produce higher human emotions that can be identified through the Turing test, but an ability to possess a stable and clearly defined historical memory of a nation. However, this does not justify any repressive ideological acts.
Anneli Porri is an art critic, curator, lecturer and assistant professor extraordinary in the Department of Photography in the Estonian Academy of Arts.
[i] For example: “It seems to me that places for displaying art are, rather, the ones in which the critical discourse is channelled, so that they would have the least influence on the processes that occur in the society. And they don’t, really. It is hard to believe at all that art still has some world-improving function, when even the most critical standpoints presented in galleries and museums are long controlled by capitalism and are subject to manipulation.” Teet Veispak, Tänuväärt temaatika. – Sirp 26.02.2010.
[ii] “Tanja Muravskaja is represented by two works. Her photo series Estonian Race depicts anonymous young men, with ‘being an Estonian’ supposedly their common trait. It is a knowingly provocative work: while there is no ‘Estonian race’, the work’s title indirectly refers to the term ‘Arian race’ which, as we know, was considered a group superior to the rest. Of course, we can also see here a more indirect connection to the fact that from time to time Estonians have been labelled Fascists in Russia. It seems to me that the artist thus tries to label Estonians, but perhaps she is against labelling altogether, as Maria-Kristiina Soomre believes.” Teet Veispak, Tänuväärt temaatika.
[iii] In opposition to the statement above, see the critical interpretation by Liisa Kaljula: “Tanja Muravskaja too deals with the subject of authenticity … in her photo series Estonian Race. At first sight it seems that the artist has lined up a row of uniform-looking portraits of young men with shaved heads, which brings to mind a column of drilled soldiers. However, taking a closer look, the seemingly perfect series starts to crumble and display variations. It is only now that we become aware that not all of them are Nordic types with blond hair and blue eyes; perhaps they don’t even speak the same language. Is it a comment on the integration politics of the Republic of Estonia during the recent years? Apparently that too, but this work is visually convincing enough and can be interpreted in various ways.” Liisa Kaljula, Rahvuslusest ja kriitilisusest veel üks kord. Artishok 21.04.2010.
[iv] “Muravskaja’s installation Monuments (2008) consists of heaps of broken glass and limestone rubble next to each other. These should symbolise the removal of the Bronze Soldier and the erection of the cross-shaped glass monument on the Freedom Square. Both of these have been such a frequent topic in discussions and writings that Muravskaja’s installation fails to add anything new here. This seems to prove that engaging with topical themes in art is not particularly rewarding. In the course of time the significance of such works grows smaller and smaller. Unfortunately, however, the heaps of limestone and glass do not possess a consistent art value of their own, something we could still view decades later.” Teet Veispak, Tänuväärt temaatika.
[v] “…in Estonia too, nationalism which seems so natural and justified at first sight, causes segregation,
discrimination, suffering and violence.” Rael Artel, Räägime rahvuslusest! Ideoloogia ja identiteedi vahel. Curator’s foreword to the exhibition. Tallinn: Kumu kunstimuuseum, 2010. Handout catalogue of the exhibition, p. 6.
[vi] See, in particular: Jörn Rüsen, Kuidas ületada etnotsentrismi: lähenemisviisid ajaloolisele tunnustamiskultuurile 21. sajandil. – Vikerkaar 2007, No. 1–2, pp. 99–110.
Kumu Art Museum
Participating artists: Nanna Debois Buhl (Copenhagen/New York), Jens Haaning (Copenhagen), Raul Keller (Tallinn), Eva Labotkin (Tallinn/Tartu), Tanja Muravskaja (Tallinn), John Phillip Mäkinen (Helsinki), Csaba Nemes (Budapest), Audrius Novickas (Vilnius), Danilo Prnjat (Belgrad), Johannes Paul Raether (Berlin), Joanna Rajkowska (Warsaw), R.E.P. Group (Kiev), Twożywo (Warsaw), Shlomi Yaffe (Prague), Katarina Zdjelar (Rotterdam), Artur Żmijewski (Warsaw)
Curator: Rael Artel (Pärnu County).
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