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Mark Raidpere: “The only reprieve in the existence of this unhappy species comes from the ability to create art”

Ave Randviir (1-2/2009)

 Mark Raidpere , winner of the Ars Fennica award, talks to KUNST.EE’s Ave Randviir
You studied at Tallinn’s Secondary School No. 21, where legendary teacher Tiina Meeri has been teaching art history for over twenty years. Many of the school’s graduates have gone on to study art (history) or have proceeded straight to an artist’s vocation without even entering the Estonian Academy of Arts – you are one of those people. What role did Tiina Meeri play in forming your interests? Is there anyone you would say has been a guide or mentor to you?
Naturally Tiina Meeri holds a revered place in my school years. I remember her above all as a teacher with great charisma, whose lessons (90-minute slide lectures) were extremely dense with information. Incidentally, she had an unusual habit of assigning grades quantitatively – if she especially liked some essay or exam result then the student would get two or three ‘fives’ all at once. She started the tradition of ‘art week’ that paved the way for yet more uninhibited activity, and encouraged personal initiative from anyone who showed even a little effort.
Looking back at my not-so-happy school days, I should mention a few of my classmates – Hanno Soans and Kaspar Jancis were among them. My closest personal contacts had come before adolescence, but in any event the mere fact that those people were around was important. Presumably, the projects that Hanno and I have been involved in together would have been very different had we not already had a common history and shared background.
Still, I consider my unusual family relationships to have been the most important. My parents were distant from art, but I suppose out of a sense of duty they dragged me to all sorts of bastions of culture more often than was normal. Above all, they would take me to the theatre, but museums and cinemas were also well-trodden territory for us. I have spoken before about the role my father played in my becoming a photographer, but it is more difficult to explain the indisputable impact of his particular mindset on my developing into a creative person in the first place.
Regarding the later years, I must say that the infamous and extremely dynamic period that I shared with Ene-Liis Semper also included more constructive moments when, aside from having fun and enjoying the banter, I put away some creative truths for future reference and experimentation.
Hanno Soans has called your traumatic photo cycle Io (1997) your passport to contemporary art. After you became, so to speak, a fully-fledged citizen of the art world, you worked often with Hanno. He curated your Biennale exhibition, wrote about you and so on. How do you feel about your cooperation? I know that for you it is very important to maintain control over your work and what is written about you. What is your perception of the various art world institutions and personalities who, on the one hand, are expected to lend a hand to artists, but also want something from you? What do you expect a curator to do for you?
Well, concerning what is written about my work, I don’t really go overboard in trying to control it. But of course, like anyone else, I feel it is important that quotations are accurate and that no one plays fast and loose with facts. Recently I happened to see a segment on ETV culture news about the opening of my exhibition at Roubaix, in which the reporter began by saying that it was my first solo exhibition in France, and then at the end the studio presenter stated it again. I was really annoyed. The thing is, I have had two solo exhibitions in Paris and – vanity! – have even received an award there.
The Venice Biennale exhibition with Hanno Soans was my most important training, in every aspect: finding a concept for the work, arranging it all spatially, preparing the texts, working out the catalogue – the precision and rigor that I saw in Hanno’s work then! – and coming to terms with the more formal side of art life, and much else besides.
From a curator, I expect professionalism – the ability to provide support for the practical organization of the exhibition alongside dealing with the theoretical side – and, if necessary, dialogue and criticism. No doubt the institutions and personalities you mentioned keep art life rolling along, and in making my contribution I move within those art structures only to the minimum extent necessary for me to do my work and bring it to an audience. In fact, most of my closest friends are from various different walks of life.
You probably don’t see the surrounding world as all that safe a place. Currently, the recession has led to a doomsday mood; scary faces seem to be popping out from behind every corner. Uncertainty and fear have gone completely mainstream, but long before either the 2007 Tallinn riots or the present recession your works were already “descriptions animated by post-catastrophic reality” according to Eha Komissarov (Sirp,17th April 2009) – symbolic events had taken place in private life. Does the fact that we are living in such interesting times draw you closer to social topics, or is the present moment a time to revert, for example, to expanded self-portraits and deeper introspection?


I always find it exceedingly uncomfortable to talk about what is here now and about what the future will bring. I may well find myself eating my words or doing the complete opposite to whatever I may have planned. During the past year, it so happened that after a long break from depicting my family I have again created two works on that theme. Also, the most recent one – 09/12/07-05/04/09 – which premiered in the context of a video screening at the Estonian Music Day [festival] on 16th April with music by Rainer Jancis, is essentially a video portrait of my father and his relationship with me.

It seems to me that music has a very important place in your life, or at least that it often holds a key position in your videos. For example: the CD that accompanied the catalogue of the exhibition Isolator at the 53rd Venice Biennale featured a song made famous by Marlene Dietrich – Where Have All The Flowers Gone; in the video installation Majestoso Mystico. Stockholm – Tallinn 26. IV 2007 the smooth streets of Stockholm and the streets of Tallinn in a state of chaos are united by Howard Shore’s ominous music from the movie Silence of the Lambs; and in your new video work you bring your parents to the screen, in a musical context, by asking them to listen to Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Dedication. How do you make sense of the relationship between sound and image in your work – are they in some kind of hierarchy? How do you choose the sound for your videos? And what music do you listen to in your spare time?

Well, I have always considered music to be the supreme art form. But there are no hierarchies, each component is equally important and each entails the other. When the right choices are made, the components amplify each other. To be honest, it is a lengthy topic and there are many special cases, so it should be discussed in terms of individual works.
I chose Laurie Anderson’s song Bright Red as the music to accompany the video which would became my first to make it into an exhibition – Father (2001, re-scored 2005). I chose it because it was appropriate rhythmically to the measured but intrinsically excited pace and because it uses special vocal techniques whereby the male and female voice alternate within the phrase – this I associated with the fact that my father hears voices too. Therefore I didn’t pick the song because of its lyrics, although they also had many features in common with the visual element where the main theme is coloured red and the objects are located in a kind of domestic interior. For example, on the wall there is a newspaper clipping with a photo of a girl who had disappeared while hitch-hiking and the song includes the lyric “Come here little girl, get into the car. It’s a brand new Cadillac”.When I went to the Biennale I replaced the original version of the song with a cover version by Rainer Jancis, which made the work more fresh and avoided the problem of licensing. For the music to the video 10 Men (2003) I tried to find a melodic motif that could be repeated ad infinitum so that its entrancing quality would not be diminished. The intro to Mikk Targo’s song Mäng, which I remembered from my later childhood in a version recorded by Marju Länik, proved the most suitable in terms of emotional tone and overall sound. Incidentally, that song features the words “And I am like a prisoner with you, I can’t go farther, come closer or escape”, but again I should emphasize that the literary connection between the prisoners and the principle underlying the portraiture was not the reason I chose that music.
I stole the music for the video Work In Progress (2005) from the soundtrack to a film by Michael Winterbottom. The composer was Michael Nyman. What I liked was its grandeur, it was like an overture. I cut the music at the end of each clip and start it rolling again from the beginning, trying to refer to a new performance of the same person’s unchanging monotonous activity, in the next situation, as each segment of the video was filmed on a different day over the space of about a month. The installation Majestoso Mystico. Stockholm–Tallinn 26.04.2007 was originally inspired by music, actually. One of my personal favourites, Howard Shore’s music for Silence of the Lambs has haunted me since the first time I saw the film and it often plays on my internal speakers when I feel a threat aimed in my direction or I rage over an injustice. Due to the plot of Silence of the Lambs, I associate the music with threat, danger and destruction generally. During my artist’s residency in Stockholm, and while forming an impression of the society and way of life there, which I perceived as superficial, formal and maybe even naïve, I developed a personal ‘revenge plan’. I wanted, through the main motifs of the music, to bring aggression to the safe and secure city centre, and I collaborated with two street musicians. The day of the video shoot coincided accidentally with the nights of rioting in Tallinn that were caused by the removal of the Bronze Soldier statue and this made me re-evaluate my initial motivation. The work took on a more complicated structure, but the topic of society’s vulnerability and the ever-present threat of destruction remained the same.
In my free time I’m increasingly listening to music on the radio. With radio I lack control over what plays and that’s fitting for a control freak like me.


How do your parents see the fact that they are central figures in so many of your works? Do they understand your work and aspirations in the same way or, if differently, how? 

I think they saw it as an inevitability right from the beginning. True, the situation of Shifting Focus, for example, was a traumatic experience for my mother. I was the only witness to that, after the shoot. But it was also liberating and cathartic for her because she had perceived tension in her son – quietly but clearly – for some time. In general they tend not to comment on my work very much. If the accomplishments are received with interest, it is compensation for all the complications involved. I hope they place my works among the positive things in their life’s ledger.

I was leafing through the Baltic Guide on my way to Helsinki and noticed that the editor-in-chief had devoted the editorial to the Ars Fennica award and the fact that, while the Finnish President came to Kumu to present this important award, not a single senior official of the Estonian government, such as the Minister of Culture, had showed up. Do you have issues with things like that? Does it bother you that art has such a marginal position in society?

Naturally, the editor-in-chief’s disgruntlement was completely justified, but from my own perspective it was the least of my concerns regarding the Ars Fennica ceremony. Later I did mull it over… Indeed, it is on the whole incomprehensible to me how art is always and implacably being completely ignored. The only reprieve in the existence of this unhappy species comes from the ability to create art, and not – although they are inevitable – contrived political deals, economic strategies or sport and entertainment, which mostly cause embarrassment, and yet it is the latter things that take precedence.

Your works always feature people and, nearly always, strong emotions. In Camera Austria (97/2007), Maren Lübbke-Tidow wrote about how deeply concealed stories are conveyed by people’s bodies, through their body language – life’s drama unfurls on a corporeal level and this, precisely, is the real identity of your work. Following this idea, a somewhat surprising question to conclude with: What is your attitude towards, say, abstract art? Are you able to enjoy it?

What do you mean, “nearly always”? Always! But yes, I can admire outstanding accomplishments created by artistic choices completely different from my own.

Ars Fennica 2008
On 28th February 2009 at Kumu, the Art Museum of Estonia, Finnish President Tarja Halonen awarded Mark Raidpere the Ars Fennica award for 2008. Ars Fennica is the most prestigious art prize in Finland and the Baltic States, with a value of 34 000 €. The prize has been awarded each year since 1991 by the Henna and Pertti Niemistö Art Foundation for work of a high calibre and personal character. The other nominees for the 2008 Ars Fennica were Katrina Neiburga (1978-) from Latvia, and Maria Duncker (1963-), Tea Mäkipää (1973-) and Seppo Renvall (1963-) from Finland, all of whose works were exhibited from 3rd October to 16th November 2008 at the Amos Anderson Art Museum in Helsinki and from 1st March–26th April 2009 at Kumu’s Ars Fennica award exhibition. The artists were nominated for the 2008 Ars Fennica by a committee consisting of, the managing director of the Henna and Pertti Niemistö Art Foundation, Leena Niemistö; art historian Tuula Karjalainen; sculptor Matti Peltokangas; and painter Henry Wuorila-Stenberg. The Ars Fennica winner is chosen by an independent foreign expert. This year, the expert was Hou Hanru, a Chinese scholar and artist resident in Paris, who emphasized the dynamism of Raidpere’s work in the quest for personal identity and social trends during the post-Cold War era. Previous Estonian Ars Fennica nominees include Leonhard Lapin and Jüri Okas in 1994. The winner that year was Latvian artist Olegs Tillbergs. The 2009 Ars Fennica nominees were Matti Kalkamo, Mika Karhu, Jussi Kivi, Jürki Riekki and Petri Yrjöla.

Mark Raidpere was born on 23rd August 1975 and lives and works in Tallinn. He studied film at the former Tallinn Pedagogical University (2000–2003) and, previously, photography at the Tallinn School of Communications (1993–1994). His first solo exhibition, Io, took place in Vaal Gallery in 1997. Besides the project Isolator (curated by Hanno Soans), which was Estonia’s entry at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005, he has also had solo exhibitions in Riga, Glasgow, Istanbul, Vilnius, Paris, Naples and Roubaix, and has participated in group exhibitions. In addition to the Ars Fennica, Raidpere has won other awards including the Prix Gilles Dusein/Neuflize Vie, the Hansabank Art Award (2005), and the Cultural Endowment of Estonia’s annual award (1998).

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