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Seasons in the Art World

Heie Treier (4/2015)

Heie Treier provides a historical perspective on the occurrence of summer events in the Estonian art world.



Art theory tends to underestimate the importance of time of year, weather and seasonality as an argument in analysis. Yet there may be hidden cause-and-effect connections in art(history) here. For example, it is difficult for northerners to understand the Italian siesta culture and why artists in earlier centuries did not paint in the middle of the day. And why life on the streets only gets going in the evening. Southerners, again do not understand the notion of the polar night and it seems comical to them that someone might need a therapeutic lamp, something which northern artists incorporated into their installations.

In countries, where there is not a strong climatic division, this is not an issue. However, in northern countries there is a big difference between summer with its midnight sun and winter and its polar night, or the transitional phases of autumn and spring. One of the showpieces of Estonian art has been Jaan Toomik's video "Father and son" (1998)1, where the artist skates naked and alone in the middle of a large expanse of ice.

Air temperature and light strongly affect a person's way of life and understanding of the world – even today when computers globally unify/homogenise lifestyles and when Estonian artists no longer have to do farm work in the summer, like the Pallas school artists did in the 1920s and 1930s. Seasonality does not need to be a depressing consequence of geographical location – a different approach can be taken: seasonality as an asset.

 

"Art Ist Kuku Nu Ut", "EKKM on Wheels"

In the Estonian art world a seasonal practice of festivals has developed, one which started in the 1990s with the restoration of the Republic of Estonia. In the Soviet Estonian art world the concept of seasonality, as such, was missing because they were ruled by a modernist notion of the universality of art. In the dark winter months we now have a light festival, inspired from Helsinki, and what was initially an artist's event has now extended into a cultural format with broader appeal.2

The last "Art Ist Kuku Nu Ut" festival titled "Head und, Tartu" ("Sleep well, Tartu") focused on hibernation and sleep – in terms of intellectual analysis and also practically – Y-Gallery was full of mattresses in December 2014. The earlier editions of "Art Ist Kuku Nu Ut", mainly organised by Rael Artel and Kaisa Eiche, all took place in the summer time.3

The Contemporary Art Museum Estonia (EKKM), an institution with an ambitious international program of exhibitions, has from the start operated in Tallinn on the principle of the seasons simply because it is not possible to heat the space sufficiently in winter. So they open their doors in summer, as do many other privately run art centres around the country.

Last year they experimented with the format "EKKM on Wheels", which means that in winter they travel around Estonia with their "Kohatu" (Out of Place) exhibition and its accompanying education programme. Contemporary art has been taken and is being taken to Kuressaare, Rapla, Valga and Kunda – all small towns, the three latter not being on the contemporary art map at all. The press releases refer to the initiative as an experiment, but it is essentially the revival of a former state art policy. If we compare it to today's film policy "EKKM on Wheels" is more like a counterpart to the popular Kinobuss (Cinema Bus), which travelled around Estonia in summer, screening films and teaching young people about filmmaking.

During the summer season there are and have been art festivals held in towns and villages across Estonia that function like "a drive into the country to visit grandmother" or "a picnic in the country" or "get to know our beautiful country". This kind of exhibition format encourages performance art, sculpture (in its broadest sense), installation art and urban interventions.

In some respects it is difficult to write about summer festivals. They are scattered and often centred around groups of friends, they lack state backing and their continuation depends on the energy levels of the organisers. Also, summer festivals are strongly centred on socialising, entertainment and travel – they focus on the moment and pleasure. In a strategic sense, what remains in the sieve? Even though since the 1990s festivals and their aims have been very different, here I will concentrate on a couple of the most noteworthy.

 

"KanaNahk", "Mohni", "Seanahk"

One of the first important annual summer festivals we could mention is "KanaNahk" (literally translates as "chicken skin" and means goose bumps) in Rakvere, which was started in 2000 in the wake of the Rakvere theatre festival "Baltoscandal" by Jaan Toomik and Teet Veispak. Later Paul Rodgers, from the group Eesti Energiad (Estonian Energies), became involved in its organisation. Thanks to Toomik's international reputation its programme was international and ambitious. For example, the scandalous Oleg Kulik from Moscow took part in Rakvere (though not with a performance, but a lecture) and the group Blue Noses from Siberia, whose work if you wanted to see it at that time, you had to travel to the Venice Biennale.

Similar to the Saaremaa Biennale, which took place in 1995 and 1997, Toomik made use of the demanding international context to motivate his students in the department of interdisciplinary art at the Estonian Academy of Art. Accordingly Sandra Jõgeva, Margus Tamm, Silja Saarepuu, Villu Plink and others whose performances followed the imperative derived from the title of the festival – to be dangerous, cause shivers, shake up the public and give them goose bumps, were given a leg up.

In spite of his role as curator, Toomik himself took part in the festival. Toomik's one minute video "Untitled (To My Brother)" 2002, endlessly looping at later exhibitions, was actually filmed at "KanaNahk" in Rakvere. Quite a number of people watched what he was doing from a distance. They happily drank beer in the open and watched Toomik as if it was entertainment, not realising that he was putting his own life at risk and they were witnesses to the birth of a video based on this performance.

"KanaNahk", for a range of reasons, had a changing identity. In 2003, the festival became an event called "Mohni" (after an island by the same name) and in 2009–2010 it became "Seanahk" (pig skin), which took place in Haapsalu. It was there that Erik Alalooga joined the organising team.

In retrospect it seems increasingly clearer, that all these festivals, though differently titled had the same blood type and had the mark of Jaan Toomik – they seemed to document Toomik's own creative pursuits and his endeavour to include friends, both local and from beyond the borders, and students. The central artists at these festivals were the members of Eesti Energiad – Jüri Ojaver, Jaan Paavle and Paul Rodgers – as well as the model Elaan, from many of Toomik's videos and paintings. It is clear that the festival was organised ad hoc and with scant finances, like summer festivals in Estonia tend to be. Hence no festival from this series left us with a catalogue – now you can access them primarily from articles that appeared in the media.

 

 

Toomik Brother

Jaan Toomik
Untitled (To My Brother)
2002
video, 1' (performance documentation)
Courtesy of the artist

 

 

Sagrits house museum at Karepa

"KanaNahk" notionally continued in Karepa village. If you drive from Rakvere and Kunda towards the sea you come to the fishing village of Karepa, of which Teet Veispak is a native. From around 2007 he has curated a lively summertime art event at the neighbouring farm, in the house museum of Richard Sagrits, a member of the Pallas school. Kalame farm was a focal point already in the 1930s, when it was visited by the stars of art and literature, whose autographs have been preserved on the window frame in Sagrits' painting studio. Today, new autographs have been added, creating a unique memory bank. Actually, the whole of Karepa village has operated as a popular holiday place for the cultural elite. The cultural layers dating back three centuries, if you look closely, are impressive.

Consequently, the landscape and seascape painter, Richard Sagrits, who had a relatively modest role in art history, now takes part in our contemporary art scene through the Kalame house museum. Veispak has invited artists to Karepa, and they have filled the relaxing atmosphere of the historical farm with sculptures and installations. These are usually presented on an evening in August together with performances. Almost every summer Leonhard Lapin and the enduring forces of Eesti Energiad, Jaan Paavle and Jüri Ojaver, have visited Karepa. Fideelia-Signe Roots also attracted Estonia-wide media attention when she walked from Tartu to Karepa, demanding as a feminist the right for women to go around publically bare from the waist up. It is worth expecting politically incorrect humour from the work, and this is expressed, for example, in the ambiguously titled performance evening in 2009, "Old Tool"4. Alex Plutzer, representative of the Voina group, whose political sarcasm was as sharp in Karepa and Tallinn, as it was in Moscow or St Petersburg, has also performed there, along with others.5

The stationary sculptures in the Kalame farmyard are sensitively contextual, conceptual and poetic. Many of the performances took the form of unburdening; for example, Ants Juske's opposition to the feminists. Or Raoul Kurvitz, who as a child had been forbidden to sing by a teacher because he could not carry a tune, singing into a microphone on the doorstep of Sagrits' house, before the release of a CD of his music "Forbidden to Sing" (2012). Peeter Sauter provides a good overview of the events and atmosphere there in 2014.6 Unfortunately, there is no catalogue of the events at Kalame, and neither from "KanaNahk".

Teet Veispak has himself written five plays (2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015) based on the fictitious diaries of his neighbour, Alice Sagrits, a powerful widow-of-a-colonel-type woman. As a historian, Veispak used archival material to research the Sagrits story from WWII through the different periods of the Soviet era and picked up soviet-era art world gossip and intrigue, which he heard from Alice. Directed by Üllar Saaremäe and performed by Liisa Aibel – supervised by Veispak, as the author – the premiers have been at Kalame. The result was astonishingly convincing – as if the young Alice was actually reading her own diaries (intonation, gestures and personality).

"KanaNahk" and the summer festivals held as its sequel at the Sagrits museum at Karepa express the heterosexual white male view of art. Or a viewpoint that is constantly under attack since the postmodern age, from poststructuralist philosophy (Foucault and others) and feminist and post-colonialist theory right through to everyday politics. The heterosexual white male together with his expressive output apparently feels like he is being squeezed out to the fringes of the art world, but nevertheless he has a secret he will not reveal to just anyone. There is no systematic documentation or catalogue from these summer festivals, which means the art theorist has no way of keeping control of the situation. In Estonia, summer is the time when you can live a wild lifestyle and do whatever you want. Winter symbolises rigid order, strict adherence to responsibilities and a spiritually frozen state.

 

"Kilometre of Sculpture"

The newest festival is "Kilometre of Sculpture", which was founded in 2014. This is an undertaking that follows international standards, with a foreign curator selected by competition, an organising team, a board, judging panel, an artist selection process and a catalogue. The festival was started by the owner of Refiner Translations, Michael Haagensen, who thanks to his background as a painter and other members of his family, is very close to sculpture as an art form (however, in the manner of good international practice his family members are not involved in this summer event).

The title refers to the Tallinn Capital of Culture's (2011) "Kilometre of Culture", which ended up being so successful that it had a strong impact on the Tallinn property market. "Kilometre of Sculpture" took place in 2014 in Rakvere and in 2015 in Võru, and in 2016 it is once again planned for Rakvere. On the two previous occasions the customs and context of small towns have been adhered to – for example, the public of Rakvere are culturally "tempered" thanks to the "Baltoscandal" theatre festival, "KanaNahk" and the Punk Song Festival. Võru, on the other hand, is an almost clean slate when it comes to contemporary art.7 Michael Haagensen, who has come from abroad to live in Estonia, has managed to connect sensitively with the cultural policies of local towns, and the aim is a less confrontational open cultural exchange that does not try to shock.

The head curator of the "Kilometre of Sculpture" in Rakvere, Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk, interpreted the sculpture exhibition, influenced by "Baltoscandal", as theatre and the stage. The works of the twelve artists were dramatic, especially compared with the work in Võru the following year. By virtue of his previous interests, the head curator Andreas Nilsson's aim was to focus on discrete gestures and small objects.8 Consequently, the exhibition in Võru was more internalised and as such, was successful in its own quiet way.

 

...and so on

This year in summer 2015 there was another new festival in Muhu, which was connected with the restoration of a summer venue belonging to the Estonian Artists Union (organiser Tiiu Rebane). Art festivals seem to operate as counter-actions to the external limitations and difficulties imposed on people living within a capitalist system. More is permitted in summer than in winter. The short and intense Estonian summer is a period of busy-ness and work interspersed with complete passivity. We can expect that this potential will be used much more by artists in the future.

 

Heie Treier is an art theorist and critic, who works at Tallinn University as an associate professor in art history.

 

1 E.g. [Estica,] [Estica,] Jaan Toomiku rahvusvaheliselt edukaim video "Father and Son" ("Isa ja poeg"). [Jaan Toomik's internationally most successful video "Father and Son" ("Isa ja poeg").] – kunst.ee 2000, No 1, p 5.

2 For example the ethnographic festival "Kaamos", Tallinn Light Festival, Light festival "LUX MATRIX", "Valgus kõnnib Kadriorus" (Light Walks in Kadriorg), Mustamäe light festival, "Light festival" at the Tartu Observatorium and Tõravere, etc-etc.

3 The annual contemporary art festival took place in Tartu from 2010–2014, having grown out of the "Tartu kunstikuu" (Tartu Art Month) running since 2004. Official homepage: www.artistkukunuut.org.

4 Hannes Varblane, Suvelõpu performance Karepal. – Sirp 11. IX 2009.

5 Teet Veispak, Voina – see on sõda korrumpeerunud võimuga. – KUNST.EE 2011, No 3–4, pp. 36–43.

6 Peeter Sauter. Teet Veispak ei anna alla. – Sirp 27. VIII 2014.

7 For an interview with the organisers Siim Preiman and Michael Haagensen read: Reet Varblane, Võrru kilomeeter skulptuuri. – Sirp 16. I 2015.

8 Heie Treier, Kultuurikilomeetrilt skulptuurikilomeetrile. – Sirp 17. VII 2015.

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