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The artist takes the floor?

Kaire Nurk (3/2019)

Kaire Nurk discusses the group exhibition "Open Collections: The Artist Takes the Floor", which celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Art Museum of Estonia (EKM).


5. VII–10. XI 2019
Kumu Art Museum, the great hall
Artists: Eero Alev, Ivana Bašić, Vladimir Dubossarsky, Merike Estna, Foxy Haze, Jan Van Imschoot, Jacob Jessen, Joel Jõevee, Georg Kaasik, Kirke Kangro, Jass Kaselaan, Alice Kask, Jonna Kina, Kristi Kongi, Olev Kuma, Laura Kuusk, Marge Monko, Kaido Ole, RLOALUARNAD, Tõnis Saadoja, Sten Saarits, Jaanus Samma, Jennifer Steinkamp, Taavi Talve
Curator: Eha Komissarov; visiting curator: Maria Arusoo

In a sense, the exhibition "Open Collections: The Artist Takes the Floor" at Kumu Art Museum, dedicated to the 100th anniversary of EKM and created in a collaboration between two curators and 25 Estonian and international artists, is like a good old exhibition of yesteryear, rich in paintings. It is possible that it could not have turned out any other way, because it relied on the museum's collection. Namely, according to the wishes of curator Eha Komissarov, young and less young artists have been given the opportunity to use works in the EKM collections as the source for their work, as partners in dialogue or directly as material.

The works that caught the attention of the participants in the process and were brought into the spotlight from the storerooms span the previous four centuries. That said, I must mention straight away that the seemingly traditional exhibition proportionally weighted towards painting and sculpture includes – as a smuggled good – a multi-layered and tight conceptual content.

Eha Komissarov has explained the abundance of traditional art at the exhibition as owing to the specifics of the EKM collections: "It would be wrong to hide the fact that the artists found the older art to be very interesting, yet our collections that start in the 14th–15th centuries are largely of an art historical origin and they hold many paintings. I think that this inadvertently affected the artists' choices. Second, museums across the world always exhibit older art in a more contemplative way – according to various techniques and artists' names – which is oriented towards a passive viewer position. The deconstructive approach of artists today brings in a new, active and polemic level. Museums that are interested in such developments have adopted the idea of "exhibitions outside history" in recent decades, which connects old art with the new and disregards the art historical merits of museum exhibits. Due to museums not being interested in revolution and no museum being brave enough to give up the crutches of art history, in fear of losing their public, the new methods are adopted moderately and as an exception, anniversaries and the like are suitable pretences. The humour lies in the fact that to compose such a "narrative outside history", one needs an extensive knowledge of art history and historical collections."1

Such a meta-historical construct can move both ways, "depiction of the past from our position in the present"2 as well as an analysis of the present against a historical backdrop with the use of terms from the past. Both approaches can be found at the anniversary exhibition which activates the EKM collections. For this reason, the viewer should try to receive an overview of an otherwise highly heterogeneous collection of works through such a polarising subdivision.


What does an artist do with history?

What an artist does with history is very exciting! How and to what extent they erode the codes of interpretation that have been built up around the historical work of art, to what extent they fulfil the expectations placed upon them by the art historian "as the producers of new art historical ideas"3.

Artists today are often archivists, archaeologists, collectors, researchers, but with the aim of depicting the past. Reconstructing the past is the role of a historian, therein they are not capable of anything more than a partial and fragmentary reconstruction. This also requires the knowledge and mastery of research methods specific to the field of history, which the artist does not have and which often do not interest them, although they take a similar position to that of a researcher. An artist’s interest is often focused on discovering new and personal perspectives from the endless masses and thickets of art history, which also have something universal as a backup somewhere within. The aim: to multiply the number of perspectives.

It is interesting to note that the exhibition design by installation artist Neeme Külm directly amplifies this central aim: in contrast to a simple, legible and symmetrical layout on paper, the viewer initially loses their bearings upon entering the exhibition environment and circles around among the works like someone lost in the woods. Külm calls it a luxury in exhibition design, when the viewer simultaneously has multiple lines of sight, if they are not prescribed a trajectory a la "art fair boxes in straight lines", and they can choose their own direction of movement and sight. We can only imagine what the opposite would look like; that is, a linear exhibition design levelling the heterogeneous, democratic nature of the exhibited work.

In general, the method chosen by the artists participating in the exhibition is a variety of contextual operations. For example, a woodcut of the first metro in New York by the Baltic German August Daugell has led Taavi Talve and Sten Saarits to the humorous idea of staging Estonia's first metro in the 21st century in the exhibition space at Kumu. In addition, it is in harmony with the idea of the exhibition as a momentary stop on an art historical-underground railway.

Kirke Kangro and Jacob Jessen have brought out of the sculpture collection of the museum almost all the realistic full figures with characteristic details that distinguish them as workers (except for a few pieces, which needed restoration). Presenting these on spinning pedestals and in front of a green screen instead of up on a heroising plinth removes the Soviet era figures from their ideological context and ensures the potential for a multitude of various new perspectives. Ironically, the spinning base is also a reference to the arduous production process of traditional sculpture.

Merike Estna has removed the traditional conventions of painting from the still life and cast it in the modern context of eco-activism. As Eha Komissarov explains, due to Pallas and the post-war years, a large number of still lifes can be found in the 20th century collections of EKM that were produced according to similar or even overlapping approaches: "The appeal of Elmar Kits' famous paintings of flowers is largely down to his painting technique, but inspired by the cut flowers, Estna introduced the subjects of death and destruction, which have had a great impact on various 20th century ideas."4

Incidentally, Estna's dialogue with the skeleton motif and the still lifes of Elmar Kits, Nikolai Kormašov and Leili Muuga can be seen as disclosing the genre as "dead nature", thereby, as a reference to the Christian lesson concerning everything earthly being transient and temporal. That said, I cannot refrain from noting that Kits' "Flowers" (Lilled, 1945) has never triumphed as such vibrant and lush flora as it does in Estna's composition.

The curator has complimented to the subject of flowers with the works by Foxy Haze5 and the classic of USA digital art Jennifer Steinkamp, where the symbol of the flower is placed in the context of prostitution. Both the works, Haze's "Averse Body" (2007), which consists of anonymous telephone interviews with prostitutes and drawings of their favourite flowers on paper, as well as Steinkamp's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" (2005–2008), which refers to a specific chapter in the history of the Californian gold rush, use the flower ambiguously and metaphorically.

Jonna Kina's marble panorama has been invited to soothe the losses the EKM collections suffered in the bombings of Tallinn during World War II: the marble pieces of female figures excavated from the ruins seemingly return to their original home, according to the history of their material, the limestone cliffs of Carrara referring to the lasting potential of new figures. Inspired by the plans of the freemason owner of Rutikvere manor, Otto Friedrich von Pistohlkors, the triptych-like massive architectural element by architect duo RLOALUARNAD "discloses" history, but rather as a freemason secret.


What does history do with an artist?

Undoubtedly, history affects themes and thought constructions, directs an artist's inspiration, strengthens critical positions, lends them a spare pair of glasses with which to connect to their era – through historical comparison, provides the opportunity to escape their contemporary context, but also restructures fundamental messages.

Tõnis Saadoja's reply to Paul Raud's farm motifs from more than a century ago has formed into a very critical connection to our contemporary era. Strangely enough, these empty dilapidated farm buildings in blue-black-and-white, or indeed, a black late-Goyaesque palette, were not considered part of contemporary Estonia in the talk in the lobby during the opening: the tragedy of the peripheral rural areas does not reach the city. But should the devastating Raud-Saadoja contrast be legible in the exhibition space at Kumu?

Laura Kuusk has been inspired by Tamara Ditman's double coded bronze figure "Game" (Mäng, 1980) from deep within the era of stagnation, which depicts a person playing blind man's bluff. Giving the viewer the opportunity to wear virtual reality glasses in the exhibition space, Laura Kuusk considers, "Perhaps we see our own reflections while constantly looking in every direction in the virtual environment, but we forget our physical body in the physical space. We may step in a hole or hit a wall just like when playing blind man's bluff."6

Vladimir Dubossarky's message is directed at the intelligence and consciousness of the viewer. His many-figured "Renaissance" (2019) seems to attempt to instil in the viewer the energy of action heroes from cyberspace – for the fight against today's painful political reality. Of course, Dubossarsky's staging as well as his source from the collections – Evald Okas' expressive drawing of characters reminiscent of Eduard Vilde in the painting "Mahtra War" (Mahtra sõda, 1958) – can be tackled through a sharp Barthesian show-format and irony, as the curator does.7

The discourse of Jan Van Imschoot frequently derives its irrational anarchy and focus on the human psyche from the work of baroque era artists. The dialogue partner he selected from the EKM collection was the special and dramatic twin-video "Oasis" (Oaas, 1999) by Ene-Liis Semper and Kiwa, which has become even more cryptic in this dialogue. Somewhat similar is Jaanus Samma's strange familial collusion with a 17th century landscape painting by an unknown artist, which became the motivation for his family's summer drives into the countryside after they sold the painting to the museum.

Kaido Ole's cenotaph dedicated to A.T. uses the opportunity to research Andres Tolts' oeuvre and the "humour generator" that ignited it. Tolts' nickname Maamõõtja (Surveyor), which was also cemented by Ülo Õun's portrait sculpture "Surveyor" (Maamõõtja, 1980) and which a young Tolts referenced in his painting "Surveyors" (Maamõõtjad, 1972), has created a fatal image in Ole's synthesis of an earthen resting place measured equally for everyone.

The feminist project of the visiting curator of the exhibition, Maria Arusoo, diverges around the subject of the female body, at the centre of which are Aili Vint's prints and Ivana Bašić's sculptures. According to Eha Komissarov, she invited Arusoo to participate in the exhibition project when she had already been looking for some time for a key to Aili Vint's prints tackling the female body from the 1980s, "This is a very unusual episode in the work of the artist, which art history has as yet been unable to tackle, myself included. [---] Arusoo's project acquires completely different dimensions at the exhibition, offering an example, of how and where one might end up with the subject of the observed body."8

The sensual curves and curvature of Vint's prints are contrasted against Bašić's dried and wilted hypertrophied limbs, which refuse to serve the male gaze. The question is, how has it reached the area of death and trauma from vital erotica-aesthetics? Arusoo states, "Death and trauma are always preserved in the body. From witch hunts to wars, the pain of childbirth to disease and old age, the body is always simultaneously a political weapon as well as a gradually fading body."9 Second, this extreme comparison also raises the necessity to find and map the intermediate versions.

Jass Kaselaan's grand "Still Life" (Vaikelu, 2016/2019), which brings together fragmentary moulds from the living as well as the lifeless world, provides a clue to our view of the current world as an extensively shattered, formalised and fragmented place repeating stencils, with no chance to perceive the whole and the natural connections.

At the exhibition "Open Collections: The Artist Takes the Floor" the human and historical dimension thus meet. The human – artist – moves away from their oeuvre that is intimate and of a human dimension, and instead, relates to a historical superhuman dimension.


If the artist is of a human dimension?

In conclusion, we could separately address the constitutive narcissism and constancy of contemporary artists, which is a dominant undercurrent in this exhibition: even in direct contact with the masses of artistic legacy, the artist remains unflappably themselves and, in fact, searches and finds similarities from history, instead of clearing a space for new ideas and forms of expression. That said, we could also talk more openly about the free and creative combining of an artist's subjective dimension and history.

In fact, it is even surprising how many artists mention in the exhibition booklet similarity being the basis for their choice of creative partner from the collections of the museum. The result not that surprising then, is it? Visiting the exhibition in the role of critic, I had expected an opposite principle in their selection – a powerful, unexpected and complicated dialogue. I cannot deny – the exhibition also offers dialogues; in the works of every artist in one way or another, as the curator explains: "I chose the artists according to the art in our collections. My role was to ensure diversity and the development of exciting focuses."10

One cannot prevent the imagination from wondering along paths of what if… If those invited to participate in the project had included, for instance, Marco Laimre, Raoul Kurvitz, Flo Kasearu, Neeme Külm, Jaan Toomik, Kai Kaljo, Johanna Mudist, Kiwa, Ene-Liis Semper or Siiri Jüris – who would they have selected as their partners in dialogue? Would they have found less in common with the art in the collections? The viewer cannot fully perceive the curator's delicate precision engineering in selecting the participating artists anyway, every such collation is only justified for the activation of the viewer's imagination.

Among those at the exhibition who focused on the human dimension and a personal creative style, we could mention Alice Kask, Kristi Kongi and Marge Monko. Undoubtedly, Merike Estna also used her tackling of the still life as a suitable excuse to demonstrate her assemblage-like and flourishing skills as a painter. Kaido Ole could shine with the perfect re-presentation of marble imitations characteristic of Andres Tolts, and Tõnis Saadoja allowed himself continued devotion to the nuanced psychic life of brushstrokes and finesses in palette. The curator’s request that the lecturers of painting from the Estonian Academy of Arts, Estna and Kongi, choose four students (Georg Kaasik, Joel Jõevee, Olev Kuma and Eero Alev) to relate to the classics (Tiit Pääsuke, Elmar Kits and others) also has a human dimension, albeit in a psychological manner.



Hille Palm
marble (detail)
Kumu Art Museum exhibition view
Photo by Kaire Nurk



However, one of the highpoints of this exhibition is undoubtedly Marge Monko's highly multi-layered dialogue with Hille Palm's open marble sculpture "Moment" (Hetk, 1978), which was the female sculptor's best-known female figure with the deepest, most universal meaning. Monko stays true to the main research focus of her recent work, the presentational function of the hand in commercial printed advertisements, which also directed her attention towards the hands of Palm's sculptures. The resulting work, an image of hands pulling on silk stockings printed on textiles, which are many metres tall, are linked in so many eloquent ways to the nudity, momentary nature and philosophical hand gestures of Palm's figure that we can even talk of a synergetic creative act.


1 Eha Komissarov in an email interview with the author, August 2019 (emails in the possession of the author). I would also like to thank the designer of the exhibition Neeme Külm and participating artists Kirke Kangro and Liina Siib for telephone discussions.

2 See the press release for the exhibition on Kumu's website (

3 See the booklet accompanying the exhibition, the introduction by the curator.

4 Eha Komissarov in an email interview with the author.

5 Liina Siib's pseudonym. – Ed.

6 See the booklet accompanying the exhibition.

7 Ibid.

8 Eha Komissarov in an email interview with the author.

9 See the booklet accompanying the exhibition.

10 Eha Komissarov in an email interview with the author.


Kaire Nurk is a historian and teacher of history and civic studies.

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