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The best of the Baltics vs. the best of the Nordics? Or, how to define ‘award-winning art’.

Maria-Kristiina Soomre (1-2/2009)

Maria-Kristiina Soomre discusses exhibitions of work by finalists for the Ars Fennica and Swedbank awards for contemporary art
Due to a certain happy coincidence (at least in this writer’s opinion), the Kumu Art Museum’s fifth floor contemporary art gallery recently hosted two consecutive exhibitions of works by nominees shortlisted for art awards significant to our region. I will discuss several issues in the context of the Swedbank Art Award 2008 and Ars Fennica 2008 exhibitions: Is it possible to define ‘award-winning art’? Do these art awards – quite prestigious in the region – determine trends in local contemporary art in some way, or are they patterned after global trends? Do the awards have common features and what is their role in the local art world? More precisely, let me address the question: Do the ‘results’ of the two exhibitions betray a certain consensus about what art in 2009 should be?
It would of course be easy to entertain doubts about whether certain currents and trends in art actually exist – to seek refuge in the idea that local contemporary art life is too chaotic to follow determinate physical laws, that exceptions are the rule, that it is impossible to draw conclusions about the tastes of those who made the decisions due to the fact that the selection committees are too broad and the award systems too different. But there is still the temptation, and the expectation of audiences, that generalizations be made on the basis of these two exhibitions. The Swedbank Art Award, (established 2000 and formerly known as the ‘Hansabank Art Award’) and the Ars Fennica award (established 1990) are indeed quite closely related, as far as such phenomena are concerned. One of the nearest models for the Swedbank Art Award was the Ars Fennica, and to some extent the source of inspiration for both was Europe’s best-known award for contemporary art – and probably the one which receives the heaviest media coverage – the UK’s Turner Prize (established 1984).
One then another – two exhibitions of award nominees at Kumu
It was by sheer coincidence that the exhibitions happened to run consecutively at Kumu. The Swedbank Art Award event had already become a tradition and had been pre-planned as part of Kumu’s schedule of exhibitions. The proposal to stage a one-off exhibition in Tallinn of Ars Fennica nominees and to hold the award ceremony at Kumu was tendered by the Ars Fennica Foundation early in 2008. No doubt the Ars Fennica Foundation hopes to broaden its institutional sphere of influence and to reinforce its position and renown throughout the region’s art world. However, it should be emphasized that no one involved in the initial planning of the exhibition would have known that one of the nominees would be from Estonia, or that the award would ultimately go to Mark Raidpere. It is, therefore, a mistake to think that the choice of Tallinn to host the ceremony was a deliberate homage to the winner. Similarly, the eventual winner was certainly not decided on the basis of the venue – this ought to go without saying.
In comparing the two awards, we see that the Swedbank award has undergone greater evolutionary changes in the relatively short period since its inception. Originally conceived as a local Estonian initiative to give recognition to new art, it has developed in parallel with the financial institution’s own path and the award has become increasingly international. Now a new and revised set of rules is in place and they are being tested in practice for the first time. Instead of the winner’s work going on a travelling exhibition, the 2008 exhibition showed works by all of the nominees. A committee from each country proposed their candidate, and each artist submitted their work for exhibition as they saw fit. An independent international jury was convened in the exhibition space itself to make its decision above all on the basis of the present works, as well as supplementary material concerning each artist’s background. In future, the exhibition will be held every other year at Kumu as a biennial of sorts; in the intermediate years the awards will be at another city within Swedbank’s sphere of operations. Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden and Russia are also presently part of the Swedbank Art Award circle, and Ukraine is likely to join in the future.
The Ars Fennica award, also a private initiative funded by a private foundation, is perhaps less fettered than its written rules might suggest. The rules for determining both the shortlist of nominees and the winner are simpler in some ways, and may offer greater potential for suspense and intrigue. A jury consisting of art experts from Finland decides on the shortlist of nominees – though their selection is neither pre-given or limited geographically or in any other way – and each time a different top figure from the international art world is solely responsible for selecting the winner from among the nominees, again relying upon the actual exhibition and additional information. In short, there is no evident major difference in the precise system used for determining the nominees and the winners. The five finalists and the eventual winner are more or less chosen subjectively – no uniform set of criteria for assessing and appraising modern art having been developed. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the award-winning work does not merit recognition, nor that the art awards are therefore devalued in some way. The popularity of art awards and exhibitions of nominees’ work, both in the media and among art audiences, is sufficient evidence that such efforts are effective, to say nothing of the award’s impact on the lives of individual artists and opportunities for increased public visibility.
The modern language of art, and international intelligibility
The profile for both awards is to confer recognition on relevant salient work by an active artist. There are no restrictions on the age of the artist in either award, the most important criterion being their general oeuvre and recent accomplishments. For the Swedbank award, a key factor in determining the winner is the innovativeness, salience and international intelligibility of an artist’s message. Thus the objective of the prize is not to serve as a lifetime achievement award for work that may by now be decades out of fashion, nor is it a prize for young artists at the outset of their career.
In this regard, Ars Fennica is freer and leaves criteria and decisions entirely up to the people appointed to adjudicate for the particular year (lifetime achievement awards have been awarded). To attest to the wide-ranging subjective tastes of the committee, with its nearly unchanging membership, we need only consider the lists of nominees for the 2008 and 2009 Ars Fennica awards – further commentary may then be dispensed with. In light of such considerations, it is clear that it really is neither possible or even useful to draw overly general conclusions about the award’s yield in terms of nominees for any given year, or about the number of award events with similar characteristics. 
No doubt local experts proceed in determining their particular candidates according to the most important developments in the local art scene. Eha Komissarov has emphasised how the 2008 Ars Fennica nominees from Finland dovetailed with the ideology of the previous summer’s Finnish export exhibition Arctic Hysteria.[1] The Swedbank award nominees from Sweden and Latvia were also picked for the most recent Manifesta, and the winner, the Latvian Miks Mitrevics, was among those who represented Latvia at the Venice Biennale this year. Thus one might ask, especially in the case of international awards (of which the Swedbank Art Award with its specific group of countries is certainly one), is an interest in export evident in the nominations? At the same time, Mark Raidpere was nominated for his Ars Fennica award by a jury consisting wholly of Finns, and without there having been any obligation to cover any particular national bases. Whereas with local juries (e.g. Swedbank) there always remains a worry about complicity ensuring that certain nations are included, a selection made by an (ostensibly) neutral jury undoubtedly provides ennobling recognition for an artist from the outside (with no obligation of ‘national coverage’, so to speak). Still, one cannot claim that any of the nominees for the latest Swedbank award or Ars Fennica was undeserving of their nomination – the professional selectors ensure that sterner mettle is separated from any softer stuff – though no doubt some high-quality but more complex candidates may often be left out. In other words, both exhibitions support the conclusion that award-winning art is,in any case, professional modern art.
Do the winners denote a trend?
What were the actual grounds for the conferral of the award in these two specific cases? To the extent that the procedure for selecting the winner is different in the case of Ars Fennica and Swedbank, we must examine the results – i.e. the actual grounds given by the selectors for their decision. However, in both cases, in respect of their public nature, evident reasoning is limited to a diplomatic description of the winner’s artistic style and specific works – more thoroughly in the case of Ars Fennica, and briefly in the case of Swedbank: the jury’s official rationale is not further disclosed, and other information is limited to a few sentences for press release.
Is it simply that the best will win? Or the most interesting? It is rumoured that the meeting of the Swedbank jury was a heated affair that almost lasted right up to the official opening. The lively professional discussion is said to have occasionally merited the imposition of more rigorous order, like a public debate. There are no clues available to this writer which might shed light upon the internal deliberations of Hou Hanru. We may agree or disagree with the decision and every visitor to the exhibition will surely choose their own preferred winner. Of course, every one of the finalists could be considered a winner, in some sense, in virtue of their inclusion in the exhibition, but the fact is that the official cheque was ceremonially presented to just one of the nominees. It is unlikely to prove evidence of anything other than a professional decision born of thorough consideration: a subjective and emotional preference made on the basis of objective comparison of particular works at a particular exhibition (the selector of the Ars Fennica winner made his deliberations on the basis of the exhibition at Amos Anderson Art Museum in Helsinki) – no doubt all art criticism can essentially be reduced to this.
The winners of each award may of course be compared. These artists are among the most singular, the most attentive to their immediate surroundings, but such comparison remains just as misleading as the juxtaposition of any other contemporary artists. Should we look for parallels with Mitrevics’s art, not only in Mark Raidpere’s work but also in Ars Fennica nominee Seppo Renvall’s oeuvre? Might the work of these artists signify some broader trend – do they have sufficient common characteristics to enable us to do that? Could the same trend pigeonhole Katrīna Neiburga, who also works with personal space in forming her ideas? Where does Taavi Piibemann fit in? Might Tea Mäkipää and Alexander Vaindorf understand one another better than others in the group? Would Kristina Inciūraitė find a language in common with them? Does Maria Duncker have something in common with the team of Igor Makarevitš and Elena Elagina?
Such tortuous questions can lead us down the wrong path. The award nominations were just an episode in a fast and hectic process for these artists and the combinations and pairings were haphazard, transient fated couplings, something kaleidoscopic, combinations never to be repeated. Ultimately, the nominees’ exhibitions can be seen only as individual events, resistant to generalization, from which we should not draw hasty conclusions about the nature of award-winning art or new trends. After all, the candidates are ‘the chosen’. They are outstanding. And victory goes to the best – to the swift, the beautiful and the honest – as always.

Maria-Kristiina Soomre is curator of contemporary art at Kumu Art Museum.

[1] E. Komissarov, Mälestusi “Ars Fennica’st”.(Memories from Ars Fennica) – Sirp 17.04.2009.
Fact corner:
5th December 2008 to 15th February 2009 at the Kumu Art Museum of Estonia:
Swedbank Art Award 2008. Nominees: Taavi Piibemann (Estonia), Miks Mitrevics (Latvia), Kristina Inciūraitė (Lithuania), Alexander Vaindorf (Sweden), and duo Igor Makarevitš and Elena Elagina (Russia). Award: 10 000 €.
1st March to 26th April 2009 at the Kumu Art Museum of Estonia:
Ars Fennica 2008. Nominees: Maria Duncker, Tea Mäkipää, Katrīna Neiburga, Mark Raidpere, Seppo Renvall. Catalogue featuring the nominees’ works, and a group exhibition at the Amos Anderson Art Museum (Helsinki) from 3rd October to 16th November 2008 and Kumu. Award: 34 000 €.
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