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The stars wear combat boots, streaking the Estonian night

Johannes Saar (1-2/2009)

 Johannes Saar , commissioner of Estonia’s entry for the 53rd Venice Biennale, talks about the chosen project – After-War by Kristina Norman

German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and radical British artist Damien Hirst each bestowed the honorific “work of art” on the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Stockhausen pronounced it the “greatest work of art ever” and Hirst said that it was a “visually stunning” spectacle and, regarding the perpetrators, that one “[has] to hand it to them on some level”. Later, Stockhausen and Hirst each retracted their statements.
This fascination with naming things in the manner of a medieval scholar can sometimes be quite distressing. Indian art critic G. Sinha [1] This already reflects the dim prologue to Stockhausen and Hirst’s aesthetic thanatos. By the 1980s, the democratization of video recording had blurred the boundaries between militant jihadists and film directors. In the hands of Allah’s warriors the camcorder – and later the direct link to the internet – laid the foundation for the progressive reproduction of images of death and destruction in the media, right up to the global proliferation of images of death from the Twin Towers attack. Unlike Death, the media can kill a person an infinite number of times, noted Hakim Bey – a life-affirming anarchist expressing his abhorrence for the obsessive reproduction of images of death and the death-drive among the art community.[2]
Cut to Estonia at the beginning of the 21st century. The Tallinn office of the World Trade Center is skilfully concealed among the grey stone façades in the area of Jõe and Lootsi streets. This is no stage for a grand spectacle, and the size of the audience is also limited – to less than 1.5 million people, spread over a territory of 45,227 square kilometres. There is nothing here that could warn of an impending catastrophe and, in any case, the possible number of performers in a potential live horror show would be low. The area lacks the dramatic potential and critical mass needed for a global media event. And even though digital cameras and smartphones (increasingly replete with multimedia recording features) have celebrated minor triumphs in local art, this has also been on too small a scale to provoke a nuclear reaction in the global media.
Or maybe not? On 10th May 2006, live on-air on TV channel Kanal 2, the Estonian nationalist Jüri Liim threatened to blow up the Tõnismägi memorial in Tallinn – a monument which commemorates the arrival of Soviet troops in the city in 1944. Referring to the human figure which is the centrepiece of the monument – the Bronze Soldier – he vowed: “And ‘Alyosha’ will be sent flying into orbit [---], leaving behind only his combat boots.”[3] A discursive act of terror wrought in words and images, nationwide on the evening news, painstakingly pure in its facile media-readiness and unsullied by any real effort.  But this act revived real memories of long ago, namely of entire legions of bronze men that could be seen flying skyward in the Estonian night during the frenzied days of World War Two and even in later years – true, in a slightly different uniform. The Soviet invaders scoured the country of more than fifty monuments in Estonian county seats and municipalities that had been erected to mark the successful War of Independence against Bolshevik Russia 25 years earlier. Clearly the bourgeois execution of the soldier boy in Tõnismägi park was projected onto a waiting historical background. Indeed, the original initiative to blow up the Tõnismägi soldier dated from those times: a bronze Soviet star was dynamited late in the evening of 8th May 1946 in that same park. On that occasion the demolitionists were girls from a high school on Hariduse street, and they launched skyward a crude construction of planks that had been erected by the occupation forces to make a soldiers’ grave. An eye for an eye...

Old ghosts are awakened by the mention of names. Liim’s vow did not fall on deaf ears. It was met with support and much attention, and the potential spectacle of the act was lampooned in online forums. Inspired by the visual potential of the terrorist act and by the fit with the celestial pantheon of soldiers that had flown through Estonia’s night sky – with or without boots – a mass of commentators formed at the frontline. Our own anonymous Stockhausens and Hirsts gave the setting for rich folklore about “Alyosha in orbit”. A large community of people took rough shape, a group that social psychologist Benedict Anderson might call an ‘imagined community’: a community calling itself ‘a people’ or ‘a nation’ that is entwined less by common language than by their invented stories – a fabulist intellectual panopticon, a consensus of fantastic beliefs.[4]
But Estonia is a knowledge-based country. Its prime minister is a chemist by training and a right-wing market liberal by ethos, a man who believes in rational solutions and the semblance of the laboratory. He uses gunpowder and imagination only in accordance with legislation. In his office everything stems from this doxa – from a draft act that would enable the monument to be (re)moved. Law = science. Early on the morning of 26th April 2007, bolstered by riot police, the prime minister embarked on a personal archaeological project to identify the remains of those buried in the immediate vicinity of the monument. The area was surrounded by a metal fence and a tent shielded the statue from view. The police took up positions around the perimeter. The only thing missing was a sign: “Prime Minister At Work”.

It was a grave error. Both Jüri Liim’s media terrorism and the prime minister’s science fetishism had greatly underestimated the social energy of those imagined communities for whom the prospect of the Bronze Soldier leaving Tõnismäe was the sum of all paranoias. Nor did either the media terrorist or the scientist understand what a serious crime it was, in a society as visually-oriented and voyeuristic as ours, to restrict view of the activity. By concealing the Bronze Soldier in the tent, sealing it off from public space, a door was opened to that collective, discursive, psychological space wherein the stage had already been set. The Bronze Soldier soon blasted off at the speed of paranoid imagination, flying on an infinite trajectory. The imagined community made its own stage entrance on the night of 27-28th April, wishing to prevent the paranoid fantasy becoming reality. There were mass riots on Tallinn’s streets. Shops were looted. Cars and bars were set on fire. The Russian community was not happy. The so-called ‘Bronze riots’ were explosive enough to send Tallinn itself streaking skyward and Estonia was launched onto international news. In the dead of night, the prime minister had little choice other than to pack up his unfortunate science project. The soldier was taken a couple of kilometres down the road by armoured military vehicle to Tallinn’s central cemetery.

In autumn 2007, Kristina Norman completed her animated mockumentary Monolith. In one scene the bronze protagonist, suspended from a crane in Tõnismägi, shoots off into outer space, from whence – according to Norman’s story – he originated. This time he leaves his boots behind. The animated sequences were backed by a soundtrack from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Two years later Alyosha was back. Early in summer 2009 he appeared before the public, hovering about a metre from the floor of the exhibition space at the Estonian pavilion of the 53rd Venice Biennale. This time, having lost his cumbersome metal aspect, he was more ephemeral, made of plastic – a radiant iridescent image now familiar from live TV news and, indeed, now more immediately associated with that glowing screen than with life itself. He had a new name too – Central Golden Image – and had become part of Kristina Norman’s exhibition project After-War.
From an artist’s perspective, to make associations with a media figure or event is to engage with the media-erotic potential of the entire affair. It involves rising beyond the perspective of the ordinary journalist that feeds parasitically on images of blood, injustice and death, and seeing the entire thematic bubble with the eyes of a Stockhausen or a Hirst. It is to see the spectacle as a cosmic artwork, free of any moral hang-ups.
Norman does not choose the position of the artist. Instead of a Nietzschean Überkunst, she nods toward the manipulated show of reality, thus giving the entire event a framework. Norman opts for the medium of the billboard, the corporate mouthpiece, the images of which are intrinsically fundamental and final, sterilised Idealtypen – a magisterial and imperious feature of public space, lavishly funded. The installation Kinetics of Power tells a simple tale of the political manipulation of memory, via the advertising language of outdoor media. From park to cemetery, from visibility to darkness. And it does so in an era of rhetorical travesty – when artistic aspirations speak in the dulcet tones of advertising, advertising hijacks the vocabulary of the arts, and history is measured in accordance with newsworthiness. Everything is governed by a hostile ritual, a performative act, in the course of which discourses demonstratively nullify one another, overwriting each other again and again. Until, at once, a mute and opaque super-image rises above the increasingly busy palimpsest. It is the Bronze Soldier. Despite having been defaced with semiotic graffiti it remains capable of embracing and radiating opposing meanings without diminishing its iconic aura. Everyone sees that the aura exists: the only argument is over whether it should be consecrated or defiled. It recalls an old dispute concerning the desecration of images, where the battlefront is a division between Protestantism and Orthodoxy. The fact that Estonians tend more toward one side and Russians to the other adds an ethnic dimension to the cultural issue, thus allowing political schemers to take up positions on both sides of the barricades “in the name of national interests” – politics of the imagination. Superficiality, the defaced significance of the image, becomes a part of the surrounding discourse. As a kind of cypher the image is a natural invitation to the potential bomber, appearing as a tiny segment of vacant space that is still worth fighting for. Whoever controls the past also controls the future.
On Russia’s Victory Day, 9th May 2009 – just a month before the opening of the pavilion in Venice – the Bronze Soldier’s plastic doppelgänger revisited his former home at Tõnismägi. The artist tested the social traumas by liberally salting the wounds. The monument reappeared in precisely its former location as an image of itself. The timing could not have been better. The imagined Slavic community dwelt in remembrance of ghosts from a lost time. Nostalgia, anger and dormant memories. The body, sanctified by a martyr’s sufferings, towers above the experience of injustice. It has been brought to the streets for its final procession as an icon. It is a lament for lost monuments. The Estonian and Russian community are in complete symmetry. The curtain falls.
Johannes Saar is the director of the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Estonia.
[1]              G. Sinha, Art in the Time of Terror. – Art India 2006, No. 4.
[2]              H. Bey, Against the Reproduction of Death.
[4]              B. Anderson, Imagined Communities (New ed.). London, New York: Verso, 2006.
Fact corner

After-War by Kristina Norman.The Estonian pavilion at Palazzo Malipiero (S. Marco 3079, Venezia) 7.07–22.11.2009. Curator Marco Laimre, commissioner Johannes Saar, deputy commissioner Elin Kard. Exhibition support team: Art Allmägi, Andres Amos, Andris Brinkmanis, Edith Karlson, Jass Kaselaan, Raul Keller, Meelis Muhu, Jaak Soans, Taivo Timmusk, Reimo Võsa-Tangsoo. Exhibition catalogue: Aleksandr Astrov, Airi Triisberg, Andres Kurg, Marco Laimre, Kristina Norman.

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