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"What exactly is Eastern Europe? The journey from the Baltics to the Balkans? Or is it also a round tour through Russia?" – Participating in the discussion led by Andreas Trossek were Tiit Hennoste, Linda Kaljundi, Liisa Kaljula and Tanel Rander. KUNST.EE 2/2022


The tour de force that is Kristi Kongi’s world of colours

Elnara Taidre (3/2021)

Elnara Taidre looks at Kristi Kongi’s painting practice of recent years.

14. V–19. VI 2021
Kogo Gallery

16. VI–18. VII 2021
Rüki Gallery

The past years have been prolific for Kristi Kongi as an extremely capable painter continuously expanding the boundaries of painting as a medium. Focusing on the basic elements of painting, such as colour and light, Kongi continues to offer powerful experiences and thought-provoking material using seemingly simple instruments.

In addition to colour and light, she also includes space in her work in the sense that the two-dimensional painting keeps actively extending itself into the three-dimensional space. This results in an original visual world and a particular colour palette that is immediately recognisable as Kongi's work – it is captivating and engaging. First, on the primary, pre-linguistic, visual and verbally unformulated level and then also unfolding onto the next levels, inviting intellectual and analytical tension. Mapping out Kongi's artistic practice that has recently become significantly more diverse, this text aims to take a closer look at the multiple levels of these practices.1


Colour as a language of imagery

Often, Kristi Kongi's work is first experienced through emotion – as a particular state of being, not as an event or narrative. However, with her latest exhibitions the artist has emphasised her desire to tell stories by offering the viewers certain kinds of narratives. The key to reading these narratives can often be found in the titles of Kongi's works.

In a poetic, yet not exaggerated but charmingly immediate or even mundane way – and in their supple attentiveness to the surrounding world reminiscent of Japanese poetry – the titles convey different situations, moods and a sense of space. In this world, colours are the main characters, appearing both as images and as descriptions of these images.

While one of the main themes of Kongi's solo exhibition "Shimmering Star Magenta. Was it a dream or was it real?" (2021, Kogo Gallery) was places and journeys, the show that followed immediately after, "Imaginary Creatures at Dusk 2" (2021, Rüki Gallery) was inspired by Jorge Luis Borges' fictional encyclopedia and followed the theme of imaginary creatures. In Borges' imaginary bestiary an empathic creature named A Bao A Qu can sense the souls of pilgrims coming to the Tower of Victory in Chitor and their inner purity and glow "makes the bluish form it gives off more brilliant".2 Here, colour is the embodiment of happiness, spirituality and inner purity, whereas the fantastic can also act as a metaphor for ordinary reality.

Kongi interprets colour in a similar manner – a chemically pure extract or a complex mixture – as a physical and symbolic quintessence that reveals the core of things and processes, just like an alchemical substance. It can refer to a real or imaginary creature, situation or memory, an emotion or knowledge, a fact of nature or experiences provided by artworks created in different media.

The abstract forms of Kongi's paintings are sufficiently vague and open to let colour dominate and determine their characteristics and essence. These works are not mimetic, trying to copy objects from our everyday reality, nor do they evoke the regular structures of geometric shapes. Kongi's highly idiosyncratic images seem to have been created first and foremost to make the character of a particular tone or the interplay of colours stand out on the surface.

For example, looking at the paintings exhibited at "Imaginary Creatures at Dusk 2" I noticed that cold tones often dominate on motifs with sharp corners. And the rounder motifs allow certain beautiful colours to leave a cleaner impression, either as a powerful uniform area of colour or a shimmering play of its various tones. The narrower and elongated, more line-like elements are rather light and energetically bright. To create gradients between colours, Kongi provides enough space on the canvas, often this becomes the central part of the painting. The tones grow into one another rather slowly, with almost imperceptible transitions. But sometimes more colourful surfaces also appear, where instead of a peaceful flow of tones, a more varied vibration is generated, which, however, remains within the limits of one colour harmony.

Kongi's theatre of colours is thus a universal signifier that applies to a variety of phenomena. Here, colour is both an abstract symbol as well a direct embodiment: these works are constructions, filled with codes and conditionality, fully capable of having an immediate effect on the viewer. In the spaces Kongi has carefully constructed, the interaction between colours relies on the viewer's senses and in some ways resembles how we experience nature – the colours are immersed in the light and the air of the exhibition space, felt through the skin and inhaled by the viewer.




Kristi Kongi
Shimmering star Magenta. Was it a dream or was it real?
Installation, painting
Exhibition view at Kogo Gallery
Photographer Marje Eelma
Courtesy of the artist




Towards total painting

In the exhibition "Shimmering Star Magenta. Was it a dream of was it real?" Kongi applied the principle of total design – she painted the walls and created an all-encompassing space of painting. It was as if the viewer stepped into a massive painting, allowing them to move around and discover its various facets and angles. The individual works placed in the colour space created a "painting within a painting" effect, where a captivating dialogue between larger and smaller elements took place.

The colours used on the walls were lighter and the shapes and images they formed were simpler and more generalised than on canvases, adding to the impression that colours dissipate and dissolve or blend into the surrounding space. The space at the exhibition "Imaginary Creatures at Dusk 2" alternatively lacked additional design; however, the artist took advantage of the expressive white log walls and the bright blue floor of Rüki Gallery and created a space that looked complete, as if it was site-specific.

In addition to designing her own solo shows, she has also started designing group exhibitions by other artists. In the exhibition "Let Me Dream Once More" (2020, Narva Museum Art Gallery)3 Kongi took on the double role of the curator and the artist. The multifaceted selection of artists – Anna Shkodenko, Holger Loodus, Kaarel Kurismaa, Merike Estna and Kongi herself – allowed her to explore a variety of aspects and issues concerning painting.

The diverse selection of works was brought into a coherent whole by surfaces of colour derived from the colour scheme of the exhibited works. At the same time, the paintings, combined to form a strange construction at "Imaginary Creatures at Dusk" (2020), revealed the considerable combinatorial potential of meta-painting: later, these were exhibited as independent works on the walls of the Rüki Gallery.

The colourful wall surfaces became a notable design solution also at the exhibition design for student works at the Estonian Academy of Arts, curated by Reeli Kõiv, titled "Invisible Monumental Painting: Monumental art by students at the Painting Department of EKA 1962–1995" (2020). Here, however, the walls were more soft-toned and calm to complement the historic context of the exhibited student works. The works were divided precisely based on the latter and colour was not only a magnificent formal or aesthetic organising principle but also marked divisions based on chronology and school. Alongside the generalisations that led her to use specific tones for specific eras, Kongi also found a way to approach the presentation of works individually: for each student work, she chose a mat of different tone and shape to emphasise the originality of each piece. Once again, the exposition felt like "a picture within a picture" to be explored and experienced on multiple levels.

Kongi's stage design for the performance "You Will Be a Dancer!" (2020, directed by Liis Vares, Sõltumatu Tantsu Lava) placed both the dancers as well as the audience in the centre of an enormous painting. In doing so, the artist considered how the colours change in changing lighting conditions: in normal light the composition looked rather characteristic of Kongi – bright and warm – yet in cold lighting, the palette took on an almost opposite tonality or became almost monochrome, as several of the tones merged into one in certain light. And so Kongi cleverly and sensitively coded the potential of several artworks into one painting.

Kongi's installation "Pink Cloud" on the facade of the Explorer building in Tallinn (2021, exhibition series "Nocturnal Visions" curated by Estonian Centre for Contemporary Art) marked movement from interior to exterior, to urban landscape. The project was well timed and allowed the participating artists to bring more light and colour to the city space during the dark season, so that the facade of this particular building looked more distinctive and harmonious thanks to the artists' choice of colour and lighting scenarios.

Kongi's installation "To hide yourself. Is there any light left? Lemon yellow, Golden Ochre, Magenta? Where are you now?" swapped the artificial urban environment for nature in the open-air exhibition "Savage" (2021, Latvia, curated by Elīza Elizabete Ramza). The screen-shaped painted structure with its shape, colours and images is clearly different from the surrounding natural world but at the same time, is inspired by it as well. In creating it, Kongi also relied on the idea that the open-air painting object could also function as an additional form of the landscape and be gradually shaped by different weather, increasingly growing into the meadow it inhabited.


Notes on the colour discourse and subjective colour phenomenology

To tackle the problem of colour, Kristi Kongi needs to be courageous. Seemingly, colours are discussed everywhere, although in a fragmented and splintered manner – there is no one uniform colour discourse. David Batchelor, the editor of the series of books "Documents of Contemporary Art" published by the Whitechapel Gallery admits that the colour discourse primarily exists through reflections, observations, side notes, multifaceted and in flux, vague and strange in essence.

The perception of colour is culturally determined and in addition to that, the descriptions of colours are met with boundaries set by language, which cannot provide a counterpart for each tone. Colour discourse is not an academic discipline, even though it belongs to the worlds of science, art, theory and storytelling, infiltrating everywhere but not limiting itself to one specific discipline.

Like Batchelor says, 20th-century art has been influenced by the fact that colour has had such a significant position in modernist abstract painting. This is the reason colour has become a "formal" issue for art critics and causes a certain kind of uneasiness. Yet, as Batchelor optimistically claims, this prejudice was overcome in the 1970s and colour is widely interpreted both by postmodern thinkers and contemporary artists, in theory as well as in practice.4

Looking into colour discourse, Batchelor has put together an impressive collection of quotes: "Colour exists in itself" (Henri Matisse); "Colour… is new each time" (Roland Barthes); "Colour can appear an unthinkable scandal" (Stephen Melville); "Colour is enslaved by line that becomes writing" (Yves Klein); "Colour has not yet been named" (Jacques Derrida); "Colour is knowledge" (Donald Judd); "Colour is the first revelation of the world" (Hélio Oiticica).5 Any one of these quotes could be the beginnings of a longer discourse; however, these ideas do not develop into something significantly longer, leaving poetic promises and a premonition of the potential of colour discourse up in the air.

In the titles and press releases for her exhibitions, Kongi approaches colour through poetic images and stories, without trying to directly describe it in the dry language of colour theory. However, a deeper reflection takes place in her painting, in their implicit self-reflective and analytical nature.

For example, one of the artist's favourite colours, magenta, offers countless possibilities to experiment with mixing new tones and is, according to the artist, a very empathic tone, easily entering into a dialogue with all kinds of other tones. But magenta is also well expressed in its pure tonality, without mixing it with other colours – as an open signifier for an array of themes. Kongi's works simultaneously make visible and analyse the problematics of colour, a theoretical approach is here realised in artistic practice and does not exist independently but only as an aspect of Kristi Kongi's metalanguage of painting.




The dignified treatment of colour and the ability to escape kitsch in Kristi Kongi's paintings is admirable – in her interpretation no colour combination is too sweet to be addressed. Interestingly, this approach helped me to recover a sincere admiration for picturesque sunsets.

Whenever I think that a sunset reminds me of a painting by Kristi Kongi – and not Ivan Aivazovsky! – I see it as a pure experience of colour, not as a romantic-sentimental cultural code that the so-called petit bourgeois has learned to admire and self-proclaimed progressives to dread. It is possible that this change in my attitude was made possible by the autonomy colour that has been granted in Kongi's work, freeing it from associations with recognisable objects.

At first, Kongi's choice of colour seems artificial or unnatural, perhaps even too bright or aggressive, especially when it comes to certain neon pink shades. When I was taking the train back from Viljandi, where I had visited the exhibition "Imaginary Creatures at Dusk 2", I had a strange reconciliation with the latter, I even came to like it – from the train window I saw fields of blooming fireweed, all deliciously neon pink!

The powerfully blooming brightly coloured fireweed in the midst of tall grass, either deep green or scorched yellow by the sun, is the quintessence of Estonian high summer for me. On the one hand, the pinkishly glowing fireweed evokes delight in nature in the height of summer, on the other, however, the creeping realisation that the time of lush blooming will come to an end soon and summer will subtly turn to autumn. From now on, the scent of growing and blooming plants will subside before the aroma and whispers of drying grass and leaves...

And so the abstract experience I had had in the gallery came back to me in a circle – through everyday reality and nature. Yet, thanks to the fine-tuned optics of Kristi Kongi's works, my sense of nature had become significantly more delicate and multi-levelled. And this meta-level colour experience allowed me to see the reality outside art differently, simultaneously in a more immediate and meaningful way – all thanks to art.

To conclude, I encourage readers to notice and appreciate the cyclically constant and yet constantly changing world around us, where no two identical sunsets or flowers exist. And through that experience to get to know yourself better as well, which, in fact, might be one of the most important things both in life and art.


1 I would like to thank Kristi Kongi for the fascinating conversation (8. VII 2021); notes in the possession of the author.

2 Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1974, p 15.

3 See e.g. Eva-Erle Lilleaed, A Reverie in gloomy weather. – KUNST.EE 2020, No 4, pp 38–43.

4 David Batchelor. Introduction // On Colour and Colours. – Colour. Documents of Contemporary Art. London; Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel and MIT Press, 2008, pp 15–19.

5 Ibid, p 14.

Elnara Taidre is an art historian, critic and curator. She works as the head of the graphic art collection at the Art Museum of Estonia.

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