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"Thinking" pictures

Kädi Talvoja (3/2022)

Kädi Talvoja reviews Kumu's exhibition "Thinking Pictures. Conceptual Art from Moscow and the Baltics".

18. III 2022 – 14. VIII 2022
Kumu Art Museum Great Hall
Curators: Anu Allas (Estonian Academy of Arts), Liisa Kaljula (Art Museum of Estonia) and Jane Sharp (Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum and Rutgers University)
Consultants: Ieva Astahovska (Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art), Lolita Jablonskienė (National Gallery, Vilnius)
Collections: Art Museum of Estonia, Artists' Union of Latvia Museum, Estonian Artists' Association, Estonian Museum of Architecture, Latvian National Museum of Art, Lithuanian National Museum of Art, MO Museum, Tartu Art Museum, Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers – Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art, Zuzāns Collection and private collections in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

The saga of the opening of the exhibition "Thinking Pictures. Conceptual Art from Moscow and the Baltics" is an eloquent example of how contemporary events interfere with history and influence the interpretation of art. An expensive and complex international project, which had already been repeatedly postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, unexpectedly turned into an anti-war protest.

Just before the exhibition was set up, Russia attacked Kyiv (24. II 2022) and a war that shocked Europe in its comfortable naivety broke out. The focus of the exhibition – debates on conceptualism between Baltic and Muscovite artists in the 1970s and 1980s (regardless of how ignorant, oppositional or downright derisive the Muscovites were with regard to Soviet ideology and the limits of official art) – landed in a highly political context, where the only possible connotation reserved for Moscow was that of an aggressor.

Discussions about sanctions against Russia quickly spread to the field of higher education and culture, putting academic institutions and event organisers face to face with a difficult moral dilemma: to what extent should Russian citizens bear collective responsibility for the war, or even national guilt? And as history has repeatedly shown, searches for an enemy often take a retroactive perspective.

The fact that a large part of the Moscow artists represented in the exhibition did not participate in the official art life of the Soviet Union, emigrated from the oppressive country when the opportunity arose, and in fact many of them were not even Russian by nationality, not to mention the fact that it was not a cooperation project with Russia, but with the Zimmerli Art Museum located in America, did not prove to be strong enough arguments.

The apologetic rhetoric that "they are not to blame for the war" also activated the blame discourse. Indeed, if you wanted, you could find something to criticise: although the Russian dissident movement generally fought for civil rights, freedom of speech and freedom to create, it did not contribute to the freedom struggle of (other) nations or peoples (countries). And that was the main question at the time!


A clever compromise

In this rather hysterical situation, the Kumu Art Museum's decision to open the exhibition without pictures and to gradually fill the rooms with artworks seemed like a clever political compromise, at least initially. Undoubtedly, this was a conservative choice, perhaps even a masking of censorship in the end (in any case, in the last week of July, the most outrageous images depicting Lenin and Stalin by the Moscow artists had not yet been hung on the walls), but there was the beauty of a conceptual gesture.

I found myself on the curated tour of the exhibition without pictures, and it was a magnificent experience in itself in terms of space. The solution by the exhibition designer Mari Kurismaa – to mark the locations and dimensions of the works on the walls as grey shadows – did not leave the visitors of the exhibition completely deprived of the images and stimulated their imagination.

In retrospect, however, I tend to think that, in the end, the exhibition did not win from this political framing. The (fact of an) exhibition without pictures as a political statement received perhaps more airtime in the local media than the exhibition would have received under normal circumstances, but the shock of the war triggered the old narratives of simplified resistance, which the curators themselves partly fell into when justifying and explaining the decision.

This is a shame because the idea of the exhibition – to highlight manifestations of conceptualism in the Baltics, to present lesser-known works and at the same time to look for fresh perspectives that do not distinguish nationalities and do not have a hierarchy – lost its opportunity to claim the foreground. Be that as it may, the stars of the project still turned out to be the representatives of Moscow sots art, whose depictions of Lenin and Stalin were probably the main reason for the fear of a misreading and painful reactions by the public.

In reality, these over-the-top ironic images are probably the most easily understood works in the exhibition. Not because the other objects speak some secret anti-regime language that tends to be grafted onto alternative art practices of the Soviet period.

Conceptualism simply does not come across so well without background knowledge, and knowledge of Western art history is not necessarily completely useful in understanding Soviet conceptualism. True, in principle, the works presented in the exhibition can be described as idea-based and institution-critical, a large share of the objects are text or gesture-based, we see the analysis or cancellation of classical art media, the appropriation of ready-made objects, etc.

They partly overlap with the keywords proposed by the curators. Directing the audience to notice the diversity of the strategies used by the artists, the exhibition is divided into 11 thematic rooms: "Sots Art", "City Interventions", "Travelling into the Green", "Objective Art", "Circle, Square, Triangle", "Image as Criticism", "Fundamental Lexicons", "Disappearing Images", "Text and Image", "Existential Questions", "Body and Space". There are denser and more coherent as well as darker and less convincing associations; spaces that are based primarily on the works by representatives of the Moscow School, and others determined by artists from the Baltic countries.





Erik Bulatov
oil on canvas, 109 x 110 cm
Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers – Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art
Photo by Peter Jacobs




A powerful message

The abandonment of hierarchies (read: the internationally known brand of Moscow conceptualism versus lesser-known artists from the Baltic states) is, in my opinion, the most powerful message of the exhibition. Considering that proportionally the largest portion of the works comes from the collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art at the Zimmerli Art Museum (more than 20,000 works to date), where next to the Moscow-Leningrad artists, the representation of other Soviet republics is significantly less and more random, it was perhaps not so easy to create a dialogue seeking equality.

Although the Zimmerli collection has gradually been added to over the last few decades, its core is formed by the American art collector Norton Dodge's crazy collection assembled over 30–40 years. Dodge was one of the first – and certainly the most systematic – collectors of art from the Soviet Union, trying to expand his reach to other regions of the Soviet Union in addition to Moscow and Leningrad.

While visiting the Soviet Union a dozen times between 1955 and 1977, Dodge never ended up in Latvia or Lithuania on his collecting trips, but he did make it a few times to Tallinn, the then capital of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (ESSR). An observant label reader could have noticed that most of the works by Latvian and Lithuanian artists come from local state and private museums.

The texts accompanying the exhibition do not pay special attention to this fact, but considering that since the 1990s, the publications of the Zimmerli Art Museum have had a rather strong influence on the understanding of the nonconformist art of the Soviet Union, as well as the art history of the Baltic countries and their comparisons, it is perhaps time to start realising the randomness of Dodge's choices at the time. This collection is not necessarily a guarantee of quality, nor of "non-conformism", and deserves a critical historical look.

Perhaps unconsciously, but in its sub-layers the exhibition does this. At this point, a desire arises to discuss whether, when creating a hierarchy-free background, it was tactically the correct decision not to indicate the artists' place of activity on the labels. The themed spaces put Moscow and Baltic conceptualism into dialogue, but just as Soviet conceptualism does not overlap with the Western version, the environment, everyday life, and the sphere of knowledge, networks and artistic traditions of the former Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian SSRs and Moscow do not really overlap either.

Although the neutral background of the wall texts is very likable and looks for common ground, the phrase "travelling into green" is probably not quite the same for Moscow artists with memories of the brutal "Bulldozer Exhibition" as, for example, the Lithuanians. (In 1974, an alternative exhibition organised in the countryside near Moscow was ended by the brutal intervention of the authorities: the pictures were crushed to pieces with bulldozers, and people were beaten and attacked with water cannons.) In any case, the photos – limited documentation of the events – remained too arbitrary and crowded at the exhibition.

Considering how difficult it is to make contemporary art understandable for the Estonian general public, the addition of explanatory-interpretive-contextualising texts would not have hurt. Since the visual side of conceptualism is only one and not necessarily the most important part of the works, they could have contributed to the translation of the textual parts of the works as well. So the "thinking" pictures would perhaps also "speak"?


Kädi Talvoja is an art scholar who focuses on the art of the Soviet period. She works at the Estonian Academy of Arts.

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