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Timeless Quality

Jaan Elken (3/2016)

Jaan Elken praises Mare Mikoff ’s survey exhibition "Mikoff. Sculptures".



10. VI–19. IX 2016
Tartu Art Museum
Curator: Gregor Taul.

Mare Mikoff's exhibition, which was announced as the main event of the year at the Tartu Art Museum, was a true gem. The selection on display constituted a beautifully coherent whole. Luckily, the works were not organised chronologically, which provided excellent opportunities for comparison and food for thought through juxtaposing pieces from different eras. With artistic individuals as compelling as Mikoff, you can never really tell which elements come from the artist, and which are proposed by the curator or the designer of the exhibition. The small space was used to the full, covering her work from the present and going back to her earlier works, such as "Rein" (1970), displayed as an amphora found during underwater excavations. Excluded were several of her earlier bronze sculptures and, from among her more recent popular works, the entire series of large spiral skirts (which were showed off at her 2005 exhibition "Ene, Reet and..." at Tartu Art House).

I find it difficult to agree with the way our art critics use the term "contemporary art" to categorise what happens in the art field. The phrase has almost become a tool of judgement, depending on the position of its user. However, an artist who constantly regenerates yet always remains true to herself, maintaining her relevance by actively keeping up with the latest developments, should be a great example of how inappropriate that construction is, because as the years pass, it is quality that will remain a decisive argument or epithet of someone's work. Among sculptors it was Mikoff who decisively shook off the constraints of the 1970s and 1980s during the 1990s, as well as the elegiac heaviness of highly finished bronze casting. Regardless of the scale of the shift in the early 1990s, the opening up of the world and the domestication of all sorts of "new practices" in the Estonian art scene, Mikoff did not distance herself from realist forms in sculpture. When necessary, she now even applies all these professional skills with hyperrealist strictness reminiscent of George Segal. We could even compare the timeless formal language of "Maanaised" (Country Women, 1974/1978) permanently displayed by the museum entrance on the Town Hall Square, with the bas-relief "Kestast väljas" (Out of the Shell, 2013) at the exhibition, featuring the morbid image of John Lennon. When necessary, Mikoff borrows formal techniques from the arsenal of expressionist sculpture, mixing these with the bright colours of pop art, as in "Harry Liivranna portree" (Portrait of Harry Liivrand, 1988/1989) flashing in technical pinks and blues. We could even think of a work that interprets Christian symbolism: the androgynous and languid "Karjatüdruk" (Shepherd Girl, 2015). Displayed at the exhibition, this laborious sculpture serves as proof that the artist is still at her peak. The classic elements, including the eternal values, are anyway there, omnipresent! In the setting of this exhibition, the allegory of Christ, "Peeter Volkonski portree" (Portrait of Peeter Volkonski, 1979/1980) leaves a fresher impression than ever before.

What I enjoyed most, however, was watching the drone video of Mikoff's interpretation of August Weizenberg's "Hämarik" (Twilight, 2005), which was screened in the very last exhibition hall. The sculpture, placed outside Viru Keskus, was created according to an idea by Vilen Künnapu, the architect that designed the shopping centre. First, the modelling of the sculpture's face and hands showed unearthly elegant and astounding angles, where Mikoff has taken into consideration points of view and distortions of perspective when looking at the giant sculpture from the ground. The close-ups in the video and the vertical movement of the camera brought to mind the ever-inspiring influence of antique sculpture. Tallinn, filmed in horizontal early morning sunlight, looks like a wondrous place. The hand of Twilight, raised to cover her eyes from the bright sunbeams that look like nuclear explosions, as well as her lowered gaze, leave no room for doubt: she is looking toward the site of the demolished main building of the Estonian Academy of Arts! For some reason, this caused the frames of the sinking Atlantis to come floating on the surface of my subconscious.

The accompanying texts at the exhibition explained contexts and discussed power and spirituality, but were sometimes also carried by romantic wishful thinking, as in the case of the explanations of the saga of the monuments. However, I would like to counter the opinion of Gregor Taul, the author of the texts, that Mikoff does not care about internationalisation or "a breakthrough" abroad. Let's be realistic: even if the entire export potential of Estonian sculpture (both the financial means and communication) could be used to introduce one of our top sculptors abroad, this undertaking might not be successful. Currently, Estonian art is being introduced internationally by adept communicators in their early 30s who have mostly studied in the West or lived there for a longer period of time. Self-evidently, they concentrate on promoting artefacts in the format of cultural industry (indeed, the boundaries between design and visual arts are becoming blurred at art fairs as well). We can only assume who will succeed as an individual and who will fail in that quest and always keep chasing the trends.

In the 1990s, the George Soros Centre in Lithuania began actively introducing local painting, especially for German audiences. Compared to the other Baltic States, Estonian artists from the Soviet background have hardly, if at all, managed to make an international breakthrough. What has so far happened to the generation of 1941 (Mikoff's year of birth – Ed.), used to be almost mission impossible anyway: the availability of travel opportunities alone seemed an unattainable dream thirty years ago. However, Mikoff perfectly understands her class of origin: it's not without reason that her spiritual sparring partner is Rachel Whiteread. I have travelled with Mikoff on several occasions, most recently when her large-scale textile installations were displayed in Carcassonne at the joint exhibition of artists from Estonia and the Toulouse district. And as quite often happens, a depressing non-parity occurred on the spot. The two Estonian national art museums, Kumu and Tartmus have the power to do something radical about this, but this would require a contribution from a dedicated connoisseur and raising interest in partnering museums.

Compared to the 2011 exhibition "Linnaskulptuur" (Urban Sculpture) at the Museum of Estonian Architecture and several smaller exhibitions of Mikoff's works in Tallinn, this display is obviously more impressive and offers a better overview. At the same time, I have a feeling that the vocabulary for discussing her work is becoming exhausted and it's time to go from words to actions. Mikoff deserves a large-scale solo exhibition on the ground floor of Kumu Art Museum in the section for temporary displays, including the lobby and courtyard. And also proper financing with a chance to hire assistants, which would allow her to intently focus on the project for two or three years.


Jaan Elken is a painter, art critic, curator and art teacher.




Mare Mikoff Out of the Shell

Mare Mikoff
Out of the Shell
life size bas-relief, aluminium
Courtesy of the artist

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