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When Will Postmodernism End?

Andreas Trossek (1/2016)

Discussion: Andreas Trossek and Kaire Nurk examine the exhibition "From Explosion to Expanse. Estonian Contemporary Photography 1991–2015".


20. XI 2015–28. II 2016
Artists: Avangard (Sandra Jõgeva & Margus Tamm), DeStudio (Herkki-Erich Merila & Peeter Laurits), Kaisa Eiche, Dénes Farkas, F.F.F.F. (Kristi Paap, Kaire Rannik, Berit Teeäär, Ketli Tiitsar, Maria Valdma), JIM (Johannes Säre, Iti Connor, Maido Juss), Toomas Kalve, Eve Kiiler, Mari-Leen Kiipli, Paul Kuimet, Laura Kuusk, Mari Laanemets, Marco Laimre, Peeter Laurits, Ly Lestberg, Peeter Linnap & Jaanus Nõgisto, Arne Maasik, Herkki-Erich Merila & Arbo Tammiksaar, Marge Monko, Tanja Muravskaja, Krista Mölder, Katja Novitskova, Taavi Piibemann & Toomas Thetloff, Birgit Püve, Mark Raidpere, Piia Ruber, Piret Räni, Jaanus Samma & Alo Paistik, Liina Siib, Tiit Sokk, Andres Tali, Peeter Tooming & Carl Sarap, Laura Toots, Mare Tralla, Anna-Stina Treumund, Anu Vahtra & Na Kim, Tarvo Hanno Varres, Sigrid Viir, Mart Viljus, Toomas Volkmann, Reimo Võsa-Tangsoo.
Curator: Anneli Porri.



"All hopes of postmodernism's death are premature."
Eve Kiiler, "Estonian Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: a Beginner's Introduction to Postmodernism" (1993)



Andreas Trossek (A. T.): To get the ball rolling, I would like to say that I feel like the 1990s are finally coming to an end. And not only because it is 2016, or because one of the leading Estonian art critics of that decade Ants Juske (1956–2016) has just died, the 1990s are coming to an end in the sense that the decade seems to be completely historicised, "explained", subjected to certain narratives. And the process of mythologising the decade has been carried out almost synchronously; in other words, there is a remarkable abundance of material on this decade (exhibitions, publications, critiques, interpretations, etc).

What is history written about? About things that matter. About things that are pivotal. About things that researchers have begun to establish a common understanding of and to formulate an answer to the question of what happened. So when it comes to the re-evaluation and re-writing of art history, I think it will take a long time before the canonised 1990s will be re-written; and that is good for some and not so good for others. First of all, because during pivotal times, there are plenty of those who do very well, but also those who do not, who as students or young artists had a couple of notable exhibitions, but then disappeared from the scene, which is why their position in the canon in the long run is actually debatable (and these people are mostly the first to admit to that).

Secondly, because those who survived the revolution are in a forced position in a way and they have to reiterate their subjective micro histories to the audience again and again and establish them as fixed entities to keep the positions they have achieved. This is how a kind of new nomenclature appears, gradually and almost unnoticed. It is the list of living classics in our art history, linked by the biopolitical fact that they were young during the 1990s and they kept working as artists throughout the following decade and still keep doing so. For their success, they pay the price of having their creative freedom curbed and haunted by history. For example, Jaan Toomik must always be a tragic, Marko Mäetamm, a (tragi)comic, Marco Laimre, critical, Kaido Ole, a neutral figure, etc.

One of the dominant tendencies in the Estonian exhibition scene of late is the celebration of the art heroes of the 1990s. I have repeatedly joked that the nineties are just reverse sixties – the revolutions that happened in the West in the 1960s only occurred in Eastern Europe in the 1990s after the Soviet Union had collapsed. Like the semionaut Kiwa, "a child of the ninties", who just this autumn celebrated his 40th birthday with a retrospective "Self-Portrait as an Unknown" at the Tartu Art Museum (5. IX–1. XI 2015). Or the extensive exhibition "Death and Beauty. The Contemporary Gothic in Art and Visual Culture" at Kumu (20. II–10. V 2015), where the younger audience got to see DeStudio's iconic works from the 1990s, for example. Or the group show at the Contemporary Art Museum Estonia (EKKM) last autumn revealingly titled "1995" (8. VIII–6. IX 2015). In November 2015, an exhibition titled "From Explosion to Expanse. Estonian Contemporary Photography 1991–2015" was opened at the Tartu Art Museum (20. XI 2015–28. II 2016) with the starting point for these processes placed again in the 1990s. So it seems to be worth remembering. And the background to the exhibition goes beyond the question of what is photography in 2016.


Kaire Nurk (K. N.): To begin with, I will try to differentiate our starting points. For a number of reasons I do not have the catalogue for "From Explosion to Expanse"; however, I have tested the show a number of times and with different groups of people, so my approach to the discussion is more practice-based. Since you have been through the catalogue thoroughly, maybe you could discuss the theoretical side more? But since you brought up the context of the 1990s, I felt the need to re-read the 1990s Estonian art reader "Nosy Nineties", a book that I really find didactic, and especially what Peeter Linnap and Mari Laanemets write about the art turn of the 1990s and the role of photography in that – so in a way I have armed myself with theoretical ammunition after all.

First off, a couple of additions to the question of the nineties being over and/or re-written. In his analysis of the yearly exhibitions of the Soros Center of Contemporary Arts, Estonia (since 1999 Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia – Ed.), Linnap pointedly mentions critique's "total failure to interpret contemporary art".1 As time went on, new theoretical strategies have washed over the heads of art theorists, one of the most recent being Posthumanism and the drive to bring art and science together in synergy (in this, the last "documenta" (13) in 2012 was probably remarkably influential). So I think the large amount of diverse written material produced in the 1990s in Estonia from today's perspective has expired in many ways. I think the need for deeper theoretical reflection is still rather substantial.

Especially because art changes so fast and is constantly (again!) on the verge of exhausting itself and there is a demand for something new at an increasing rate, new generations of Estonian artists keep looking at the bold steps taken in the nineties for input – even more so because (supposedly) Estonian art was either backward and conservative or extremely introverted and defensive due to ideological reasons, and to such a degree that it supposedly does not relate to the contemporary situation. (A good example of that would be the Köler Prize intended for young artists established in 2011. The name sounds impressive, but I think neither the nominees nor the younger public really knows or cares about a man called Johann Köler, a court artist for the Russian tsar who also happened to be the very first professional Estonian artist.) And so for the younger generation the "usable" history of Estonian art begins with the 1990s!?

And this is precisely why this decade has received a disproportionate amount of attention, and this will probably remain unchanged for a while. At least until the Estonian art world believes that it can educate the public to understand and love the ugly and/or conceptual art – for various reasons I am saying this with a degree of irony. Although there is another reason curatorial exhibitions favour the nineties – it is because Kumu Art Museum, which just celebrated its 10th birthday, has not canonised Toomik and other "fountain-artists" (in a Duchampian sense) in its permanent exhibition yet – and therefore, the decade has remained open to interpretation. So Kumu's strategy may actually have a strong ulterior motive. In this context the curator Annely Porri's ambition to map the first quarter of a century of photography in the independent Estonian Republic makes sense in every way. On the other hand, I think she has displayed a rather pointed collection that also contains certain judgments.


A. T.: Yes, the saying "freedom is the recognition of necessity" almost immediately comes to mind, when we talk about the choices the curator has made. And also that facts are facts. "International success stories in contemporary art are closely linked to photography and photographic education," answers the curator Anneli Porri briefly to the question of why photography.2 She does not expand on what she means exactly by "success stories" but I think I understand – above all she means Estonian pavilions at the international Venice Biennale and local art prizes like the Köler Prize, which is awarded to artists by an international committee.

A couple of years ago in a short radio commentary I started the discussion by asking a rhetorical question about whether photography is art, and I reached a dry and statistics-based conclusion that the mainstream in Estonian 21st century contemporary art (art that wins prizes, gets exhibited, exported and institutionalised, etc) is, and has been for many years, primarily camera-based art. "For example, if we look at which artists have won the competitions for the Estonian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, there is a whole array of artists with a background in photography, video and film: Jaan Toomik, Mark Raidpere, Kristina Norman, Liina Siib, Dénes Farkas. The triumph of the camera is absolute. So the relevant question here is not "Is photography art?", but rather "Is art just photography?"".3 The latter question is also the starting point in the catalogue for "From explosion to expanse" and it is true, this exhibition also presents the narrative that the predominant medium of many artworks from the 1990s and the 2000s that still circulate really is photography.

I'm grateful to the curator for the reference and I admire her courage, as she was invited by Tartu Art Museum, to reach for such an old-fashioned tool as a medium-based approach from the centuries old tool-box of art history. Old school, but it works! But I am still a little concerned about the general impression that the mythological and magical mill of Sampo that makes flour, salt and money out of nothing has been found! Something like, if there is an element of photography in an artwork made in Estonia from 1991 onwards it is all good, because it is automatically good contemporary art and it is the medium that quietly legitimises the artist. True, the history of 20th century conceptualism and performance art has survived through photographic documentation, which means we have grown almost instinctively accustomed to photography. However, was Marcel Duchamp's revolution really about the use of photography?

Postmodernism, as we all know, considers the medium of an art object a secondary issue, since we live in a situation where the borders of art have dissolved and the focus is on the theme or the message of the artwork. The exhibition also focuses on the very different iterations by many different artists that are tied together by the fact that all of them use photographic images. This is simultaneously the weakness and the strength of the medium-based approach, since it allows the curator to present a fascinating and multifaceted palette of artist positions; however, it also lumps together artists whose work would not relate to one another under any other circumstances. I mean, c'mon, what do the works of the art group Avangard (Sandra Jõgeva & Margus Tamm) and the portfolio of Anna-Stina Treumund really have in common? Even though they both have used whips in exhibition halls, if I can be literal. Usually, it is large events that excel in this cacophonic approach – biennials, triennials, annual exhibitions and other larger events. And also art fairs – the market reconciles even the most fervent rivals.

It is true, "From Explosion to Expanse" is an exhibition of work in one medium (photography) that is not trying to hide its theoretical starting point. Already the title of the show unambiguously refers to Yuri Lotman's famous concept of (cultural) explosion. Photography was a rather marginal medium during the Soviet period and was somewhere at the bottom of the hierarchy of arts, so in this scheme of things photography is a borderline semiotic element (non-art, so to say) that was suddenly put in the centre of the cultural stage in the torrential course of events (the collapse of the Soviet Union, Estonia regaining its independence, passionate discussions over postmodernism, etc). Lotman's theory is projected onto a linear timeline, so this exhibition maps out the gradual movement from the "explosion" of the 1990s (Eve Kiiler, Peeter Linnap, DeStudio, et al) to the contemporary "expanse", where older artists have already planted crops for the younger generation, as Ants Juske would say.

Secondly, postmodernism. Or, more precisely, the issue of dating the period postmodernism was imported to Estonia. To help out the audience, several keywords have been included in the show: theory and deconstruction; memory work; superego; role and truth; icons of desire; photography as an agent; object, medium and aesthetics. So essentially it is postmodernism and the most important keyword here is deconstruction (the rest will quickly follow suit). The result is art that disseminates doubts, is critical, uncomfortable and undermines preconceptions and so on.

Since the periodization of the 20th century Estonian art history is mostly based on Estonia's political history both in the exhibitions at the Art Museum of Estonia and in most major art historical publications, it is an expected logical outcome that the starting point for the "photographic explosion" has been pinned to 1991 (although the interviews in the catalogue reveal that the developments were much more gradual, and well, in this way the exhibition does not have to show, for example, Jüri Okas' works from the 1970s that would completely sabotage the timeline). The curator wants the mathematical equation "regaining of independence = postmodernism = photography" to stand firm. Most likely in a hundred years it will indeed stand – assuming that Estonia is still an independent state and no one really cares which nuances could have brought about by people who lived through the 1980s and 1990s, since they would already be long gone. However, what is intriguing in this timeline is the question of what happened in the 2000s and if really nothing but a backwash on the expanse followed the "explosive" wave of the 1990s?


K. N.: Yes, I agree; I think the exhibition balances the medium-based approach and the theme very well. To be more precise, photography itself and the various themes reaching outside the medium have been presented. Or, even more briefly, the exhibition focuses on various themes related to photography, including self-reflection and the meta-level. So the medium-based approach is also a thematic approach! I would say that it depends on the point of view, which of those is placed higher in the hierarchy, the contemporary characteristics of content or form.

The curator's work is high-quality, it truly is an exhibition of photographic art in a contemporary sense. So it is not a show of artistic photography! Here a juxtaposition would be of use – to explain the terminology. Out of curiosity I looked up the collection of articles by Peeter Tooming published in 1995 titled "Ikka fotost" (Of Photography, again) that the author claims should provide an overview of "the most significant aspects of our photography from 1965 to 1987".4 The collection presents documentary photography, photojournalism and "the woman in photography" (read: nude photography), but photography as an artistic medium in a contemporary sense is not represented. It is important to note that the explosion the curator mentions in the title – if we interpret this as a pivotal change – was triggered by the fact that professional artists began using and including photography, not because the genre of artistic or everyday photography developed into a form of contemporary art.5 Which is why I think it can be said that photography as a form of contemporary art in Estonia is not older than 25 years; photography is such a young and new form of art here (as with the term "street art" which came to mean something new in the 1990s, something that is radically different from what it used to mean, i.e graffiti).

It would be interesting, of course, to create proper semiotic models for these processes and use Lotman's model of explosion among others; however, this is not what the show we are discussion here is about. It seems that the title allows for leeway, because "explosion" is a very performance-related word and also temporal, "expanse" is more of a spatial metaphor.

The exhibition is also noteworthy because it is the first time, at least in Tartu, that a pure overview of photography – as a self-conceptualising manifestation – is displayed on the holy walls of an art museum. The museum policy of director Rael Artel should still be highlighted here. So yes, it is a triumph of photography. But I do not agree that this has been done at the expense of other media, because lately a new materialism, true art of materials has been on the rise. Also, photography is not assimilated into painting in such a formal way; it is rather that the figurative challenges painting's own forms of expression.

On the other hand, it seems that Porri has tried to bring together examples from the edges of photography. A large number of the works on show are actually multimedia pieces (Andres Tali, Paul Kuimet, Anu Vahtra & Na Kim, Marco Laimre, Sigrid Viir, Laura Toots, Taavi Piibemann & Toomas Thetloff, Katja Novitskova, Mart Viljus, et al) or borderline in other ways; some, for example, test the edges of commercial photography (which was central to DeStudio's early practice) or fashion photography (Toomas Volkmann's photographs in the fashion magazine Anne between 1998 and 2007, which were inspired, among others, by Viennese Actionism and Vanessa Beecroft), not to mention including historical photographs from various sources in works as ready-mades (this would be one of the outcomes of "Duschamp's revolution" you referred to). I do not see it as photography taking over art because these examples are mostly exceptions; what is being shown here is photography's ability to blend into the body of contemporary art, it is about exploring the lines of photography.


A. T.: Yes, one must admit, the exhibition does not critically review the success stories of the 1990s at all because it has all already been set for the curator, the decade has been canonised, it was "written in a right discourse from the start".6 So in a way the "expanse" is even more interesting than the "explosion" that by now almost seems to have crystallised in its glass display case. So how should we find our way across the expanse? "The most critical point is actually the beginning of the 2000s, when the context has become more stable," hints Porri in the catalogue. "Photography education morphs from its original, more alternative form, as courses in photography clubs or the nightly courses taught by Peeter Linnap and Eve Kiiler, for example, into full time programmes at the Tartu Art College and the Estonian Academy of Arts."7

So the key to viewing this exhibition is higher art education. Without it no international success stories can be built up. As could be expected, the list of artists in the show is dominated by those educated at the Estonian Academy of Arts (EAA) and more specifically the department of photography. In the list I also counted five artists who have represented Estonia at the Venice Biennale: Dénes Farkas, Marco Laimre, Mark Raidpere, Jaanus Samma, Liina Siib (and only Raidpere did not graduate from EAA). Prominent internationally successful exceptions (Katja Novitskova, Birgit Püve) only prove the rule. And considering the fact that Porri, now working as a curator at the Tallinn Art Hall, lectured in the department of photography for a long time, her choices seem overtly transparent.

True, our colleague Liisa Kaljula has critically noted that even though digital photographic images are everywhere these days, the show includes no "hobby photographers, not to mention glimpses into the worlds of Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, photo memes, gifs or glitch-aesthetic"8. Yet I believe that only when a random selfie-shooting middle or high-schooler or some other nice person from outside the art world manages to win the competition for the national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, is the Estonian art world willing to collectively review their understanding of the necessity of the higher art education neoliberal politicians and other opinion leaders have tried to undermine for years and years (read: Kumu Art Museum, currently celebrating their 10th anniversary, did get their building, but the government has once already put a stop to the process of constructing a new building for the EAA, and recently a decision was made to close down the department of painting at Tartu University9). Mostly, however, higher education has been badly needed to succeed as an artist. No education, no future.


K. N.: Yes, if we talk about being among the top performers in the art world, education is extremely important. It opens a lot of doors, including those to various methodologies (like anthropology, ethnology, semiotics, etc). Art is not just the artist's own complex or critical expression, it is a smart and educated (de)coding of the world. The Linnaps, for example – since Eve Kiiler was Eve Linnap at the time – came from the 1980s and became the leading figures of the photographic turn of the 1990s precisely because they turned fast and decisively towards professional discursive sources, they worked abroad and so on.

A special case that made it onto Porri's list is Toomas Kalve, who is still doing more or less the same thing he started in the 1980s – nude photography. But he has other qualities – his models are culturally significant figures (poets Kauksi Ülle and Doris Kareva, musician InBoil, not to mention the importer of modern French philosophy Hasso Krull), he uses the old-fashioned technique of patina and surreal staged photography. For Porri this was enough, she has not included Kalve's newer work strongly related to Playboy-aesthetics.

But when we started this discussion, I mentioned the pointedness, the value judgments in the curator's choices; let's juxtapose the beginning and the end of the exhibition. The extensive exhibition mediated ideas through the motif of the person, yet delineated by landscapes at both ends! Eve Kiiler's work on photographic wallpaper with words attributed to Walter Benjamin, displaying a narrow, but rapid river that rushes through a red-coloured hardwood brush, is an extremely powerful and conceptual opening act! Monumental, fundamental, ground-breaking. This creates the expectations of a purely theoretical and conceptual (read: self-reflexive) photographic exhibition. Yet it increasingly appears that virtually no more works of the same suit exist in Estonian photography!



Eve Kiiler
Estonian Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction:
A Beginner's Introduction to
photo wallpaper, calque, frames,
dimensions variable
Installation view at
Tartu Art Museum
Photo by Jaanika Kuznetsova
Courtesy of the artist




What follows are more people-centred observations, either more psychoanalytical or socially critical. The exhibition concludes with pure beautiful melancholic landscapes (Aarne Maasik, Krista Mölder) and aesthetic plays with form that focus on new ways of presenting the photographic image as well as constructing the object of photography that hint at new ways of interpreting and viewing by finely shifting reality. Yes, the focus is on the medium again, but there are no manifests! Only a subtle play. Maybe it is simply because the authors are young? Anu Vahtra & Na Kim, Sigrid Viir, Laura Toots, Laura Kuusk, Katja Novitskova are all born around 1982. And a strong judgement seems to feature in the exhibition poster that reproduces Krista Mölder's "Gardens" (2012/2015) – here is the "expanse" you were asking for. It depicts a safe view from a room with armchairs into a garden (that somehow resembles the gardens of Mare Vint).

One phrase by Benjamin used by Eve Kiiler is as follows: "Postmodern art succeeds in doing what social realist art only declared: "Art belongs to the people!"". I kind of feel, at least based on this exhibition, that Estonian photography has been modernist over the last 25 years and the true postmodern era is yet to arrive? Or maybe it is meant to be skipped?


A. T.: Yes, we are extensively discussing postmodernism here, but maybe the most frightening thought is that we have never been modern, as Bruno Latour claimed?

But in contrast to all the praise, I would like to be biased for a second and criticise the curator for having let the narrative guide her, instead of dictating the course of the narrative herself. For example, when she is discussing the role of photography in the 1990s, 2000s and this decade in the Estonian art scene, it is clear the magazines of photography – Cheese that was first published in 2002, and Positiiv that was founded in 2010 – should be included, but why there's no mention of this periodical here, a quarterly of art and visual culture published since 2000? Hello, as we all know, KUNST.EE also features photography!

When the curator writes in the catalogue that "there is no point in trying to draw photography out from art as a whole"10, she in fact contradicts herself, since only a couple of pages earlier she has listed all the institutions established in the 2000s that in her opinion are favourable towards camera-based art, as if the remaining art institutions had been somehow unwelcoming to photography. (For example, in the list Hobusepea Gallery opened in 2003 has been "forgotten", not to mention Kumu opened in 2006 in the wake of which EKKM was founded in 2007 – these are all exhibition spaces that everyone in the Estonian art world seems to have grown so accustomed to.) I think these generalisations are subconsciously erroneous and photography is not a broader concept than art, but in fact it is the other way around – art is a broader concept that photography.

Years ago Marco Laimre, professor of photography at EAA, made a comment on one of the articles in the collection "Nosy Nineties" that it is criminal that this kind of thing is used as a textbook in universities. What I find criminal, is when I see a museum catalogue that does not seem to have been peer-reviewed, maybe due to the lack of time.


K. N.: Should I now critique the exhibition? The question of whether to let yourself be guided by the narrative could be rephrased – when did the curator get her inspiration? Waves of inspiration is what is needed!

Actually, I would like to compare it with the exhibition curated by Flo Kasearu "White Tank Top" at Tartu Art Museum (27. III–8. VI 2014) that brought together most of the works from Estonian art history that feature white tank tops, but the real focus was not the tank top, but the story of the person wearing it. The exhibition Porri has curated is also surprising because the focal point is one of the principal motifs of photography, i.e people, and in the form of close-ups of human faces – the show is like an anthropological tour, where the sequence of works becomes most sensitive. To the viewer, especially to an ordinary viewer, it is an enlivening journey through a landscape of people that sometimes turns into a jungle. I hope that even the most hardened art theorist will take a pause and think about how photography shows the present-day people of Estonia. Nervous, melancholic, ambitious, ironic, disturbed by others (simply) looking, introverted… Well, there really are no open and smiling faces in those images, or no corresponding concepts by the artists! As if the people of Estonia were somehow terrified of cameras?

If I can draw another comparison – these people are depicted the same way painters used to paint people before photography was invented – with static expressions because it would have been impossible to sit with a more dynamic pose for any length of time. Or is the shutter speed used by Estonian photographers that slow?


Andreas Trossek is an art historian and the editor-in-chief of KUNST.EE.
Kaire Nurk is an artist and art educator working in philosophy, (art) history and art.



1 Peeter Linnap, Estonian Realist Art in the 1990s. – Nosy Nineties: Problems, Themes and Meanings in Estonian Art on 1990s. Eds. Sirje Helme, Johannes Saar. Tallinn: Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia, 2001, p 175.

2 Anneli Porri, Tähtsana tähtsusetust fotokunstist. – Plahvatusest tasandikule. Eesti kaasaegne foto 1991–2015. Tartu: Tartu Kunstimuuseum 2015–2016, p 6.

3 Andreas Trossek, Kas fotograafia on kunst? – Eesti Rahvusringhäälingu uudisteportaal 15. X 2013.

4 Peeter Tooming, Ikka fotost. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1995, p 7.

5 This quote by Tooming from 1985 makes clear the insurmountable divide between the selection Porri has curated and what Estonian photography used to be: "In addition to all of that it is quite difficult to determine if it is art of a simple reproduction of the world – unlike painting/graphic art/sculpture camera allows for both. The phrase "exhibition of photography" may mean an exposition of artistic photographs or of documentary photography showcasing a city or of product photography." (Peeter Tooming, Eesti foto ’85 – Peeter Tooming, Ikka fotost, p 113.)

6 Anneli Porri, Tähtsana tähtsusetust fotokunstist, p 10.

7 Ibid., p 9.

8 Liisa Kaljula, Meie aja massimeedium. – Sirp 12. II 2016.

9 See: Reet Varblane, Kas on õige visata vanniveega ka laps välja? – Sirp 30. X 2015.

10 Anneli Porri, Tähtsana tähtsusetust fotokunstist, p 11.

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