2010-12-10 - 2011-02-27

Curated by: Eha Komissarov, Marlena Chybowska-Butler

Artists: Anna-Stina Treumund, Jaan Toomik , Kaido Ole, Kristina Norman, Laura Põld , Marge Monko, Mark Raidpere, Marko Mäetamm, Rein Välme, Sandra Jogeva, The Gas Pipe, Toomas Thetloff

Provocations and Confrontations. A Perspective on Contemporary Estonian Art

Museums that deal with contemporary art primarily come into contact with opposition, confrontation and critical position production networks. More specifically, artists that operate in “opposition” mode create more works of enduring value for their time than artists who take a purely aesthetic “author’s” position. After regaining independence, Eastern Europe had to exert serious effort to modernize its artistic paradigm and thus it has an especially close connection to this discourse. In Estonia, for instance, the more pivotal part of the development of art continues in the layers that made a break with tradition in the 1990s, while the erstwhile mainstream based on artistic techniques had to settle for a marginal role.

The topic of our exhibition concerns the tension that persists in our society, and art, which records this tension, where it takes on deeper, although often fairly basic critical forms. The title of the exhibition comes from the remarks delivered by Swedish art theorist Maria Lind in a conversation circle dealing with institutional criticism /see Art and Institutions. Current Conflicts, Critique and Collaborations. Curating with Institutional Visions, pp.28-59/, where she suggested that, in approaching perennial opposition practices, their differences be examined: Perhaps the issue will become clearer if we think about the differences between confrontation and provocation.

I confess that cultivating such a binary opposition at the centre of the opposition discourse itself seemed like a good opportunity to step into the role of observer of Estonian culture. This sidesteps a partisan and ideologically defined definition of opposition, which is often associated with political movements.

Topics that deal with opposition are an important part of today’s system and they have long left the sterile field of academic political treatments behind.

People watch TV and partake of an immense selection of political or oppositional culture. The perennial opposition themes in art are tied today to opposition to mainstream art’s fetishist exhibition concept and archival activity – the conflict between active creator and passive spectator. 

Confrontation as an opposition practice stands closest to the classical model of political opposition. In this model, marginal groups offer alternatives in a world that does not match the values accorded by market economic capitalism, and their political point often is characterized by political science argot, with powerful expressions such as “power struggle”, “class interests”, “democratic values”, “nation”, “conservatism-extremism” etc, which lend political positions a quasi-mythological power.

In Lind’s view, confrontations revolve around political conflicts and processes, taking the weight off provocations – which are widely in use as opposition tactics – and which she describes as a childish need to protest, be outlandish and upset the balance. Both art and the mainstream media have a proclivity to initiate provocations and often they work hand in hand.

In Estonia’s case, where the martial traditions in politics have always been of an ethnic stripe, even now, the confrontation curve tends in the direction of ethnic discord. The concept of confrontation was fairly unexplored in Estonian art and it is a good idea to remind ourselves that the art histories that evolved out of the Soviet cultural space are entwined with resistance through complicated encoded practices where the political and the apolitical have traded places and the apolitical, couched in metalanguage, has become the most common form of political opposition.

In this exhibition, we present three different slices of the treatment of oppositional art in Estonia, which in most cases relate to the issue of the Estonian and Russian community in Estonia. A photo reportage made by an émigré Estonian living in Sweden, Rein Välme, of the October Revolution parade in Tallinn in 1973 describes the origins of the later ethnic discord, taking a masterful inside look at the Soviet occupation in Estonia. Välme also exhibited his series in Sweden back in the day – Moderna Museet acquired the work and the second copy of the footage reached the Kumu collections only recently. The ethnic discord that divided Estonian society in 2006-2007 became known to the general public as a furore surrounding a monument. The controversy is dealt with by Kristina Norman’s documentary “Monolith”, which was Estonia’s entry at the Venice Biennale in 2009. Norman describes her overview of the relocation of the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn as a case study, with only limited intervention on the part of the artist. 

The first weightier manifestation of activism from artists was the project called Gas Pipe, the documentation of which can also be seen at the exhibition. The story of the controversial Nord Stream gas pipeline is well-known in countries on the shores of the Baltic Sea. A group of artists consisting of Ralf Lõoke, Maarja Kask, Ingrid Ruudi and Neeme Külm connected the Russian and German pavilions at the Venice Biennial of Architecture in 2008 with a real pipeline and colonized the territory of their ecological “enemies”. Traffic was hindered, people were forced to live and interact with the behemoth and take a side in this battle for the Baltic Sea.

The economic downturn, which started in 2008, created a new platform for the development of investigative art. In this exhibition, Marko Monko’s fictitious video production deals with the unemployment problem. Estonia’s easternmost city of Narva was home to a now closed textile plant, and the project delineates the interesting centuries-long history and social problems related to the Kreenholm plant. A fictitious study group made up of women workers from the Soviet era briskly enters the world of contemporary feminism and learns to see themselves as independent women.

Unlike confrontation, which requires the artist to assume a position of political authorship, provocation received a green light already in 1990 and holds the clear lead in artists’ organizational models and preferences with regard to opposition policies.

Even though the exhibition does not deal with the archaeology of provocation in the art of independent Estonia, a number of opposition strategies of great longevity started in the early 1990s. In the following passages, I would like to detail some of the positions originating in the Estonian media, which introduce the aspirations of creators of body arts that proved attractive also in the eyes of those who utilized opposition strategies in the 2000s.

Quoting the Tartu-based radical literary scholar and philosopher Erkki Luuk, who has worked the most on the theme of liberation of the artist: “For an artist, all-permissiveness means chiefly a great psychological advantage – if not a state simulating his or her own freedom, then at least simulating absolute freedom.”

Another characteristic of provocative art strategy shaped in Estonia is individualism and personality-centeredness. In spite of the marginal importance of feminism, the old feminist slogan Political is Personal has been used so much that it has become threadbare.

Body art raised a number of provocative relationships in the 1990s, which interestingly enough were not aimed outward but rather inward, in order to fragment the artist’s self-concept. Body art gave rise to an introversion that shaped a schematic for aggressive behaviour aimed at oneself in which an artist uses his or her body, plays the internal dramatic role of a sadist and forces the audience to share his or her “hollow” life experience. (Hanno Soans, Peegel ja Piits. Mina köidikud uuemas eesti kunstis, Kunstiteaduslikke uurimusi nr. 10, 2002 p 330)

The foundation for the 1990s tradition of intermediating a “hollow” life experience was laid by the new art nomenklatura, which took shape in the course of the SOROS Centre’s exhibition activity and made a name for itself as video and performance artists. In the first decade of the 21st century, the same generation found a niche in the absurd, which, says Erkki Luuk, represents a relatively painless strategy of interacting with the world, which can be applied without undue backlash anywhere; no matter how great an amount of pointlessness one encounters.

At the exhibition, a number of the better-known Estonian Artists – e.g. Jaan Toomik, Mark Raidpere, Marko Mäetamm and Peeter Laurits – gather around the transgressive self-concept, who unite their interest in descriptions of border states of the soul with more general topic of the pointlessness and wanton violence of life. A larger international reaction was prompted by Marko Mäetamm’s new narrative style, which developed out of neo-pop style fine art into an installation art where Mäetamm stages personal phantasms with ideas of familicide.

The art of the 2000s is characterized by the juxtaposition of political themes with personal, and by the personalization of politics. In general, the making of political decisions in Estonia is left to professional politicians and it is not easy to break this habit. Although the personal interpretations of politicians tend to draw a dividing line between themselves and society, they are still important as a strategy that helps bridge the chasm between oneself and mainstream world of politics. It was not hard to foresee the dialogue with gender and queer themes once the conservative ideology that ascended to power in the 20000s began demonizing these movements.

The art developments that started in the 1990s in Estonia were seen as a phenomenon that was extensive, open to change in society, capable of adapting to the new demands from society. The 2000s created a network of cracks in the imagined concept of upwardly mobile artistic development, and one had to get used to the fact that artists would retreat from view, forming sects, factories and centres and other fraternities of the likeminded. Even though coalescence has a tie-in with subcultures, it is not the same thing. Contemporary collectivism employs a word that has an old-fashioned ethnological sound – uushõim or new tribe, and puts a premium on self-initiative and DIY principles. Many groups are almost like an artwork themselves.

The 2000s were known for a success-oriented ideology centred on Estonia’s accession to the EU and the changeover to the euro. Success came hand in hand with the traumas of a transition society and globalization, and the impact of these is especially strong for the young generation of artists which has itself become a risk group. Young artists left without social security are banding together and socializing according to their own rules. The young art of the 2000s is characterized by the lure of the provincial discourse and the popularity of its characteristic local vs mainstream model.

At the same time, the art of the 2000s is structuring its provocations by using the mainstream pop media analytical model. The network of methods is broad – from nihilism to lively vulgarities all the way to romantic national archetypes and the sublime.

The following interview with an activist from a culture factory, Martin Rünk, a graduate of the University of Tartu semiotics department, is devoted to introducing the profile of the young art of the 2000s.

Compiled by Eha Komissarov, Kumu contemporary art curator