Nosy Nineties, Kaasaegse Kunsti Eesti Keskus 2001ISBN 9985-9321-0-2
Non Grata 2001
There are famous artists. There are artists who are an undeniable part of the art world, who might not be very well known by the masses, but who offer critics worthwhile material in abstract modern art and who will, in the course of this process, carve their names in art history. There are artists who would do anything to get accepted into prestigious exhibitions and reproduced in art books, but do not pursue acceptance because of their personal characteristics, education, or some unfavourable conditions.
All such artists have been left aside in the present article. I am going to talk about those artists, who have voluntarily stepped out of the mainstream of the art world. They do exist, but the wider audience does not know much about them and/or their activities – theoretically, they are invisible. The reasons for this, and the ways of having achieved such status, differ from person to person. We have to admit that among other factors, many of them may have unfavourable personal characteristics, or there might have been some other circumstances leading to this option. They differ from simple losers by their deliberate choices, and by their skill in merging such characteristics, considered negative by the public, into their image and creative credo. Undoubtedly, their numbers also include people who could very well belong to the first category – among famous artists – but who have simply not considered it necessary.
Principally, it would be stylish to leave those people who have stepped out of focus, where they want to be. But if we want to specify art trends and the role of art in society, the leaving of the invisible out of consideration would, obviously, make our study less objective. It only remains to hope that a very small number of people will read the present paper, so that the mysterious image of these artists will not be damaged.
What should be said about them?
An excitingly large and significant number of artifacts, in bad need of documenting, can be found among the stock of creative works of the invisibles. The extent of this article does not allow me to reveal everything the invisibles have accomplished in the course of time; I’d rather focus on the reasons why they have preferred to remain invisible, and on the alternatives they have found to life in the mainstream of the art world. These reasons are related to certain attitudes, which cannot very easily be found in the visible art world, meaning the mainstream: the attitudes of the invisibles and those of the representatives of the mainstream rule each other out. To explain this difference, we first need to define some attitudes of the mainstream.
The scene is mainly laid in the 1990s,
but in the case of some artists we have to backtrack into the 1980s.
How to prove the existence of an invisible?
The term “invisible” cannot, naturally,
be taken as an absolute, as almost all art phenomena have left some marks
(e.g. news in the press) in the marginal institutions of the art world.
But these marks are very incomplete and do, by no means, reflect the essence
of the invisibles’ activities. To be sure, the earlier activities of the
invisibles have not been documented and there are no written sources; therefore
we must trust the memory of the artists, which may cause some factual inaccuracy.
Also, the majority of the works I am going to discuss have not survived.
Whenever possible, data about one artifact have been gathered from several
different persons, so I hope this article does not contain downright lies.
In relation to what are the invisibles invisible?
The treatment of all of Estonian art history, and specially that of contemporary times, expressed in the 1990s, is based on the assumption that somewhere (to be more exact – in the Western countries) there exists “correct” art, which we have to “catch up with”, if we want to be equal.1 Conservative artists, who mainly belong to the older generations, interpret this trend as a question of power, as if there exists a kind of dictate of Western art, and the innovative members of the Estonian art world are reaping some benefit from colluding with them. To some extent this could be true, if we consider the fact that the world of art reflects the processes occurring in politics and economics. The roots of the problem are, however, hidden somewhere else – it is not a question of power, but rather, of a lack of power.
“When Estonian industry had to bring its products into accordance with Western standards and abandon GOST standards it had had to follow previously, we can state that, figuratively speaking, the same also happened also in the art and art criticism of the 1990s. […] but generally, it seems that the results of these efforts are not bad at all, testifying to Estonia’s ability to learn and develop, or to put it into art specific terms, to be creative,” writes Heie Treier.2 The idea that the conscious bringing of art production into accordance with any standards could be called creativity, and the fact that the idea does not surprise anybody, gives testimony to the fact that uncompromising reliance on models is being considered a priori in Estonian art.
Ants Juske writes: “Finally we can arrive at the truth that our position is strong in the context of the whole of European art, as we do not draw art from art itself, but, still, from life itself. It will take some more time before Eastern Europe comes to Postmodernism.”3 With this sentence he absolutely excludes the possibility that Estonian art could, if only theoretically, opt for a development that differs from the whole of European art, as well as the possibility that an individual artist could completely belong to a context that will follow Postmodernism. Al Paldrok, for instance, says: “some time ago I liked Postmodernist art very much, but during the past half year, I have started to appreciate Modernism. Modernism was a progressive trend, and the artists had clear goals and ethical limits. Right now, everything has become mixed up and people kind of dissolve in this mixture.”4 The first quotation comes from Juske’s article about Ene-Liis Semper. In her case it would be really comical, if she, in spite of her youth and orientation to American rather than European art, started to pass through all those trends Estonia had to skip due to the Soviet occupation.
As far as I know, the authors of the above thoughts and many of their colleagues, who are of the same mind, have not personally benefited from their stance: their income remains at the same level as the average income in Estonia, and their opportunities to influence people are even less than those of an ordinary ticket collector or a secretary.
Undoubtedly, there are some Estonian critics and curators whose income exceeds the Estonian average, and whose opportunities to influence people can be compared to those of the head of a medium investment fund, but this is not the point. The point is that the people whose activities this mystical “Western standard” is based upon – the artists and critics who belong to the art history of the world because of some really fresh idea – have not revealed their ideas with the aim of putting some kind of pressure on provincial artists. It is really banal to stress that if an artist or a critic submits to either imaginary or real pressure to meet the standards that might seem to be most beneficial at a given moment, it would be impossible to create anything really worth while. The same holds for the sciences, business and many other areas of life. The invisibles do not attempt to do that.
As I have already mentioned above, the traditionalists have no reason to rejoice, as the standards of “Pallas”5 or colour-field are by no means better than those of contemporary mainstream art. They differ only in their year of invention.
Where do the ideas come from?
Let us now discuss some cases in which the invisibles have come to topical ideas, being totally unaware of the so-called “Western standards”.
The invisibles have never even thought about the fact that, in order to achieve success they should bring their work up to some standards. According to Erki Kasemets6: “in 1990-1992 I had some kind of birthday parties; for instance, in 1990 I had an exhibition at my birthday party, held in a farmhouse in the country, where I showed all kinds of documents. These were my own documents, accumulated during my life, such as conscription papers I was continually served with – I had to show up regularly at an army office – and others of every imaginable kind.” When conceptual art, dealing with documentation became an item in Estonia around 1993, thanks above all to Peeter Linnap, who introduced American and European ideas, Kasemets would surely have made a success of similar ideas, but he simply did not reach that point. The essence of conceptual art, using a document as an image, is the discrediting of the impartiality of the document. Kasemets has never questioned the partiality of documents. Documents simply were among many senselessly significant objects Kasemets had collected during his entire adult life, and the entire body of his work is made up of pseudo-systematic patterns that have formed out of these objects.
In 1993 he started a project titled “Internööp” (“Interbutton”), addressing the possibilities and impossibilities of the effective operation of global information networks. “Interbutton” works as follows: a cardboard model of a button, bearing an inscription of its name, (the first one that was sent to New York was called “Signifier”), the date when it was made, and the name of the person who installed it, is enclosed in a plastic bag. This “Interbutton” is taken to some location in the world and put into some hidden, but accessible to an insider, place by a travelling acquaintance of Kasemets. On principle, some other traveller, instructed by Kasemets, should go to the same location, find the “Interbutton” and add his own name and the date to the inscription. In practice, some of these buttons get lost on their way to their destinations, some are left behind somewhere and some of them cannot be found later. The working principle of the project resembles that of the Internet. At the same time, Ando Keskküla, the importer of the Internet and global thinking, created a video installation displaying Estonian national symbols.7
If we compare, on the basis of the above examples, Kasemets’s methods of creating his works with those used by Linnap and Keskküla at that time, we see that Kasemets used the making of art as a means of perceiving the world, whereas Linnap and Keskküla first had to perceive the world, and only then attempted to illustrate the result with their works. Kasemets collects and analyses visual forms of direct experience, placing them into strange contexts. For instance, since 1984 he has been collecting empty milk cartons, but he uses them in an absolutely strange way – he writes a kind of diary on them with bright paints.8 He creates a totally new world, which offers new experiences to the spectator, as well as to the artist himself. The artists of Keskküla’s and Linnap’s type do not necessarily need the work of art as, seemingly, they do not learn anything new in the process of making the
work, and the work of art as an illustration
of some idea is not a very effective medium. In their case, their works
might as well not exist at all, but Estonians would lose much if these
artists stopped their educational activities. One should not follow the
experience of the West unquestioningly, but it is useful to know what is
being done elsewhere in order to better understand the world.
Why are the invisibles not inspired by success in the world of art?
Back when Estonian art had not yet been integrated into the international art scene, but was only deliberating whether and how this should be done (at the end of the 1980s, beginning of the 1990s), art critics held a significant and well-reasoned discussion, not only fixing oppositions “us vs. them”, but considering other identities in addition to these categories.9 Thoughts expressed by Western artists were not used as a standard, to be blindly followed, but rather as a context, into which Estonian art could be placed. But nowadays, artistic thought has lost all analytical power.
Firstly, this is caused by real experience in the sphere considered to be the international art world. In reality, the experience of our critics and curators has been obtained from events, either specially generated by the Soros Foundations to educate and integrate Eastern Europeans, or from official events bearing Euroideology, which, besides integrating Eastern Europeans into Europe, also fulfil the role of breaking the provincial identity of Northern Europeans. In both cases we face an artificially created system, participation in which does not give an adequate idea of the real competitive power of our art in the world market.
On the other hand, what kind of analytical ability could be expected of artistic thought in a situation where no professional art journals have been published for years, where the authors of articles have to bear in mind the rules of the mass media and market economy, and where commercial publications simply do not publish longer analytical discussions. Discussions held in cyberspace have so far been more concerned with art politics than with art theory.10
As a result, in a such situation art critics express the opinion about our most internationally renowned artist, Jaan Toomik, that although he may be our most internationally renowned artist, the number of articles discussing the content of his works, and their role in the wider context, does not amount to half a dozen. And those existing few are shy and uncertain, stylistically resembling aestheticist art criticism written in the 1970s.
It is not surprising that there are artists who do not feel it necessary to place themselves into the context of Estonian art reality. Their doing so would not add any new quality either to their work or to their way of seeing the world; it would probably only add to their administrative and lobbying skills. This is the fact that Andrus Joonas had in mind when he asked that the following sentence be added to a press release: “those art lovers who understand only Estonian art need not come to the exhibition, since this is an art
exhibition.”11 This sentence may
seem naive, but it is well-grounded, if we presume that for those whose
role in society is creative, not physical or administrative, learning from
the experience of others should not mean the repetition of their mistakes,
but the avoiding of them. Al Paldrok says: “Estonians have always resisted
all foreign forces and powers that have rolled over them. As soon as something
of the kind appears, an Estonian presses himself to the ground, crawls
like a worm on the ground, and survives.”12
As Estonian mainstream art has decided to accept unconditionally the prescribed system, it is natural that some artists, who feel the limits of such a system and who do not wish to crawl like worms, either outwit it, leave it in search of better hunting grounds, or simply ignore it. This is certainly true for the invisibles.
The victories and losses of the ironical discourse
A number of strong players are forever
lost to art, due to the fact that the above-described strategy of the worm
holds not only in criticism (read by very few), but also in practical art
itself. In other words, in most cases contemporary Estonian art appears
stupid to the potential audience. And not only to the general public, but
also to intellectuals who are not connected with the art world.
A group of people gathered at Kuressaare Secondary School No 2 at the end of the 1980s, who not only played and wasted their time, but also spent it creatively. The Ei-no Club, born on the initiative of Ilmar Raag, now a film critic, could be considered as the inspiring force of their activities. The club organised disco festivals that strongly resembled performances, and Dadaist art exhibitions. The above-mentioned group did not belong to the club, but they participated in its events. Video became the main outlet of the group, as a practically unsupervised video circle existed in town, which still had the minimal amount of necessary equipment for such activities. Kalle Käesel, now a TV producer, tells about one of their most brilliant undertakings: “mainly we found inspiration in half-completed buildings, such weird places. We wandered around in such houses, and did all kinds of tricks. We had a very special method of processing our material. We taped everything at double speed, then slowed it down, and filmed everything again from a black-and-white TV set, cut and pasted and supplied it with Peter Gabriel’s music. The result was rather cool. “Karpov vs. Kasparov”-- we inserted takes from a chess game too.”13 If such a screenwork had survived, it would be a hit at any event of video art. And so would another system put together by Kutt Kommel (now majoring in theatre studies at the EHI14), which could be exhibited as a video installation and interpreted as a reflection of media society. He joined a video recorder and a TV set in such a way that the TV showed what the camera recorded, and the camera recorded what the TV showed. The result was bubbles floating on the screen, just as in the mass media. The group found some acknowledgement at Estonian, Polish and Austrian amateur film festivals.15 They also experimented with live shows, making entertainment shows for the local Kadi television station, and doing spontaneous live shows now and then, which was possible due to the fact that a member of the group worked at the television station.
Significantly, none of these people had ever studied art. Secondary school students were simply, and quite irresponsibly, making media art, completely skipping the stage that still fills the curricula of all children’s art schools – realist and surrealist gouache paintings made with trembling hands and pathetic undertones. “I’m sure we were quite ironical too; we surely understood how stupid it all was. But actually it was good,” recalls Käesel, commenting on their motivation. In addition to those already mentioned, Oliver Maaker16, Marek Allvee (both work in computer graphics), Tauno Peit (now a television cameraman), Urmas Reinart (now an IT specialist), and Taave Tuutma belonged to the group. The latter is also the only one of them who is presently an active artist. Käesel says: “we are men from the country, having both feet firmly on the ground. We all chuckled when Tuutma had his next exhibition. It was irony, and self-irony as well.” Tuutma’s work carries the same ironical attitude (originating from those Kuressaare years of 1989-1992) towards the art world, society and himself. We need only recall his project “The Foundation for Supporting the Richest Persons of the World”, which is an ideal commentary to an emerging 20:80 society17, or his successful manipulation of the target group, titled “Young Estonian Artists Talking About Art Critics” – an amazingly large number of critics reacted to it, as the exhibition had touched them personally.
Now and then the boys from Kuressaare
presented their works under the group name “Virgo Intacta”, which really
turned everything upside down, considering their irony. On the one hand,
they were really virginal, as they knew nothing about the theory and practice
of contemporary art. Tuning in to Estonian art would hardly have given
them anything, because the critics of the time were rejoicing over the
fact that paintings and works of graphic art could be much larger in shape
than they used to be. But “Virgo Intacta” could tune in to a unique information
source-- Kuressaare had the first cable TV in Estonia-- and the seeds of
a visual information deluge, disseminated via satellite television, bore
fruit. Unfortunately, this fruit has mostly been lost to the art world.
But maybe this is good.
Performances of the invisibles
Margus Tiitsma, alias Sorge, who comes from Türi, began his artistic career, just as his contemporaries did, at the beginning of the 1980s. “I was painting, and thinking that only painting was art.”18 For some time he studied at Tiit Pääsuke’s painting studio, which met at the ERKI.19 His repeated attempts to enter the Institute were unsuccessful. After a short period of studying the complex technology of underwater mining at the TPI20, and the potter’s trade at a technical school, and after having served in the Soviet Army, he entered the preliminary or the so-called 0-course at TPedI21, majoring in art education, in 1985. Thus we see that at first, Sorge sincerely tried to find agreement with the art world, but failed. The ERKI did not admit him nor many other avante-garde, insubordinate and independent artists. Sorge’s views on art had considerably deviated from the standard way of thinking prevalent at the ERKI at that time; having failed to enter, he did not try to adapt himself to the system, but started to search for new opportunities. As a result, in addition to his painting, he specialised in performances.
This description of his first performance originates from the beginning of his studies at the 0-course of the TPedI. The performance was enacted in the tower of the Institute’s students’ hostel in Pärnu Road. According to Sorge’s description of the event, Allan Praats (now the Pastor of Koeru congregation) also participated in it, calmly reading the Bible in a loud and clear voice. “I was like a dead grandmother,” said Sorge, trying to specify his own role. Jaan Tätte (now an actor) and Eero Ijavoinen (now the organiser of festivals of action art in Paide together with Jaak Salmar) participated in the performance as well. A couple of students living in the hostel made up the audience, but the audience had no importance, as the performance was designed for the participants themselves.
The performance was abruptly stopped by the warden of the hostel, who considered it a breach of order. Sorge was expelled from 0-year. Right after that he was admitted to the TPedI to study art education.
The main location of the performances of the period of Sorge’s studies was an oak grove near the place where he lived. Besides Sorge, Ahto Meri (now working in advertising), Eero Ijavoinen, Kalli Kalde (now an artist in Tartu) and Peeter Ehasalu also belonged to the group. Information about art trends abroad mostly came from a Finnish art magazine “Taide”, translated for the others by Ijavoinen and Meri, who knew Finnish. Ijavoinen recalls that they especially liked the works of Roi Vaara. Meri mentions the magazine “Vikerkaar” among other information sources.
The first performance was held in the Saue oak grove in 1985. “Interestingly, it was also the performance of kings,”22 says Sorge. The performance was based on the fairy-tale about the Kings of Earth, Heaven and Water, a tortoise whose footprints were filled with gold coins, and two men who wanted to get the tortoise. The kings of the performance were large straw dolls, which were burned at the end of the performance. Four or five major performances with a small circle of participants were held in Saue.
The most public of them, which was even advertised with a poster in the “Moskva” café, was held in Kadriorg, on the seashore near the Russalka monument in the spring of 1990. The event lasted 12 hours; at the beginning, some twenty or thirty logs, which had washed ashore, were erected to resemble something like a forest. A kind of construction made of logs had also washed ashore. Sorge, clad in white, rocked on top of the construction in a rocking chair, manipulating a long pole. His sister Liina played saxophone and Ahto Meri played percussion instruments as background music. Argo Kollom, who worked as a forest ranger at that time, had brought a number of strange objects with him, which he used for all kinds of absurd actions. The performance ended when Sorge ran into the sea.
The monopoly on higher art education was undoubtedly held by the TKÜ at that time. The TPedI had not found recognition in this field. In this light it seems strange that at the TPedI, which was considered conservative and out-of-date, performance was accepted as a course paper, whereas no such practice is known of at the TKÜ. Ijavoinen answered the question about how it was possible that the education one could get from the Pedagogical Institute
was below contempt. Everybody had
heaps of free time. Those who found excessive drinking too dull and who
happened to have some kind of predisposition, did all kinds of things to
make their lives more interesting.23 Erki Kasemets says: “later I thought
that there were all kinds of interesting types at the Pedagogical Institute.
This was a relatively unrestricted and broadly based institution, resembling
the Art University, but lacking a distinctive specialisation. Some people
studying there were, naturally, teacher types as well, but still, all kinds
of crazy people happened to get there.” Kasemets, who also started his
studies at the TPedI, later transferred to the TKÜ. “I don’t even know
why I transferred; it somehow felt cooler.” Ahto Meri appreciates the same
qualities in the TPedI of the time: “in some sense it was more interesting
at the Pedagogical Institute. A large building, all kinds of people. I
think I received a broader education there.”24
It looks like the general education offered at the TPedI was broader than that at the TKÜ, while the teaching of arts was less pretentious and less infested with all kinds of complexes. We can find some similarities with the system of the present-day Academia Non Grata, if we leave aside the fact that the students of the TPedI tended to be rather lazy at that time.
Social activities as a work of art
Immediately the name of the school
– Academia Non Grata (ANG)
– tells us that this institution opposes25 itself
to the institutions of the mainstream. It began as the arts department
of Pärnu Sütevakk Classical Gymnasium, founded in 1993, and headed by Sorge--
no wonder action art became the speciality of the department. By that time
Sorge had had another unique experience in life; he had worked for some
time as the designer of the show windows of the Tallinn Department Store.
Formally, his work in this sphere could be classified as installation in
its more radical form, as the objects and principles of composition he
used discernibly differed from the exhibition scene of the time, and even
more from the ways of decorating show windows in the Soviet economy, which
was characterised by a constant deficit of consumer goods. The process
itself can, however, be examined as an example of action art.
The art department of the Sütevakk Gymnasium was closed in 1998, and Sorge and his fellow teachers Al Paldrok and Reiu Tüür, who had joined him some time later, founded the private school ANG. The curricula of the school26 contain both general subjects and traditional arts courses, such as painting and drawing, but besides these, action art occupies an important position. It would be wrong to say that they teach young people how to hold performances, as they do not aim to create audience-targeted productions. Rather, they use performance as a component of their teaching methods, giving their students the opportunity to perceive themselves and the surrounding environment via personal, physical and spiritual experience. Performance is used as a model; if the student has mastered it, he can master all the other processes he will meet in his life as an artist and as a human being. One of the firm principles of the school is that the student has to develop as a whole personality, not solely as an artist. Only then might he have something to say as an artist and in this way he can muster the necessary spiritual power to do this.
They consciously avoid any way of creating works of art which would aim at completed objects, rather than at the process of creation.
The works of art the students make during their first year at the school generally do not relate in the least to the visual culture used in mainstream art; they could not be presented at any exhibition of modern art or at any traditional exhibition of any other time period; they do not attempt to resemble any standards. Al Paldrok describes it this way: “they work independently here, and the volume of the work is essential. Such a system may yield very original and unconventional artists, who do not know exactly what they are doing. There wouldn’t be much sense in adding heavily to it [teaching]: the main method we use is Sorge’s method – pure intuition. Or as Joonas puts it – total hopelessness and lack of goals. This is a process. That is why the performances are especially emphasised.”27 The amount of work is really important at ANG. A student, who might be talented and successful in his or her favourite media, cannot pass on to the next courses without accumulating a required number of grades and works.
Andrus Joonas is the person whose influence both on ANG and on the generation of artists who have emerged in the second half of the 1990s, is larger than is generally believed. He had his first solo exhibition at the Pärnu gallery “Graniit” during his second year at the arts department of the Sütevakk Gymnasium (1995). “I observed that art does not work this way. I took some time off from the school and worked hard at logging for a month. Then an idea started to emerge that art should be taken to the people in the most direct way, and I invented road art,” he said, describing one of the initial stages in his becoming an artist.28 For the past five years he has been putting together exhibitions of paintings near his home in the country, by the side of the road, exhibiting either a series of paintings or one large painting. He was also an initiator of group exhibitions of road art, the participants of which are now the majority of active artists of his generation.29 Currently, Joonas is a teacher at ANG.
“In some sense, this is a school of art bastards. As a group they are much stronger than individually. Otherwise, they couldn’t establish themselves, although this is not their aspiration at all,” said Joonas, describing the work principle of ANG.
“Inevitably, these people are losers, underachievers,” adds Paldrok. “This trend started already at the Sütevakk Gymnasium. These people are at the lowest level, those who have not been admitted to any other school; they come to us and they become artists. Such people who really cannot draw or paint at all, and who have no sense of composition, but who only have a strong will to do something – they learn all these skills several times more quickly and more intensely. You need to work a lot with them, and to work personally with each of them. We have many types whom we have to send to the EKA, who do not fit in with us. It is much easier to study at the EKA than at our school. Our system is much crueller and stricter.”30 Very few people have graduated from the art department of the Sütevakk Gymnasium and ANG. It is not possible to graduate from this school without
having a critical mind and without developing into a strong personality. Becoming a famous or acknowledged artist is of secondary importance, but not ruled out at all.
“I try to convey my own ideas at
the school: this has a much greater impact on people. An educational system
is a much larger system than an art exhibition,” says Paldrok, who has
not added any major works in the customary sense to his CV lately.
Sometimes, silence might really be golden
ANG has another characteristic feature – it hides from the mass media. The common belief “if you are not here [in the mass media ], then you do not exist at all”31 does not count at ANG and among the invisibles. The ideology of ANG, created by Paldrok, demands such qualities as honesty, ethics, the lack of market conditioning, respect for all living beings, the primacy of the spiritual over the material, etc. As such qualities are very rare in modern society, these people are very cautious in relating to society and usually do not give out any information about their activities. The present-day art world, as well as the global market economy, are mainly characterised by opposing qualities, such as hypocrisy, lack of ethics, market conditioning, walking over dead bodies, the primacy of material values, etc. Thus it is only natural that people who do not share these principles have withdrawn into their own world. This is a perfectly natural mechanism of self-defence. “The easiest way is to swim along with the current. Today it is so easy to make an artifact that looks like a work of art. Society has become so superficial that nobody is really interested in what you are doing. The ethical world view of an artist has to be much sharper. He has to attempt to repair the world. Who else, if not he, should do it? The others have no time for it.”32
Obviously, it would not be right to assume that all the invisibles have as clear-cut principles as those of Paldrok’s, and as strict self-discipline as demanded by ANG. Principles emerge for different reasons. Paldrok might have acquired such a mentality from the group “Vedelik” (“Liquid”). “Vedelik have had exactly two public performances, one of them was at an event of action art called ElektroKardioGramm (curator Hanno Soans) at the Rotermann Salt Storage, and the other was at the Paide Festival of action art “Aeg. Ruum. Liikumine” (“Time. Space. Movement”), both in 1998. Both of these events were among those few in Estonia that have been ideologically favourable to the invisibles, where the aim has not been to identify with the standards, but to find new spiritual and political ways of surviving in our changing world. The rapid changing of social circumstances has been one of the main reasons why action art in its different forms has to be considered important. Art, aimed at the completed object, not at process, might come up to Eurostandards, but it could become out-dated even before it is executed in some media.
“For some reason, I have considered action more important,” says the spiritual father of “Vedelik”, Erki Kasemets. “There are two approaches. The first is that you make something which need not be big at all, and start promoting it. But I have always made something, and when it was complete, I have briefly showed it and soon started making some other, new
object. You feel that you have to work, that only the process of working is important, not the result.” Even the members of “Vedelik” themselves do not know very clearly what their work is about. For instance, some time ago they had a basketball team, which beat their rivals because of their unorthodox style of play. Sven-Erik Stamberg has been most infected with the sports germ, but in addition to this, he also makes an enormous number of collages. Sport as an image can often be seen in the works of Kasemets, for example, the performance “Kunsp” by Polygon Theatre33, where the audience became a part of the work when they were made to compete in absurd sports. The main outlets of “Vedelik” are annual journals, made only for the members themselves. These journals slightly resemble the magazines of the Kursi School34, but they are meditative, rather than dealing with arts policy. Each issue of the journal is edited by a different member of the group. Besides the people mentioned above, Meelis Salujärv, Meeland Sepp, Evar Riitsaar and Peeter Velberg belong to the group.
Answers to the question of why they do not make their activities public differ. “We kind of did not know how we should do it. For some time it was fun; we even thought that we shouldn’t do anything. Now and then it [work] still has to get some attention, just to give us self-confidence. In a really closed circle the power tends to get lost. You need to have some contact with the outside world now and then,” says Kasemets, who is the only member of “Vedelik” who has won public recognition as an artist. “There is some kind of reserve, or introversion. We do not have any such person here who would openly and bravely socialise.” Salujärv explains the fact that he is little known to the public: “I don’t know; it’s enough if you at least get along with people.”35 Kasemets adds: “Salujärv has consciously developed it into an attitude.” Peeter Velberg elaborates: “I am absolutely not interested in it. I would want to dig deep. Art is being made so quickly, things are ready and …”36 Velberg was one of the most charismatic personalities and most significant minds in the alternative art scene in Tallinn at the end of the 1980s.37 His works were seemingly completed very quickly, but actually he had spent a lot of time preparing them. For instance, once he entered, on the schedule of Tallinn’s Old Town Days, a performance of the Young Theatre. The organisers of the event did not believe that such a troupe existed. Velberg took some of his friends with him and presented them to the organisers as the troupe. His performance was included in the program. At the scheduled time, a considerably large audience had gathered by the stage that had been erected in the diele at Pikk Street 7. Velberg was at the same time engaged in looking for the last actors among the passers-by in front of the house. “They came in and I told them that they could do whatever they wanted. Some of them had to be directed to do this or that. The people did not know what was expected of them. They simply acted spontaneously. They could test themselves. They had already lived a part of their lives and now they wanted to do something different. They wanted to find out about themselves, and about me as well,” Velberg recalls.
Salujärv and Selberg contributed a lot to early Estonian video art, although, technically, they used a 16-mm film camera.38
The creative temperament of the invisibles was introverted rather than extroverted. The information about developments in art that they draw from the press and magazines is as authoritative and inspiring for them as a news item from the BNS, an occasional thought, or a beautiful sunset. They treat the general development of art as one of many existing phenomena, not as a compulsory prescription they have to follow to be artists at an acknowledged level.
Sorge specifies his relations with
the art world, commenting on the fact that despite everything, he still
belongs to the Estonian Artists’ Union [it was Peeter Mudist who suggested
that he join the Union—BTW]: “I have not benefited or not lost considerably
because of my membership; there is nothing I can do to the structure; from
here [ANG] I can have a much greater impact on it.” Consequently, Sorge
believes that the structure of the mainstream art world is ineffective,
and that, when moving on alternative paths, it is possible to realise the
functions of art with better results. Paldrok believes that the art world
is both ineffective and unethical. He argues his point: “I think you do
the young artists a disservice if you simply make them promote something
and waste their time; after a few decades this person would be squeezed
out. The art world only takes what it is interested in at the moment, discarding
those it loses interest in, and finding new exciting objects. What is that
person, who has put all his hopes in the art world, to do? Quite a number
of them simply weep
– ‘see what they have done to me, I am not popular
Sudden turns differ from development
There are artists whose lives are full of radical changes which could be caused by the development of personality, but also by the changing of trends. The common characteristic of many of the invisibles is that their work, and also their world view, have not changed much – they have developed, but their principles have remained the same.
The most telling example is Sorge. The main elements of his performances have remained the same since the mid-1980s, when he began his work. The developments in his performances are marked by reduced literariness. Erki Kasemets recalls Sorge’s performances from the time he studied at the TPedI: “Of course he followed the same path he treads now. It is unbelievable.” If we look at Sorge’s paintings and assemblages, we see even fewer changes. In 1998 Sorge had an extensive retrospective exhibition at the Pärnu Warehouse Museum, which, together with thorough explanations delivered by the artist himself, was made into a video film by ANG. At the exhibition it was not possible to distinguish the works made some 10-15 years ago from those made only recently. Eero Ijavoinen describes Sorge’s paintings from the time he studied at the TPedI: “his works were expressive; he used brilliant green and madder lake.”
If for some type of art, novelty is the operative agent, and for some other type, some other quality, then in Sorge’s case, the operative agent is the energy his personality radiates. “Sorge makes everybody react. He is strong enough to pay full attention to everybody.
When I’m faced with an empty personality, I’m not able to do that,” he says, describing the main difference between Sorge’s and his own pedagogical work.
It is similar with Al Paldrok. Beginning from the moment he understood, when still in secondary school, that the making of realistic sculptures has no value in the artistic sense40 , he has continuously worked on non-material projects, rather than making material works of art. These projects have always exceeded the boundary the art world has drawn between art and non-art. The art critics of the time did not understand his first solo exhibition “Silentium”, because it could not be classified into any of the art categories cultivated in Estonia – it was not exactly a sculpture, neither was it a photo nor even an installation. It was only a visualisation of a very simple idea, better understood by the so-called common people than by artists themselves. An article was published on “Silentium” in the newspaper Õhtuleht, explaining its content, but the art critics kept their silence. When Paldrok exhibited a further development of this project at the Museum of Energetics in Tallinn a year later, critic Katrin Kivimaa intuitively recognised it as art, but she did not know what to do with it, and instead of a review, she published an interview with the authors of the exhibition, Paldrok and Kasemets, a thing she does not usually do.42
These days Paldrok has practically given up making works of art. He organises performances mainly as a model and moral support for his students. Also, now and then we can see some of his graphic works at some collective exhibitions. They resemble graffiti on recycled paper, and it really takes concern and patience to recognise them as art. Paldrok’s actual work at present is the ideological directing of Academia Non Grata. This ideology disputes any kind of conformism, beginning with everyday life and continuing up to the most complicated philosophical problems, opposes any formal social rules, and presupposes the ethical weighing of absolutely all decisions. This has been Paldrok’s guiding principle from his very early years. For instance, in secondary school he refused to wear a school uniform, fought for and won the right to attend only those classes he considered necessary and important, and finally, on his insistence and on his responsibility, all his classmates refused to join the Young Communist League. Paldrok’s work is interesting in that his principles differ more and more from the general prevalent mentality of society, not because Paldrok is more radical, but because society is morally degenerating.
The third great artist who has not changed is Erki Kasemets. He has been collecting and autobiographically dating his milk cartons since 1984. His collection numbers in the thousands, and it impressed a wider audience for the first time at the exhibition “Töö” (“Labour”) at Tallinn Town Gallery in 1999. Kasemets has been doing his thing already for several decades, never taking an interest in whether somebody would register his artifacts in art history or not. And if somebody does, the fact would not alter the direction of his work. In Kasemets’s work, quality and quantity have found a rare balance. This is only natural, as the majority of his projects are essentially databases, and obviously, a database is the more valuable the more information it contains.
Still another reason for the relative invariability of the invisibles’ work lies in their relations with technology. The relation of all persons mentioned in this article with the material world is very conditional. Technological innovations are costly, as we well know. As the invisibles usually don’t even consider trying to earn money, they usually lack equipment for technically complex projects.
The development of modern art very
much depends on technology. As a result, many artists let technology dictate
what they do. Undoubtedly, they are right to some extent, because the development
of technology changes the mentality of society and its members, and if
art wants to communicate with society and its members, it has to have a
kind of relationship with technology. For the invisibles, technology is
a means, not an image, and definitely not a goal. For instance, ANG is
provided (in a mystical way, considering the scarcity of their budget)
with all necessary equipment to cultivate any possible form of video or
digital art. But they use video to document their activities (their video
archive contains a huge amount of material, invaluable for art history,
which they make public at very carefully selected events), and they use
digital media only for communication. All innovations the invisibles have
introduced to art are either spiritual or conceptual, not technical or
What can we conclude from all the above
If we proceed from the supposition that art could have other tasks in society than a hedonist adaptation to the existing, we should undoubtedly take into account the work of the invisibles when discussing Estonian art as a whole. We hope that certain, but surely not all possible, other tasks have already been sufficiently described in this article.
If we proceed from the supposition that the task of art is to adapt to visual and ideological forms of life, and to produce enjoyable objects that are based on the joy of recognition, we could as well restrict ourselves to the discussion of the visible, the mainstream part of Estonian art and leave the invisibles out. In this case, there is no use in arguing about what is “more” artistic – an ikebana, an advertisement or fine arts.
© Mari Sobolev 2000
1 If we wanted to refer to concrete sources here, we should list almost all the more general discussions about Estonian art published in the 1990s, from newspaper articles up to exhibition catalogues and books. To save space, we will not do that.
2 Heie Treier, “Valiku vabadus”. Valiku vabadus. 1990. aastate eesti kunst. (“Freedom of Choice”. The Estonian art of the 1990s”) Tallinna Kunstihoone, 1999, p 14.
3 Ants Juske. Ene-Liisi angerjas Lissabonis. (“Ene-Liis’s Eel in Lisbon”). Eesti Päevaleht, 29.10.1998.
4 Interview with Al Paldrok in 1999. Partly published in the magazine Luup, 17.05.1999 (“Al Paldrok – fundamentalist Pärnust”) (“Al Paldrok – a Fundamentalist from Pärnu”) and in the newspaper Sirp 09.04.1999 (“Ideoloogia non grata?”) (“Ideology Non Grata?”).
5 A painting school, proceeding from the Impressionism of the Art Society “Pallas”, founded in Tartu in 1918, and its art school, which still exists today.
6 Here and further on, quotes from an interview with Erki Kasemets from 10.05.2000.
7 “Opus Petra”, at EXPO 1992 in Seville and at the “Luum” Gallery in Tallinn in 1993.
8 In addition to painted milk cartons, his works include pieces of cardboard in the shape of the side of a milk carton, covered with records of everyday activities. He calls them “K.A.K.K. – Kõikide Asjade Kirjapaneku Koht” (“A Place Where All Things Are Recorded”). The earlier “K.A.K.K.”s from the 1980s were in the format of a classical diary.
9 See, for instance, Ants Juske “Oma ja võõras” (“Ours and Theirs”), Sirp, 29.04.1993; Johannes Saar, “Noored jälle raisus?” (“Is Youth Rotten Again?”), Sirp, 23.12.1992; Heie Treier, “Kõneaineks praegune noortekunst” (“Talking About Present-Day Youth Art”), Rahva Hääl, 04.04.1987; etc.
10 See, for instance, http://www.egroups.com/files/latera/
11 The press release on the exhibition “Lükantroopia”, held at the Tallinn Town Gallery in May, 2000.
12 Paldrok, 1999.
13 Here and further on, quotes of Kalle Käesel from an unpublished interview with Kalle Käesel and Taave Tuutma on 20.05.2000.
14 EHI – Eesti Humanitaarinstituut (Estonian Institute of Humanities).
15 The year was probably 1992; the diplomas have, unfortunately, not been preserved.
16 Oliver Maaker still participates in the art scene, in 2000 he participated in Audi’s group exhibition “Investeering puravikku” (“Investment in a Boletus”) at Tallinn Town Gallery, which was aimed at mocking the art world. A Troxx’s Internet home page, http://www.zone.ee/troxx/avaleht.html hosted by Maaker can be considered as Internet art.
17 See, for instance, Georg Soros “Globaalse kapitalismi kriis” (Tallinn, 1999), or Hans-Peter Martin and Harald Schumann, “Globaliseerumislõks” (Tallinn, 1999).
18 Here and further on, quotes of Sorge from an unpublished interview on 02.05.2000.
19 ERKI – Eesti Riiklik Kunstiinstituut (Estonian State Art Institute), for a long period the only institution of higher art education in Estonia. Since 1989 – Tallinna Kunstiülikool – TKÜ (Tallinn Art University), since 1996 – Eesti Kunstiakadeemia – EKA (Estonian Art Academy).
20 TPI – Tallinna Polütehniline Instituut (Tallinn Polytechnical Institute), since 1989 – Tallinna Tehnikaülikool – TTÜ (Tallinn Technical University).
21 TPedI – Tallinna Pedagoogiline Instituut (Tallinn Pedagogical Institute), since 1992 – Tallinna Pedagoogikaülikool – TPÜ (Tallinn University of Educational Sciences).
22 Sorge probably has in mind the fact that Siim-Tanel Annus with his garden performances is considered to be the founder of Estonian performance art; in his performances such symbols as King and Fire also figure.
23 Here and further on, quotes of Eero Ijavoinen from an unpublished interview on 16.05.2000.
24 Here and further on, quotes of Ahto Meri from an unpublished interview on 08.05.2000.
25 See http://www.uninet.ee/nongrata/1999.htm In English: http://www.uninet.ee/nongrata/english.htm
27 Here and further on, quotes of Al Paldrok are from an unpublished interview on 03.05.2000, if not indicated otherwise.
28 Here and further on, quotes of Andrus Joonas are from an unpublished interview on 17.05.2000, if not indicated otherwise.
29 The first road exhibition “Kiirus” (“Speed”) was held on a roadside near Tartu during the festival Dionysia in 1997. In the same year, a road exhibition was held on the Paide-Türi road. “Kiirus II” (“Speed II”) was held on billboards all over Estonia in 1998. Road exhibitions took the wave of Neopop of the time out of the galleries and into the public space.
30 This and the previous quotation originate from an interview with Al Paldrok and Andrus Joonas at the opening of the exhibition “Valik” (“Choice”) at Haapsalu Town Gallery on 02.02.2000, partly published in the cultural section “Areen” of the newspaper Eesti Ekspress.
31 The sentence originates from an advertisement in a phonebook.
32 Paldrok, 1999.
33 Polygon Theatre was Erki Kasemets’s project, originating from his MA thesis under the same title at EKA in 1996. A couple of different projects are realised each year, the general conception of which has been worked out by Kasemets, different roles are played by other artists, and often the audience is also involved in the work.
34 The Kursi School has been operating in Tartu since 1990; this group is partly aimed at pop art and generally opposed to the “Spirit of Tartu”.
35 From an unpublished interview with Meelis Salujärv on 08.05.2000.
36 Here and further on, quotes of Peeter Velberg are from an unpublished interview on 16.05.2000.
37 In addition to “Vedelik”, Velber also had connections with the group “Laxsus”, together with Antti Kekki, Vitali Sobolev, Kilp Vahan, Ashot Jegikeon and others. Eero Ijavoinen has exhibited with them as well.
38 A longer discussion of the subject can be found in Andres Härm’s BA thesis “Videokunst Eestis: teooria, kujunemine, tüpoloogia” (“Video Art in Estonia: Theory, Development, Typology”), Tallinn, 2000, a manuscript.
39 Mari Sobolev, “Al Paldrok – fundamentalist Pärnust” (“Al Paldrok – a Fundamentalist from Pärnu”), Luup, 17.05.1999.
40 At the beginning of secondary school Paldrok firmly decided to become a sculptor and entered the sculpture circle at Tallinn Young Pioneers’ Palace. In addition to that he also visited the design circle at the same institution, the members of which were mostly older people, who had studied at TPI, and who created mostly installations (presented at an exhibition “Ma ei ole kunagi käinud New Yorgis” (“I Have Never Been to New York”)). It is quite possible that the design circle had an impact on his attitude towards modern art.
41 Monica Sikk, “Skulptuursed looduspildid. Kas puust ja punased?” (“Sculptural landscapes. Are they made of wood and painted red?”), Õhtuleht, 07.02.1994.
42 Katrin Kivimaa, “15 minutit – nõudmine vaatajale” (“15 Minutes – a Demand from the Spectator”), Kultuurileht, 29.09.199?