As the coronavirus crisis deepens and people are locked into their homes – apartments, houses, cities, villages, countries – the perspective gradually changes. The exhibitions in Tallinn at the moment take into consideration the space, both private and public, starting from very intimate surroundings and broadening to public discussions on why authorities must take responsibility for the city space, writes Kaarin Kivirähk from Estonian Centre for Contemporary Art.
Usually, spatial studies in contemporary art have not been my personal favourite topic. For me, it has often lacked the social and political urgency which I am interested in. But as I wander around at the exhibitions in Tallinn, in the dim November light; in the old town which has utterly lost its tourist crowds and liveliness, I’m gradually becoming more and more aware of the urgency of dealing with space at the moment. Roland Reemaa, one of the curators for the Artishok biennial (more about this below), said to CCA magazine that it’s the corona virus which has put the spotlight on the space “once our homes became our offices and going out became so special, the empty streets have brought out the shortage of public space as even more grotesque.”
What I see from my window
In Tallinn Art Hall Gallery, Kaido Ole and Benjamin Badock (A Sparrow in the Hand curated by Siim Preiman) depict a simplified model of the world we live in. Kaido Ole, one of the most prominent painters here, has painted homes – apartments, houses, buildings – both desirable and horrifyingly. The houses more resemble theatre decorations or caricatures than places we actually live in. But the feeling of being dominated by the architecture and social status, reflected in our homes, is very much present, even in his humorous style.
Whereas Ole and Badock depict a cityspace and homes in general, the field of vision narrows and zooms into physical areas even closer, to the place we find ourselves living in at Tallinn Art Hall exhibition May You Be Loved and Protected (curator Tamara Luuk). Here, Tõnis Saadoja presents his new works from this year, which one could put into the historical genre – a view from one’s window. Although, the buildings are not always seen from the artist’s window but have caught his eye while moving from his studio to home and back, Saadoja has painted five large works, depicting different places in Tallinn, all wrapped in different colours of autumn fog. His gaze is detailed, meditative, almost bored when painting the large canvases. Everything he needs is right here.
Dinosaurs in the government
But it’s not only the very personal space that is being noted by the artists and institutions. Printmaker Britta Benno recently opened the show Ruinenlust Lasnamägi at Hobusepea gallery. She continues to depict a dystopic future-Tallinn in ruins, as she also did in her last solo show in Tallinn Art Hall gallery (Dystopic Tallinn, 2019). The gallery in old town is a perfect spot as the once touristy neighbourhood now resembles more and more a dystopic abandoned city: the restaurants are closing their doors or announcing desperately -50% reductions on the menu. Benno is using traditional techniques of printmaking and stop motion animation to create an installation where dinosaur-like creatures have conquered the district of Lasnamäe and jungle has taken over what once was the city. It is disastrous, but it’s also humorous, it’s unreal but at the same time so present.
Similar to Benno’s exhibition, the Estonian government seems to be populated by some unreal creatures. It is indeed absurd how during the weirdest and most radical time of both coronavirus and the increasingly emergent climate crisis, we have received the worst possible governing body whose only concern seems to be organizing an incomprehensible referendum about fixing the marriage between a man and woman in the Estonian constitution (scheduled to happen on April 18, 2021). During these uncertain times, it seems especially nasty to interfere in other people’s private lives, and to spread hatred and division in Estonian society, whereas care and warmth should be the emotions actually needed. On the other side, the anti-petition, supporting gay marriage in Estonia has gained over 35 000 votes (and counting) which is a huge number for a web-based initiative, and Instagram page @hetero_kringel is publishing the funniest and stupidest statements of Estonian homophobes, using humour to fight against the cruelty.
During these uncertain times, it seems especially nasty to interfere in other people’s private lives, and to spread hatred and division in Estonian society, whereas care and warmth should be the emotions actually needed.
City of cars
At the end of November, VII Artishok biennial opened in different locations in Tallinn – a small artist-run biennial, which started from an influential art criticism blog Artishok in 2010. The blogspot based platform itself is not active anymore, but the biennial has been an awaited art event every other year. The uniqueness of this format lies in engaging 10 art writers who will write about the new works commissioned for the biennial, and those writings are exhibited at the exhibition hall, together with the artworks. This time, the show is curated by architects Laura Linsi and Roland Reemaa, who have previously represented Estonia at the last Venice architecture biennial and were exhibition architects for the 2nd Riga biennial this summer.
When I heard that the artworks of the biennial will be presented in public places in Tallinn, I was very excited. Firstly, we don’t have too much art presented outside of the white cube context. Secondly, the Tallinn urban space has been at the centre of public discussions throughout autumn. For a year or so, there has been an anonymous Instagram page @mitte_tallinn (“not Tallinn” in English) which shares the worst urban planning cases in Tallinn (which you can find a lot of, and it’s not even surprising anymore) but also positive solutions for how they can be easily fixed, if someone cared to. This has raised a lot of positive attention from the citizens and ignorant comments from the city government who refuse to accept the fact that people and bicycles are at least equally important in the city as cars. “I am Mihhail Kõlvart, mayor of Tallinn from another dimension,” @mitte_tallinn states in their Instagram bio. While in reality, the actual mayor Kõlvart famously stated that the car is a symbol of status for our people, which is why we shouldn’t restrict cars in any way.
The language of the artists of the Artishok biennial is less in-your-face political and more poetic. Still, they are very urgent as every small creative addition to the public space seems like a breath of fresh air. They have used different spots to present their works: from the Kadriorg baroque palace to the dystopic T1 mall of Tallinn, from a courtyard in the Kopli district to a fancy new house in the centre. Kaisa Sööt and Koit Randmäe are both designer-artists who built a playground as their artwork for the biennial, which is located in the courtyard between houses in the Kopli district. It is meant for children and adults at the same time and the artists are trying to offer something more creative than the standard playgrounds. It consists of a big table where adults can sit, watch their kids, work or have a picnic, while the kids’ area consists of a smaller table and different tools they can use, which are all located under the big table.
Another biennial artist, Anna Mari Liivrand installed a fragile metal construction on the limestone wall which surrounds Toompea hill and can be seen when walking up the hill from Pikk jalg street. The installation, which reminds one of a bare tree branch, also has tender lighting, so that a gentle light flickers when passing the artwork. The artist says the inspiration came from the will-o’-the-wisps of Estonian mythology – ghost lights seen by travellers in swamps. Similarly, she tries to attract the wanderer in the city from their usual paths, to mislead them with seductive lighting, while the magic of the empty city space slowly absorbs you, into yourself, into the full darkness.
This text is part of a collaboration between EDIT and Estonian Centre for Contemporary Art’s web magazine. In every two months EDIT will publish a text about Estonian art and the CCA magazine will publish an article about Finnish art scene. This article swap aims to keep up cultural exchange and awareness of the art scenes of neighbouring countries during the time when travelling and direct communication is complicated.
Main image: Kaido Ole Home 2020 | Stanislav Stepasko, Tallinn Art Hall