by Helmuts Caune, TALLINN
Hoping not to offend any locals, I would say that Tallinn’s Freedom Square is rather bleak. “Bleak” in as non-negative a sense as possible – just that it is ascetic, grey, serene and a bit of a mopish place, overshadowed by St. John’s Church on one side and the War of Independence Victory Column on the other. Or at least so it seemed late this winter, as I happened to pay a visit to the city right during the days when the “beast from the east” was crippling European cities (especially those in northeastern Europe) with snowstorms and freezing temperatures. Nonetheless, Freedom Square is a proper central plaza of a capital of a nation-state: situated in or near the historical old town, surrounded by important institutions, with main traffic arteries running past and through it, and with some of the core manifestations of the nation’s collective spiritual and historical identity – the church and the monument – standing vigil.
That is the space one must repeatedly return to and walk through in order to fully appreciate The State is not a Work of Art, an international art exhibition organised by the Tallinn Art Hall and curated by Katerina Gregos that contributes to an array of cultural events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Estonian state. The show takes place at four venues: the main premises of the Tallinn Art Hall, its additional spaces Tallinn Art Gallery and Tallinn City Gallery, and also nearby Vabaduse Gallery. All four venues are situated a minute’s or less walk from each other. However, to navigate between them, the viewer has to go outside and walk through Freedom Square.
This setting alone already hints at the core paradox of the event: an exhibition that overwhelmingly deals with deconstructing and questioning the notions of nationalism and the nation-state takes place at one of the most symbolically burdened locations in Estonia, almost its geographical heart, and is presented as a part of the celebration of an anniversary of this political power structure (and is, at least partially, paid for with taxpayer’s money). Before getting to the said deconstruction itself, let me just notice this: I believe it is no exaggeration to say that the fact that such an exhibition can happen is a small miracle. Granted, Estonia is, by many measures, more well-off than some of its sisters from the post-socialist block, but it is still a young nation-state in modern-day Europe, where the “spectre of nationalism” is currently making a comeback. That the nation-state in question has approved of such an exhibition might indicate that Estonia has no problems with freedom of expression. Or perhaps that the majority of Estonians are already post-nationalistic in their thinking (which I doubt).
According to Katerina Gregos and other main figures behind this event, the said rise of nationalism in Europe and elsewhere has partly motivated the choice of the show’s conceptual framework. In a new book published on the occasion of the exhibition, Gregos writes: “…the narrow-minded and dangerous spectre of nationalism has returned to Europe. [..] But nationalism is a very complex issue, one which the media rarely attempt to critically dissect… [..] The exhibition The State is not a Work of Art aims to probe the problematics and complexities of nation and nationalism, examine their current volatility, and offer a more nuanced view into the subject, beyond stereotypical understandings of the concept, and taking into consideration today’s socio-political realities.” That is a noble aim indeed, and one can only agree with the curator, that, given the current cultural and political climate, enhancing the public’s understanding of the complexities and roots of certain concepts would be desirable. The question is, however, whether the exhibition in Tallinn has succeeded at doing that.
Or, rather – which parts of it have succeeded. The exhibition is vast and heterogeneous. More than half of it takes place at the Tallinn Art Hall, with the three adjoining spaces claiming a few pieces each. It comprises over a hundred works by twenty-three artists from several different countries. During long and diligent research and preparation, Gregos has selected works that explore the contested concepts from various angles and do so in virtually all genres of visual art. Perhaps considering – and rightly so – the aspect that this should be a popular exhibition, most works are rather straightforward in delivering their message, substituting formal subtlety with original ideas, unique findings and professionalism.
Granted, there are exceptions, such as works by Ewa Axelrad or Flo Kasearu, where the initial impact is much more ambivalent. But if I had to single out a piece that most fully captures the “spirit” of the whole exhibition, I would, after long consideration, probably pick the video Bring Back My Fire Gods by Estonian artist Kristina Norman. In the video, a woman (Ethiopian-Swedish opera singer Sofia Jernberg) sits on the stage at the empty Estonian Song Festival Grounds with a fire (the symbol of the Estonian Song Festival) lit in front of her and sings (in a rather angelic voice) a combination of a Russian folk song and lyrics by the Estonian poet Maarja Kangro. The work stresses the deep ties between the Estonian and Russian cultures and serves as a commentary on the local public’s refusal to include a Russian-language song in the Song Festival repertoire. The video ends with an aerial shot of two guards rushing towards the stage with fire extinguishers. This work incorporates all the main themes that run through the exhibition: a critique of the imagined differences between various groups of people that shape our collective identities, a critique of the monopolised power structures that such identities tend to create, a reflection on the injustice that can be done and historically has been done by such power structures, and, also, an emphasis on how essential the sense of belonging is to human animals and attempts to think of new identities that might be possible besides the existing ones.
To various degrees, these themes permeate the rest of the works as well. For instance, among others that keep returning to my mind days after seeing the show is the piece made by Polish artist Katarzyna Przezwańska. From the outset, it looks like a school project in paleontology: a large model of a landscape that is obviously ancient and devoid of any life forms that currently inhabit Earth. The sand, rocks, marshes, strange trees and other plants are made out of paper, resole foam, metal, wood and other simple materials. And then you see the title of the work, Early Polishness, and sudden clarity almost makes you laugh. Apparently, Przezwańska stood in the middle of Warsaw and tried to imagine what the location might have looked like 200 million years ago, during the Triassic Period. With the help of geologists and other scientists, she found out, and saw that Warsaw was better off long before there was any Poland (or at least so she claims).
One of the most harshly critical and also one of the funniest works is Vexillology by Spanish artist Cristina Lucas. She has looked at tribal nationalism through the phenomenon of football supporters, which is one thing that apparently every nation on this planet has. Lucas has done an excessive online search looking for pictures of fans of all the national teams in the world, especially those who have painted themselves in the colours of their national flag (vexillology being the study of the history, symbolism and usage of flags). This search resulted in about 200 printed photographs (images of fans from some of the smallest nations proved too difficult to find) of groups of people (mostly, but not entirely, men) with their faces and bodies painted in various bright colours and caught in the act of singing, shouting, cheering, drinking or being otherwise preoccupied. All of the photos are exhibited in three long lines on a wall in one of the exhibition’s largest rooms. Seeing all of them together truly does expose the weirdness of such sincere devotion to a constructed identity, and the bright colours, of course, remind us of the ways men of different cultures in different times have painted their faces before going to war.
The powerful impact that photography can have is also evident when witnessing Ours by Estonian artist Tanja Muravskaja. The work consists of twenty large-scale, high-definition portrait photographs of soldiers in uniform – ten male and ten female. The males are NATO soldiers; the females are Estonian “Home Daughters”, young girls trained to respond adequately in case Estonia’s independence is threatened. The portraits capture both the collective, constructed identities represented by the uniforms and the soldiers’ individualities, unconcealable despite the lack of any identification. The young men and women of obviously very different backgrounds have been unified in the name of some imagined (which, of course, is not the same as “not real”) entity, and the way these identities have shaped their posture and gaze irresistibly draws the attention of any viewer, not least because Muravskaja’s works have been given one of the most central spaces in the Tallinn Art Hall.
What becomes apparent in these described works and also in all but a few others, in which the aforementioned themes keep presenting themselves in various manners, is that, to put it very simply, the young generation of artists is overwhelmingly cosmopolitan and left-wing. Granted, the art world has probably already been generally more left-leaning for at least the past hundred or so years, but the unanimity of the critical attitude that’s obvious in The State is not a Work of Art is rather striking. Remember, the aim of the curator and her team was to “probe the problematics and complexities of nation and nationalism, examine their current volatility, and offer a more nuanced view into the subject, beyond stereotypical understandings of the concept, and taking into consideration today’s socio-political realities”. I can see why some might say that this aim has not been fulfilled, or is approached only from one side. Are there really so few artists who would channel a different attitude, one that is not highly critical, towards the return of nationalism, one of today’s socio-political realities?
I don’t have an answer to that, but if this exhibition is any indication, then yes – such artists really are a minority. And it is tempting to yield to the comforting thought that, at a time when the irrational and dangerous “spectre” is returning, at least we have the artists, the intelligentsia, the best of us on the “rational”, the “good”, the “humane” side. But perhaps a more tentative and neutral approach would be to just recognise that the clash between nationalism, tribalism and isolationism and cosmopolitanism, globalism and liberalism is one of the great ideological clashes of our time.
However, one’s ideology is usually something one grows into rather than deliberately chooses. And, not knowing the details, one might think of several reasons why the curatorial team of the exhibition has taken this particular approach and direction in choosing which works to display. Perhaps they did it deliberately. Perhaps they would have happily allowed a different view, but it just so happens that it is hard to find any interesting and good artists who take such a view. Perhaps such an option didn’t even occur to them, because they’re subject to their side of the ideology as well. I would go for the second, the most benevolent, interpretation, yet it does not really matter; regardless of the motivations and reasons, the modern art world is clearly taking a highly critical stand against the rise of nationalism, and along the way it manages to also highly criticise and deconstruct much less controversial notions, for instance, that of a centenary-celebrating nation-state.
Some of the wittiest and most ingenious works in the show that I still want to mention are the projects done by Kristina Solomoukha and Paolo Codeluppi, who have occupied the entire Vabaduse Gallery. They deal with monuments – some of the most symbolically, aesthetically and semiotically burdened artefacts of human culture. The video Untitled (2018) is brilliant in its simplicity, being just a slide show of 500 images, each capturing a different monument somewhere in the world. The images switch after about every two seconds. It’s interesting, funny, captivating. For the first twenty images or so, the conscious mind can still follow most of what it perceives. Yet very soon, it gets tiring; the object in every image requires one to recognise what kind of monument it is, for whom or why it was built, what is my attitude towards it, which part of the world does the picture come from, and, on top of that, how do I value it aesthetically. That’s a lot to do in just two seconds. So, after a short time, the consciousness becomes numb and just lets the colourful images slide past it. And after two hundred or so images, the question inevitably dawns: all this for what? Thousands and thousands of monuments around the world; beautiful and ugly; made out of stone, wood, metal or whatever; depicting leaders, heroes, gods, mythological creatures, prophets, rescue animals and whatnot; and the worshippers of each monument believing that particular one to be the most special of all. Whether at that point you become sentimental, sad or amused depends on your predispositions, but one thing is certain: when you leave the gallery and return to Freedom Square, you won’t be able to look at the Victory Column the same way again.
All in all, The State is not a Work of Art is certainly a timely cultural event that hints at major seismic shifts that await Estonia, Europe and the world in general as far as the current political order goes. And the fact that the exhibition has been given a platform in a classic nation-state during its centenary year is perhaps the most telling of all: allowing some self-reflection is often the beginning of a change. Yet who is the “self” and who does the “reflection” remains unclear – even, I dare say, to the artists themselves.
Helmuts Caune holds a master’s degree in philosophy and currently works as an editor and contributor to the online art magazine Arterritory.com. Other than that, he enjoys chess, watching birds and bad movies and indulging in various pleasures of city life.
This article originally appeared on Arterritory.com
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