Day 2 – Performing art on a daily basis

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by Juha van ‘t Zelfde

Looking back at the photos of our second day on the road, on a beautiful Indian Summer day in Tallinn, one quote keeps resonating. “We perform the museum on a daily basis.” They were uttered by the Museum of Contemporary Art of Estonia (EKKM) curator Anders Härm during his tour of the former Tallinn Heating office building. The museum as a performance is an apt description of a self-described “young contemporary art scene”, that needs to perform itself again and again in the absence of a mature contemporary art infrastructure. The testimonies from local artists about the lack of a well-organised art academy seem to undermine the government ambition to promote Estonian artists through the development of a commercial gallery system, with funds from the European Structural Fund. Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In spite of its young history the most Nordic of the three Baltic states is an old soul. Outside of the Old Town in Northern Tallin lies the derelict Kopli Peninsula. A century old industrial district and housing area that looks mostly abandoned and run down. Some of the wooden workers’ barracks from the 1910s even have traces of fire. “This is the scariest part of the city,” said one of the locals.

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After Kopli, urbanists Regina Viljasaar and Keiti Kljavin guided us through the beautiful Telliskivi creative quarter, a 25.000 m2 former Soviet electro-mechanical factory now being transformed into “the biggest center of creative industries in Estonia.”    Then to the cultural kilometer in the Kalamaja district, set up in 2011 when Tallinn was European Capital of Culture. A ‘beach’ remains from the festivities, and marks a strong grassroots opposition against the privatisation of public lands. The struggle for space in the city and a social approach to urban development is universal. The last morning stop was the EKKM and the contemporary art bookshop Lugemik. The first exhibition in the squatted spaces of EKKM took place in May of 2007. A total of 18 exhibitions have taken place during five years. Paradoxically, the museum in the former Tallinn Heating Company can operate only during the summer months because of the absence of heating. After EKKM moved in, a small independent bookshop and publishing house founded by photographer Anu Vahtra and graphic designer Indrek Sirkel opened next door this year. In 2007, Anu Vahtra and Indrek Sirkel graduated from the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Indrek moved back to Tallinn in 2008, after a one year residency at Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Anu returned in 2012. They both teach at the Graphic Design department in the Estonian Academy of Arts. Having lived in the Netherlands for years, they shared their worries about the change in attitude in recent years. The country that has always been known for its forward-thinking openness runs the risk of losing its edge and becoming too conservative. “Most of our friends who studied with us have moved elsewhere.”

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The day continued with a visit to the Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia (CCA), where we saw the exhibition ‘Shadows of a Doubt’. Curated by fellow Dutchman Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk, the show consisted of a large number of artists from the Netherlands. Amongst them Gert Jan Kocken, Persijn Broersen & Margit Lukács and Gabriel Lester. After a tour, we heard presentations from Maria Arusoo, director of CCA and its curator Rebeka Põldsam. From Andreas Trossek, Chief editor of the most important Estonian art magzine Kunst.ee. Rael Artel, director of Tartu Art Museum and Contemporary Art Festival Art Ist Kuku Nu Ut. And finally from Karin Laansoo, director of the Estonian Contemporary Art Developement Center, who spoke about the investments in the gallery system to strengthen the international position of Estonian artists.

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The overall feeling after two wonderful days of site seeing and meeting people was pleasantly ambiguous: there is great energy and ambition, but there is also frustration and opposition. “In order to compete internationally one has to first get organised at home,” as someone said during dinner afterwards. What is and will remain important is the performing of performance. Every day again. We’d like to express our sincerest gratitude to everyone for their generous hospitality.

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Artist’s studio visit: Jaanus Samma
by Laurie Cluitmans

After two days of visiting institutes, off spaces and many curators, it was about time to spend these last hours in Tallinn in the company of an artist. During dinner the night before, Rael Artel – curator and director of the Tartu Art Museum (located in the second biggest city of Estonia: Tartu) – suggested to meet Jaanus Samma, whom she described as ‘an artist with a critical mind and a great selection of pink mohair hand knitted graffiti sweaters’. Needless to say: I was intrigued. Jaanus’s studio is right in the heart of the city, in what was once a silver workshop, actually located across the enormous building of the Russian Embassy (where apparently no light ever shines through its windows). It turns out I already had a small glimpse of his work the day before in the Lugemik Bookshop, where I browsed through his book ‘AAFGC: Applied Art for a Gay Club’. A project that consists of six short scenes of half naked men hunting, fishing, sawing: a tongue in cheek project dealing with certain socio-cultural dimensions of homoerotica. Jaanus, much like many of the curators we’ve met during this trip, spent quite some time abroad, but is now mainly working on his PHD in artistic research at the Estonian Academy of Arts. Compared to the playful AAFGC, the young artist took a more grave direction for this research, focusing on the gay community during the Soviet occupation. For his audio work ‘Stories’ for example, he conducted a series of interviews with several men about their hidden sexual lives during those years. In quite a straightforward and telling manner, a shadow dimension is unraveled. The effects of secrecy and constant fear for being prosecuted result in tragic stories of broken lives. [some of his interviews can be read here: http://www.jaanussamma.eu/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Lood_2011.pdf ].

Jaanus Samma showing his work
Jaanus Samma showing his work

Another intriguing project is ‘The Chairman’ a fictitious opera centered around the life of a notorious homosexual rebel, whose code name ‘the chairman’ referred to his position as director of several collective farms. For this work, Jaanus was awarded the Köler Prize, an ironic nod to the Turner Prize, and referring to the Estonian academic painter. According to Jaanus, the current situation in Estonia is the most liberal compared to what you could call the Post Soviet states, for example homophobia is not as entrenched in the media. However, there is still a long road to travel and in fact it is still illegal to register as same sex partners, let alone to get married. Ah, and now I’m forgetting all about the pink mohair knitted sweaters.., well I will leave those to your imagination.

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