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Fragment of the exhibition ‘The X-Files [Registry of the Nineties]’. Photo: Rait Tuula

The 1990s in Estonia ‒ a new history waiting for discoveries and revisions 0

Elnara Taidre

This winter, the KUMU art museum has been pervaded by the spirit of the 1990s:  1 November 2018 saw the curators Eha Komissarov and Anders Härm open the exhibition ‘The X-Files [Registry of the Nineties]’ on Floor V of the Gallery of Contemporary Art (open through 14 April 2019). The show focuses on experimental and critical works dating from the time and marking a ‘change of paradigms” in the Estonian post-socialist art. The generation that joined the art scene in the 2000s has now been offered an opportunity to see some of the key works of the era, previously familiar only from reproductions and descriptions, as well as discover for themselves pieces that are not mentioned in wider sources. The 1990s are receding further and further away from the present day, becoming history ‒ one that calls for revision and analysis. Alongside the exhibition, a certain contribution to the process of revisiting and revising the 1990s was made by the international conference ‘Lost and Found Spaces: Displacements in Eastern European Art and Society in the 1990s hosted by KUMU in November 2018. Curator Anders Härm and organizer of the conference Anu Allas spoke to Arterritory about the reason why the 1990s have recently taken the spotlight.

Photo: Rait Tuula

What was the role that the 1990s played in the history of Estonian art?

Anders Härm: Without a shadow of a doubt, the 1990s played a very important role ‒ not only in Estonia but also in Eastern Europe on the whole and also not only in art but in other areas as well. At the same time, it was not just in Eastern Europe that the post-Berlin Wall period became a post-socialist one; in a sense, socialism also collapsed in the West while the rise of neoliberalism and deregulation of global capitalism affected ‒ to a certain extent ‒ the whole world, as aptly noted by the Oxford researcher of the politics of art Anthony Gardner. Thus, the 1990s in a way are the foundation of our ‘distribution of the sensible’ of today; at the same time, several generations have already grown up who have not experienced said decade as adults: the children of the so-called Singing Revolution of 1988 are in their thirties now.

In Estonian art, similarly to art in other Eastern European countries, the 1990s saw a fundamental change of direction take place. When we finally somehow managed to overcome the vacuum between the two worlds, capitalism and late socialism, we found new technologies and art media, new subjects, and the whole preceding understanding of art underwent a rethink.

Jaan Toomik. Bed 100. 1993/2018. Installation. Courtesy of the artist

We currently see a new wave of interest in the 1990s, particularly in the context of the transition period. At the time, political change overshadowed many things that are surfacing today. In what way does it manifest itself in the context of the exhibition?

A. H.: Taking a somewhat detached look at our exhibition, it seems almost frightening how depressive and pessimistically gloomy the art of the period is. It did not seem like that at the time. Yes, we saw it as critical, disowning everything that had come before ‒ but definitely not gloomy. Another thing that becomes apparent at the exhibition: all of the technological innovations attributed to Estonia are best expressed in the art of that period. If we look at the tenacity with which artists like Ando Keskküla, Mare Tralla or Anu Juurak are forcing their way into these inconsistent, sometimes failing new technologies and creating with the help of technicians interactive images that carry an important conceptual load, we see that electronic solutions that have become a mundane part of our daily life were first road-tested in art projects. It was artists who were experimenting at the time with screens and sound-responsive interactive videos. As the third significant aspect, I would with great conviction name the intensity and powerful vitality of the 1990s art. It was probably not perceived as such at the time, and yet today, compared with the ephemeral playing with materials or the correct video narratives of the more recent decades, this dimension stands out very vividly.

It was obviously matching the intensity of the social processes of the time, a thing that has changed radically in our society that currently exists in something more like a stable state of stalemate. Therefore, I believe, political transformations are, to an extent, inseparable from the art of said period; it is in this shared context that many things start to make sense. At the same time, it has to be noted that in this particular case we did focus on innovative art. I am sure that if we mounted an exhibition dedicated to the 1990s art beyond the new media – video, photography and installation ‒ the art world of the time would be revealed from a completely different angle.

Marko Laimre. Lily. 1997. Photo installation. Art Museum of Estonia

What was the 1990s artist like ‒ if there was a certain type? How successful was that generation of artists?

A. H.: As a whole, the 1990s generation was usually referred to as a generation of winners who grabbed a large part of the economic and political area of the time. But if you look specifically at the 1990s artists, this kind of generational generalization probably would not apply here. Many of them do not work in art any more, and a number of artists have been marginalized. And many ‘super stars’ of their time still have to fight for their place on the art scene of today. At the same time, many of them stayed active over the course of the following decades and still are ‒ both as teachers and freelance artists.

Ene-Liis Semper & Kiwa. Holy Union. 18 June 1999. Performance at the Maardu Manor, belonging to the Bank of Estonia. Video documentation. Bank of Estonia Art Collection

At this time, we can already attempt to summarize: what did the KUMU conference in the autumn contribute to the discourse?

Anu Allas: It was actually several years ago that we started planning a conference dedicated to the 1990s ‒ when we were marking the 20th anniversary of the Estonian Centre for Contemporary Arts. Over the last couple of years the whole ‘KUMU 1990s project’ became part of a more ambitious wave of revisiting, revision of this decade. A number of films, theatre productions and texts on the 1990s have distinctly demonstrated a trend of fictionalizing and mythologizing the era: said decade is no longer perceived as modernity; it is now seen as history, in dealing with which new rules and strategies apply. At the same time, the 1990s were such a turbulent time culturally that many of the things that were born during the decade did not seem important in the immediate context; some of the things have not been preserved. For this reason, the decade still hides lots of undiscovered material, as demonstrated also by the exhibition curated by Eha Komissarov and Anders Härm. It was only in the mid-1990s that the Art Museum of Estonia started to collect works that had been left out of the traditional hierarchy of art media (photography and video), and even then adapting to the new formats took time.

Thus, the 1990s are simultaneously a time that is distant enough for us to look at it in a detached way and a comparatively recent past, near enough to establish a contact with it and examine quite closely. This duality of the situation was demonstrated by the conference, which revealed, among other things, some very marked generational differences in the ways this period is viewed. Even though the academic context presumes distancing from the material, a personal experience of the conflicts and choice problems of the time creates a point of view that is completely different from the ones resulting from analysis of the era based on secondary material. At the same time, the conference highlighted a number of problems that either emerged or were recognised during the 1990s and have remained topical to date, in one way or another. For instance, a lot has already been said about the fact that the liberation of Eastern Europe in the 1990s brought on its back a number of new (Western) models of colonization; however, an overly critical analysis of the liberal atmosphere of the time is perceived as a support for the conservative takeover seen today. Thus, a judgement on history always is, to an extent, also a judgement on the present day. Of course, the actual category of Eastern Europe has always been a construction, and today the elements that make up this construction must be reviewed ‒ particularly as part of a discourse on the ending of the post-socialist or post-communist era.

Laurentsius. The End (metalmix). 2000. Mixed technique. Art Museum of Estonia

Could you also tell us about the idea to include the art of the 1990s in the permanent exhibition of KUMU?

А. А.: The question why the permanent exhibition of KUMU does not feature any art of the 1990s arose back in 2006 when the new building of the museum was unveiled. Today we have decided that a selection of works dating from the 1990s would be added to the permanent display of Soviet-era art on Floor IV. Now, following two extensive shows (in 2006 and 2018) of the 1990s art at the KUMU Gallery of Contemporary Art, the time has finally come to separate this period from modernity and allow it to become history. Among other things, it will change the dynamics of the whole Floor IV of KUMU. A floor that previously was practically exclusively dedicated to the Soviet era will now open its door to another period and, apart from everything else, demonstrate that history is a continuous process and that the socialist era was not an isolated, self-contained period but rather connected in various ways both with events preceding it and things that happened later.