From roots to routes

Maija Rudovska


What are we? Where are we? Where do we belong?

At a time when nationalistic propaganda and right-wing parties are gaining increasing support in the majority of European countries the question of belonging is becoming ever more topical. Belonging has always been important for new countries such as the Baltic States, whose identity has constantly been characterised by instability, change and vulnerability to all kinds of influences, powers and directions. Just about everything has become precarious these days. Even the most stable among us are beginning to question our own foundations. In the context of the changing circumstances which affect all of us in every quotidian situation, the following questions are growing in significance: Where do we belong? What are our roots? Who or what do we associate ourselves with? Where are we heading?

Do young artists from the Baltic region consider themselves linked to a concrete space – whether geographical or mental? How important to them is an artistic environment and infrastructure? Is a sense of belonging important in the present day? Has it perhaps become a variable that must be adjusted and adapted according to need?

The generation of Baltic artists who were born and grew up in the 1980s and 90s have experienced major changes at state level as well as in the political climate. Held in thrall by new promises and expectations, this generation marched through the chaotic 1990s, reaching a 21st century of equivocality where constant change had already become the status quo. Over a period of some 20 years, artists and fledgling self-made curators have been part of local artistic communes, seeking their own language and means of expression, while they have also become inhabitants of the global village thanks to the internet and cheap flights. Because local schools continue to cling to traditionally conservative models of education, and have thus lost their connection with reality, some artists have left to start a new life in other countries to obtain a better, more competitive education. Many of these artists continue to return “home”, trying to maintain and strengthen their links to the local artistic milieu while also working internationally, attempting to set up a kind of transitional space. Quite a few of these artists will admit that they care about what is taking place in their “homelands” because roots are important - they contribute to who you are, they are a part of you.

Jaan Toomik. Dancing Home, 1995. Video installation, BETA SP, 1:50.

The video work Dancing Home (1995) by the Estonian artist Jaan Toomik is in this sense symbolic – we see the artist dancing on board a ship, attempting to keep his balance and adjust to the vessel’s rhythm. Although the work was created in reaction to the tragic incident of 1994, when a ferry on its way from Estonia to Sweden sank with the loss of 852 lives, it can also be read in a wider context – as a reference to the changes that took place in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, which at the time demanded the ability to balance “throughout life” from every individual.

We often talk of a post-Soviet space characterised by traumatic experience and related confusion, ambiguity, contradiction, lost and/or not-yet-found identities and inequality. It is a relentless condition of “not-yet-as-equal” – the wish to integrate and to belong to something concrete and stable, in this case to Western culture and its values. However, the chasm between our cultural and social origins and those of the West is so wide that such integration is almost impossible. As experienced, the language of expression comes to life only in the locality or periphery from which it has emerged. Often this paradox appears among the generation who have experienced the transition from communism to a new, hybrid capitalism, which exists in its own peculiar and unique form in Eastern Europe. 

Jaanus Samma, Marko Raat. A Chairman’s Tale, 2015. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Pirje Mykkänen

The post-Soviet space is the space where the language becomes complicated and demands its own rules. The work A Chairman’s Tale by Jaanus Samma reveals the various levels at which it is possible to interface with the legacy of the Soviet period and to rewrite it, using both real facts and fiction. It is the tragic tale of an Estonian who was well-known locally – a war veteran and kolkhoz chairman who was also gay. He was nicknamed ‘Chairman’. In the 1960s he was tried and sentenced for having sexual relations with another man. Having lost his social status, family and job, Chairman moved to the city of Tartu, where his life ended in tragic circumstances; he was killed by a male prostitute. Samma, by combining in his work archive materials, objects and even a fictional opera, creates a story not only about the person in question, but also touches on a much wider range of themes: gay culture and prostitution during the Soviet era, the public toilets used for gay encounters that made them something dirty and illicit, and medical examinations that were particularly unpleasant and humiliating. The prohibitions and restrictions that were an official part of Soviet culture are highlighted throughout the story. By choosing dramatism, the artist draws attention to the merging of fact and fiction – theatricality is not merely a means of expression here but also a metaphor for memories that have been preserved from those times. It stimulates the imagination, promoting creative play with the scenarios linked to the case.

Inga Meldere. Permutations, 2017-18. 190 x 135 cm. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Pirje Mykkänen

The imagination is often the most important instrument for approaching experiences and memories. Inga Meldere, a Latvian artist currently residing in Helsinki, works a great deal with it, presenting works with multi-layered references. In the series created specially for the exhibition at Kiasma, Meldere has focussed on the presence of the process in the work of art and on pedagogic elements – how things are highlighted and how they are read. The illustration of the process incorporates a variety of references from history, images from magazines, impressions from travel and research (for example, her recent residency at the Baltic Art Centre in Gotland), as well as from the culture of the1990s, the period when the artist was growing up. In searching for material, the aim had been to follow her inner voice and passion, thus stimulating self-reflection. In addition, the return to the 90s as a time that was crucial to the development of her identity, full of creative experiment and the spirit of free expression of DIY culture, is certainly a critical factor right now at the beginning of the 21st century, because it also brings the issue of belonging and memory to the forefront.

Flo Kasearu. Uprising (The Aircraft), 2015. KUVA Kansallisgalleria/Pirje Mykkänen. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Pirje Mykkänen

The post-Soviet space in the Baltic region of the present day is not only redolent with memories of a Soviet past, but is also a space for power games and tensions between prevailing forces – whether that would be the presence of Russia with its tendencies towards imperialistic subordination, the European Union with its directives, regulations and Western values, or dependency on Scandinavian banks and attempts to take part in the Northern discourse. The work Uprising (2015) by the Estonian artist Flo Kasearu, reflects on these issues at various levels. It is a video work lasting four minutes in which the viewer is presented with a bird’s eye view of a city. The camera flies across the city, slowly approaching and focussing on a specific building in the Pelgulinn neighbourhood, where the artist lives. The viewer can observe how airplanes are “folded” out from the roof covering, resembling the DIY paper models that we often learned to make in childhood. The slow, gentle musical accompaniment invests the work with a slightly melancholy undertone, though occasionally the soundtrack switches to something livelier. Flo Kasearu’s bird’s eye view seems to be an observation from a safe distance, the flight associating itself with the notion of freedom, while the tight, taut focus of the camera is a reminder of supervision and watchfulness operating from a position of power and can thus be linked with control and even threat. Uprising is definitely a work that reminds us of the presence of the military in the post-Soviet space. Whether NATO aircraft or Russia-initiated “exercises” in the air space – it bears witness to heightened tension between the superpowers.

Over the last twenty years the all-embracing tendency for accessibility and levelling as a feature of globalisation has definitely suborned the artistic realm, making it far more dependent on market values and diminishing exploration of meaning or the artistic contents. Convertibility, comprehensibility and readability typified by certain aesthetic principles of their own (which can of course, have variations, though they must conform to pre-defined formal principles or “language” principles) are the cornerstones of the moment in the international world of art. The anthropologist James Clifford offers an interesting view of globalisation: “‘globalization’ is not, or not simply, ‘the capitalist world system.’ (..) Globalization is a name for the evolving world of connections we know, but can’t adequately represent. It is a sign of excess. (..) Globalization is the multidirectional, unrepresentable sum of material and cultural relationships linking places and people, distant and nearby. It is not just a continuation of empire, dominion by other, more flexible, means, as critics on the Left tend to argue.” To a large extent, this has also influenced how people and institutions that have associated themselves with local or peripheral artistic environments work – the latter definitely including the Baltic – and also how mutual linkages have developed largely due to the network systems that have opened up via globalisation with the passing of the years (and the last decade in particular). In addition it has brought change to the things that the artistic practitioners formerly associated themselves with, associate with now, and where they live or wish to live. 

Daria Melnikova. Room 3. Follow me, 2015. Installation, measures variable. KUVA Kansallisgalleria/Pirje Mykkänen. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Pirje Mykkänen

Daria Melnikova’s range of interests also includes the code systems of our contemporary aesthetic, especially the visual language adopted by the youth of today. Room3. Follow me (2015) is an installation reminiscent of an altar and unites a diversity of elements – imitation gold necklaces stating Peace, Faith, Love, Hope and Purity are draped over elegantly shaped aluminium sticks and there is a portrait of a young woman and a crusty heel of a loaf of gluten-free home-made bread at the centre of the installation. The work in its entirety is reminiscent of an object of adoration. The image of the young woman calls to mind the Madonna from church iconography; it is very similar, since for many centuries religion has influenced human life, using images for purposes of ideology that have now been inevitably replaced by consumerism, with advertising offering idealised images that often border on extreme narcissism and self-admiration. Melnikova’s work can be read not only as an ironic comment on this contemporary phenomenon, but also as an affirmation of its existence.

The networking, transitions and journeys that the present generation of thirty- and forty-something year olds are experiencing undoubtedly influence their work and also how they work in art. Are there any restrictions, boundaries, regulations that isolate us from each other, or, conversely, that bring us closer together? James Clifford compares roots and routes, noting that roots are not fixed but rather they are changeable. Routes may be understood to mean ‘roots in motion’, their ability to turn into rhizomes. “Cultural centres, discrete regions and territories, do not exist prior to contacts, but are sustained through them, appropriating and disciplining the restless movements of people and things.” In the context of a networking culture one must look further to see what kinds of linkages are being formed between individuals, groups, communes and institutions. The dominant role of social media and the Internet in our lives has opened up the opportunity to be in connectivity and to establish more sustainable systems of cooperation and exchange.

The Baltic pavilion at Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 emphasised not so much the differences between the countries, based on nationality, but rather what they had in common in terms of infrastructure and geo-politics. The emphasis was placed not on borders and territory, but rather on the space that reflects the division of power in the Baltic and how “the erected, the built, the planned stands alongside the intentional, visualised, utopian, stimulating thought about dreams and reality, the material and the intangible, the implemented and the imagined”, all belong to this single area. Similarly as the Baltic pavilion was created through co-operation between architects, designers, curators, artists, researchers and other creative minds, it is possible to speak of a broader spatial structure that throws into relief the notion that the Baltic region also functions beyond its borders. One could speak of a system, a network distinguished by its own mechanisms of operation and aspirations. Although the language used by contemporary artists might be similar, it is differentiated and united, and their work is supported by the networks already in place. Irit Rogoff writes: “Places and spaces are delineated and contained, named and differentiated from one another in attempts to entrench meaning and cohesion through partition. In this mode of thinking, the boundary is a line of delineation whose capacity is largely for holding inside of it, that which has a tendency or a desire to leach outside of it and co-join with whatever it feels an affinity for; people, landscapes, textures, languages. (..) How can we put forward an engaged discussion of place or location that is not held captive by the logistics of division and containment?” This kind of question should also be posed when speaking of the Baltic and the Baltic region, seeking to find answers beyond the borders set by nationalism, researching the similarities and connections between the new systems which have grown and developed over the last twenty years, overcoming post-Soviet spatial restrictions and strengthening roots in the context of globalisation. It is possible that description of these systems will require a new lexis, because the old terminology based on the binary – East/West, centre/periphery, current/outdated is no longer appropriate.

*This text was first commissioned and published by Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma (Helsinki) in the exhibition catalogue "There and Back Again - Contemporary Art from the Baltic Sea Region" (eds. Saara Hacklin & Kati Kivinen) in February 2018.