MARIA HELEN KÄND “EAST END(S)?” IDENTITY FROM ROOTS TO THE FUTURE
This exact moment in time feels like a sensitive turning point: we are searching for healing and restoration, but at the same time we must open up to the world, which touches upon old wounds, to ensure the sustainable perspective needed to build identity from roots to the future. This topic was selected because Maria Helen Känd, the curator of this exhibition, believes that we need more time, conversations, and opportunities to share our positions and opinions about this highly complex occurrence.
The group exhibition “ida ots(as)? / east end(s)? / край Восток(у)?” examines and reflects upon the socio-psychological experiences and status of a society located in North-East Europe. Eight Estonian artists present their approaches to the topic in diverse mediums, and thereby create a complex offering for an open dialogue.
Historically, Estonia was ruled by different foreign powers, including Sweden, Germany, Denmark, and the Russian Empire until 1918, when the Republic of Estonia was established. Following a few decades of independence, Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union, regaining independence in 1991. Back then, the yearning for freedom was so strong that this shared feeling of endurance conceived a common saying: “to be willing to eat potato peels”—that Estonian people would endure absolute poverty to attain freedom. Thus, the potato is symbolic of this spirit of searching for belonging to Western society, and the multiplicity of the layers of this daily vegetable serves as great inspiration. The potato is ironic; while it is connected to poorness and a certain simplicity, it never loses that earnest, emblematic characteristic of austerity and strength. That is why the potato is a central motif of the exhibition.
After securing statehood, the government strove to become a member of the EU, which was achieved in 2004. Since then, the public agenda has been to include Estonia in the already existing image of Northern European countries and promote Estonia as a digital success story and a tech-savvy nation. Alongside rapid development, Estonia has been grappling with severe socio-economic problems, such as the biggest gender pay gap in the EU, the relative poverty of a quarter of Estonia’s population, and issues related to the integration of non-Estonian speaking communities.
Estonia is in the process of finding its identity as an open-minded progressive nation with roots in folklore, whilst having to accept the disruption of the time under Soviet occupation. Estonian society now consists of diverse nationalities, mainly Estonians and Estonian-Russians, rediscovering their traditions. This can be healing, but there is a danger of being stuck in the past and using this heritage as dividing nationalism. Additionally, economic inequality and historical traumas prevent societal unanimity. In order to be overcome, these traumas need a collective sense of strong social structure, which is formed by the state and its citizens finding common ground in dialogue. This exact moment in time feels like a sensitive turning point: we are searching for healing and restoration, but at the same time we must open up to the world, which touches upon old wounds, to ensure the sustainable perspective needed to build identity from roots to the future. This topic was selected because I believe that we need more time, conversations, and opportunities to share our positions and opinions about this highly complex occurrence.
The current tensions that exist generate inner conflicts, thought processes, and emotional expressions, which result in a powerful creative impulse. The works selected present different positions to address the issues and possibilities around one’s identity—our identity—which is the key focus of this exhibition. The exhibition entails socio-geographic, temporal, and psychological aspects of borders and asks: How is our identity shaped by inner and outer expectations? Is there a chance that we can preserve and resolve ourselves to develop our identity, even though we are part of the EU and, due to this, constantly confronted with the image and the standards of the Western world?
In the following sections, I share some information on the exhibited artworks in order to support a potential dialogue. Also included are my own personal interpretations in connection to my curatorial approach, sometimes using the artist’s sentiments. However, be sure not to take my words as the only, or singularly complete, understanding of the works and the multilayered questions raised about the history and status of identity in Estonia.
ida ots(as)? / east end(s)? / край Восток(у)?
Põhjala factory 5th hangar (Marati5)
Curator: Maria Helen Känd
Project Manager: Minna Triin Kohv
Eestlased, Estonians, Эстонцы
Acrylic on paper (2017)
Marko Mäetamm’s work, entitled “Estonia”, was chosen for the Permanent Representation of Estonia to the European Union in Brussels. It beautifully displays the irony and ignorance our nation is often confronted with. The stylistic focus on the written word offers a low-threshold approach and, with this, immediate engagement with the content. Very much on point, Mäetamm characterises the standard small talk situation, the urge to be polite and keep the dialogue alive, the slightly too long pause between questions and answers, and the inappropriate comparisons, which are tolerated because of the speaker’s lack of knowledge. It is an honest and transparent work, as black and white as some of the minds we are surrounded by.
The soliloquies of the man walking through the rain, disconcertingly bouncing thoughts back and forth. In Mäetamm’s words: This work is my attempt to describe how complicated it is to explain why we feel the way we feel and behave the way we behave. We, as people, often carry the patterns of our culture and history, we are connected to the collective memory of our country and the people who lived before us. We are made of a certain material and this material has a very strong influence on us.
Positsioonid, Positions, Позиции
Digital print (2007)
Puhtast lehest, From a clean slate, С чистого листа
Male and female mannequins, white ready-made clothes, red contour-plexiglass, underwear structure by Liina-Mai Püüa (2018)
Already being iconic in itself—the four nude photographs of Tanja Muravskaja that are part of the seven-photo series “Positions” display young Estonian artists posing with the nation’s flag. The confident and strong self-presentation overtakes the generalising character of the flag by individualising its display. The shape and structure of the flag is defined by the decisions of the individual and not the other way around. Bare skin usually reflects a certain vulnerability, but here it stands out as unveiled strength, the new generation freely expressing their position towards questions of nationalism and identity.
In her second work “From a clean slate” Muravskaja amazes with a similar simplicity in her aesthetics. The installation consists of two mannequins in a walking posture, wearing white clothes with a red sculptural structure on their backs. The anonymity of the figures, the cleanliness of the wardrobe in relation to the abstract and high-contrast structure merge into a futuristic impression. Is this a scenario of future humans? What does the red framework symbolise? Is it “Our Past” from which we can’t liberate ourselves? Or Is it a burden or an opportunity for our identity to keep the balance between the past and the future?
Digital print, 2013
Banaanid, Bananas, Бананы
digital print on silk, 2019
Sandra Kosorotova’s work “Slavinavia” presents a synthesis of the Scandinavian with the Estonian flag and reflects the multilayered process of expressing identity through staged images. At the time of its making, there was a controversial discussion about the expression of Estonia’s identity through newly defined imagery, which set the context of the work. Scandinavia hereby represents the longing for affiliation with the group of so-called West- and North European states. The danger in focusing on ideals and imaginations lies in the disregard towards the acknowledgement of Estonia’s past and its own process of finding its identity. To adapt because of a wish to belong leads to overlooking and results in a distant and strange image with some familiar aspects as on Kosorotova’s flag. However, this is far from an organic development of identity and appears like a shortcut in this long and intense process.
The work “Bananas” reflects on the usage of Eastern European clichés in brand imagery. Kosorotova criticises stereotypes that intentionally utilise these defined images to achieve recognition in an international context. A rap song is printed on a square shaped silk fabric and addresses the interplay between fashion, Western capitalism, populism, and self-presentation. To be a part of the group you need to look and be like the desired Western European ideal, even though it means sticking to general profiles instead of individualism.
Värisev pekitükk, A trembling piece of lard, Дрожащий кусок сала
Stainless steel, motor, leather, 2020
The central topic of the work “A trembling piece of lard” by Madlen Hirtentreu is the territorial constraint of both mental and physical space, from which she constantly invents new ways and means of manipulation. Her kinetic sculptures, installations, and performances are often characterised by Frankensteinian techniques, absurdity, and an eclectic choice of materials. Materials often serve as the role of a recorder. In this multimedia work, she stages bones and flesh on a table. By pushing a button, the viewer interacts with the work and starts the kinetic installation. A transcribed conversation with the seller of the installation’s bones is in dialogue with a poem by Hasso Krull. This connection creates an ironic and humorous moment that results in a sensitive absurdity. Memory, historical traumas and grief are brought together and benefit in the complex combination of materials and content that layer a certain ironic lightness.
“Mu keha on mu esivanemate” (My body is the dream of my ancestors)
My body is the dream of
my ancestors. Bone and skin, hair
and fat: they saw it long ago,
but so little time
has passed that no one believes
it. My ass isn’t bulbous and springy
just because: someone sat upon it for
thousands of years, then lent me
the cheeks—don’t just wear
them down; when you sit, then sit
with pleasure. Sit with a purpose.
Poem by Hasso Krull
Translation by Adam Cullen
Nostalgia seeriast “Giljotiini efekt”, Nostalgia from series “Guillotine Effect”, Ностальгия из серии “Эффект Гильотины”
Digitally reproduced charcoal drawing print on textile, 2016
Kartul taskus, Potato in the Pocket, Картошка в кармане
Video 3’11’’, 2012
Muutuse strateegiline planeerimine, The Strategic Planning of Transformation, Стратегическое планирование трансформации
Video 3’23’’, 2013
“Nostalgia” is a part of Tanel Rander’s conceptual work the “Guillotine Effect”, which observes the transformation of East European in the late 80s and early 90s. The Guillotine was the foundational instrument of democracy. As Western democratic powers reached the ruins of socialism, guillotines were brought to the streets. No human heads were falling there, but the heads made out of bronze—the symbols of totalitarian regimes, while the actual elite of this regime only slightly transformed into the elite of capitalist society. Starting from this analogy, the work observes the Eastern European transformation and detects a split subjectivity—with the head located in the West and the body located in the East, inner harmony and balance is impossible. This division can lead to nostalgia, which acts like a filler and reminder of better times for stability, but shifts the focus from the current situation to a dreamy version of the past.
In the video works “The Strategical Planning of Transformation” and “Potato in the pocket”, Rander uses the potato as a symbol to critically approach historical phenomena, such as the introduction of Western cultural values to Estonian peasantry by noblemen. The second video explores his childhood misconceptions about Estonian political status and its relationship to the West. Both of the videos make an impact in their simplicity and strong metaphors.
International Fun, Международное веселье, 2016
Baasuhkus II, Basic Pride II, Основная гордость II, 2018
Estonian Dream, Эстонская мечта
Video 15′ 53'', 2013
Flo Kasearu’s floor installation “International Fun” recreates the flag of the European Union. On the familiar royal blue, the stars have been replaced by banana peels introducing an ironic tone to the intended greatness of the flag as a unifying symbol. The reality is different, as this union is fragile in its structure, and the members often slip slapstick-like through the ideal of togetherness, as a single misstep could lead to drastic consequences.
In this show, the sculpture group “Basic pride II” consists of 20 single pieces of potato sculptures and combining it with flag poles. Entangled, twisted, and pressed to each other, or sticking through the potato, the poles stand for diverse nationalities and culture clashes that come along with global unifications.
“Estonian Dream” is a video work that astonishes. There is a rawness in the video log format and a naivety, sincerity, and obscurity in the main character—Texasgirly1979, an Estonian woman who has lost her connection with her homeland and taken-on the American way of life with a marriage and living in the USA. She is alienated from both the Estonian and American cultural world. She carries out her life in a mode of nostalgia, going back to her childhood songs, and has romanticised everyday goods that remind her of her youth. Her manners and thoughts may seem laughable, but the video also calls upon empathy for individuals who get disoriented in a globalised world and experience a nostalgic-homesick loneliness, because of rootedness.
Kevad, Spring, Весна
Acrylic on canvas, 2019
Mineviku ja kosmose vahel I ja II, Between the Past and the Cosmos I and II, Между прошлым и космосом (часть I/II)
Acrylic on canvas, 2013
The three-channel approach is intriguing and conceptually appealing in Alexei Gordin’s video “If it disappears from here, it immediately appears somewhere else”, where he rediscovers abandoned and forgotten architecture of past eras. This division to three screens effectively gives a sensation of division of the space, time and the physical body, which is also characteristic of a polarised psyche between the past, present, and future.
The images and architectural objects collected in the video lead the viewer in a journey through the forgotten and ruined, pointing to the uncomfortable past we all share and questioning its influence on our future. The places documented in the video remind us of something we would rather forget as a mistake, but in another way could be inviting and intriguing, such as prohibited monuments that are stuck between time, cultures, and memories.
The two dispatches of “Between the Past and the Cosmos I and II” paintings and the works “Lights” and “Spring” depict a very Gordon-like societal portrait that spotlights the dramatic distance between human reality and human imagination. The first two are partly inspired by trips to Ida-Virumaa—the poorest part of Estonia, which is mostly populated by Russians who migrated for work during the Soviet era, but nowadays, time seems to have stopped there. People have no work and no possibilities for development. In addition, a high rate of alcoholism and drug addiction is common in this region, which is also reflected in the demographic situation. Alexei says that he used metaphoric solutions to the problems of his characters in imagining an alternative reality for them in cosmos, which signifies people’s aspiration for ideal, harmonic life.
Võimu koridor, Corridor of Power, Коридор власти
Digital print on paper, 2020
Evi Pärn’s installation “The Corridor of Power” highlights a crucially important aspect of the social structure in a post-occupational society in which differences of historical interpretations are a daily experience. This work criticises the institutional position of the Estonian Art Museum, specifically the permanent exhibition about art and society in Estonia (1945–1991) where the historical contextualisation is displayed in Estonian and English, and by this neglects the presence of Russian and Estonian-Russian citizens. Pärn creates an archival corridor consisting of paper banners adding the Russian version of museum texts and blurring the parts in Estonian and English to the edge of being illegible. The relation between Russians and Estonians is complex and multilayered so an easy answer for a solution can’t be given. It would be useful, however, to analyse the cultural past together, which could result in higher attentiveness and acceptance.
Cover image: Flo Kasearu “International fun”, 2016 (video still, photo: Flo Kasearu)
The photos from the exhibition opening night were taken by Kadri Känd; the documentation of the exhibition is done by Felix Laasmäe.