At the Wheels of Time with Cute Concrete
Catalogue published in January 2015 in Latvian and English. Editor Indrek Grigor
In 2011 in St Petersburg, the Novy Muzei (New Museum)1 held an exhibition introducing current Russian sculpture ti- tled New Sculpture: chaos and structure, in the catalogue2 of which the artist and theorist Anatoly Osmolovsky dis- cussed the particularities of Russian sculpture. In his opin- ion, Russian sculpture is strongly connected to Medieval iconostasis: he claims these ‘ at-surfaced sculptures to be unique to the Orthodox Church. While other Christian churches allow everyone to come to the altar, in the Or- thodox Church, the room behind the iconostasis is closed o , a sacred zone. Osmolovsky sees this kind of semiotic zoning as a fundamental component of Russian culture – this is what the dominance of rigid binary oppositions so characteristic to the Russian soul is based on.
It is from the centuries of ‘shadow life’ on this side and the other side of the iconostasis that the narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy, fanaticism, emphasis on discretion and utmost re nement and veiling of the matters of the soul originate. Osmolovsky thinks the convention of the visible and the hidden also characterises Russian sculpture, and he ex- empli es his statement using architectons – Rodchenko’s spatial constructions and Tatlin’s counter-reliefs. Among other things he points out that Russian sculpture lacks the Western three dimensional tradition and goes on to draw the conclusion that because of this atness, Russian sculpture is not very re exive. It is also the reason it avoids speaking to the audience directly, it rather gravitates to- wards being mysterious and closed o .
Does Estonian sculpture have a historic distinctiveness to it? Yes, it has. Our professional art originates from stone- masonry, a craft primarily practiced by locals in Estonian and Livonian cities after the arrival of the crusaders.3 Hel- mi Üprus, one of the most knowledgeable experts in this area of Estonian art history has written: “It is the artistic quality of stonemasonry in the oldest stone churches in Estonia, which connects 13th century Estonia to Europe- an art history. And preserves that connection throughout the centuries. /.../ The old craft of stonemasonry, which is also connected to church architecture, has developed right in the midst of the people and been heavily in uenced by them. They encountered the art of stonemasonry once a week in church, and so, it has strong links with Sunday rituals. This means stonemasonry was elevated from the everyday in the minds of the people.”
I also tend to think that unlike the rather recent tradition of song festivals, older art in the form of stone carvings is deeply rooted in the consciousness of the Estonian people – together with the moralising themes of the carvings and sombre Gothic sensibility (linked to the roughness of the Estonian limestone).
Throughout the centuries the motivation to carve the local limestone has been rooted in the desire to grasp the oth- erworldly, to establish diplomatic relations with death, and gravestones and slabs have been the site for these friend- ly exchanges. Unlike the Russian iconostasis, at the very core of which lies the con ict between ordinary people and institutional authority, the art of stonemasonry displays a yearning for transcendence so characteristic to Estonian sculpture (and maybe its visual art in general).
So for example, the director of the Contemporary Art Museum Estonia, Anders Härm, has expressed his puz- zlement over the fact that the Estonian cultural context favours art created in the ‘ivory tower’: ‘The only consis- tent line in Estonian art is the metaphysical-transcendent tradition: after [Leonhard] Lapin, [Raul] Meel and [Kaljo] Põllu there is the esoterics of Raoul Kurvitz, the metaphys- ics of Siim-Tanel Annus and the videos and performances of [Jaan] Toomik.”4 As a counterbalance, he cites exam- ples like Fluxus, Pop and Op art on both sides of the Iron Curtain and claims these art movements have nothing to do with the otherworldly; on the contrary, they are strictly ‘strategies for this world’. Furthermore, Härm states that even the Estonian interpretations of Minimalism have been considerably centred on metaphysics.
Considering all of the above and his previous work, I would also add Jass Kaselaan to the list of ‘metaphysical artists’, even though his work “The Square of Dolls”, which won the 2014 Köler Prize and will be discussed at length below, somewhat focuses on the more quotidian.
At the beginning of the 1920s, the over eager communists of the Sviyazhk island in the river Volga were so enthralled by the revolution, they erected a monument to Judas Iscar- iot – as he had fought so well against religion, the opiate of the people. This somewhat absurd case in the history of sculpture illustrates Jass Kaselaan’s work, as he often relies on religious symbols (Return You Children of Man, Tallinn City Gallery, 2010; Garden, Tartu Art House, 2012; The Sound of God, Tallinn Art Hall Gallery, 2013). All the signs seem to point to the fact that the artist is working with (Christian) core values, yet he manages to escape the situation ‘untouched’ (although maybe taking a slightly ironic stance), without anyone from his audience mention- ing the Bible.
In contemporary Estonian culture, the Bible does not ex- actly stand on rm ground. Estonians like to emphasise how non-religious they are (à la: our beliefs are deeper than the doctrines of some religion) and even the President of Estonia, Toomas Henrik Ilves, proudly shared a map on his Facebook wall which, to the amusement of many Es- tonians, indicated that there are only a few countries in the world (Estonia among them) that do not discriminate against atheists.5 Then again, if we take a more thorough look at Estonian culture (and especially at literature), we can nd countless allusions to the Bible, which is often used to talk about the fate of the Estonian people. Some literary scholars have claimed that at the end of the 18th century, when Esto- nians were nally able to read about Jewish history and the fate of the Jewish people in their own language, they began relating those stories to their own fate. From that point on the Bible became a meta-text of sorts in Estonian culture, a means of auto-communication that allows the culture itself to be described.6
Many critics have described Kaselaan’s large-scale instal- lations as machines (truth be told, to a degree this is also Kaselaan’s own doing – he did give one work the title per- petuum mobile). However, I would suggest that instead of perpetuum mobile, we could talk about the deus ex machi- na principle. Is it possible that if necessary it will be (the Christian) tradition7 that saves the day? For example, when you are faced with a question of metaphysics but do not know how to proceed.
As previously mentioned, Kaselaan’s square of dolls, exhibited at the Köler Prize 2014 nominees’ show, is re- markably different both in form and content from his other works: plastic is replaced with concrete. Could this be the time to cheer – the sculptor has gone back to roots, long live stonemasonry!
As a short historical remark, it should be said that in Esto- nian sculpture the centuries long ‘Stone Age’ only ended in the 1960s, when new materials began to change the meaning of this three dimensional art form. At rst, it was chamotte that became popular, as it allowed large gen- eralisations in form. A little later aluminium, epoxy resin and plastics found their way into exhibition halls. In 1976, a casting facility was established, which brought on the ‘Bronze Age’ in Estonian sculpture.8 At the beginning of the 1990s, both the ‘Stone Age’ and the ‘Bronze Age’ came to an end because it turned out that outside the planned economy of the Soviet Union, artistic expressions of this kind were just too expensive. During the last 10 years stone sculptures have rarely made their way to exhibitions (and bronze sculptures even less). They are expensive and not very popular.
The success of Kaselaan’s concrete sculptures in the Estonian contemporary art scene is a little unexpected considering the local context, although if we look at the broader situation in the art world, it does coincide with the rise of neomaterialism in Western art philosophy in recent years.9 But just as with this neomaterialism, which is not easy to put dates on (when did this tendency arise – 2, 10 or 50 years ago?), it cannot exactly be said that Jass Kase- laan has taken Estonian sculpture back to the ‘Stone Age’. Considering the fact that the 1000-year period of stone- masonry was only interrupted for half a century, it would be premature to claim that we ever left that phase anyway. Stone is not dead at all.
As if to corroborate this statement, the greatest achieve- ment of 2014 is said to be landing a probe on the surface of a meteorite. This stone, wandering around in our solar system is thought to be older than Earth. Scientists are convinced that it was a meteorite like this that fell to Earth and with it brought water (i.e. life). So, if there are molecules of water to be found on the meteorite we could dis- cover something interesting about the history of our planet.
“The Square of Dolls” is a colourful example of memory- scapes – an ever popular theme in the humanities.10 At the centre of the installation we see a number of busts (based on a cast taken of a Soviet era doll; the toys were collected from rubbish bins in a district of Soviet-era prefabricated apartment blocks) and on the walls typical views of these kinds of micro-districts.
For Estonian viewers the space between the blocks in these pre-fab districts is a clearly marked memoryscape, rst and foremost associated with the Soviet occupation and mass immigration. It is mostly a violently designed landscape, and therefore, carries negative connotations. On the other hand, it is also true that more than half of the Estonian population live in buildings constructed during the Soviet period. So, one would assume that such pre-fab buildings should strongly remind people of their childhood, which despite the twists and turns of history is usually a relatively pleasant experience. Kaselaan’s photographs invite the audience to discuss the heritage of the Soviet era. What are the principles we adhere to when conserving the mental and physical space that is rooted in the Soviet period?
The sculptures for “The Square of Dolls” (if we look at them separately from the photographs) make up a memory-scape with substantially murkier meaning. First of all, it creates a hypothetical, active space – the goal here being creating a model of a nostalgic utopian landscape.
This group of sculptures formally reminds the viewer of Soviet-era monumental art and simultaneously evokes the Soviet state’s manic desire to carve memory into stone. At the same time, it is clear that during that period nothing as ironic as the despised dolls was ever cast.11 It is also worth noting that decorating the grass squares of microdistricts with sculptures or monuments was rather an exception than a rule (the monuments were destined to edify historic city centres). “The Square of Dolls” could be a platform to prompt a discussion about the relationship between the ruling authority and (city)space.
Kaselaan strategically includes the notion of ‘a square’ in the title of his installation, which is undoubtedly a site for manifestations of di erent types of authority, it is a stage for presenting the symbols of honour and glory, the requi- sites of victory, which all have to be stimulated by regularly organising parades or other events. In addition to the ‘ge- ography of fear’ in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Repub- lic, “The Square of Dolls” also refers to the current main square of Tallinn, where thanks to a majority of seats in the city government, one party is able to rule the city in a manner that is not entirely democratic.
In many cultures, a (theatre) puppet symbolises a person with no principles, who can be easily in uenced. A doll is like a model of a little man. On the other hand, if we recall Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which a person’s life is lik- ened to shadow theatre, it becomes clear that none of us will be able to escape becoming the little man or puppet. Let us also keep in mind that in many sign systems, the colour grey signi es a person – in the middle of a colourful world. And we do know, if a colour starts shifting towards its opposite, it needs to pass a grey point in the middle...
I wonder if you have ever experienced the Japanese bunraku puppet theatre. The hectic plays mercilessly depict
the most archetypal of human feelings, whether cosmic,
national, familial or personal. The audience alternates
between raging with laughter and feeling deep compas-
sion. Maybe Kaselaan’s installation is the Estonian version
of bunraku: there are giant silent children on the stage
who have little desire to articulate anything, yet their inner
speech is incredibly rich?
The sculptures for the square of dolls play with cuteness: on the one hand, the baby faces should automatically evoke a cuddle re ex in the audience, on the other, the dolls are also creepily over-sized – they would not seem out of place on the set of a horror lm. But the essence of cuteness still remains. What or who is it that we are invited to embrace?
Cuteness (Kindchenschema) is a term the Austrian biolo- gist Konrad Lorenz gave to a phylogenetic sensation, which creates a defensive re ex for the young in warm-blooded mammals (including humans). If we are faced with a baby our spinal cord gives us a moral warning, as it were, that the little creature must be cared for. This feeling that pene- trates us on a cellular level is so primal that it can even be experienced when we encounter little cats, dogs, rabbits, rats and other animals (just as wolves might adopt a hu- man baby). It is enough for our eyes to x the main char- acteristic of Kindchenschema (small nose, high forehead, big eyes). The human species has even gone so far that in addition to making dolls imitate small children, we have created ‘cute species’ like the Chihuahua.
What we are interested in here, is the fact that compassion and morality, as previously indicated, are something we are born with, they are located in the evergreen memory of our spinal cord, rather than rooted in rational thinking.
Jass Kaselaan is an outstanding artist exactly because his works deeply touch our fundamental sensations and do not require much support from texts or other rational channels. That is also the reason this text here should be considered more an epilogue than a preface – it has no ambition to provide the viewer with the ‘right code’, instead it is a subjective contemplation with a clear source of in- spiration.
One nal point – if we could return to the idea of Kindchen- schema just for a moment – it seems as if the doll sculp- tures invite us to protect the Soviet pre-fab buildings, their microdistricts and all of the memories still shared by those who lived there. Maybe “The Square of Dolls” is a place for accepting our socialist heritage – just like the room of busts at KUMU12 acts as a self-ironic eld, where we can come to terms with the ‘culture of disruption’?
The Semiotics professor at the University of Tartu, Peeter Torop has discussed the post-socialist situation in Estonia: “The 1990s did bring changes in both the discourses of historiography and identity; however, these two have not been synthesised in a way everyone hoped for. In Esto- nia, the synthesis and an understanding of the history of the 21st century is hindered by the Soviet past as well as the European-oriented present.”13 Torop is referring to the fact that Estonians base their identity on the values of the 1920s and 1930s (taking pride in winning the War of Independence, economy relying on agriculture (peasant wisdom), a love of Modernist architecture in urban life, the decorous bourgeoisie), which were expected to ‘naturally’ come to life again after 1991.
As Estonia celebrates its 95th or 100th anniversary on 24 February, everyone seems to think it is only natural – it is as if the Soviet period never existed. Although when we look at what the students of the humanities write their dissertations about or what interests (art) historians, we see how much these areas are dominated by the Soviet era. So as an aesthetic phenomenon, the Soviet period is very much alive (dolls from that period are an integral part of the interior design of the most popular bars and cafés in Tallinn), yet when it comes to questions of identity (should we consider the Russians who moved here during that period as our ‘own’), the period carries rather negative connotations.
“The Square of Dolls” aptly visualises this contradiction: the Soviet period dolls (children) are hesitantly standing in line, not sure if they should salute Konstantin Päts, Leonid Brezhnev, Toomas Henrik Ilves or someone else.
In his 2012 novel, Kooparahvas läheb ajalukku (Cave peo- ple go down in history), Mihkel Mutt, one of the most signif- icant contemporary Estonian writers, describes the life and struggles of the local intelligentsia over the last half century. Throughout the book Mutt expresses his view that during the Soviet era artists, writers and musicians enjoyed both wide popularity among audiences as well as the exciting status as dissidents, yet in the 1990s, to their surprise, they found themselves in quite an awful situation. Books that had previously been printed in huge numbers were now down to a print-run of only a couple of hundred copies, artists’ works were no longer purchased by the state, and so on: no one needed or supported them anymore.
“Please understand the reality of your position in Soviet society – you were the happiest people to exist under those conditions! Men respected you and women loved you – loved without even wanting anything in return. It was the purest form of romantic love – you were loved for who you were. Is that really not enough? So, do not compare yourselves to party members. To tell the truth, the Soviet period was not a paradise for members of the party but for artists.”14
Maybe a quarter of a century after our cultural heroes were kicked into the curb, we have turned a full circle again? A few years ago the law on commissioning art took e ect, which says that whenever the state builds or reconstructs something, at least 1% of the cost of the whole project must be allocated to art commissions. Recently, we heard the news that after the Estonian Radio building is reno- vated, a work of art will be commissioned from the duo Edith Karlson and Jass Kaselaan. Contemporary sculpture is stepping out of the hermetically sealed gallery environ- ment and starting to shape the physical and mental space around us.
Viljandi, December 2014
1. A private museum and gallery focused on introducing and collecting
Russian and international contemporary art. http://www.novymuseum.ru
2. Сергей Попов (редактор), “Каталог выставки «Новая скульптура : хаос и структура”. Санкт-Петербург: Новый музей, 2011
3. Helmi Üprus, “Raidkivikunst Eestis XIII–XVII sajandini”. Tallinn: Kunst,
1987, p 5
4. Reet Varblane [interviewer], “Avangardi võimatus Eestis” – Sirp, 24.12.2004
6. Anneli Mihkelev, “Piibel ja eesti kultuuri enesekirjeldus XX–XXI sajan- di vahetusel. Ene Mihkelsoni eneseleidmine”. – In the book Autogenees ja ülekanne. Moodsa kultuuri kujunemine Eestis. Ed. Rein Undusk. Tallinn: Un- deri ja Tuglase Kirjanduskeskus, 2014, p 299
7. For example, the literary scholar Toomas Liiv has analysed our national identity – the primary expression of which is the Estonian language – through the Christian dimension of Estonian literature: “It is the printed form of the Estonian language that generated Estonians and is doing so at the moment as well, both socially and politically, not to mention culturally. The basis of the Estonian identity is the version of the Estonian language recorded in books, which begins around the time of the Reformation, with Martin Luther. (Toomas Liiv, “Eesti kirjanduse kristlik dimensioon: sissejuhatus”. – In the book Tekst teeb oma töö. Arvustusi, esseid ja artikleid 1976–2009. Tallinn: Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, p 247–256 & p 248.
8. See more: Juta Kivimäe [compiler], the catalogue of Kumu Art Museum’s
exhibition “Meie modernism. Eesti skulptuur 1960.–1970. aastatel”. Tallinn:
Kumu kunstimuuseum, 2014. Pages not numbered.
9. At the moment the most relevant books in this area is Joshua Simon’s Neomaterialism, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013 (see also: http://neomaterial- ism.tumblr.com) and Diana Coole, Samantha Frost. “New Materialisms: On- tology, Agency, and Politics”. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. In 2014, the MA students of the Estonian Academy of Arts published the rst edition of a magazine titled “Uus materjal” (“New Material”), which compiled works relating to neomaterialism from dozens of authors, all packaged into a 6 kg concrete box.
10. I cannot resist the temptation to add that the installation is an accurate comment on the current research directions in the humanities in general. Since my interest mainly involves Soviet architecture, monumental art, the synthesis or arts and the post-socialist urban and public space, I can not help but to see “The Square of Dolls” as a platonic pure idea.
11. Although in Kaselaan’s hometown Tartu, there is a sculptural group to celebrate the birth of 100,000th inhabitant of the city. It depicts stone num- bers, one of which acts as a pedestal with a bronze child sitting on it. The creator of this 1977 sculpture is Mare Miko .
12. When KUMU was opened in 2006, the rst temporary contemporary
art exhibition titled “Shiftscale – Sculpture at the Extended Field” focused
on international sculpture. To celebrate the opening of the museum and the
exhibition Villu Jaanisoo was asked to install sculptures from the museum’s
collection in one of the halls in the midst of the permanent exhibition of Esto-
nian art. Jaanisoo chose 83 busts from di erent periods, lined them up anon-
ymously (half of them standing on pedestals, others on console shelves),
following his personal preferences. In addition, there are speakers installed
into the shelves, which broadcast the speech of the person whose statue is
mounted on that particular shelf (which all sounds like cacophonic noise).
13. Peeter Torop, ”Autokommunikatsioon ja identiteet”. – Vikerkaar, 2013 (1–2) p 123–133 & p 130.
14. Mihkel Mutt, ”Kooparahvas läheb ajalukku”. Tallinn: Fabian, 2012.