neljapäev, aprill 22, 2010

Democracy and Contemporary Art: Critique of Nationalism in Estonian Art Museum

John Philip Mäkinen. Children of the Revolution. 2007. Photo Reimo Võsa-Tangsoo

Carl-Dag Lige writes about international exhibition in Kumu art museum, which tries to evoke critical discussion about contemporary forms of nationalism:

KUMU art museum in Tallinn has been open for four years. The institution which is situated in a building designed by a Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori, is a branch of Art Museum of Estonia and has established itself mainly as an introducer of Estonian as well as international 20th century art. One of the galleries of KUMU is solely dedicated to contemporary art and currently exhibits a controversial exhibition about nationalist tendencies in 21st century European societies. The exhibition called „LET’S TALK ABOUT NATIONALISM! Between Ideology and Identity“ is curated by Rael Artel. She has gathered an impressive set of recent works by artists with mainly East European background. Considering the mainstream conservatism of Estonian art-world, the exhibition has a remarkably strong and clear concept, which explicitly criticises neo-conservative, protectionist and xenophobic tendencies in the politics of European national states in general and Estonian government in particular.

Critique of nationalism

According to Artels’s words, the aim of the exhibition is “to pose critical questions about contemporary nationalism, to acknowledge the problematic nature of the currently prevalent national discourse, and to create a counterweight in the public sphere.”i The project “reviews and analyses the complex cultural and political process through which a nationalist ideology transforms into national identity”. The statement makes explicit Artel’s political view and thereby gives a framework for the works exhibited – most of the selected works have a more or less articulated left-wing attitude.

The opening work of the exhibition is from a Polish artist Artur Žmijewski. His video “Them” (2007) documents a social art-project, in which the artist organized meetings between four radically different social groups: right-wing nationalists, conservative Catholics, Polish Jews, and activists fighting for the rights of homosexual people. The meetings took place in an art-studio and the groups were asked to develop dialogue by using art equipment such as paint, brushes, paper etc and speech as means of communication. A passionate dialogue, not to say a conflict or symbolic war, where words and images were used as weapons was developed during the meetings. Žmijewski’s work exposes the potential conflict hidden in every situation where different value systems contradict each other. Žmijewski’s work of art articulates the desperate need for a politically neutral common ground, which would function as a tolerant space for democratic discussion.

Another main piece of the exhibition is Tanja Muravskaja’s installation “Monuments” (2008), which consists of two equally large piles of ground glass and stone rubble. The work’s sub-text is related to the removal of the Soviet Bronze-soldier monument that took place in 2007 and the erection of the nationalist Independence-War monument in 2009 in Tallinn. The Soviet monument was mainly built of stone, while the war monument is covered with large sheets of glass. The whole monument incident was orchestrated by the Estonian rightwing government and as a result, it only helped to increase ethnic segregation.

Muravskaja’s work is highly aesthetic in its ingenious simplicity, but most importantly, it draws together a large amount of cultural connotations and political meanings of recent history. Like any other cultural or social symbol, a monument cannot have a fixed, timeless meaning as a physical object. Cultural symbols are always deeply rooted in their temporal and social context. Muravskaja’s work, by drawing our attention to the fact that monuments as plain material objects are equal in comparison, articulates the central role of ideology, power and political mechanisms as the main tools for constructing cultural and social symbols.

Respect, KUMU!

As the main organizer of “LET’S TALK ABOUT NATIONALISM!” KUMU Art Museum deserves a special credit. I would consider the institution’s will to host such a critical and polemical exhibition at a time of rising conservatism and nationalism in Estonia as an indication of great courage and non-conformism with the government’s cultural policies. KUMU’s stance is also remarkable in international context – the museum’s decision to host the exhibition is a good counter-example to a number of art institutions, which have started to implement increasingly conservative exhibition politics and have begun to lose their role as initiators of public debate during the last years. KIASMA in Helsinki is a typical example of an institution which has lost its position in public debates and has become increasingly nationalist, self-centred and conservative because its focus has turned from international collaboration and treatment of politically sensitive issues to hermetic treatment of aestheticism and Finnish-ness. An Estonian analogue to such a fall-back would be Tallinn Art Hall’s activity. The Art Hall’s program and exhibition calendar has no-doubt been influenced by the current financial crisis, but in my opinion, its main problems rise from the conservative values of the board-members of Art Hall Foundation. One positive exception among recent larger exhibitions in Tallinn Art Hall has been „Blue Collar Blues“, a project curated by Anders Härm, which critically approached the current economic crisis, un-employment and other work-related problems in contemporary society.ii Another exception would be Kristina Normann’s solo exhibition which recently opened in the Art Hall.

Returning to KUMU’s exhibition, I would like to express my joy of having met several local Russian-speaking families among the visitors. All the artworks were translated to Estonian, English as well as to Russian, which is unfortunately rare in Estonian exhibitions. The Russian-speaking visitors have the opportunity to relate to the artworks actively. I can imagine that they must have been surprised in realizing that an institution, which has so far mainly focused on propagating Estonian national culture, has created a discussion space for different social, cultural and ethnic groups. Without doubt the exhibition supports social integration in comparison to a number of mono-cultural and xenophobic exhibition projects in Estonian national museums.

I sincerely hope that KUMU as an institution with intelligent and critically thinking researchers, curators and executives, will continue to support dialectical and critical cultural practices manifest to majority of contemporary art. The possibility to investigate and analyse controversial topics like nationalism, human rights, economic interests and power mechanisms is extremely important for our contemporary society because public discussion in either written or visual media (including visual arts), is among the corner-stones of healthy democracy. Our society is free only as far as it is able to tolerate discussion on politically and socially sensitive issues. “LET’S TALK ABOUT NATIONALISM!” will remain open until the 25th of April.

Carl-Dag Lige

More about the exhibition (including free catalogue in English):

Initial version of this article was published in Estonian, in a monthly newspaper KESKUS, 3/2010. The author expresses his gratitude to Irmeli Hautamäki for editing several paragraphs of this article.

Kumu. Photo Kaido Haagen

Exhibition view. Photo Stanislav Stepaško

Tanja Muravskaja. Monuments. 2008. Photo Tanja Muravskaja

Artur Žmijewski. Them. 2007. Video still

2 kommentaari:

Rael Artel ütles ...

Thank you for a text! Best, Rael

Carl-Dag Lige ütles ...

With pleasure, Rael. I'm always glad to write about interesting exhibitions :)