Performance Art Explodes in Estonia

 After (literally) freezing in Vilnius, I was happy to have such a warm welcome in Tallinn (both literally and figuratively). I was glad that the cold weather had disappeared, but unfortunately, my voice seemed to have gone along with it. Getting sick and losing my voice, just before a week jam-packed with meetings in Tallinn, not to mention a talk scheduled at the Centre for Contemporary Art, underscored just how “performative” my research is. If all I had to do was sit in an archive or library and look through books, I would have been fine. Instead, however, I had to try to find a way to have conversations with the myriad Estonian performance artists I was yet to meet, all while convincing them that I wasn’t contagious or going to infect them with the autumn flu that I had brought with me from Vilnius.

Readers with a keen geographic sense will wonder why I skipped over Latvia on my way to Estonia. The reason is simple – I used to live there! In a former life I spent a few years there while I was completing my PhD, with a focus on one Latvian painter and performance artist, Miervaldis Polis. Needless to say, I spent quite a bit of time at the Latvia Center for Contemporary Art and have already done research on performance art there. That’s not to say that I couldn’t stand to learn more, but with so many countries to visit, in the interest of time, I had to skip my former stomping grounds for the moment.

Kumu

Kumu

I spent my first day in Estonia at Kumu, the country’s brand new contemporary art museum (opened in 2006), a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia. One of the museum’s curators, Liisa Kaljula showed me some videos of the early performances by Juri Okas, and some photographs of performances by Jaan Toomik and Siim-Tanel Annus that the museum has in its collection. At 5PM, I crossed the city to the Centre for Contemporary Arts, the former Soros Center, to give a talk about this very research project. I was honored to be invited to speak, and also eager to be able to share some of the conclusions I’ve reached thus far. Although I was rather hoarse and still suffering from a nasty cough, I managed to get through the talk, which was attended by a number of the artists that I was later to meet during the week!

That week continued with virtually back to back meetings, and thanks to the contacts and suggestions by Rebeka Poldsam at the Center for Contemporary Arts, I met with a range of artists from different generations, engaged in various forms of performance – from visceral body-based action art to more subtle video performances and interventions. Performance art virtually exploded in the 1990s, for reasons yet unknown to me (but that I hope to sort through when I start to write about it…). Estonia had a strong tradition of nonconformist or underground activity during the Soviet period, with artist groups such as ANK and SOUP-69 creating a sensation in the art world and beyond.

Happenings and performances took place as early as the 1960s and 1970s, and the artist Juri Okas was fortunate enough to have a movie camera so that he could document his performances, which took place outdoors, mostly in the countryside, but sometimes penetrating into the public space. In the 1986, Rühm T (Group T) came into being, a performance art group that aimed to create a new, radical kind of art in a radical time period. In the 1990s, it seems that performance art was almost prescribed by the new art scene in a new society, and artists were called on to create and present performances, as one of the most avant-garde forms of art. I found this fact quite interesting, because the same phenomenon did not really occur with Estonia’s Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania. Maybe my research will reveal just why that was.

Watching videos at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Tallinn

Watching videos at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Tallinn

Look what I found in the library at Kumu! 

Look what I found in the library at Kumu! 

I realized how big a phenomenon performance art is and was in Estonia when I began writing to curators and art historians in Estonia. I think I sent two or three emails, both to the Center for Contemporary Art and Kumu, and in response got double or triple that! People were writing to me and copying in colleagues, and suggestions were flying as to where to go, what to see, and whom to meet. It was perhaps the most overwhelming response I had gotten to my queries on performance art yet.

Estonia packs a quite large performance art scene into a relatively petite geographic area. Also refreshing is the fact that the scene is not just concentrated in Tallinn. For example, I had an invitation to travel to Tartu, to meet one of the people behind the project Oak Night, a kind of religion/philosophical way of life centered on that city. Non Grata, a performance art group active since the 1990s, also had its center in Parnu for a while, which contributed in dispersing the center of performance art from Tallinn.

It is interesting to see the connections and influence among artists in an art scene of this size. For example, Jaan Toomik was the teacher of some of the artists I met, and his influence on their work was apparent. When we met, he showed me a short documentary film that he made, entitled Invisible Pearls, about a special practice, common in prisons, of inserting small beads under the foreskin of the penis. He told me that he made the film after he had brought his students to a prison to have them create performances for the inmates. He wanted his students to consider alternative spaces, and communicate with different audiences outside of the artistic ones. I asked Toomik if he had taught Sandra Jogeva, an artist that I had met the day before, and who had worked as a dominatrix for several years, later documenting that experience as an artistic project. This interest in the margins is apparent in the work of both.

Freedom Square in Tallinn: location of Wabadus, where many of my meetings took place; the Centre for Contemporary Arts; and the Tallinn Art Hall. Freedom, indeed! 

Freedom Square in Tallinn: location of Wabadus, where many of my meetings took place; the Centre for Contemporary Arts; and the Tallinn Art Hall. Freedom, indeed! 

By the time my week in Estonia was over, my voice and health were fully restored. Somehow I managed to still ‘perform’ my research despite being under the weather. But that is how it is with live art – the show must go on!

It was nice to end my travels for the year on the high performance note that is Estonia. Performing the East is now on hiatus for the winter, which will enable me to catch up with all of the artist’s entries, with which I have fallen horribly behind!  Keep checking the page for new entries on artists, and then stay tuned till next spring, when my next stop will be back in the Southern Balkans…Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova…

 

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Amy Bryzgel

Amy Bryzgel is a lecturer in History of Art at the University of Aberdeen. She is currently conducting research on performance art in Central and Eastern Europe for a forthcoming book monograph.