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
. 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

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

 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

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…


About Amy Bryzgel

I am Professor in Film and Visual Culture at the University of Aberdeen, where I specialise in modern and contemporary art from Eastern Europe.
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