Erki Kasemets

Erki Kasemets himself has divided his creative activities into four categories: 1) documenting his private life, 2) polygon theatre, 3) trash art, and 4) group Liquid, magazine Liquid and performances. To these divisions he has added a postscript of keywords: machines, kinetic art, games and inventing rules for games, sociological research and the art of theatre.(1) Although this list could be compiled without too much effort by any bystander familiar with his work, we should nevertheless thank the artist for listing his preferences like this, which show the importance he places on various aspects of his work. This may sound a bit feeble, but if anyone is qualified to systematise the activities of Erki Kasemets, it is the artist himself. Anyone else would need to be even more systematic than Kasemets. 

According to the artist’s own myth, everything started when he failed the secondary school exams for entry into the maths and physics classes, and on the spur of the moment he decided to go to the art class instead, and was accepted there thanks to somebody who knew somebody else and so on. As always with talented people, his extraordinary gifts were revealed at a very early age. When he was in the seventh grade, he invented a board game, A Trip in the Animal Kingdom, which was in due course widely marketed in Soviet Estonia in the 1980s. I received this game on my seventh or eighth birthday, and it was the only board game from my childhood that never got played. Why? Because it was too complicated.

An art critic once asked Kasemets in an interview what he thought he primarily was: an installation or performance artist, painter or according to his background, a stage designer? The reply was typically sweeping: “I am all those, and maybe none of them at the same time. If a person can be, for example, right-handed, a citizen of the Republic of Estonia, and a visitor at an exhibition, then the list of art fields presented in the question is the answer.”(2) Exhibition goers probably know Kasemets best through the trash art documenting his private life. The first trash he began systematically collecting and processing were empty one-litre milk cartons. A bit less than twenty years later, in 2002, the painted milk cartons brought him the most prestigious award in Estonian painting––the Konrad Mägi medal. In the words of one jury member, art historian and critic Hanno Soans, the reason he won the award was the way the artist turned his attention to painting on a daily basis.


When talking about his trash art, we should avoid slipping on a banana skin––trash is not the artist’s aim, but his means. Kasemets himself has confessed that he really feels no affinity with international artists who ennoble consumer-generated trash by making it art––they are not after the same thing. The thousands of milk cartons are not (at least not in their original idea) sickly-sweet capitalist-critique, urban waste amassed due to uncontrollable consumerism, but P.W.E.D.s (Places to Write Everything Down)––modules. 

Every colourful carton, often bearing the date and other notes, signifies one day in the artist’s life, and all together they form an awesomely extensive project LIFE-FILE(3)––an undertaking that according to Kasemets only ends with his death. We get to the bottom of this only by asking what exactly drives the artist to cover these standardized prisms with data on a daily basis and call them his ‘life-files’? From here we reach the themes that torment Kasemets most––time and memory.

Time and memory

It seems to me that the perfect ideal for Erki Kasemets would be a mega-system that could embrace and explain the whole surrounding world, but since he failed to find such a system or invent it during his spiritual search, he had to find a substitute activity. The ‘consolation’ he came up with was the need to preserve the existing and attempt to freeze time itself, expressed through systematic documentation. “The progress of time is the most powerful thing we are able to witness,” this is how the artist explained his obsession in a conversation with the present author, alluding to his personal understanding that noting down the rapidly passing and instantly vanishing is the least he could do in the global plan while aiming to get closer to ‘the meaning of life’. It is also significant to stress that Kasemets’s recording of time is subjective and not mechanical; this artist is not keen on contemporary technological devices.

Although the first ‘data units’ that Erki Kasemets began collecting systematically were milk cartons, he actually emerged in front of a gallery audience as an artist with a multitude of tin cans––for him the most significant feature of these objects was their modular character (solo exhibition Recycling of Time, Tallinn City Gallery, 1996). The standard lemonade cans can be arranged into two-dimensional images or three-dimensional installations, and when dismantled, they can be recycled to create new forms. These constructs, made from units of information and which can be assembled into endless meaningful combinations (and also recreated on the basis of recorded patterns or raster sketches), could be called handicraft-style digital art. Kasemets has an obvious sympathy for computers, but instead of using computers in his work as a medium, he prefers to make them with his own two hands with the help of an axe and a saw. Just like the Russian inventor Aleksandr Popov, busy putting together a radio set during the long winter evenings somewhere in the Ural Mountains in the early 20th century, Kasemets in his Tallinn cellar studio assembled a number of kinetic objects and ‘computers’ from bits and pieces, such as, chutes and ball bearings, in the last years of the same century. Maybe it does not seem honest for this particular artist, who likes to thoroughly dismantle things and get to the core of them, to use computer technology as a means in his work because its inner spiritual life might remain partially concealed from him?

His systematic nature means a rather forlorn struggle against the inevitable. Just like the empty packaging of the consumed product, every subsequent day is but a module that disappears as an insignificant episode into the bottomless throat of the past. "The only things that really captivate me are the weird coincidences, signs, dreams and connections. It is a pity that everything is soon forgotten. Memory is so short––a couple of days. I would like something to stay," Kasemets explains.(4) People forget––after a short while they discard the events they have experienced from the active memory of their brain into their recycle bin. “I don’t do that, I collect it, select according to material and squeeze it into a mould,” confirms Kasemets.(5) Several critics have concluded that Kasemets and his milk cartons or his famous button jacket (a jacket to which he daily sews a new button over a certain period) have created a lasting instant out of past moments, or he lives in all these moments simultaneously. This achievement can be regarded as the ultimate summit of Kasemets’s ‘effort to freeze time’, although this kind of omnipresence in time is humanly exhausting and stressful. Human memory is not divided into short and long-term memory, but Kasemets has focused on the physical recording of his episodic memory (a memory system that records personally experienced impressions). However, man is not a machine, and at intervals, the artist has also had periods where the systematic Writing Everything Down has been too great an effort. For example, when the artist had already been recording the ‘chronicle of banalities’ about his life(6) on the P.W.E.D.s (which could also be notebooks or pieces of cardboard cut from milk cartons) for seven years (1996–2002), the habit gradually (at intervals) faded. A sense of duty nevertheless urges him to carry on this sub- or perhaps inhuman ritual. Practically any object is good enough for Kasemets to use as one of his recording devices, whether we are dealing with empty milk cartons, systematically archived with his brush marks, coloured tin cans or countless CDs (which were the ‘raw material’ for his solo exhibition Information in 2006)––all objects that were useless, broken or otherwise disposable. Not at all surprisingly, Kasemets himself has found that his need to systematically repeat his mantras can be compared to a religious act: “Repeating the milk carton image in different shapes and on different things is like religious symbolism––the motif of the cross, for example. Reiterating the same thing over and over resembles a confirmation of faith. Religion, after all, is the only theoretically sensible thing; it might get you to the next level and the whole thing is likely to have a point.”(7) “This kind of routine repetition could finally lead to a special enlightenment.”(8)


“The simplest thing that characterises my incomprehensible actions is isolation. Somehow I seem to have stepped aside from the work and career games that provide a wholly absorbing activity for most people. As I lack this kind of common platform and occupy the role of a bystander instead of playing along, I regard these games with suspicion or inevitable fascination,” wrote Erki Kasemets in 2006.(9)

One of these games, which in the course of his searching becomes a significant symbol for stage designer Erki Kasemets, is theatre. The idea of the polygon theatre that Kasemets proposed in his MA thesis is (like the whole business of cans) a space for all possibilities. And should, ideally, expand the notion of theatre. Polygon theatre is derived from the word ‘polygon’, in military terminology a study or testing field, and is not something determined and fixed, but instead always open to experimentation. Can the audience and the actors change roles, be both at the same time? Should they be aware of the ongoing performance? And does the performance actually have to take place physically in order to be successful? Out of nearly seventeen polygon theatre performances since 1996 some have taken place on real polygons; for example, on the former military territories at Klooga or Tondi, but they have also taken place in galleries or in Tallinn streets. One of them, Congress (1996), was considered to have been realised, although it was only played through in the heads of the organisers preparing the performance! This might seem like a joke, but we can draw some parallels with the widespread and popular theatre genre, the radio play, which is almost just as conditional.

Kasemets wants to know whether, outside the territory of the game protected by its rules, there are any larger aims, and what happens after the game ends, will a new one immediately start or is there something else, more superior? But in order to get closer to universal truth, we must gather material from life itself, from the accepted games that everyone is playing, be it darts or arts. And here we come back full circle to what I started out with––dividing and labelling the work of Kasemets. The problems tackled by the artist and finding solutions to them in the gallery, in school and in private life are so closely intertwined that we could easily agree with the idea proposed by the artist himself that the most appropriate ‘-ism’ to characterise his person and his activities would be the term ‘organism’. For me, Erki Kasemets is more totally artist than any other artist in Estonia, who can, without any compromises, put an equals sign between his life and his work. It should not at all be surprising to learn that he participates in memory games or that he is constructing artistic interiors from the trash he has been amassing for years, and these seem to have a ‘never-getting-it-done-gene’ encoded into them––the necessity and possibility of an end result is doubtful, but it will be fascinating to see what happens next. Or, as Kasemets himself once said (about something completely different), he has not yet “drawn any conclusions, but has prepared the ground”(10).

The project called Life goes on!

Ave Randviir


*This essay is an excerpt from a collection “Artists of Estonia 3” (Tallinn: Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia, 2007).

(1)           See for more detail: Erki Kasemets, Episoodiline mälu. –, 2004, no. 4, p. 32–39.
(2)           Riin Kübarsepp, (Üle)värvimiskunstnik Kasemets. – Postimees, 27. XI 2002.
(3)           The artist uses all kinds of colours and materials to paint his ‘life-files’. For example, some of his milk cartons were varnished, bleached, burned, etc. In 1999 in his personal exhibition Work in Tallinn City Gallery the milk cartons even changed their positions because the viewers could move them. – Ed.
(4)           Interview with Erki Kasemets 13. II 2006 in Tallinn (notes in the author’s possession).
(5)           Mari Sobolev, Erki Kasemetsa mälu recycled, mitte recycle bin. – Õhtuleht, 16. II 2000.
(6)           Mari Sobolev, Piimapakk kui infokandja. – Eesti Ekspress, 02. III 2000.
(7)           Erki Kasemets’s e-mail to the author, 11. III 2006.
(8)           Johannes Saar, Episoodiline mälu.– Postimees, 19. II 2000.
(9)           Erki Kasemets’s e-mail to the author, 1. III 2006.
(10)         Erki Kasemets, Episoodiline mälu.–, 2004, no. 4, p. 35.