Kai Kaljo

Jaan Toomik, Ene-Liis Semper, Mark Raidpere and Kai Kaljo are among the best-known and internationally recognized names in Estonian video art in recent years. The works of the first three seem to share an approach generally fuelled by angst and introspection, while Kaljo stands out, as her works are rather more communicative.


Kai Kaljo’s works are far more social and communicative in nature than most Estonian art. The openness and humanity of her videos have managed to make her more popular internationally than she is at home to such an extent that Kaljo regards herself as Estonia’s ‘unwanted' artist, despite the fact that during the past few years she has received considerable official recognition here. Positioning herself as an outsider, someone not liked at home, but never more than an observant stranger elsewhere, is an inherent part of Kaljo's self-image. She even states in the preface of her catalogue that she is “seemingly non-existent in the Estonian art scene” (1).

Such a statement is rather questionable considering her recent prizes and solo exhibition at the prestigious Tallinn Art Hall, but the image (or myth) of persona non grata might prove justified if we consider her past. Kaljo's road to acceptance in the eyes of the Estonian art scene has been a long and rocky one. It began with failing the entrance exams to the Estonian Academy of Arts five times in a row. When finally accepted in 1983, she chose to focus on painting, mural painting and stained glass. However, by the time she graduated in 1990, the Soviet Union was crumbling, and along with many other fields, the local art scene was also undergoing drastic changes as part of this process. Kaljo started her career in an era of brutal conflict, developing market capitalism and shifting cultural paradigms. The difficulties she faced in the early years of her career might be responsible for the ever-present tragicomic undertone in her work that could be summed up by the question: who needs Kai Kaljo and her works anyway? Moreover, many of the specific professional skills that she had acquired during her years of study in fields like fresco painting and stained glass, turned out to be next to useless in the new market situation. It should also be noted that it is rare to see a successful Estonian video artist talking about her background in such areas as stained glass and mural painting. But Kaljo seems to have no intention of hiding her ‘roots’; on the contrary, she has tried to introduce this part of her work to her current audience (2) and also still looks for opportunities to engage herself in that kind of work. For example, in 2003, she painted a carpet on the hardwood floor of the Tartu Toy Museum. Most Estonian artists usually prefer not to mention this kind of activity, which could be interpreted as not sufficiently serious and too commercial for their CVs. This type of behaviour is probably another of Kaljo's attempts at making a point of her not belonging and her nonconformist attitude.

In the first half of the 1990s, Kai Kaljo left the ‘fun’ useless art forms she used to practise in school behind and re-profiled herself as an installation artist. She developed a playful style, characterised by an ironic approach to existential themes through a naturalistic use of material and/or the environment, verging on the edge of brutality. For the installation Mausoleum (1995) she even planned to build a whole human body out of pig carcasses, but due to circumstances (the chief at the meat factory who was supposed to provide Kaljo with the 'raw material' began to think the project might be too extreme) she had to settle for just a head, a hand and a 'dress' made of raw pig skin. These were displayed in a freezer with a glass door and a background resembling a starlit sky. The accompanying texts spoke of the immortality of the soul.

These installations also brought Kaljo her first acclaim: in 1994 she received an award for the installation Genesis and Disappearance of Life. This was a very simple but allusive construction, presented with a rich sense of the environment as a part of the exhibition Unexistent Art (The 2nd annual exhibition of the Soros Centre for Contemporary Arts, Estonia). The work consisted of a site-specific fresco painting on the courtyard wall of the Tallinn Art Hall, where she coloured the watermarks left on the plaster by a damaged water pipe. But winning an award did not mean that Kaljo, although somewhat known within the chaos of the local contemporary art scene, had now made it into the league of major players. That didn’t happen until three years later.

In 1997, when the Vilnius Centre of Contemporary Arts was looking for works for an exhibition titled Funny versus Bizarre, Kaljo made and presented her first video, called Loser. (At the time, she may not have thought about the fact that video is probably the easiest presentable form of modern art to transport, and therefore has far more display potential at international art shows than the installations she used to do.) In the video, Kaljo presented herself as a stand-up comedian whose act consisted of stating facts about her life as a middle-aged, overweight, Eastern European female artist. Each of her sincere and truthful statements was accompanied by hysterical laughter from an unseen studio audience. The video summed up the whole tragicomic reality of existence in post-communist Eastern Europe and is undoubtedly one of the most characteristic works among the huge body of artworks dealing with the post-Soviet experience––it was stunningly simple and grotesque. After being presented in Vilnius, Loser was selected for several larger and more important shows abroad between 1997 and 1998, and it’s success made Kai Kaljo the latest 'must-know' in the international video art scene. But back home she was not even considered among the top local video artists, and her sudden success abroad was mostly interpreted as accidental, if not outright undeserved. Although her career was now blooming abroad, the general treatment she received in Estonia remained cool for several years. This has caused her to be outspokenly critical of local art institutions and the art scene in general. She has also expressed these feelings in her works––in an installation titled Estonian roulette (2002) she put pictures of local artists and art critics on each number of a roulette wheel and added unflattering, but arguably rather descriptive comments (“I’ll give you a scholarship, you give me the main prize”, etc.). 

Loser was highly regarded in its time and it is still Kaljo's most renowned work. However, ten years is a long time in the rapidly developing Eastern Europe and in hindsight the openly personal tragicomic feeling characteristic of Loser seems to be fairly untypical of Kaljo's works. Furthermore, she managed to overcome the danger of becoming a one-hit-wonder: making the breakthrough with Loser brought Kaljo opportunities to study and work abroad and her next videos proved that Loser's success wasn’t accidental.

It should be noted here that local art critics still seem to struggle to appreciate Loser in the context of the recent history of Estonian art. Kaljo's ability to sum up the generic experience through a personal point of view without any false shame doesn’t mean her works come across as ‘fun’ or ‘feel-good’. She also has a somewhat painful tendency of pointing out society’s pointless and persistent fantasies and picking at its tender spots: the frustration of being a woman/artist in Estonia, the rigidity and stagnation of the local art scene, incompetent cultural policies, etc. The women who are openly critical towards ‘the way the things are’ are not generally tolerated in Estonia, regardless of their field of activity. Kaljo often makes statements that sound shocking in the overall bland, polite atmosphere of the local art scene, and this certainly helps to maintain her position as an outsider.


Kaljo's signature style as a video artist is rich and multi-faceted. On a technical level she prefers the simplest approach: plain hand-held camera footage. The seeming simplicity of her works combined with her communicative nature means she probably cannot escape having to combat the widespread prejudice that video art (particularly the simple style that she herself practises) is just a scam that makes fools out of the audience, as supposedly anyone can take a video camera and film some obscure and 'amateurish' footage. And Kaljo doesn’t mind ‘enlightening’ the masses (she spent a lot of time interacting with visitors to her solo exhibition at the Tallinn Art Hall in 2005)––all the more because she is concerned with issues dealing with the position of art within society and society's attitude towards artists.

Kaljo's laconic approach to the technical possibilities of the video medium combined with the ‘grassroots' position she often takes, enhances the emotional directness of her work and probably helps make it more communicative. This is also supported by Kaljo’s usual manner of 'phrasing' her works very precisely: they are cut so they are as long as necessary, but as short as possible. Kaljo, who has also studied music, prefers a musical background to offer clues or even the 'code' necessary for understanding the subject. Besides Loser, the most obvious example of the use of sound in this way can be found in her video Mirage (2002), apparently shot out of a bus, driving on a desert highway somewhere in the United States. The landscape is suddenly interrupted by garish roadside amusement park attractions and shopping malls. The voices on the soundtrack first comment on this novelty with sighs of awe, but these soon turn into screams of horror, as more and more bizarre buildings flash by and disappear as suddenly as they first appeared.

Kaljo also has several spontaneous short pieces that are essentially about (accidentally) capturing a moment where something unexpected and strangely poignant happens in front of the camera (of course, the audience will never know how many hours of useless footage was necessary to create these gems). Kaljo has a talent for capturing the sublime, poetic undercurrent hiding in the most mundane sights. The video There is a God? shows a blank grey street pavement that suddenly becomes beautiful when the church bells start ringing: the sun comes out and draws an elegant pattern of shadows onto the ground. In Time (2005), small birds that have nested in a broken wall clock, apparently take over the function of the long lost clock hands. In AD (2003) we see a group of people dressed up as various religious leaders on a busy city street, simulating happiness, enthusiasm and friendship between religions (it seems they are probably being filmed for an ad), while the musical background is provided by Janis Joplin, the femme fatale of the hippie era.

The obvious banality and hidden beauty of life often seem to wander before Kai Kaljo's camera of its own accord. Kaljo uses the same anecdotal/poetic style in her photographs––for example the series Skies (2003), taken in different cities; as well as the photos that she made parallel to her video One Way to See America (1998), documenting the silent absurdity of the American landscape dotted with various signs communicating information or warnings.

Besides observing the world and capturing spontaneous magical moments, Kaljo has also directed several well-thought-out videos that share an ironic and critical approach. Kaljo has a rather liberal view of the world and she does not shy away from pointing out the faulty values and ethical ambivalence of the society around her. Instead of succumbing to depression she prefers to record the grotesque situations with her trademark blunt accuracy, and then share them. While staying in an international artists’ residence, she approached the other residents from around the world and asked them to answer one simple question: what is the most important thing? It's quite baffling to see these selected creative individuals only managing to offer trivial or confusing answers (Das Wichtigste, 2005). Kaljo also subjects herself to critical observation. In Pathetique (1999), she exposes her elitist attitude as an artist and the confusion that she experiences when faced with a homeless dumpster-diver from the very bottom of society. Domestic Violence (2001) dissects the routine of an intimate relationship that has silently grown into something that’s suffocating everyone involved, so that violent measures need to be applied in order to point out the positive.

Another of Kaljo’s preferred themes involves sceptical reflections bordering on self-irony. The video Greetings from La Jolla (2002) shows the artist swimming laps at an increasing speed in a cloyingly sweet pink pool in a wealthy Californian town, and the video ends with the words 'Love, Kai' in a typeface reminiscent of generic soap opera credits. At the time, the Estonian art scene was boiling with rumours of Kaljo’s amazing success abroad, and this piece might be regarded as an ironic comment. The simple and monotonous Let Me In, Let Me Out or In/Out (2005) grows into a generalisation on the ever-present issue of human discontent. The video called Kai Kaljo (2002) is a bit more sarcastic: the artist runs after an 'important male curator' and asks him: “Who is Kai Kaljo?” The 'important man' is of the opinion that Kai Kaljo is nobody very significant, but the rumours have it that at least she’s “nice-looking”.

Mari Laaniste

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


(1) Kai Kaljo. Ed. Reet Varblane. Catalogue. Tallinn: Tallinn Art Hall Foundation, 2006, p. 9.
(2) See: Kai Kaljo's interactive project/catalogue The Locker of an Artist on the website http://www.kunstikeskus.ee/galerii/galerii_kaljo.htm.
(3) Kai Kaljo: It would be horrible to be recognised on the street! – kunst.ee, 2004, No. 1, p 30–31.