Kiwa (also known as the sound artist KIWA, Ki’wa and Ki wa) belongs to the generation of artists who entered the art scene in the 1990s and whom the art critics have labelled X, Y, E or TV generation. Aside from the active, as a rule deconstructible media image, the main characteristics of this generation could also be referred to as interdisciplinary and inter-textual. Quotes, pastiche, games with language and identity, (post) psychoanalysis and schizo-analysis were all seen as self-explanatory techniques; keywords such as conceptuality, simulacrum and the absurd also hold an important position.
Kiwa is undoubtedly the most interesting and yet the most cryptic representative of his generation, and it is hard to subject him to a generalising analysis. The traditional polemics such as reality and hyper-reality, morality and immorality do not apply to his works; instead he adopts a certain kind of cynicism and (self)irony with the infantile, which is precisely what made him the favourite enfant terrible of the local media. All of Kiwa’s art practices––texts (articles, essays, poetry), visual art (sculpture, body painting, painting, video art, performance, installation) and sound art; or his different roles as a curator, editor, model and society figure––make up one consistent text, a personal semiosphere, where one theme is expressed through different media. For this reason Kiwa has works that share the same title, but are brought to life in different media.
Kiwa was once even given the title Leonardo of Reval(1) by one critic for his universality, but mostly he has been associated with the 20th century renaissance man, Andy Warhol. Though Kiwa lacks Warhol’s commercial element, his art could also easily be paralleled with Joseph Beuys’ charismatic figure. Through schizophrenic means Kiwa unites Warholean pop-ideology with the irrationality of Beuysian ritualistic actions and a shaman-like pursuit for the origins of the world. Although the artist himself has summed up his artistic practice as “relating to the pop-culture of today”(2), the phenomenon of Kiwa is more than just a subjective encyclopaedia of contemporary pop-culture. Year after year his art becomes less a “by-product of a lifestyle”(3), developing into an autistic-hermetic (sub)-discourse.
Within Kiwa's creative biography, as a member of the scandalous punk-rock band Nyrok City, he was touched by the ‘change of paradigm’ in the mid-1990s––moving from punk-ideology to club culture, Kiwa associated himself with the ‘soft’ visual language of the conceptual art radicals and pop-culture, which he nevertheless started to undermine from the inside. The series Kings of Pop (1996) deals with the imagology of pop-culture, but creates only intrigues and disappointment––even a random club-goer with his personal problems could become a king of pop.
In the Estonian context, Kiwa is generally associated with the wave of trans-pop in the 90s, which has been defined using self-irony, mass-culture, glamour and other characteristics of a society going through transition.(4) In the rather brutal crowd of artists, who organized road exhibitions and experimented with alternative formats, Kiwa was indeed the most ‘pop’. Mixing the terms ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, Kiwa operated with the aesthetics of kitsch, camp and advertising. He made flyers for his exhibitions and performed with a DJ set at the openings, shifting the discourse of exhibitions into the rhetoric of (para)disco.
Manipulating with the media fell into the same strategy. Over a certain period Kiwa became a ‘social sculpture’ (following Beuys’ own term), constantly appearing in the print press, leaving his mark everywhere, he conceptualized himself as ‘media graffiti’. Posing as a model, Kiwa called upon the narcissism of the fashion world and even created a pseudo fashion collection, 12 Alter Egos (2001). His video 0,1980: My Dream Pop Star (2003) also dealt with the mythology of superstars and the idols of the masses––the example in the Estonian context being Anne Veski(5).
Kiwa touched simultaneously both subcultures and political art, impersonating the antihero of his time––the ‘anarcho-popper’(6). In Graffiti Patrol (1998), an art action intended to sabotage the politics of joining the European Union, the artist, dressed as a street hooligan, harassed a representative of the European Commission with the intention of graffiti-ing the House of the Representation of the European Commission in Tallinn (Estonia did not join the European Union until May 2004). The same theme was reflected in a performance with Ene-Liis Semper, Holy Union (1999), a commission by the Bank of Estonia, where through stunt fliers the symbolic union of the Estonian crown and the Euro was performed––the artists, hanging upside down, were dipped into paint and then into shredded money.
Kiwa has also used graffiti in another key work. His video and performance Work in Progress (1998) proceeds in a Zen-like manner following the same schema––dressed in a kimono, Kiwa writes pseudo-hieroglyphs with a can of spray-paint and in the end disappears into his own image. Yet the artist’s goal was not to admire traditional Japanese culture, but to play through the superficial clichés of Western society. In another sense, through psychedelically arbitrary associations, the theme of Japan is reflected in Kiwa’s works of girl-art, which adopts the visual language of the local pop-culture, but also of ‘international’ child pornography. Teenage Japanese girls in school uniforms, skinny legs, miniskirts, ballet shoes and dolls become like objects of fetishism. Kiwa paints poetic images as well as frivolous characters and provokingly erotic, almost pornographic pictures; the expressive Bad Painting holds an equal place next to the ‘flat’ pop-like iconicity.
One of the sign-like symbols of the era is the nymphette(7)––a little princess of tender age, who for Kiwa is the embodiment of the iconic (belletrist) characters of Alice and Lolita(8). Through an ambiguous play scene, Kiwa’s video Da Girl is Rockin (1998) demonstrates the subconscious sexuality hidden in a little girl––the interpretation of the rockin’ girl depends on how corrupted the viewer is. In the painting, Self-Portrait as a Japanese Chick (1998) and the video Pink (1999), the artist embodies a child-woman on a swing, provokingly taking frivolous poses.
The playing of gender roles leads us to Kiwa’s cultivated androgyny. Claiming that “the age of innocence is over”(9), he blemishes the taboos of the welfare society and shifts the current moral criteria with the tawdry codes of the sex industry. Yet at times the sad wonderland in his works simply reveals an “escapist yearning for the (imaginary) idyllic world of girls”(10).
The multimedia project Metabor (since 2001), which has been running for several years––Kiwa’s goal here being to capture a certain ‘primal sound’––also has an escapist and utopist flare. Metabor serves as a laboratory for experimental electronic music, in the “boreal soundscapes with which, recorded at situationist meta-rituals”(11), art crosses borders, creating a total environment through the union of sound and space, augmented by video, text, kinetic objects and performance elements. The result is the synthesis of all mediums––Gesamtkunstwerk––a total cosmopoetic experience. The word ‘metabor’ is thereby formed through the incantation ‘mutabor’ (a form of the word ‘change’ in Latin), found in the fairy tale Kalif Stork by Wilhelm Hauff and also in Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, on the door of the magic theatre.
This is aimed at creating a psychedelic, pagan, (techno)shaman state. Although this kind of ‘secular trance’ is primarily about aesthetic pleasure, it could lead to a shift in one’s perception, and in this sense ‘metabor’ is the magic word for preparing for meta-metamorphoses. ‘Metabor’ also refers to ‘boreality’, to Nordicity. One of Kiwa’s keywords, ‘boreality’ most directly coincides with the mythological Norse, yet it also involves a linguistic relationship with the nonexistent nation of the Hyperboreans from Greek mythology.
The idea of capturing primal sound finds parallels with Kiwa’s verbal texts, or rather in the method of writing them––writing down thoughts, sentences, associations which have come to him in his dreams or just randomly, and thus psychedelic automatic writing is born. Kiwa also uses excerpts from the texts of other authors, which he ‘recognises’ as belonging in his books. The result is a peculiar palimpsest; for example, in his book Metabor we find fragments of texts by the designer Kaarel Kurismaa among Kiwa’s writings, further dissolving the concept of authorship and creating new shifts. Kiwa’s linguistic games for creating neologisms are also based on the same principle of layering: the goal of creating a seemingly accidental mistake is to create a new word (metabor), to shift a familiar meaning(12). The hypothetical language is based on glossolalia––the dictionary defines this as ‘yelling a meaningless word in a (religious) frenzy’, but in Kiwa’s case this could recall the ‘predictions’ of the oracles of Ancient Greece, uttered in a trance, in which skilled interpreters saw the message of God, thus creating meaning out of fragmented unarticulated speech performances. The analogue of such a process in the art of sound is glitch––a creative method based on the aesthetics of errors.
The phenomenon of mythologizing and individual mythology is reflected through several layers in Kiwa’s works. The simplest example is Kiwa’s autobiographical myth––the construction of his media image. Next to the mystifying act, the production of fiction takes place. In Kiwa’s case examples could be his curatorial work with the exhibition Young British Art (2000) using fabricated art celebrities, running the nonexistent record company yO-yO Records and organizing a Festival of Nonexistent Bands with make-believe performers (Aliceloleeta, Anne Pseudoveski). Kiwa shifts meaning, giving several names to the same work, signing works with the wrong date and constantly inventing new alter egos. The Estonian cult film Hotel of the Dead Alpinist (1979), directed after the sci-fi novel by Boriss and Arkady Strugatsky, inspired the sound and text project (2004), which came to be associated with the name Olaf Andvarafors. In the image of Olaf Andvarafors, Kiwa combines several characters from the film––his Andvarafors is a hybrid of the robot (Olaf) and the alien (Luarvik Luarvik)(13). As an artist Kiwa enjoys illusoriness and imaginariness; for him paradise is “the existence of the greatest number of possible worlds per cubic centimetre”(14).
Kiwa’s personal world with its private language as well as personal iconography forms an even more complex system. Kiwa’s auto-mythology, the projecting of self into his works and his self-portraits in hundreds of hypostases are powerfully articulated. Indeed, one of his doppelgangers postulates: “I am Olaf: all is Olaf.”(15) It is significant how he semantically expands his main pseudonym to denote his artistic practice––‘Kiwa’ is reminiscent of the word ‘stone’ in archaic Estonian(16), and lately he has been interested in the idea of the sound of stone; Kiwa’s dislocated reality has also given birth to his electro-punk alter ego Kiwanoid.(17)
In Kiwanoid, the UFO mythology of the 20th century is also reflected––once again, science fiction. In addition, Kiwa applies the symbols of the mythologized world of technology in his trivial consciousness: the machine of metabor captures primal sound; the robot generates texts that shift reality, etc. From the bulk of cultural-mythological reminiscences, the sailor’s shirt is also worth mentioning––Kiwa has worn it himself and has also painted it on his characters. The shirt is a reference to the androgynous character from Thomas Mann’s short story Death in Venice (1912) as well as to the sentimental sea romantics of the 1980 Summer Olympic Regatta in Tallinn, which came to be the republic’s peak event and could also be taken as the deconstruction of the archetypal symbol of the good child. Several motifs carry the potential of metaphor in Kiwa’s works––the swing and the virgin––a Lolita-nymphette flaunting her innocence associated with fertility and the symbolism of the reproduction of human kind. Yet the sexual undertone remains but a single part of the semantic field of these motifs, because a lot has been devoted to the prophetic power of the ‘virginal alternative perception’(18).
The art of Kiwa is a labyrinth, or rather a labyrinth within a labyrinth. The labyrinth is like a (personal) universe, the model of which lies in Jorge Luis Borges’ story The Library of Babel (1941). References to this can be found both in Kiwa’s texts as well as in his painting Marianne Ravi (2003). In the context of religious semantics, moving towards the central point of the labyrinth traditionally symbolises returning to the Spirit(19). Kiwa’s works are saturated with references to Paradise lost and the Arcadia of little girls, with efforts at restoring lost innocence and wholeness, which come forth in the primal sound, located in the centre of the magical circle and in the absolute beginning of the state of ‘freak zero’. The motif of the butterfly as the symbol of the soul and reincarnation also refers to a symbolic return(20). The image of a butterfly actually signifies Kiwa’s work perfectly––what appears to be two-dimensional, beautiful and frivolous, could turn out to be a substantial signifier.
*This essay is an excerpt from a collection “Artists of Estonia 3” (Tallinn: Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia, 2007).
(1) Jan Kaus, Dialoogist monoloogi ja tagasi. – Sirp, 12. II 1999.
(2) Kiwa, Kiwa Warholi näitusel. – kunst.ee, 2001, No. 1, p. 18.
(3) Hanno Soans, Kiwa: Kings of Pop. – Art Museum of Estonia. Purchases of Cultural Endowment of Estonia (www.ekm.artun.ee/kunstnikud/Kiwa/2.html).
(4) Mari Sobolev, Hälvikute ja staaride regatt. – Püha tõde. Tallinn: Sirp, 2004, p. 84.
(5) Anne Veski (b. 1956) is an Estonian singer, who enjoyed remarkable fame across the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Curiously, in Armenia there has been issued a post stamp with her portrait, and we find that in 2006, in Estonia, A. Veski is still the most demanded artist to perform at the entertainment shows of the New Year festivities. – Ed.
(6) Hanno Soans, Jaapan&pan-jaa ehk kõigele jaa. – Vikerkaar, 1999, nr 4, p. 63.
(7) The word ‘nymphette’, used by Kiwa, is a derivation from the word ‘nymph’, which came from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita (1955; published in Estonia for the first time in 1990) and is widely used to denote a sexually precocious teenager. – Ed.
(8) The link between the authors of these girls is interesting: Alice’s story was first published in Russia as Anya in Wonderland, translated by the young Vladimir Nabokov in the 1920s.
(9) Kiwa, Süütus katku ajal. – Sõnumileht, 18. VII 1998.
(10) Mari Laaniste, Kevadine disko Linnagaleriis. – Postimees, 16. V 2000.
(11) Kiwa, Olematus võiks ju KA olla. Olematus pluss miinus alfa. – kunst.ee, 2002, No. 2, p. 82.
(12) Interview with Kiwa (28. VII 2006, Tartu, notes in the possession of the author).
(14) Kiwa, Egotripp läbi subkultuuride. – kunst.ee/Blur, 2002, No. 3 (pages unnumbered).
(15) Kiwa, Roboti tee on nihe; Salatühik. Tallinn: Art Museum of Estonia, 2004 (pages unnumbered).
(16) In older Estonian language, “v” was spelled “w”. ‘Stone’ translates as ‘kivi’ – thus archaic ‘kiwi’. – Translator’s remark.
(17) Correspondence with Kiwa in July 2006 (notes in the possession of the author).
(18) Kiwa, Freak null: Exhibition press release. – www.kunstihoone.ee (City Gallery >> Previous exhibitions).
(19) J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols. London and New York: Routledge, 2005, pp. 173–175.
(20) Энциклопедия символов, знаков, эмблем. Составитель В. Андреева и др. Москва: Локид-Миф, 2000, p. 72.