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Kristina Norman is an artist and documentary maker based in Tallinn, and without doubt the most successful Estonian artist in the international art world, from among those that debuted in the 2000s. She is the youngest artist to have represented Estonia at the international Venice Biennale (2009) and her works have been acquired by prestigious museums both in Estonia (Kumu Art Museum) and Finland (Kiasma).
Being a child before the fall of the Berlin Wall in the 1980s and a teenager during the cowboy capitalism of the 1990s, Norman, born in 1979, belongs to the first post-Soviet generation. Norman’s work is largely driven by the historical, political and ideological paradoxes characteristic of the pivotal transitory times in society.
Of her generation, she is certainly the most famous and infamous artist in Estonia. Surrounded by controversy, Kristina Norman drew interest from the mainstream media in May 2009, when it was discovered that the project selected by a committee of experts to represent Estonia at the international Venice Biennale was largely based on video documentation of her highly controversial happening. The artist brought a golden replica of the “Bronze Solider” (“Monument to the Liberators of Tallinn” erected by Soviet authorities in 1947) to Tõnismäe, from where the original monument was officially removed amid riots in April 2007. At first, the replica was blown over by the wind and then impounded by the police. The action took place on 9 May, when Russians traditionally celebrate their victory in the Great Patriotic War (i.e. World War II). The public reaction was fierce. It would not be an overstatement to say that the artist, who was attempting to emphasise the need for a dialogue, was accused by both Estonians and Russians of wanting to rub salt in wounds that had not yet healed and trying to gain fame at the expense of offending national pride. The project “After-War” attempted to encompass the period in Estonian history from the Second World War until today, as post-Soviet anguish could still be felt in history, identity and politics. Russia claims that Estonia was not violently occupied, that Estonia joined the Soviet Union “voluntarily” and most of the Russian-speaking “minority” (25% of the population in Estonia) also seems to favour that point of view. Coming from a mixed Estonian-Russian family, the artist stresses that she does not want to pick sides. Nevertheless, her documentaries and videos (including the 2006 “Pribalts”, filmed in Moscow, the 2007 “Monolith”, concerning the Bronze Solider and the 2011 “A Monument to Please Everyone”, observing the building of the War of Independence Victory Column) show that the people working in the socio-political sphere of the supposed “majority”, often find themselves in embarrassing situations, regardless of their nationality or first language.
During her career as an artist, Norman has set out to make those “embarrassing situations” mercilessly visible. In that process, both the artist and the viewer come into contact along with certain conceptions of history, “monopolized” by the state, rivalling foreign policies and issues of nation building and national identity. That process actually already began with the final work for her bachelor’s degree, called “The Field of Genius” (2003), continued with the series of drawings “Mystic Radio” (2004) and is really finally set in motion with the video “Contact” (2005). While the first presents a pseudoscientific argument in the form of an educational video saying that with his “field of genius” Albert Einstein influenced scientists before he was born. The second looks at how the radio was invented by Aleksandr Popov, who Russians consider the inventor of the radio. Both films focus on how information spreads and how “historic truths” are born. These two are followed by a laconic video portrait “Contact” that shows a Russian-speaking young man living in officially monolingual Estonia, reading out the text in his alien passport with considerable difficulty. The “non-citizen” has a strong accent, and he clearly does not fully understand the information he is reading; a kind of “close encounter of the third kind” seems to be taking place. For the first time, the video reveals Norman’s interest in parallel realities, information fields and histories in the context of realpolitik. Henceforth, the artist takes a decisive course towards an investigative-documentary practice. For example, “A Monument to Please Everyone” from 2011, follows the genre of the classic full-length documentary and does not require the viewer to be familiar with the author’s previous work.
The 2005 “Contact” is followed in 2006 by the hour-long documentary video “Pribalts” that has great significance in the work of the artist, as she finally starts to tell her own story, a contextualized and generalized personal biography. In May and June of 2006, when Norman had completed editing the material she had filmed during her stay in Russia, the monument to the Soviet soldiers in Tallinn city centre, built at the end of the Second World War, had not yet been relocated to a military cemetery on the outskirts. Nevertheless, the issues concerning the Bronze Solider were once again centre stage and with every meeting or incident involving the monument, society was becoming increasingly divided into “Estonians” and “Russians”. Norman already knew that in Estonian, the word “Russians” sounds more like “occupiers” but in Moscow, even before the April riots in Tallinn in 2007, she was able to capture on video evidence of how ideology also works in reverse – in Russian, the word “Estonians” is often likened to “fascists”. As expected, the artist wants to demonstrate that people are more important than the state that incontestably needs its citizens to exist and the different national ideologies within us remain mostly dormant. “Pribalts”, as the people living in Baltic States are known in Russia, sums up the situation for an entire generation of Russian-speaking young people in Estonia – their ephemeral status of being neither-here-nor-there. In Moscow, Norman filmed her former classmates from Tallinn after more than 15 years and shows that up close and personal, the rather crude and primitive national stereotypes based on clichés pushed by the media, politics, history and so on, automatically fade. In the same year, 2006, Norman’s colleague Tanja Muravskaja started working on a series of photographs called “Positions”, where people from local artistic circles posed nude with the Estonian national flag, representing the other side of the coin – the series seems to declare that in a paradoxical way even the most cosmopolitan feelings are eventually reduced to the people themselves and their national flag, that is to say, to who they are and where they come from. All else is чепуха and a question of mediation.