CRITICISM - Andreas Trossek, Kiasma gets it: Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki purchases 'The Golden Soldier'. – KUNST.EE 2009, 3-4

Pirkko Siitari, chief curator of collections at Kiasma, is interviewed byAndreas Trossek

– Kristina Norman, the young artist and documentary filmmaker, became a focus of intense interest in the Estonian media after controversy in May this year concerning an important part of her project After-War, which had been chosen by an international jury of experts to represent Estonia at the 2009 Venice Biennale. Norman had set up a golden replica of the bronze soldier statue at the site in Tõnismägi from which the original statue had been removed two years earlier. The artist’s action was documented on video. The replica was first pushed over by a gust of wind and then confiscated by the police. This action happened as the artist had planned on May 9th – the date when Russians traditionally celebrate their victory in the Great Patriotic War (i.e. World War II) – and provoked very strong public reaction. The large majority of both Estonian-minded and Russian-speaking people accused Norman of simply wanting to pour salt on fresh wounds and to gain fame or notoriety at the expense of offending national and ethnic sensibilities, despite the fact that Norman had herself insisted on the need for inter-community dialogue. Given such controversy, when and why did Kiasma decide to acquire After-War for its collection?

We saw the installation in Venice and thought it intriguing. Apart from Finnish contemporary art, the purchasing policy of Kiasma also involves purchases from neighbouring countries such as the Baltic States, the Nordic countries and Russia. Unfortunately we haven’t had the resources to regularly buy contemporary art from all of these countries. Kiasma is interested in what goes on in art right at this moment, and so we primarily acquire up-to-date works of contemporary art for our collection.

– I understand that there are confidentiality agreements on both sides, but I’ll ask the question anyway, for the record: What price have you settled on?

Unfortunately the price is not public information.

– The project After-War consists of a life-size golden replica of the bronze soldier, a kinetic installation, and four video projections; and all were put together specifically as an installation in the exhibition site of the Estonian pavilion at Palazzo Malipiero. I understand that Kiasma wishes to acquire this complex spatial installation as a single whole artwork. If that is so, then how will the museum use the artwork in the future event of, for example, a group exhibition where it would not be possible to give so much exhibition space to a single work?

Contemporary art often touches on political, social and societal issues and frequently employs both video and installations. In our view, the spatial installation After-War is an inseparable integral piece, but we will deliberate whether it could some day be shown only as videos.

– The After-War project deals with a period in Estonia from World War II until the current post-Soviet time, concerning identity and politics in the present. The starting point of that period differs radically when considered from the perspective of the majority of Estonians in contrast with the Russians: Estonians speak about the collective trauma of the deportation experience and other Stalinist repressions, whereas many Russians emphasize the victory over Hitler’s Nazi regime – of a victory won at the expense of the lives of their dear ones. Moreover, Russia still insists that Estonia was not forcibly occupied by the Soviets, and instead that Estonia joined the Soviet Union voluntarily, and this seems to be the opinion of the majority of those people who are referred to as the ‘Russian-speaking minority’ which comprises 25% of the total population of Estonia. The artist herself, having been born into an Estonian-Russian family, claims she does not wish to take sides. Do you believe her?

The question is not about whether we should believe the artist or disagree with her. Often the most interesting aspect of art is the very same openness to interpretation which transcends the artist’s personal intention. For Kiasma, the work functions on the general level, so to speak. After-War deals with several problems; for example, issues of violence, history and democracy. It also touches on discussions regarding monuments in other countries.

– How could this work function, for example, in the museum/pedagogical sense? Could it in some way contribute to discussion of common ground in the history of Finland, Estonia and Russia, and, furthermore, about present-day politics in these countries? The title of the work is After-War – as if we are still living in a post-World War II era...

Among other things, the work deals with the traces left by war – both visible and invisible ones – but also with questions of identity. And this could indeed be the pedagogical aspect of the work.

– The thematic core of the work originates from the Soviet period, it tells the story of a monument erected by the Soviet regime. How do you respond to those Estonians who claim that the work has offended them personally? Or to those among the Finnish who might say that by acquiring a replica of one of the Soviet monuments in Tallinn, Finland is thereby supporting Russia in its none-too-friendly politics regarding the Baltics?

Our purchase does not serve as a political standpoint: we do not side with anyone. We are purchasing a work of art which can be interpreted in several ways and which says something about the present age. Naturally, we understand that the work in question provokes strong sentiments in people. Issues regarding monuments and history are often very painful matters.

– Can history be conquered? Lately it seems that the Russia of Putin and Medvedev is at least having a go at it...

It has been said that each generation writes its own history, that interpretations change. It has also been said that propaganda and the discourse of history are two different things. But, when it comes to art, several artists have drawn inspiration from history, contemplating their identity with regard to the past. In a lot of cases, the artist’s personal experience stands in the work’s background.

– On May 9th this year, police came to take away the golden replica which Kristina Norman had installed at Tõnismägi. However, as Norman’s video documentation shows, there were relatively few Russian-speaking people present and most of them expressed positive bewilderment at the sight of ‘The Golden Soldier’, rather than any antagonism towards the police. The action did not prompt a riot, nor was it intended to, but the media made a scandal of it and for people in Estonia it recalled images of the riot two years earlier. Consequently, questions were raised about the responsibility of artists. Could you comment on this?

We should think along the following lines: that it is, after all, a mission of contemporary art to instigate discussions, and contemporary artists are interested in participating in various social discussions. And so one of the aims of this artist has been to prompt a discussion on different identities and, through this, on the history and present age of one’s country.

Additional information:
Estonian artists have participated in the international Venice Art Biennale (Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte – La Biennale di Venezia) since 1997, but a complete Estonian exhibit has never before been purchased by a foreign museum. At the 53rd international Venice Art Biennale, Estonia was represented by Kristina Norman’s project After-War. The exhibition was open through July 7th – November 22nd 2009. The Estonian pavilion was situated at Palazzo Malipiero (S. Marco 3079, Venice). The official representative of the Estonian exposition is the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Estonia. The curator of the exhibition is Marco Laimre; the commissioner is Johannes Saar; the vice-commissioner is Elin Kard. The supporting team included Art Allmägi, Andres Amos, Andris Brinkmanis, Edith Karlson, Jass Kaselaan, Raul Keller, Meelis Muhu, Jaak Soans, Taivo Timmusk, Reimo Võsa-Tangsoo.

Further reading:
After-War by Kristina Norman. Tallinn: Centre for Contemporary Arts, Estonia, 2009, 112 p. Project book of the exhibition After-War in English with illustrations by the artist and curator. Texts: Aleksandr Astrov, Airi Triisberg, Andres Kurg, Marco Laimre, Kristina Norman