CRITICISM - Laura Kuusk and Margit Säde: What can an artist do? What can an artist not do? - Estonian Art 1-2, 2008

Laura Kuusk: Doings Or Not includes an exhibition, video programme and symposium in Ljubljana in June and a workshop on Muhu Island in August 2008.

Margit Säde: We are questioning the artist’s responsibility in a contemporary society based on power, politics, capital, speed, desire and technology. What can an artist do in public and in private space? What can an artist not do? The poster of the undertaking, which is also a work at the exhibition (author Indrek Sirkel), shows Frode, who did nothing but point his finger, which led to a gathering in a street, where passing people stopped and stared at nothing and that became something in itself. Practical jokes or pranks, as Frode calls them, are essential in today’s art situation, which is groaning under the pressure to perform, the pressure to produce: the artist’s works need to fill up the import-export boxes.

Laura Kuusk: Making something can sometimes lead to something concrete, and at other times it leads to nothing. Artists are trying hard, but often even too much is not enough. Can the artist be a 9 to 5 machine? How exactly is the audience programmed?

Margit Säde: Does the artist have the responsibility to gesture, communicate, interpret, duplicate, act, show, shout or stay calm?

Laura Kuusk: As in the Telephone Game, the artist whispers a word or phrase into the ear of the viewer. The viewer passes it on to the next. And so on until, at the end of a long line of people, the language is totally transformed. An artist gives the language and the viewer ‘speaks’. Or not.

Margit Säde: The exhibition took place from 18 June to 8 July 2008. Parallel to this, a video programme was shown, which tackled actions in public and private space — where an artist’s studio begins and ends. What is personal, private and public? On 19 June, a symposium and a round-table took place, where Slovenian and Estonian artists, critics and curators presented papers or debated.

Laura Kuusk: The people participating in the exhibition and video programme were Art Security, Maria Arusoo, Liisi Eelmaa, Minna Hint, Johnson & Johnson, Iti Kasser, Tõnis Kenkmaa, Karel Koplimets, Epp Kubu, Andrus Lauringson, Triinu Lille, Helen Melesk, Marge Monko, Kristina Norman, Martin Pääsuke, Taavi Piibemann, Ott Pilipenko, Taaniel Raudsepp, Fideelia-Signe Roots, Jaanus Samma, Indrek Sirkel, Anna Škodenko, Triin Tamm, Laura Toots, Anu Vahtra and Reimo Võsa-Tangsoo. The exhibition was organised in a gallery with the Slovenian name of …

Margit Säde: Vžigalica — they did not want it translated.

Laura Kuusk: It means ‘match’, which is also their logo. The meaning, after all, is ‘set on fire’; they just have that sort of mentality, or so it seemed in April, when we went there to meet Bojan Gorenec, Dean of Fine Arts at the Ljubljana Art Academy, and Alen Ožbolt, who teaches sculpture at the same place. Both are also active artists…

Margit Säde: We came in contact with them via Marko Mäetamm, Kaido Ole and Andres Tali. Bojan suggested that the young people could do a project together.

Laura Kuusk: Beti Žerovc took care of the symposium. She is a freelance critic who examines the role of the curator. The symposium tackled the issues of articulating and interpreting art. The Estonian party was represented by Krõõt Juurak, Erkki Luuk, Kristina Norman and Martin Rünk.

Laura Kuusk: What do the Slovenians know about Estonian art?

Margit Säde: Well, if you ask what the Estonians know about Slovenian art, then I think you get a similar reply. Estonians know Ljubljana mostly because of the print triennials.

Laura Kuusk: The group Irwin published an encyclopaedia of East-European art, and thus had contact with Sirje Helme, and through her learned about Estonian art history. This is where their knowledge comes from. The encyclopaedia has become a hit, and has sold out several times.

Margit Säde: If we take an average Estonian and an average Slovenian…

Laura Kuusk: Let us not take an average Estonian but an average Estonian art…

Margit Säde: … student. I believe most have heard of Laibach and the Neue Slowenische Kunst group.

Laura Kuusk: Slovenians had a revolution connected with art. Here, in Estonia it was more with singing.

Margit Säde: … singing and sport. Estonians have always been more a singing and sporting nation.

Laura Kuusk: … theatres are full as well.

Margit Säde: Thinking about Slovenian art … Radicalism, shock — somehow I have the notion that the revolutionary element is quite typical in the Slovenian scene.

Laura Kuusk: The impact of the Balkans too … although they kept emphasising that Slovenia is not the Balkans. We lived in a place in Ljubljana, Metelkova, which increased the impression of ‘bubbling’ and ‘seething’. It was a town inside a town, a semi-legal area that sprang up in the territory of a former military basis, with studios, galleries, clubs and a hostel. It has also become a tourist attraction. Perhaps similar to our Culture Cauldron. A place that simply emerged.

Margit Säde: At the exhibition opening and the symposium, mostly the Irwin group people of the older generation took an interest in us. What the younger generation (graduates of the Academy) is doing is reflected in the paper Rearticulacija (, published both in Slovenian and English, which gives a good overview of their activist mentality.

Laura Kuusk: Their radical side is, in a sense, quite refined. In the Skuč gallery, reputedly the most radical art venue in Ljubljana at the moment, all displayed works were aesthetically finished.

Margit Säde: In my opinion, contemporary art is just like that; art simply enjoys this kind of aestheticism. The smooth, cute computers and over-designed mobile phones — necessary accessories of contemporary life — certainly play their part here. Everything around us seemed so much in place. At our exhibition, this topic was tackled by Triin Tamm’s work The Death of Effort. She displayed pataflix, normally used in attaching something to a wall, but this time the material itself was exhibited. In a sense, a white cube conveys its character to all the works. Or emphasises the fact that some works (especially those of M. Pääsuke, I. Sirkel, A. Lauringson and T. Tamm) do not really suit the gallery format, even if the white cube is a room that adds aesthetic weight to one work or another.

Laura Kuusk: Vžigalica is precisely such a white cube. It has its own specific character because of the historic buildings — the rooms all have vaults.

Margit Säde: Vžigalica lacks its own identity and gallery statement.

Laura Kuusk: It offers an opportunity for totally different fields to display their work.

Margit Säde: They are attached to the city museum. It is interesting that the gallery is located in the French Revolution square.

Laura Kuusk: The city museum resembles our National Museum, but it’s newer and has an interactive display.

Margit Säde: Because it was recently renovated. If we try to figure out how to make the Slovenian public sit up and take notice, I would not want to present the brand ‘young Estonian art’.

Laura Kuusk: I’m afraid that, in the given situation, this cannot be completely avoided. We are something exotic for them, forming the other end of Europe. And they for us.

Margit Säde: I think the most important thing is communication, to have some sort of dialogue between their young artists and curators and ours.

Laura Kuusk: They did have some contacts here, and they probably found that we think along similar lines … a shared sense of humour perhaps. I think this is the first stage — something bigger might develop later. The exhibition largely tackled the issue of whether a society needs someone who points out, indicates …

Margit Säde: Like a court jester who can say things others won’t say.

Laura Kuusk: This pointing out and indicating are themes for many exhibits. In Anna Škodenko’s work, an art student secretly films how her work is being evaluated by professional artists. If we do not see what they are talking about, their conversation becomes truly silly.

Margit Säde: Total waffle. Marge Monko’s work The Ladies’ Paradise also has this kind of repetition of empty talk.

Laura Kuusk: Marge shakes the hands of people working in a department store, as if they are colleagues: we are all workers, we produce or we die, and we serve others. Both Anna and Marge seem to stress that an artist is more like a service sector employee than a producer of something.

Margit Säde: Johnson & Johnson presented a work consisting of two photographs, titled Failing to Articulate, where they show that a museum display or the old classical narrative does not work. They went to the Kumu Art Museum and crashed on the floor in front of old sculptures and 19th century academic paintings. In this case, such an action seems like a protest.

Laura Kuusk: The photographs show the difference between their postures and the solemn poses of classical sculptures. Doings or Not questioned the format of the exhibition in a similar manner. This was not an overview or museum exhibition.

Margit Säde: To some extent, we had to take into consideration the context, whether we can linguistically show some works or whether they are too Estonia-oriented.

Laura Kuusk: Unfortunately, all the inside jokes had to be left out.

Margit Säde: We did have to consider such matters, but not too much. For the works of Martin Pääsuke (Andra Aaloe, Flo Kasearu, Tanel Rannala and Juhan Teppart), we added some explanatory texts. Pääsuke’s work invited people to write/draw their own designs for the Victory Monument on posters. Estonians have always been regarded as quiet and reserved people who never ask questions, and certainly do not participate in art projects, but in this case people were amazingly keen to do so.

Laura Kuusk: What emerges here is the topic of the artist’s work and the topic of freedom. In a sense, art has played a revolutionary role in the history of both countries, and under the conditions of early capitalism… The concept of the exhibition emerged from the works: the topics that are in the air, in the collective consciousness and therefore essential. The current economic slump is reflected in the works of our artists too. I mean, here is Ott Pilipenko, who uses materials he can easily find around him — eg the plastic caps from milk cartons.

Margit Säde: Ott’s art is largely quite technical. Maybe it is an indication of our times: how much technology we use, and how impossible life would be without it. How can you organise an exhibition without electricity? Ott is clever in using both technology and recycling, which should actually be in conflict; technology advances daily, but the milk carton cap is not going to disappear that easily.

Laura Kuusk: While unscrewing the caps, the viewer looks at strange-looking looping images from videogames and gets satisfaction from the pixels. Yes, Ott collects random available objects and mixes them together …

Margit Säde: In that sense, it’s totally different from the Johnsons’ way of relating to the environment; it’s simply a parallel.

Laura Kuusk: He does not lie down, but instead picks things up.

Margit Säde: An artist imitates what he sees around him, but the imitation has a completely different result in each case.

Laura Kuusk: You stick your tongue out at him, and he does the same to you.

* Laura Kuusk and Margit Säde were the curators of the exhibition Doings or Not in Ljubljana and organisers of the Estonian-Slovenian artists’ meeting in Muhu island. Doings or Not was their first curatorial project.

Laura Kuusk
(1982), studied photography and semiotics (MA in photography from the Estonian Academy of Arts). She has recently exhibited in several group shows in Tallinn, Moscow and Ljubljana.

Margit Säde
(1984), art historian, interested in participating in different forms of artistic activity herself. Currently freelance curator and cultural worker.