I am not sure whether, from the point of view of art criticism, post-minimalist existentialism is a competent definition, but these are the two words I propose to characterise the creative work of Neeme Külm.
His career as a sculptor started with minimalist installations both in galleries and outdoors, soon followed by video images radiating existential anxiety and then returning again in later work to a more restrained minimalist product not easily distinguishable from industrial wastelands on the outskirts of town.
The word “product” is not accidental. As befits a minimalist, Külm does not celebrate the manual or handmade –– “the artist’s touch” –– nor the similar high-modernist mythology. For him, it is all about the accuracy and neatness guaranteed by ready-made industrial solutions, mass production standards and modules. And here he will go to any lengths, even if it means free advertising for a construction company offering those “ready-made solutions”. It is there amidst the mass of “just for you” solutions that we find the agent of the post-industrial society, Neeme Külm’s person, who continues to suffer at the hands of unanswered existential questions and old-fashioned angst.
This is also the reason why Külm’s artistic activity is soon carried along into the post-minimalist mainstream, where laconic rhetoric proves to be only a shell covering the narrative beneath.
First, there was firewood. Külm caught our eye as an artist who carried firewood to a group exhibition of sculptors, stacking it neatly and combining it with the furniture in the room. Then the stacks reappeared in the Old Town of Tallinn — something slum-like in an entirely inappropriate context. Soon, the artist himself appeared in the picture, obviously suffering, all ready to die, falling through empty space. This reminds us of Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment — the lab cat that, after methodical irradiation reaches the stage where it is simultaneously alive and dead. In Külm’s video portraits, the surroundings are also unhealthily sterile and monochrome, and he himself, the living paradox, imprisoned in an eternal death. The essential feeling of not belonging, the existential hesitation and sharp awareness of one’s mortality is evident in these works. The video installations Dream, Falling and Coffin in 2004 and the solo exhibition Fountain at Draakon Gallery in 2006 illustrate this existentialist peak, making space for more earthly concerns in later work.
Already mid-decade, political statements find their way into Külm’s work. In 2005, he finishes the video performance Beslan, homage to the 2004 hostage drama in North Ossetia, where 380 children and adults were killed in a tragic finale. In a two and a half minute video we see Külm walking around in front of the Russian embassy in Tallinn, carrying a “life-size” coffin lid. He does not engage with anyone, does not brandish slogans, but simply places the props and the names, and the tragedy unrolls in the spectator’s mind. With this work, Külm abandons the apolitical discourse of 1990s Estonian video art, created, Hanno Soans says, by a violent and influential autistic subject. (1) Now he addresses political reality. In 2008, with Ralf Lõoke and Maarja Kask of Salto Architects, he produces the Gaasitoru (Gas Pipe) project (curator: Ingrid Ruudi), a genuine gas pipe connecting the Russian and German Pavilions at the Giardini, for the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale. As we all know, these two countries initiated the installation of the Nordstream gas pipe on the bottom of the Baltic Sea in 2005, ignoring all environmental hazards and local geopolitical resistance. The forcible establishment of the Russian-German economic interests naturally reminded the Baltic States of 1939, when the same countries divided the spheres of influence on the Baltic Sea coast via the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. If before World War 2 the land and the sea were given away without a single gunshot, then in 2008 at least an artistic-political salvo was fired off. And this hit the mark, as the architectural community recognised the recurrence of history and the Cultural Endowment gave it its Annual Award, which naturally did not stop the Russian-German courting. In 2011, the actual pipeline reached completion and the commercial interests of the empires in the Baltic Sea increased immeasurably.
Having had a feel for the extremes of minimalism, existentialism and political art, Külm starts synthesizing the minimalist vocabulary, which could address the regimes of cultural truth and the ideologies behind them. A cow, poet and prince are pulled out of the deck of cards, but only so the spectator can take the floor. Firstly, Külm attempts to come to an agreement with the audience in order to establish a minor but entirely novel discourse on truth. In 2006, Betooni valatud lehm (Cow Cast in Concrete), a 6-tonne stone block on wheels, testing minimalism’s ability to stand for something more than its own form, is produced for the opening exhibition at Kumu (the Art Museum of Estonia). The discussion shifts to the audience’s trust and the question of whether a concept is capable of directing the reading of an artistic work. After this conceptual test, Külm attempts to address large hegemonic truth regimes. In 2009, the concrete overdose threatens a much more important character — Dylan Thomas, who lived, drank and wrote in the small Welsh town of Swansea. During LOCWS, the festival of urban sculpture, Külm erects concrete formwork around the statue of Thomas, obviously planning to cast the pride and joy of the local inhabitants in concrete as well. Naturally, the disappearance of the local object of pride caused enquiries, and Thomas’ name reappeared on the pages of the local paper. A dormant discourse was awakened and launched a “true story” about the man who “put Swansea on the cultural world map”. Unfortunately, the effect was only temporary; when the statue reappeared, the conversation returned to the self-evident unspoken presumptions controlling daily attitudes. But the stakes get higher. Together with Denes Farkas, Külm takes on the dirty laundry of Vytautas the Great, the founder of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The ideas of the Lithuanian independent state are still shaped by the popular saying that the Lithuanian princes have had their horses drink the water of three seas: the Baltic, the Black and the Mediterranean. Thus, in the 2011 exhibition If it’s Part Broke, Half Fix it (curator: Margit Säde) at the Vilnius Contemporary Art Centre, a red carpet ushers the public to an aquarium, at the bottom of which the Grand Duke himself is slurping the salty truth of the Black Sea.
Külm is now free of the duty of storytelling. Instead of a narrative puppet theatre, he has managed to glance “behind the scenes”, where the ideological systems of faith have hidden their string-pulling techniques. And here we see Papa Carlo and Carabas Barabas instead of Malvina and Pierrot. With enthusiasm, the pair shoot grenade launchers at schoolchildren, run the horses between three seas and construct a circulatory system for great empires out of gas pipes. And of course Neeme Külm himself is the director of this “real puppet theatre”.
(1) A subject that is the same protagonist as in works by Rühm T, Jaan Toomik, Ene-Liis Semper and Mark Raidpere, displaying the drudgery of living in their personal room.