Tanja Muravskaja is a photographer, mainly working in portraiture. Since her 2007 exhibition “Positions” at Tallinn City Gallery, she has continued exploring the issue of Estonian nationalism, or to be more specific, the emergence of “neo-nationalism” after the Singing Revolution.
The series of photographs in that show, also called “Positions”, quickly became one of the most exhibited works of Estonian contemporary art in different curatorial exhibitions (e.g. Biennale of Young Artists, Tallinn, 2007; 1st Moscow International Biennale of Young Art, 2008 etc.). A year later, in April 2008, Muravskaja exhibited an installation called “Monuments” at Hobusepea Gallery followed by the solo exhibitions “They, who sang together” from May to June of 2008 at Vaal Gallery and “Lucky Losers” in April of 2009 at Tallinn City Gallery.
At the beginning of 2010, she took part in an exhibition with a critical focus on nationalism called “Let’s talk about nationalism” at the new main building of the Art Museum of Estonia, Kumu, where she displayed a provocative series of photographs titled “The Estonian Race”. It is true that in the Estonian art world, she has been well received mostly due to her self-assured solo exhibitions, and her participation in curatorial shows has only added to her standing as an artist. By that time, the Art Museum of Estonia had already acquired the photographic series “They, who sang together” amid a flurry of positive press. The solo exhibition “Split Mind” opened at the Tartu Art Museum at the end of 2010 accompanied by a statement by the artist, saying that issues concerning nationalism have exhausted themselves and were no longer of interest to her. A similar round-up has been conducted by the artist once before, in a solo exhibition called “Encore” in the autumn of 2007, when she exhibited earlier works not concerned with the issues of nationalism.
Why are Tanja Muravskaja’s works exploring nationalism so successful? First of all, because of their perspicuity. The critics and curators have had no trouble noticing the conceptual coherence in the successive projects, where one question or topic has logically followed another. Secondly, because of the timing. Without wanting to speculate too much, Tanja Muravskaja’s CV states among other things that she studied journalism, and so it is obvious that the way her solo exhibitions focus in on the most pressing issues in society is not coincidental. In her practice as an artist, Muravskaja has so far been extremely capable of recognizing urgent matters in society and that has put her several steps forward compared to other artists of her generation, who, by trying to jump on the bandwagon of socially conscious art, tend merely to illustrate yesterday’s news.
Let’s take the artist’s first solo exhibition exploring nationalism, “Positions”, which was open until 15 April 2007. Images of young Estonian artists, dressed only in the national flag, in a blue, black and white installation at Tallinn City Gallery, as if they have been invited to the Presidential reception; beside them, young Estonian neo-Nazis standing to attention beside the same flag. What do they have in common – intelligent artists who have travelled and studied in Europe and young boys with shaved heads who have just started growing beards but whose outfits leave no doubt about the subculture they belong to? Only a few days later, on the nights of April 26 and 27, riots erupted in Tallinn, the roots of which lay in the fact that Estonians and Russians have a diametrically opposite understanding of the events immediately after the Second World War. That confrontation, now called the “Bronze Night”, had been quietly brewing since it became clear that the authorities actually intended to relocate a symbol of occupation deemed inappropriate for the city centre. For the greater part of the Russian-speaking population though, the monument is associated with their grandfathers and grandmothers who died in the Second World War. Now, undeniably anti-Estonian skinheads also come to the streets; images of the crowds, unanimously shouting “Russia! Russia!” circulated in the media, have probably been etched into the memory of everyone living in Estonia. Under the cover of night, the bronze sculpture of a soldier of the Red Army is moved from the city centre to a military cemetery at the edge of town and so begins a period of diplomatic bickering between Estonia and Russia, both trying to establish who hurt who more and whose views on the event are more accurate. The city centre of Tallinn is vandalised and desolate. The exhibition “New Wave – Estonian Artists of the 21st century”, an extensive overview of young Estonian artists at the Tallinn Art Hall, which does not include Muravskaja, even though she is within the appropriate age range, seems to get no visitors during those restless days in April. At that moment, the works of no other Estonian artist seem to be more political, current and critical than Muravskaja’s.
The installation “Monuments”, at Hobusepea Gallery a year after the April riots, consists of nothing more than two piles: one heap of slate rubble and another of broken glass. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of those materials speaks for itself. The materials respectively symbolize the slate pylon behind the Bronze Solider and the War of Independence Victory Column made of glass that the authorities decided to erect no later than 2009. The archaic-looking glass column employs somewhat Teutonic symbols and even though it had not yet been erected, Estonian artistic circles were quite troubled by this rushed populist act on the part of the government and the potential technical problems with the monument. After relocating the symbol of the dissolved Soviet empire, almost as a Hegelian historical inevitability, a retroactive campaign of monuments is launched with the intent of compensating for failures during the First Estonian Republic and rapidly erecting a symbol in the main square of the capital; a symbol that could not be agreed upon by the founding fathers of the country. Better late than never?
Tanja Muravskaja’s solo exhibition “They, who sang together” in May and June 2008 at Vaal Gallery and “Lucky Losers” in April 2009 at Tallinn City Gallery, are in hindsight like two sides of the same coin. The first show presents a series of portraits of politicians and Estonian public figures who share the honour of having played a part in helping regain Estonia’s independence. The exhibition is unmistakably retrospective; the faces in the portraits seem to have emerged from “the darkness of history” and the title “They, who sang together” could not refer more directly to the years of the Singing Revolution. It is clear that among other things the artist is calling attention to the question of who the architects of Estonian independence are, and therefore also who, whether or not they want to admit it to themselves years later, are indirectly behind the integration problems that materialized in 2007. The show is counter-balanced, in a rhetorical manner, by “Lucky Losers” which portrays the opinion leaders of the local Russian minority on the same black background. By substituting the inanimate photographs with short video portraits, the people portrayed are shown as human, living and breathing and therefore vulnerable organisms; the contrast with the aesthetics of the bleak mask-like faces of the Estonian political elite could not be any sharper. Not so long ago, the people accused of co-organizing the April riots were acquitted against all public expectations – hence the title of the video exhibition “Lucky Losers”. All previous issues are concluded in the retrospective “Split Mind” in 2010, as the artist breaks the glass covering the photographs from “Positions” with a hammer. Broken glass brings good luck, as the saying goes...