INTERVIEW - Andreas Trossek. Eero Epner: "The ceiling painting is a part of NO99 as a creative platform." KUNST.EE 2013, 1, 5-16

Andreas Trossek interviews Eero Epner, dramaturge at Theatre NO99, on the occasion of the completion of the ceiling painting in the theatre on Sakala Street.

The ceiling painting by Tõnis Saadoja in the main building of Theatre NO99 (3 Sakala, Tallinn) was completed in December 2012, after almost a year of work. This large project was funded by the private sector (art collector Rain Tamm, AS Peri) as well as the taxpayer (Estonian Cultural Endowment), but where did the idea come from? Or did you just "stumble" on the initial thought while looking up at the ceiling? 

If a theatre can be an educational institution at all, then it is certainly capable of teaching collective creativity: the ceiling painting was not "my idea" or "Tõnis's execution" or anything like that. The idea went through many intermediate links, including several people's heads over a remarkably long period of time. But the most important thing is the origins of the idea – both the directors and actors in our theatre regard contemporary art with great sympathy and the mural is not an "interesting garnish" for us, but rather part of the activities of NO99 as a creative platform in different fields of culture.

And the initial thought is irrelevant anyway: it is the end result, the artistic image created, that has to be the most charming thing, as the idea itself is not enough for much of anything. Frankly, one day there was just the feeling that it would be a great thing to have a mural there on the ceiling. All other constructs came later. 

So, theatre as a collective, Gesamtkunstwerk? You yourself are among the most active art historians of your generation, the artistic director of the theatre, Ene-Liis Semper, has been an internationally successful performance and video artist since the late 1990s, Martin Pedanik's (graphic designer for NO99) ties with the local contemporary art scene are no secret either. Yet, I cannot recall NO99 having decided to somehow use art in a direct or concrete way as a "theme" or "tool" in its politics before this mural (with the possible exception of the production "Kuidas seletada pilte surnud jänesele?" (How to explain pictures to a dead hare?).1 So, (a) has art not been interesting enough in the context of theatrical practice, (b) has art already dissolved into theatrical practice, or (c) something else? 

True, we have not included art as a separate theme in our productions (except "Kuidas seletada..."), but we do ourselves sense a certain more abstract overlap with the principles of contemporary art. For instance, searching for reality (and creating and affecting it) instead of realism; the great importance of the personal (both as a theme and a starting point); the considerable amplitude of aesthetic and moral boundaries; the political; occasional provocations; touching on personal and collective traumas; an often laconic form combined with a grand scale (in the language of the plays, performances by the actors, as well as the design of the productions); the importance of performativity; but also aspiring to a wider, more multifaceted role as an artist instead of being specifically a director or actor. What is most important is perhaps hardest to explain: contemporary art has largely shaped our taste.

As to the more visible touch points – the temporary urban installation known as the NO99 Straw Theatre, the design of our posters, magazines and other printed material, the objects by Martin Pedanik in the lobby, the large photographs of the actors by Mark Raidpere. 

Much discussion of publicity, public space, politics, art and art history has surrounded the new ceiling painting, but still, what is the point of this gesture in a nutshell? A mural as a gift from NO99 to the Estonian public? Or is it first and foremost bringing contemporary art closer to the people; that is, theatregoers? The theatre is doubtless more popular with Estonian society as a cultural sphere than art is, so you will probably not escape interpretations that are slightly patronising towards the art scene. 

And why should we escape them? Every work of art is open to interpretation; otherwise, it would just be some thing. And bringing contemporary art closer to the people, which certainly was one of the goals (I do not remember any talk of a "gift"), is surely one thing a theatre can do. We have also taken other steps in this direction and intend to go on clarifying contemporary art for people, while realising that we are not abstractly relating to the totality of contemporary art, but only certain approaches – the art we like. 

You have drawn quite a lofty comparison with the ceiling painting at the Estonian National Opera (4 Estonia Blvd), part of the social realist canon in Estonian art history, which was painted in the Stalinist period and finished in the same year as NO99's main building. Yet, strictly speaking, Saadoja's mural is actually in what we would call the upper foyer, outside the auditorium – a secondary area, and it is also not impossible that NO99 will move out of the building at some future date in anticipation of larger audiences? Or is the mural also intended to draw attention to the theatre's space issues? 

On the one hand, the comparison with the ceiling painting at the opera is understandable, on the other hand... As long as it is not directly related to the national and political thematic, further parallels may be drawn with the layers of meaning in monumental paintings elsewhere. What is more, the situation with the opera has a very different significance: it was a case of hijacking a space that was important for the nation, of spatially constructing a "new identity", leaving the original building intact, but adding an ideological ceiling painting.

The NO99 building lacks such value for the nation; furthermore, during subsequent construction work, window decorations with Soviet sheaves of grain and other references to a new era were added to the 1930s design, which is why today the space is ideologically dated, a shadow of the past. Our goal, on the other hand, was somewhat modernist: Tõnis' painting springs first and foremost from the logic and aesthetic of the space; the fact that the building was originally planned as the headquarters of the Estonian Defence Forces, that it later housed the political education centre or that it is now a theatre are all nice nuances that allow enjoyable additional interpretations. For example, the fact that while a play is around two hours long and is then permanently gone, this mural may be exactly as it is, in exactly the same place, in 200 years.

These thoughts could basically be rephrased by saying that it is as if you had brought an IKEA shelf into a Stalinist building? As if you had in turn tried to "hijack" a building that was built during one of the most violent periods in Estonian history, with the June Deportation already complete but the March Deportation still ahead, along with the collectivisation of farms and other Stalinist reforms? 

This exorcism is beautiful as an idea, but the history and the aesthetic of the building do not allow such bold talk: the basic design for the building was already complete in the 1930s, and although it was changed later, its main volumes and approach remained unchanged as far as I know. We wanted to hijack and reclaim public space as such – something we have done before – despite the theatre being only a semi- public space, restricted by the ticket price. The NO99 Straw Theatre ideology was to create a consumption free public space, but just a few months ago we were asked for permission to use the Straw Theatre name and stylised image in a bank advertisement. The constant danger of becoming pulled into commercial rituals is perhaps reduced, looking at this pure expenditure: a ceiling painting outside the art market's cycle of object exchange. The ownership of a mural is possible only symbolically or abstractly, but first and foremost it is absurd. That thought is surely hopeful.

Indeed, as a general tendency this "anti-commercial" approach is also characteristic of much of contemporary art practice. Take for example the company known as Visible Solutions, whose "products" are critical of capitalism – "anti- capitalism in a capitalist guise" – and critically point to a gradual disappearance of the ideal of working for the sake of "pure" art, a process that has progressed also in Estonia since it regained its independence. On the other hand, successfully combining the cheerful burning away, so to speak, of pri- vate capital and tax money, the funding model for Saadoja's painting shows that on closer inspection commercial rituals and "pure" art always tend to be tightly intertwined; and only a rhetorician who for some reason thinks that burning away public finances is somehow a priori more ethical than using private capital can speak of mutually isolated spheres of art and economy in the conditions of the former Eastern Europe. The neoliberal and the nationalist in fact understand each other perfectly because both are interested in sustainably maintaining this luxury of national independence. The former in order to preserve and increase the accumulated capital; the latter to uphold and develop local culture. 

This may sound too pessimistic, but by "hopeful" I do not mean hope of getting out because getting out is impossible. Today, every act is instantly also a system-confirming ritual, which is intended to be or will be harnessed for some goal against the will of the agent, and the goal is usually pragmatic. Therefore, it is extremely pleasant to think of art as "pure expenditure", a lose-lose situation; and I value highly the critical potential of any irrational act, for example, but also doing nothing by choice, for its honesty. In today's ritualised society any kind of behaviour resembles that of a fly in a spider web: you have already been caught and your options are to lie there, lethargically awaiting death or to entangle yourself even more by gently resisting. But there are at least two further options: to be so forceful as to tear just a little hole in the web or to try and find a seemingly unrealisable way of retaining your dignity under degrading circumstances. I know that the latter suggests compromises, but thinking of people acting in the setting of everyday choices, I value the hopefulness of such gestures as highly as tearing a hole in the web.

Why a ceiling painting then? Why not... a wall painting, for example? How the general public in Estonia see art could be summarised via caricature bourgeois jargon, asking whether it is even appropriate to hang a picture on the wall, to show it to anyone, buy it, sell it. 

The form was primarily determined by the space: the big circle in the ceiling was like an empty frame and to fill it with a painting seemed agreeable enough given the spatial logic but also sufficiently unexpected. There did not even seem to be a suitable surface for a wall painting; walls are often the most nervous spatial elements, interrupted by doors, mouldings, frames, lamps, pictures and suchlike. The ceiling, by contrast, is a clean form, beautiful, untouched; no one ever goes there – going there is like walking on mountains.

So, hypothetically, if a lighting importer, say, offered a chandelier with Swarovski crystal as a centrepiece for the Saadoja painting, to advertise their luxury merchandise and so on, the theatre would tell them to... take a hike, figuratively speaking? 

I am afraid so. Our theatre is not particularly skilful at establishing classical relationships with sponsors.

Let's talk about the artist: Why Tõnis Saadoja? 

Because he has his finger on the pulse, a critical mind, poetic vocabulary. His level of focus and self-criticism is also impressive, as is his ability to readjust while standing firm on certain decisions, a multifaceted preparation of the concept while considering the technical realisation.

Let's also talk about the motif of the painting: Why trees, forest and the sublime feeling of tilting your head back? And assuming that every artistic act is by nature also political, what message does this motif communicate to the Estonian public? 

I think that in this case it is not so much the motif as the act that comes across as political, but I would not look at the layers of meaning in the painting separately from each other when speaking about the message. You could rather talk about the message constantly moving between the different layers, as perhaps with any good work of art. For example, the homeland motif is balanced by the complete banality of the view, which in turn is ennobled by an imposing form and in the process becomes either ironic or fragile, depending on the perspective. As to tilting your head, I personally very much like the intentional use of perspectives: ceiling paintings do not often take into account the angle created when viewing them and might just as well be on a wall; in this case, however, when looking up, we see what in ordinary life too could only be seen by looking up. In a sense, art is keeping your fingers crossed for life here.

 But the vocabulary mentioned earlier? Critical and poetic – are these not almost mutually exclusive criteria in contemporary art? Or to put it differently: What in fact is the poetic and the critical? Is, say, hyperrealism somehow essentially more critical compared to abstract painting? Or is black- and-white hyperrealism then sort of automatically poetic because it makes a nostalgic reference to the dominance of black-and-white photography familiar from the Soviet era, from the photography pros of TASS to hobbyists who built darkrooms in their bathrooms?

 For me no genre relates to "the critical" or "the poetic"; that is, no genre is automatically and essentially "something". Photography is not automatically documentary; abstract painting is not automatically romantic; hyperrealism is not critical just like that. Everything depends on the artist's attitude, but even more on the attitude of the particular work.

Tõnis Saadoja's critical and poetic qualities – and I know what thin ice I am treading on here with no convenient hand- hold – are also apparent in his other works. For example, "Kodulinn Tallinn" (Hometown Tallinn) (2008) – its theme and motifs are mostly critical (pinpointing negative changes in the urban space) and partly romantic (a depiction of places related to personal memories); the language of the painting, as it were, is mostly poetic (the works were technically well painted, rich in nuances, with some works focusing on light and shadow, changes in tonality etc., creating a poetic atmosphere) and partly also critical (in recontextualising the technique of watercolour). In my opinion, the critical and the poetic in no way exclude one another; perhaps at some point "poetic" just came to be understood as "beautiful" and then contemporary art was blamed for lacking it, and the artists in turn shied away from paying attention to "poetry", both in regard to concept and realisation, also identifying it with "beauty" or "lyricism". 

Any felicitous artistic image, however, is a little poetic; I have never noticed its disappearance, to be honest. Marco Laimre or Félix González-Torres are both poetic artists. It is rather the paucity of the critical in the art being produced that is worrisome. Or given the critical, the inability or unwillingness to find something more than commentary in your political/social concept; or restricting oneself to the idea and being unable/unwilling to find a good image that is also fresh, poetic, stimulating and well executed. 

Agreed, but still – the critical as an initiating principle for the artist does not currently work at the broader level in Estonian society as effectively as the poetic? I can clearly imagine how Marco Laimre might cry out that Tõnis has just painted a nice nature photograph up there on the ceiling! If I were a music critic, I would say "new romantic". In the culture section of the weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress, Rein Fuks, frontman for the band Pia Fraus, basically of the same generation as Tõnis, just recently sighed that Saadoja's work is so unbelievably beautiful, and that beauty has not yet disappeared from the world. 

 Yes, that is what I had in mind: poetry has never been a problem in Estonian culture, but the critical has, and I am afraid that the critical will always remain a barrier for the wider public. But I do not sweat over it too much when someone calls Saadoja's painting beautiful. And I do not understand the attacks from the new conservatives against the "ugliness" of contemporary art – since, isn't the question about the existence or non-existence of beauty a bit like a pseudo-problem? It is just one category for describing the artistic image, and not the main one. Therefore, categorising something as good or bad due to the presence of "beauty" is inadequate, while the "poetic"–which should not be confused with "lyricism", "poeticism" or other romantic connotations – has a broader field of meaning. For me it says whether the created image is larger than the restrictive boundaries of commentary, whether the artist has in fact put in sufficient effort to really create something only possible with artistic means. That said, the simple marking of reality can be a perfectly poetic act. For example, "Io" (1997) by Raidpere or "Sugar Free" (1996) by Laimre are also "poetic" for me, but not beautiful. And that is why I do not understand the new conservatives' anger; how do they not see that there is an abundance of very poetic images in contemporary art, which happily also have something critical to say, instead of merely using an image for the sake of its beauty?

As to the possible cry from Laimre, I understand that better; I hear in his voice the justified annoyance of a radical, and I suppose my taste is just too "soft". 

You have said that "Saadoja's language of painting is not popular",2 something I would like, with all due respect, to continue to oppose. On the contrary, if there is any genre or set of techniques that gives a youngish painter a chance at broad- based approval – from children to grandmas – in Estonian society, then it is precisely this kind of "meaningful photo- realism". The kind of hyperrealism with a neo-conceptual- ist approach, which Saadoja has been producing for a decade now, works equally with the pros and the public that is removed from the art world. First, photorealist painting is very simple, a no-brainer for the viewer. As painting, it is high art, so to speak, and as it is based on the photographic image, it also has its place in the familiar canon of realism, supported by the "recognisability" principle. In other words, you do not even have to know the history of art because you realise anyway that someone has worked hard to make a realistic/photo- like painting, and every Estonian can respect hard work at the level of the spinal cord after all! 

By saying that his "language of painting is not popular", I first and foremost meant to compare Saadoja's work with approaches that are really not merely very pleasant for a very wide public but almost synonymous with art: quasi-realistic or abstract works with interesting combinations of colour, where the artist's style is clearly discernible and recognisable. By these standards, Saadoja will never be an artist of the people – I sincerely believe that. But my own tone disturbs me here; in order to show that Saadoja is a good artist, I define him through a lack of popular success. In your question, on the other hand, I immediately see not only a question, but an implicit irony or hesitation in the Estonian art world towards anything palatable for everyone from children to grandmas, so to speak. Why do I see that? Perhaps because identifying oneself through the audience, in its many forms, is widespread in contemporary art: on the one hand, the lack of public interest is bemoaned, on the other hand, excessive popularity raises doubts about the art having become too commercialised. Moreover, it takes very little to achieve "excessive popularity"; hence, probably the great mistrust of theatre, which sprawls amidst an unseemly amount of public interest. All this is at times more understandable, at times more comical, at times makes you doubt the reason for seeking change in yourself, at times a party game within the art scene, where excommunicating the audience or choosing a suitable audience for oneself is considered perfectly okay or even a sign of quality. I can only follow my gut as a banal person to see when popularity indicates bad taste and when the artist has actually made something good that speaks to many people.

But speaking specifically about hyperrealism, it is also possible to say that it has become a kind of new emblematic art, which is replacing functionalism in the self-identification of the so-called elite. While in the 1990s a respectable image was bought with a functionalist house, now image is purchased with "hyper". Rain Tamm, let's be honest, also has a relatively cool image and hyperrealism has a solid place in his collection. But knowing the selection principles of quite a few art collectors, I have for years now been thinking about what the options are for collectors who happen to actually like the kind of art they buy. What if some collectors actually like, say, impressionist colour play or hyperrealism's ability to speak to our time in an enjoyable, critical and figurative way? If someone else is using similar genres to buy an image for themselves, or if the same judgements of taste happen to be attributed to their social class, then (being aware of the social development of their own taste, but at the same time incapable of fighting it because they simply, almost affectively, "like" some works of art) what should they do? And what should the artist do? Change genre? But what if the artist feels that working in the particular genre is for them the best, most honest and apposite way of making art? Should we not then trust our gut feeling or sense of taste, saying yes, certain hyperrealists in Estonia today are relatively commercialised and some others, among whom I personally place Saadoja, are not. And I know that a "sense of taste" smacks of Greenbergian arrogance, but c'mon! – what else do we base our judgements about art on? And this "taste" is not some extraordinary innate gift, but something that anyone can develop.

Eero Epner is an art historian and critic. He works as a dramaturge at Theatre NO99.

Andreas Trossek is the editor-in-chief of KUNST.EE.