Art Allmägi (1983) is an Estonian sculptor and installation artist. Over the years he has moved from creating fictions that manipulate viewer’s emotions to broader themes and total spatial installations. The provocative element has not disappeared, although what has changed is the form of presentation and his goal.
Allmägi is a rare phenomenon among Estonian contemporary artists. His choice of subject is not hindered by conventional understanding of good taste and politeness but rather asks if exhibiting something uncomfortable might not actually reveal a thing or two about those who react in a certain way. It is also a question of contesting unwritten rules, overstepping set boundaries – this, in turn, requires courage.
Since his first solo exhibition “Tonight I dreamt…” (2012) Allmägi’s work is visually recognisable – he blends classical modelling skills and polyester resin as material. Allmägi creates closed off, finished scenes, spaces within spaces, where reality and fiction meet. Just like with his other early shows, this, too, centres around a particular kind of humour and an expressly (confusingly) naive approach. At first glance the exhibit focuses on a simplistic and potentially irritating issue: a heterosexual man is haunted by homosexual impulses in his dreams, additionally, the dreams include real people who get attributed certain sentences and desires. Even though the issue Allmägi raises may seem absurd, the public has to address equally ridiculous statements and questions both in Estonia and elsewhere in the world, due to the rise of right wing populism. For example, in 2013 Russia passed the so called homosexual propaganda law and was criticised for it in the West, however, certain groups have forced the same phrase into our public discourse. Ideally, we want to belong to the West, but when it comes to values, we have a lot in common with the post-Soviet Eastern Block. The tensions arising from this contradiction are partly illustrated by Allmägi’s opening exhibition.
Blending of fiction and reality with spectacular Neo-Pop solutions can also be seen in his next exhibition “Letter to three artists” (2012; first presented 2009). Here Allmägi takes provocation to the next level by creating, among other things, an unexpectedly realistic sculpture that led to his Wikipedia article describing themes in his work as often vulgar and shocking.[i]
The exhibition “Back to paradise” (2013) takes place before the series of texts “Mirror, mirror on the wall” is finished in 2014. This marks a turning point for the artist – he distances his work from humour, breaks out of the increasingly restrictive niche and demonstrates his abilities in a new way.
The exhibition “Cold War / Xолодная война” (2014) is the first work in the new, the so called danger cycle. The military defence structures covered evenly by white snow exhibited at the show, their light tone and dark nature build up a stark contrast. A few months prior, Moscow had occupied Crimea, the deployment of the so called little green men added another element of uncertainty to the already shocking turn of political events. Western journalists flocked to Estonia to go straight to Narva and find out if Narva is next. To them this was just another assignment, to us, a possible geopolitical catastrophe.
The title of Allmägi’s exhibition referred to the point in international relations that was described as the new cold war by some observers, although not by all, but the unavoidable element was nevertheless the crumbling of an agreement-based world order. “Cold War” is also based on how fear reproduces narratives (that creates new fears) and how uncertainty is often countered with control and an increase in surveillance. The various themes were tied together by the location of the exhibition – just across the street from the Russian embassy in Tallinn.
Allmägi continued his exploration into danger, fear and Russia in his next two shows: “Paint It Black I” and “Paint It Black II” (both 2017). In some ways the second part concludes many of the artist’s earlier thematic elements that reappear from exhibition to exhibition: fear (of the unknown, the unavoidable, failure), mixing of reality and his own interpretation, control of the narrative and provocation.
Fortunately, the provocative dark humour has not disappeared from Allmägi’s work, as could be seen in “07.15” (2018).
Text written by Kadri Veermäe
Art Allmägi studied sculpture in Tartu Art College (BA, 2008) and in the Estonian Academy of Arts (MA, 2011). He has been awarded the Kristjan Raud prize (2018), Ado Vabbe Prize (2017) and the People’s Choice Award of the Köler Prize (2016). He is one of the recipients for the Estonian state artist’s salary in 2023–2025.