Neeme Külm (1974) is a sculpture and installation artist working with site-specific and minimalist spatial installations. In his works created for a public space, Külm often creates spatial shifts and plays with emotions, making the viewer physically participate in the piece, raising questions about social and political issues.
Külm has been exhibiting since the 1990s, his most notable works were created in the early 2000s. In 2001 Külm took part in an exhibition of artistic interventions in the public space of Tallinn, titled “On the Ruins of Capitalism” (curated by Anders Härm), where he created a traffic jam by blocking a gate between two streets in the Old Town with a pile of logs. This installation-intervention focused on the volume and mass of a specific structure and material, its central components being a large mass and gravity. In Külm’s work, his focus on gravity has been seen as a repeating element, as a reference to his background as a sculptor. At the same time, a crucial element of his practice is a dialogue with the public space.
In the mid-2000s Külm created video works, addressing existentialism through the physical properties of gravity. In these works, the artist takes the role of protagonist, often using the image of hanging, falling, floating, or bearing heavy weights, to focus on the existential angst and awareness of mortality (e.g. “Hangs”, 2004; “Sleep”, 2004; “Untitled”, 2004; “Fountain”, 2005–2006). The 2005 video “Beslan“ shows that Külm can also use heaviness as a metaphor to address political conflicts – in the video the artist carries around the lid of a coffin in front of the Russian Embassy in Tallinn to commemorate those who died in the Beslan hostage crisis. Nevertheless, a political tone is not the goal for the artist, rather, it is the contextual frame of the moment, in which the work was created.
In Külm’s work, the theme of political conflicts peaked with the 2008 project “Gas Pipe” at the Venice Architecture Biennale (together with Maarja Kask and Ralf Lõoke, curated by Ingrid Ruudi). “Gas Pipe” consisted of a 60 metre bright yellow steel pipe, set up in the Giardini between the Russian and the German pavilion, commenting on the Baltic Sea Nord Stream gas pipe debate, causing controversy at the time. “Gas Pipe” was the strongest international project in Estonian architecture in the 2000s, highlighting the spatial and architectural qualities of politics. The work was a conceptual installation project that, among other things, asked questions about the relationship between infrastructure and architecture, making their connections to politics and the economy visible.
Külm’s work has been interpreted from the perspective of the Minimalism tradition. A notable example of this direction is the site-specific spatial installation “Shimmer on the Surface” (2012) that shifted the sense of space in Hobusepea gallery by replacing the entrance to the staircase leading to the basement floor with a pool of water. The goal was to create a spatial environment that could be shaped using sound. The sounds that could be heard from under the stairs made the surface of the water vibrate and created an environment that changed with the sound, the visitors and the colourful light shining into the space from outside. One of the most significant characteristics of the work was accommodating the individual freedom of interpretation, for example “Shimmer on the Surface” has been interpreted as a reference to the tragic sinking of the cruise ferry MS Estonia on the Baltic Sea in 1994.
Külm’s space oriented practice is also clearly visible in works connected to the institutional profiles of art spaces. Initially created for temporary exhibitions, Külm’s installations “Stage” (2009) and “House” (2014) have found a permanent home at the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM). While “Stage” refers to its function already by its name and through building the piece, Külm also solved a very practical problem at EKKM, “House”, on the other hand, found its way to the roof of the museum with the show “Black House. Notes on Architecture” (curated by Anders Härm). The idea was to focus on the corporeal and sensorial dimensions of architecture. The work draws attention to the spatial quality of the viewer’s sense of self and of their body, creating a feeling of danger and confinement. After 2014 “House” has become an extension to the exhibition spaces of the museum, sometimes used for exhibiting works by other artists.
The exhibition “Between Archive and Architecture. Neeme Külm, Krista Mölder, Taavi Talve” at the Kumu Art Museum (curated by Kati Ilves, 2016/2017) is a landmark in Külm’s practice of institutional criticism. Külm exhibited site-specific spatial installations “Columns”, “Rope” and “Flowers to the Curator”, offering various ways for visitors to interact with the show, and commented on the institutional, architectural or discursive aspects of the museum. For example, the cage or viewing platform that broke through the balcony/barrier on the fifth floor offered an unusually eerie view on the permanent exposition of the Soviet art exposition on the fourth floor, revealing the history of exhibitions in the museum robustly and through layers of plaster, as well as questioning the sublime in architecture. Külm addressed the choices the architect of the building had made, as these choices set boundaries to exhibiting – and so the white columns in the centre of the exhibition hall were paired with granite counterparts, and the handrail installed on the curved wall of Kumu highlighted the shortcomings of this architectural choice. Installations “Rope” and “Flowers to the Curator” referred to the museum as a territory that follows the rules established in the art world and in art history.
Külm has repeatedly collaborated with Maarja Kask and Ralf Lõoke from Salto Architects. In addition to “Gas Pipe” their joint projects include the 2016 exhibition at the Museum of Estonian Architecture “Face-to-face: the story of the Baltic exchange” and the 2017 collaborative project titled “Heat Wave” in France. These projects show that in addition to staging sensorial and spatial installations, Külm continuously also addresses political and social issues that can be revealed in the public space and in architecture.
In addition to creating art works, Külm also works as a professional exhibition designer and technician. He is one of the most notable exhibition designers in Estonia, and his designs, often relying on the idea of staged spaces, are conceptual expressions, used to communicate with the audience and field of contemporary art in general. His exhibition designs always have a cognitive basis and follow a specific framework.
Neeme Külm graduated from the sculpture department (BA 1998) and the department of interdisciplinary arts (MA 2005) at the Estonian Academy of Arts. In 2008, he received the Annual Award of the visual and applied arts endowment, and the architecture endowment of the Estonian Cultural Endowment (together with Maarja Kask, Ralf Lõoke and curator Ingrid Ruudi) for the Estonian exposition “Gas Pipe” at the 11th International Venice Architecture Biennale. In 2012, Külm received the Annual Award of the visual and applied arts endowment of the Estonian Cultural Endowment for his solo exhibition “Shimmer on the Surface”. In 2015, he received the Annual Award of the Estonian Cultural Endowment for the programming at the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (together with Anders Härm). Külm is one of the board members of the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia. In 2012, he founded Valge Kuup, an installation and art production company (together with Jaana Jüris). He has designed several extensive exhibitions. In addition to private collections, his works belong to the collections of the Art Museum Estonia, and Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia.