Time of re-independence — the 1990s in art

Although for some artists the arrival of the 1990s meant no significant changes — after all, the sun still rose in the east and set in the west — the nineties nevertheless brought about dramatic alterations both in society and in art. The difference is especially obvious if one compares the art paradigm of the Soviet era and that of the re-independent Estonia.

1. There was a fixed hierarchy between different fields of art during the Soviet period: the most important was painting, then graphic art and sculpture. Photography was regarded as a second-rate amateur activity — a useful concept for the state to keep an intelligent artist at a safe distance from a potential weapon. In the 1990s such a hierarchy broke down. What now prevailed were photo, installation, performance and video, whereas painting was reduced to the status of an outdated and conservative field of art. Both painting and graphic art started to rely on photos, as Peeter Allik’s work clearly proves. The early 1990s saw the rise of such photographers as Peeter Maria Laurits (1962) and Herkki-Erich Merila (1964) from the group DeStudio; Toomas Kalve, Peeter Linnap (1960), Eve Kiiler (1960), Toomas Volkmann (1961), etc. Several graphic artists turned to photography and video as well — Liina Siib (1963), Ly Lestberg (1965), Eve Kask (1958), Anu Juurak (1957), to some extent Anu Kalm (1960).

2. The Soviet period considered the main features of good art its universal clarity, non-political approach, being out of context where the artist-genius ‘stands alone on the hill’, receiving influences from the universe and creating a work ex nihilo. The aspect of eternity was also essential. In the 1990s, on the other hand, people started talking about contextuality, specificity, political activism and that each artist usually has a few teachers-mentors. Besides, by admitting to these influences in public, the value of the artist does not diminish, but rather it increases. The tokens of good art were hence focusing on the present and on a specific set of problems — gender, ecological awareness, social conventions, small narratives of history, etc.

3. In the Soviet period, art was centralised in Tallinn at certain institutions like the Estonian Artists’ Union, State Art Institute, or the Art Museum. They were the means to keep an eye on creative people. The Artists’ Union, for example, only accepted those approved by the Moscow authorities. The 1990s caused an institutional crisis and the large clumsy establishments were easily overridden by motivated mobile individuals who curated exhibitions, published books and participated as artists in international projects. They did not even need to have the traditional higher art education. New institutions created on a completely novel basis were successfully functioning, e.g. the Soros Center for Contemporary Art (since 1999 the Center for Contemporary Art). In the course of decentralising power, some most unusual things happened as well, like the gathering of a ‘wild gang’ of young artists around art critic Mari Sobolev who attempted to offer those ‘others’ more opportunities by organising exhibitions and promoting them in the press. In 1999 an alternative art school Academia Non Grata (since 2001 Academia Grata) was founded in Pärnu that has produced an original school of performance. At the end of the 1990s, Peeter Laurits initiated the Kütiorg Open Studio in the midst of South Estonian forests, with the purpose of supporting ecological awareness and ecological art.

4. The Soviet state was a rather strict military state. The artists who were attuned to intellectually protect themselves, accepted the same kind of determined identity. In the conditions of the rapid changes of the 1990s, the ‘jacks of all trades’ in art were thriving, i.e. those who had mastered the language games and could manipulate situations and were thus able to smoothly slide from one position to another. Such skilful dealers mostly belonged in the younger generation. This created a split between artists along the line of generations, and an occasionally painful crisis for older artists.

5. The Soviet art education favoured the understanding that ‘art speaks for itself’, and what should be considered first are aesthetics and good taste, whereas the latter was treated in a Kantian manner as something universal, given from above. In the 1990s, however, an artist no longer thinks he should keep quiet about his work, and the so-called good taste is increasingly connected with kitsch and commercial interests. Regarding the research into visual culture and culture, the category of taste today fascinates not so much as an aesthetic, but rather as a sociological phenomenon. Opposing ‘good taste’ to conventions, Inessa Josing (1964) for example published ‘The Manifesto of Bad Taste’. She offered distorted bad taste in her numerous window designs in order to convey a message that derived from the context of time and place.

But what happened to the ‘old avant-garde’ of the 1960s in the rapid end-of-century changes? In 1996, artists of the ‘heroic’ generation, Leonhard Lapin and Raul Meel documented the story of their younger days when art created by them was very much frowned upon. They organised a huge exhibition and issued a series of publications, thus greatly assisting a better understanding of Estonian art history.

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