The 1990s — the era of photographers

The liberation at the beginning of the 1990s was one of the major turning points in the recent history of Estonia. In culture a period of expansion began: new galleries appeared, the decentralisation of Tallinn-centred art life took place, international art festivals were organised, and participation in the most important art events of the world became commonplace. Estonian photography — and art in general — appeared in international art magazines (for example, overviews in Art in America, Art&Design, Neue Bildende Kunst etc.), and at home many new channels for the expression of artistic thought appeared. The disappearance of the state monopoly over television and publishing made possible the appearance of many new art programmes and publications. In 1994 RTV (Reklaamitelevisioon — commercial television) dedicated a series of programmes to contemporary photo artists; art museums began organising photo exhibitions and art magazines began publishing theoretical photographic research.

As important social changes took place in the 90s, society began to favour art forms that reflected the changes in life. Attention focused on topics from the past that had previously been ignored or twisted to fit into the ideology. The attitudes were ironic toward both local and Soviet cultural activities previously regarded as 'holy': collective tourism to the Black Sea, living in Corbusier’-type panel houses, or serving in the Soviet military were topics whose meanings were often turned upside down.

In this new situation the international interest in Estonian real life art became a determining factor. In the first half of the 1990s there were many exhibitions of Estonian and Baltic art abroad: 'Baltisk Fotografi' (1992) at the Museum of Photographic Art in Odense; 'Borderlands: Contemporary Baltic Photography' (1993–1995) in Glasgow, York, Derby and elsewhere in Great Britain; 'Out of the Shadow: Photo-based art from the Baltics' (1998) in Greenville, North Carolina in the U.S., and many others. Often photographers were asked to participate in art exhibitions both in Estonia and abroad. Due to this fact the 1990s in Estonian art have been called 'the era of photographers'. The festival of 1992 in Saaremaa showcased the work of top photographers of the 1980s and 90s (Jüri Okas, Tõnu Tormis, Siim-Tanel Annus, Peeter Tooming, Peeter-Maria Laurits, Peeter Linnap and others). Also the exhibition of the Soros Contemporary Centre for Arts, 'Substance — no substance' (1993), centred on photography.

The Museum of Estonian Art and Tartu Art Museum began buying the works of photographers for their collections, and the best art critics of Estonia reviewed photo exhibitions. New photography acquired a central position in art and, based on postmodernist ideas (deconstruction, contemporary archaeology, social criticism), even played a leading role in the modernisation of art. Even the Saaremaa Biennales of 1995 ('History Factory') and 1997 ('Invasion'), which became the central manifestations of Estonian art, were initially photo festivals. At the beginning of the 1990s attention focused on the artists of DeStudio (Peeter-Maria Laurits and Herkki-Erich Merila), who used already existing images of mass media in their works. In the middle of that decade Peter and Eve Linnap became the centre of attention with their ironic deconstruction of the national, political and personal identities of Estonians.

In the middle of the 1990s, the art scene was enriched by a group of Estonian Art Academy students, 'Faculty of Taste'/ 'Mobile Gallery', who organised a variety of exhibitions based on new ideas. The main aesthetic and rhetorical strategy of the 'Mobile Gallery' was deconstructionism: re- and decontextualisation of consumer and personal photographs and objects, symbioses of photo and text, and often the use of photos in installations. The most remarkable artists to have emerged from this school are Marko Laimre and Mart Viljus and the critics Mari Laanemets and Andres Härm. Along with the so-called social-conceptual use of photos, many artists also drew from pop culture (in addition to DeStudio also Tarve Hanno Varres and Jasper Zoova) and contemporary mannerism (Toomas Volkmann, Mark Raidpere, Ly Lestberg).

In the 1990s photography also became accepted in art on an institutional level: Tallinn Town Hall Museum was turned into the Photography Museum, in 1997 at Tartu Higher Art School a faculty of photography was opened, photographers were accepted as members of the Artists’ Union and other organisations, and the issuing of Photo Magazine began on a regular basis (founder and publisher Juris Moks).

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