The messages of the new photography

One of the intended messages of the art of the 1990s was the reflection and interpretation of the material, social and spiritual life of the years after regaining independence. There was a need to establish a new identity, for which art, especially photography, served as a perfect means. Liberation from the influence of the former Soviet Union provided local art primarily with an enticing opportunity for parodying Soviet symbols, emblems and other icons — the use of these symbols was only abandoned much later.

In the early 1990s, local photography pinned its hopes on 'revealing' the Soviet system: in special editions of foreign magazines there appeared articles proving that even in the Soviet 'ideal state' there was much that was anti-social: prisons, youth colonies, homeless people, immigrants, racial problems etc. The denial and 'hooligan-like' ridiculing of former idols was logical in every way, but it tied Estonian photography to the Soviet set of symbols for quite a few years. This process did not mean so much liberation from the past as it announced a new, 'negative' dependence.

At the same time Estonian society began adjusting to new 'socio-cultural' conventions. Capitalism, which had been naively idealised, revealed many of its problematic sides: we are now facing problems that earlier seemed to be just a fabrication of Soviet totalitarian propaganda: financial colonisation, unemployment, aggressive advertising, the power of money and everything being for sale, and inequality of the sexes. These phenomena are, however, fairly new in Estonia and have not yet been reflected in the mirror of art.

Even though the import of 'classical' protest discourses (for example, the methods of western socio-critical art) arguably brings along the danger of losing local originality in art, there is no reason to panic. Despite the 'unification' of aesthetic methods, the different geographic regions can be distinguished by source material, to which internationally known and widely used artistic languages are applied. Thus in contemporary Estonian photography we can find the internationally successful strategies of 'comparative photography' (Helena Hage and Elin Kard), 'fictive taxonomy' (Mart Viljus), or so-called 'subjective cartography' (Marko Laimre). The frequent juxtaposition of picture and text, the visual and verbal, does not surprise anyone. In Estonian photography the role of text varies from commenting–parodying (the 'Avangard' group) to manifesting (Indrek Kangro & Cirkus).

The use of the concept of 'postmodernism' in the Estonian discussion of art began only in the middle of the 1990s — and that was closely connected with photography. However, at the turn of the millennium there were already traces of a certain tiredness with the 'postmodernist' definition of art. The return of neo-liberalism has left its mark also on Estonian photography. Mostly it can be seen in the 'softening' of critical attitudes: art and mass culture are often identified with each other in our contemporary photography — entertainment prevails more and more over intellectual art.

There are also other signs of 'ennui'. While in the post-modern period there was talk of the meaning of the pictures, with the importance of context and the aspects that linked photography and memory being stressed, current attitudes occasionally seem to be opposed to the ones from the middle of the 1990s. People seem to wish to escape from 'meanings'; creation seems to originate from interpretations derived from the collision of different meanings and quotations rather than from context. The past appears to have become taboo once again. Estonian photography seems to have fallen into an ill-defined slumber; after speedily storming into both the local and international art world in the 1990s, it seems to have taken a time out.

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