Estonian Art And Literature: Big Ideas In A Small Country

For a country with only 1.3 million people, Estonia has a hell of an art scene. There are several good museums and galleries and a lively round of readings and exhibition openings.

One of the biggest names in the Estonian art scene is Raoul Kurvitz. He’s been big for a few decades now, producing a steady output of installation pieces, experimental films and paintings. Right now KUMU, the Art Museum of Estonia, has dedicated an entire floor to his work.

While I’m a hard sell with contemporary art (see my ambivalent response to Damien Hirst) I found Kurvitz’s work consistently challenging and innovative. He ranges from accessible videos like this cover of Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness Darkness to weird art happenings that leave the viewers scratching their heads and feeling slightly disturbed.

This is an artist that takes risks for his art. In the 1989 experimental film “When Lord Zarathustra was Young and Polite,” he gets flogged by two female assistants and then washed into a Finnish river by an opening sluice gate. In another video he’s surrounded by fire. And I have to wonder what that blue paint tasted like when it came out of the fish’s belly.

KUMU is an ultramodern building chock full of Estonian art of all periods. What’s interesting is how they followed all the great Western traditions such as Impressionism, Cubism and the rest but put their own twist on it. And then there are the mavericks like Edvard Wiiralt who veered off into their own high strangeness.

The literature scene is doing well too. I was lucky enough to meet Piret Raud and Kätlin Kaldmaa, two Estonian authors who gave me the lowdown on writing in a language that only a little more than 900,000 of their countrymen speak. The rest of Estonia’s population are native Russian speakers and tend to look eastward for their reading material.

%Gallery-179740%Given such a small readership, you’d think publishing would be all but dead in Estonia, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fall of Communism led to an explosion of publishing houses. Where once there had only been a couple of official state-run publishers, now there’s more than a hundred indies. Many are micropresses with only one or two titles, while others are major houses with long lists.

That breath of freedom must have been a relief after decades of Soviet occupation. During those times many Western books and magazines were banned and sailors made a good side income smuggling them in. One of their best sellers, I’m told, was Playboy magazine. Pornography was banned in the Soviet Union. They saw it as Western decadence, I suppose. So admiring the Playmate of the Month became an act of political defiance. The world is a weird place.

Besides reading illegal imports, some Estonian writers bucked the system by participating in the Samizdat movement, writing subversive books and distributing them through a postal network to like-minded individuals. Since the Soviets didn’t exactly dole out printing presses with the ration cards, most of these books weren’t bound. They’d be typed out with a couple of carbon copies or simply handwritten. Kaldmaa told me some books were even photographed page by page and you’d get a stack of photos in the mail.

I would have loved to meet one of these writers. I write what I feel and all I have to risk is some anonymous coward giving me shit in the comments section. Say what you felt in the Soviet Union and you could end up in a KGB torture chamber. Writers back then had balls.

On my last night in the capital Tallinn I was invited to a poetry reading at Kinokohvik Sinilind, a rambling cafe/bar/arthouse cinema in Old Town. Several poets and a band took turns on the weirdly lit stage doing their stuff while a large crowd listened and chatted. The poetry was all in Estonian, of course, so I listened to the cadence of the words rather than their meaning. An odd experience but a rewarding one.

There were a lot of prominent writers there. Kaldmaa introduced me to a poet who specialized in translating poems from Japanese, Chinese and Korean into Estonian. He spoke French and English too. Scary. I met a whirlwind of others too, at the table or at the bar. Everyone seemed to have their latest book tucked under their arm, all cleverly designed by local talent.

I’m jealous of poets; they always get nicer covers.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Eating and Drinking in Estonia!

The (Un)Wired: A Free Wi-Fi Manifesto

The year is twenty-ten A.D. and Wi-Fi should be free.
We travelers bear no grudge with you as long as you agree,
But if you’re that one schmuck who likes to play it old school,
Charging folks for internet–well, then basically, you’re a tool.

Your penny-pinching greed smells just like boardroom boredom.
It’s out of touch and backwards, not to mention just plain dumb.
Please get with the program, be ye airport or hotel:
If you don’t have free Wi-Fi, then you can go to hell.

Maybe somehow you’re still stuck way back in 1999,
But nowadays, we’re all online, everywhere and all the time.
We’re riding on a bullet train to a place called progress,
Get on it or get off it; win or lose, more or less.

Now don’t start waggin’ your finger and talkin’ ’bout capitalism.
‘Cuz what you’re doin’ and what that is, capitalism it isn’t.
You preach that competition matters most in a race,
But Bandwidth Bandit’s the losing horse, so here’s my trophy in your face.

Don’t believe the suits who tell us bloggers we’re too sassy,
‘Cuz let me tell you dittoheads, “Do you know what’s so not classy?”
Welcoming frequent flyers who only wanna soak their feet,
Then telling your five-star guest to go and check his email on the street.

Hey Luddite, while you’re at it, dream big, don’t stop there–
Stick your dirty hands in the water, in the men’s room, if you dare.
You could make a fortune charging for all the stuff that should be free.
A nickel to wipe, a dime to pee, and half a buck to breathe.Real funny how some of you think Wi-Fi’s, like, optional,
An extra perk like cushioned hangars or an ice bucket that’s full.
Well, keep your stupid coffee machine and you’re fancy new remote.
We watch TV online now, perhaps you didn’t know?

Now we’ve all got 3- and 4G, it’s isn’t like we need you,
It’s just your stupid concrete walls keep the signal from getting through.
So please stop annoying us or perhaps find another hobby?
‘Cuz right now I keep running with my laptop to the lobby.

I’ve been around the world, from Port Harcourt to Beijing,
The third world’s better wired than your top floor executive wing.
I can Twitter in Rwanda, get on Facebook and type,
But in your three-hundred-dollar hotel room, I can’t log on to Skype.

Now I spy with my bionic eyes the not-so-distant future,
And if you wanna be part of it, then let me offer you this here clue:
Soon every single traveler’s gonna check in with an iPad–
If your lousy hotel ain’t got Wi-Fi, than watch us get real iMad.

We won’t show up with pitchforks or with gas bombs at your door,
The way you’ll know we’re real pissed off is the way in which we ignore.
We’ll take a different airline, find a different place to play,
We’ll see you got no free signal, and we’ll simply walk away.

Really guys, don’t fret too much, it’s really no big whoop:
Your hotel will make a nice warehouse, or high-rise chicken coop.
Sit back and enjoy your silly ten-buck charges while they last,
You’ll need the cash come winter, when you’re freezing your homeless ass.

Sadly, it’s not just hotels who behave this way,
Not naming any names, LAX, IAD, JFK,
We’re talking to you ‘cuz your airports are such a mess.
You’re necessary but you still suck, so why not suck a little less?

Give us free Wi-Fi and we won’t hate you as much.
(Surely it costs less than nasty airport fudge.)
But you still just don’t get it and that’s exactly why,
We’d rather fly through Singapore, Portland or Dubai.

So here’s the proverbial memo you’ll keep swearing you didn’t get:
“Give us free Wi-Fi dammit, we deserve our internet.”
If not, then don’t complain when history adds you to the pile,
With drive-in movies, the horse-drawn carriage, civilization on the Nile.

So kudos to all those companies who know us, love and get us:
The mom and pop joints, B&Bs and dingy Chinatown bus.
You corporate minds should wake up now and please smell the coffee:
Starbucks has free Wi-Fi now, and so does MickeyDees.

What’s that you say? You still can’t catch the gist?
Of what everyone’s been sayin’–your kids and The Economist.
Really guys, it’s not so hard and I’m pleading on one knee,
It’s already twenty-ten A.D. and Wi-Fi should be free.

Peace out.

(Photo: Flickr Miklo Olivier, Dana-2)