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 New New Orleans: Memories Still Locked Behind Closed Doors

New Orleans is a city of festivities – conventions, Mardi Gras balls, graduation ceremonies, entertainment. And for decades, the place where New Orleanians of all races gathered for those events was the Municipal Auditorium, the centerpiece of Louis Armstrong Park.

An afternoon spent at the New Orleans Public Library brings to life a sense of what the auditorium, dedicated in May 1930, meant to this city. Page after page of records and photographs depict ice shows, diving exhibitions, boxing matches, performances by the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo.

One of the two meeting halls was hung with bunting for a 1937 gathering of the National Rural Letter Carriers Association, the pictures show. The auditorium hosted gatherings of morticians, shown looking over the latest double lined caskets and gleaming stainless steel morgue examining tables.

A list of events for 1953 lists Carnival balls every single night in January except New Year’s Day, often two a night. And the auditorium did not limit itself only a white audience. Joe Louis appeared that year in August with singer Ruth Brown (at an event labeled “All Colored.”) Later on, the auditorium was used as a temporary casino, and housed the New Orleans Jazz basketball team as well as hockey.

This auditorium where so many of New Orleans’ festive events took place still stands across from the French Quarter, in use as recently as 2005, when it was a center for the distribution of MREs (Meals Ready To Eat).

But since the aftermath of the storm, the Municipal Auditorium has stood quiet, a looming reminder of the memories locked behind its closed doors, despite years of trying to figure out what can be done with it. It is arguably the single most important civic building in New Orleans that remains shut since Katrina, although there has been plenty of discussion about its future.

%Gallery-170748%In November, the auditorium appeared in the HBO series “Treme,” in a scene set in 2008, in which developers suggest it can become a National Jazz Center. In fact, New Orleans’ former mayor, Ray Nagin, backed a plan to turn it into a state-of-the-art production facility, but that idea fell apart amid criticism from city council members and the city’s inspector general.

There is an inkling of hope, however, that the auditorium may someday be put back into use. In May, the city announced that it planned to use $16.67 million in FEMA grants to begin a restoration, out of a total of $27.5 million that’s been allocated for repairs.

“The city has been very aggressive in working with FEMA to get our fair share of recovery dollars,” Ryan Berni, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said in an email. “While these new funds are an encouraging step forward, there is a still a ways to go.”

For one thing, the repairs will have to take place in phases – first, the removal of asbestos and lead from the interior, the replacement of the roof, the stabilization of the roof, and removal of mold which is said to cover much of the walls inside.

But there are no schematics of what the restored auditorium will look like, no architects’ renderings, no visions of how the building could be brought back to life. That’s because more money for the project will be needed, and it simply isn’t there yet, says the mayor’s spokesman.

Its only use, for now, is as the backdrop to events that take place in Armstrong Park, like the Treme Gumbo Festival held in November, and the summer concert series sponsored by People United for Armstrong Park, which had its inaugural season in 2012.

Even though the park has been cleaned up, and is starting to attract a regular stream of visitors, that wasn’t the original goal for Emanuel Lain, one of PUFAP’s founders.

He was actually more interested in the restoration of the auditorium than in fixing up the park when he started canvassing homes in Treme, the neighborhood that backs up to the park. He wanted to know whether neighbors thought it was important to bring the building back to life, and what they might like to see it be used for.

“I saw amazing acts. This was like the center of the universe,” Lain said. “Wrestling matches. Carnival balls. Amazing things happened here.”

It’s surely important to Lain, who attended his high school graduation in the auditorium, which has the indestructible aura of those solidly built 1920s buildings that dot the American landscape. All visitors can see now is its exterior, remarkably unscathed given the damage that Emanuel says has taken place inside.

The words “ART,” “DRAMA,” “ATHLETICS” and “POETRY” are carved in the facade above one entrance, echoing photographs that show the names of famous writers such as “SHAKESPEARE,” “VIRGIL,” “MILLET” and “DANTE” carved on the cornice above the two auditoriums inside. Other words have now joined them. “DO NOT OPEN,” reads a door on the building’s east side.

For now, those photographs, tucked away in the city archives on the library’s third floor, are the only inkling that visitors have to what lies inside. But if Lain gets his way, perhaps those memories can become realities once more. “We did something special,” Lain says of the work that’s taken place to restore the surrounding park. “Now, we want to build on that.”

For more on the New New Orleans, click here.

[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]

Wine lovers can win ski trip to Chile this summer with “Sips & Slopes” contest

Chile wineIf wine and schussing are your thang, unleash your inner poet and enter the Wines of Chile “Sips & Slopes” contest. The rules are simple: compose and tweet an original haiku about Chile, using the hashtag #SipsSlopes. The lucky winner and a guest will win a five–night stay at Chile’s largest ski resort, Valle Nevado, including two round-trip tickets on LAN airlines. As you might expect, being wined and dined is included.

Chile is well-known for its stellar skiing and other outdoor recreational pursuits (both winter and summer), as well as for being “un pais de poetas,” a country of poets. Literary greats such as Pablo Neruda and Isabel Allende are the inspiration behind the “Sips & Slopes” contest, which is to showcase Chile’s reputation as a rising star of South American wine production.

The country’s diverse landscapes and topography provide ideal microclimates for the production of a wide range of varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Carmenere, Chardonnay, and Viognier. Where Chile was once merely a mass producer of low- to mid-range wines, today it’s a serious contender against the high-end wines of Argentina’s famed Mendoza Valley across the border.

Chilean wine regions such as the Maipo, Aconcagua, and Colchagua Valleys are drawing visitors from all over the world, who come for the Mediterranean climate, rural pastimes such as biking, horseback riding, and hiking, and excellent (and affordable) dining, wine tasting, and accommodation options.

Applicants to “Sips & Slopes” will be judged on “creativity, originality, and adherence to haiku format.” Entries will be accepted until June 30th (only one per person and Twitter account, please); the winner will be announced on or around July 7th. Buena suerte!

[Photo credit: Flickr user wharman]

5 Simple Tips For Wine Tasting

Gadlinks for Wednesday 7.15.09


Joyous hump day! I’ve never looked forward to Wednesday as I have this particular week. There’s a good deel to look forward to when it comes to travel stories as well. Take these, for example.

More Gadlinks HERE.

Travel poem of Tuscany

This is National Poetry Month. With that in mind, here’s an idea for combining visual images gathered from a travel experience with poetry and music. The female narrator, I’m assuming, is the person who took the photos and wrote the poem. According to the description, this video was inspired by the writer’s recent trip to Tuscany.

The words reflect the images of this region of Italy, and the music helps capture the mood of the traveler’s experiences. The result is a sensory experience for the viewer. I particularly liked the contrasting textures in the blend of architecture, scenery and food. Very cool idea.