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!

Stonehenge Replicas Pop Up Everywhere!

Stonehenge replicas, Snowhenge
Is this Stonehenge? No, it’s Snowhenge! It’s a 1/3-scale replica built at the MacKay Jaycees Family Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While it certainly wasn’t as hard to build as the original megalithic stone circle in England, it still involved working 1000 cubic feet of packed snow to make a circle more than six feet tall and thirty feet in diameter. The builders did such an accurate job that they preserved the original monument’s astronomical alignments.

Stonehenge is endlessly fascinating and has inspired people all over the world to create replicas. The most realistic looking is Foamhenge at Natural Bridge, Virginia. The “stones” are made out of painted styrofoam that have been sculpted in the exact shapes of the real Stonehenge.

There’s also the Maryhill Stonehenge, a full-sized concrete recreation of what Stonehenge used to look like in its heyday rather than the ruins we have now. Located in Maryhill, Washington, it was built as a monument to the dead of World War I. In Rolla, Missouri, students at the Missouri University of Science and Technology used water jets to sculpt a Stonehenge out of some 160 tons of granite. It was named one of the year’s Ten Outstanding Engineering Achievements by the National Society of Professional Engineers in 1985. Then there’s Carhenge, near Alliance, Nebraska, which is made out of, well. . .you know.

%Gallery-153665%Americans aren’t the only people making new Stonehenges. Despite having the original, the British have built numerous replicas. Even as far back as the early 19th century, gentlemen with too much money and not enough to do were building Stonehenges on their country estates. Contemporary British Artist Jeremy Deller has put a modern twist on an old tradition with his inflatable bouncy Stonehenge in honor of the 2012 Olympics. And then there’s Stonehenge Aotearoa in New Zealand, which has similar astronomical alignments to Stonehenge (solstices, equinoxes, etc.) but aligned for the Southern hemisphere.

For all the latest on Stonehenge replicas, check out Clonehenge, a blog dedicated to them. They have info about Citrus-henge, Woolhenge, and my personal favorite: Spamhenge! If you make your own replica, send them a photo and they’ll post it online with a rating of one to ten druids. And yes, they know the druids didn’t build Stonehenge.

This isn’t just a quirky blog, but a serious research project. Well, maybe not serious, but pretty meticulous in any case. They’ve documented 72 large permanent Stonehenge replicas from all over the world in addition to the ones made with cake, jelly, glass and medicine bottles.

[Photo courtesy MichiganArchaeologist]

What Is Art? I Don’t Know And Neither Does Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst
One of the perks of being a travel writer is you get to go to press viewings for upcoming exhibitions. While you don’t beat the crowds (hordes of journalists and hangers-on attend these things) you do get to see some great art for free. And if a show is disappointing, at least you didn’t have to pay for it.

I just went to the press viewing at the Tate Modern in London for “Damien Hirst,” a retrospective for one of Britain’s most famous contemporary artists. Hirst became hugely famous and wealthy in the 1990s as a leading figure in the Britart movement. His displays of preserved animals, dead flies, rows of pills and other studies of life and death polarized the artistic community. Critics either loved or hated his work and it became the center of that perennial and unanswerable question: “What is art?”

I have no idea what art is. I’ve heard lots of definitions, usually pontificated at me by some self-styled expert, and none of them have proved terribly convincing. For me, art is a visceral feeling, a reaction that I can’t entirely explain. To paraphrase the old line about pornography: I don’t know what art is, but I know it when I see it.

Sometimes.

Take one of Hirst’s most famous pieces, pictured above. This preserved shark is titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” Is this art? To me it isn’t, since it didn’t give me any sort of gut reaction or make me see the world in a different way. If this is art, then every natural history museum is filled with art. And perhaps they are.

Damien Hirst
This one is called “Mother and Child Divided” and features a cow and calf cut in half. You can walk between the cases and see their insides. This was mildly interesting from a biological point of view, yet once again it felt more like natural history than art, until I saw how the journalists reacted to it. One photographer had brought his daughter along. The girl, about six years old, walked between the cases looking at the calf’s insides. She had that inscrutable expression children sometimes get when they react to something new.

I was wondering what was going on inside her head when a female photographer went up to her father and asked if she could take photos of the girl. The dad said yes and the photographer pulled out her camera. The girl immediately became stiff and put on her “smiling for a family photo” look.

“No, don’t look at me, look at the calf like you don’t know what to think of it,” the woman instructed. “Good! Now give me a cheeky grin.”

Snap snap snap, and the media had created their own reality.

The girl’s father was more ethical. He took a photo of me walking through the cow. I only realized what he was doing when the shutter clicked, so whatever expression I had on my face was the real one.

Is “Mother and Child Divided” art? Yeah, probably. While the piece itself didn’t teach me anything, the audience reaction sure did.

Damien Hirst
I bet that kid liked this next one. It’s called “Beautiful, childish, expressive, tasteless, not art, over simplistic, throw away, kid’s stuff, lacking integrity, rotating, nothing but visual candy, celebrating, inarguably beautiful painting (for over the sofa).”

This is one of Hirst’s Spin Paintings, made by splashing paint on a rotating canvas. It’s something I did in grade school and something Hirst has done a lot. Well, actually his assistants do most of them. Art? Maybe, but not Hirst’s art. In fact many of Hirst’s paintings, including most of his famous Spot Paintings, consisting of rows of colored dots, are done by his assistants and are only “Hirst paintings” because they come from his studio.

Damien HirstThis one I found quite beautiful. It’s called “For the Love of God” and is a platinum cast of an eighteenth century human skull covered by 8,601 diamonds. The teeth are from the original skull. It’s on display for free in a darkened exhibit space in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Room. The spotlights make it glitter in every color of the rainbow. So is this death bling really art? Hell, yeah! Turning mortality into something beautiful, gaudy, and a wee bit obscene brings up all sorts of issues, and if you don’t want to think about them you can at least enjoy beauty for beauty’s sake.

A popular piece with the crowd was “A Thousand Years,” another study of life and death. A glass vitrine holds a white box in which maggots hatch, develop into flies and feed on a cow’s head and a pool of blood. Right above the head is an Insect-o-cutor that attracts some of the flies, who get zapped and fall into a writhing pile of their dead and dying brethren. Others survive to make more maggots. The whole cycle of life and death is contained in one view.

It reminded me of the day my son was born. When my wife went into labor at the hospital the nurses wheeled her away on a gurney, leaving me to pace in the hallway until they prepped the birthing room and summoned me to “assist” with the birth. Moments after they disappeared down the hallway, another group of nurses came into view wheeling another gurney. On it lay a decrepit old man obviously in the last hours of his life.

Whoa. Ummm. . .whoa.

If Hirst’s “A Thousand Years” is art, then so was that scene in the hallway. This is the impression I got again and again from this exhibition. Hirst isn’t teaching anything you can’t learn simply by walking through life with your eyes open, and anyone who has to pay £14 ($22) to learn these lessons in an art museum probably won’t come away any wiser, so what good is this stuff?

You still might want to check this out. The retrospective is huge with dozens of works that I didn’t cover here. Some are beautiful (a stained glass window made of butterfly wings), some fall flat (a row of brightly painted cooking pans) and most leave you wondering just what the hell art is and if anybody really knows. I’m pretty sure Damien Hirst is as much in the dark about that question as I am.

“Damien Hirst” runs from April 4 to September 9, 2012.

All images © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, except “Mother and Child Divided” 2007, Photographed by Tate.

Child on rocking horse is the latest statue on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth

Trafalgar Square
The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square has gotten its latest adornment–a giant bronze kid on a rocking horse.

Trafalgar Square is one of London’s most visited spots. In fact, it’s hard not to go there since it’s right in front of the National Gallery and is a nexus of several important roads. Three plinths flanking Nelson’s Column support statues of a king and two generals, and a fourth plinth, originally constructed to carry a statue of King William IV, is now used as a space for temporary installations.

This latest statue is called “Powerless Structures, Fig. 101” and is meant to reflect a different take on the heroic equestrian statue. You can read the full artist’s statement here.

Trafalgar SquareAs a regular visitor to London I’ve always enjoyed seeing what’s coming next to the Fourth Plinth. Personally, though, I don’t think any of the statues have been as good as the very first, put up in 2005.

“Alison Lapper Pregnant” showed an English artist born with no arms and shortened legs. The giant marble statue, seen here in a photo courtesy Vards Uzvards, showed her nude and pregnant. It caused quite a stir when it went up, with some people saying Lapper’s condition was being exploited for shock value. I didn’t think so and, more importantly, neither did Lapper. Instead, it showed a brave woman who wasn’t afraid to get on with her life despite a terrible birth defect. That’s much more impressive than a cute kid on a rocking horse.

No public domain image of the statue was available at press time. This photo of a model is courtesy Loz Pycock.

Three art fairs in Madrid this month

Madrid, madrid, Spain, spain, art,Madrid has always been a favorite destination for art lovers, and in February you have three more reasons to go. Later this month the Spanish capital will host three contemporary art fairs.

Art Madrid is the biggest, with 45,000 visitors last year. Now in its sixth year, Art Madrid is hosting 89 exhibition spaces that will showcase the collections of 60 art galleries from across Spain and around the world. It’s open from Feb. 16-20.

ARCOmadrid is celebrating its 30th year by focusing on Russian and Latin American contemporary art. Pieces from 12 Russian galleries will be on display and a “Solo Projects” program features artists from Latin America. It’s open Feb. 18-20.

JUSTMAD2 is the youngster of the crowd and only in its second year. About 50 exhibitors from many different countries will be showing their stuff. There will also be special programs on experimental design and sound art. It’s open Feb. 18-20.

It’s no coincidence that these are all happening at the same time. Buyers from all over the world will be here looking for The Next Great Talent, and like book fairs or other trade shows there will be a lot of hustling going on. Visiting one of these fairs will not only give you a large, interesting art exhibition for your money, but also insights into the inner workings of the art world.