Is There Hope For Lovely Creatures? is an exhibition based on works by Estonian- and Russian-speaking artists living in Estonia, who are more likely to be inward-looking and share the joy and longing, hesitation, pain and worry of women with unspoken, unpredictable force, rather than declaring suffering or fighting for their rights. Although I was afraid that women from the Russian-speaking cultural space would be significantly different from those living in the Estonian-speaking cultural space, it was reassuring to discover that we are all living in the openness of a common time and place: most of us were born and studied here, and have later come into contact with the wider world.
While re-reading poetry by Anna Akhmatova, which fiercely defends women’s self-expression, I realised that the most important starting point for the upcoming exhibition should be a woman’s honest and personal reactions to trust and climate crises, wars and pandemics, the imbalance in traditional family relationships and what the tensions caused by them have transformed into in our innermost feelings. Therefore, this exhibition turned out to be slightly melancholic and wistful, and slightly retrospective. Only Johanna Ulfsak, completely immersed in her reliable handicrafts with an abundance of ideas, seems truly happy. But she too is affected by the situation in which the “global” has become “local”, changing the world in such a way that you only trust what you feel on your own skin.
Elin Kard, whose self-portrait opens the exhibition, has painfully described the individuality of the human body and thought, both as an artist in the late 1990s and early 2000s and a writer about art under the pseudonym of Elena Šmakova: “… based on the socio-cultural background, the part in Estonian culture capable of a breakthrough is indeed focused on self-reflection and individuality, and in a way oriented to the therapeutic aspect. And the treatment continues.”1 Elin Kard. Perifeeria pioneerid murdepunkti otsimas. Sirp 09.07.2004; https://sirp.ee/s1-artiklid/c6-kunst/perifeeria-pioneerid-murdepunkti-otsimas. Sixteen years later, Anna Škodenko says: “I always prefer to circulate around the contradiction itself. I like to balance on that line where every possible feeling is equally credible, trying to invent different ways of how not to be involved in a game of choosing between “A” or “B”. It has nothing to do with neutrality, but rather the “domestication” of some kind of antagonism. Each statement is strongly bound with its antipode. Seen as such, things become beautifully fragile and lead to unexpected dimensions.”2 https://www.hiap.fi/anna-skodenko-solidarity-uncertainty-sensitivity/ These two quotes aptly characterise the attitudes of the more self-confident and pragmatic Estonian artists – and the Russian-speaking artists living in Estonia who are optimistically seeking to adapt. In the case of both, it is clear a woman with her sensitive skin, maintaining balance on such a fluctuating terrain, leave a particularly strong impression.
In the 1990s, which we could set as the beginning of the timeline for Estonia’s constantly rejuvenating art culture, it often happened that a man looking for opportunities for self-reflection was to be found floating somewhere in the clouds or withdrawing from life, while a woman stood firmly on the ground and tried to take responsibility.3 “… in what direction will Estonian art move in a situation when Estonia, which has restored its statehood, has changed from the “Soviet West” to the “East” of the international art scene. /…/ melancholy or trauma offer us a few clues … I would dare to say that the Estonian woman as a symbol became one of the most problematic constructs during the “transition period”, especially in the field of visual representation,” writes Katrin Kivimaa. Rahvariietes tüdrukud ja teised tegelased rahvusliku ja soolise identiteedi ristumisi „üleminekuaja“ eesti kunstis (Girls in National Costumes and Other Characters Intersections of Nationality and Gender in Estonian Art of Transition). – Kunstiteaduslikke uurimusi 2003/3-4 (12). The local Russian community in Estonia had to transition to a new identity through a double filter: first by trying to define themselves within the process of wider Estonian society gaining self-awareness, and later by doing likewise in an Estonia that sees itself as belonging to the Western world.
The exhibition includes ten artists with works dated from between 2004 and 2022. Nine women and one man. The first half of this period features the seminal and eloquent works by Tanja Muravskaja, Kristina Norman, Marge Monko and Liina Siib, who knew how to use art as a pretext for highlighting the pain points of life and also speak for the voiceless Russian-speaking community. None of them is featured in this exhibition. The reason for this is the age difference of approximately ten years with those represented here and the fact that they have played significant roles in defining the art history of Estonia during the time of transition. They are now professionals who have acquired the ample possibilities of art and acknowledged its protective parallel right to life, especially because a more socially politicised activism addressing both institutions and passers-by operated alongside them – and still is.4 Mare Tralla rightly states that she mostly refrains from connecting activism and the art gallery, because “… I have seen many times with sadness that when grassroots activism is brought to the art gallery, it is stripped of its power.” – https://cca-admin.cca.ee/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/4.04.2018-mare-tralla.pdf.
Being the first exhibition at Tallinn Art Hall’s Lasnamäe Pavilion, Is There Hope For Lovely Creatures? seeks to access the distinctiveness of the creative impulses of Russian-speaking artists in Estonia, from works of a mostly calmed-down era that is usually able to appreciate the ambiguous attraction of beauty. Hoping to find in them what Jevgeni Zolotko has called “сухой остаток бытия” or “the pure residue of being”5 https://www.kunstihoone.ee/programm/may-you-be-loved-and-protected/ , where art, being able to tame the raw power of living and funnel it into an eloquent image, is also capable of preserving the original creative impulse that comes from the far-from-art authenticity, while simultaneously betting on the cliché of a more passionate Slavic temperament or simply greater straightforwardness, sincerely wishing to know how the Estonian art scene, which is mostly inward-looking and turning towards irony in the case of doubt, has influenced them.
Anna Škodenko, Vassa Ponomarjova and Maria Sildjarevitš indeed speak straightforwardly, but they do so using the poetic sense of nostalgia that has settled with remembrance. We do not find here a conscious attempt to blend in with the context of the era, ambiguity in the case of uncertainty or trendy references characteristic of Estonian art, such as the early works of Merike Estna. Sometimes speaking directly and about themselves, sometimes delving into the stories of others with subtle sensitivity, Anna, Maria and Vassa say what they have to say with a personal touch, without relying on prearranged generalisations, balancing their feelings with aesthetics. They too talk about womanhood, as this exhibition asks them to. However, man, insofar as he belongs to the woman’s world, is more present in their works than in those by their Estonian sisters. Therefore, it’s no coincidence that it is a man who creates the generalisation of a young Russian woman in Estonia, wandering the decaying Soviet landscapes in this exhibition. At the time of filming his videos No More Hope for Lovely Creatures and What Junkie Dreamed of Before Death, Aleksei Gordin was a 23-year-old young man from Tomsk, who had studied at a Russian-language school in Pärnu and later at the Estonian Academy of Arts. The naturalness and rawness of his frames were the biggest source of inspiration for this exhibition and its title. The realisation that the shots that seemed to show us a completely different time and space indeed belonged to the here and now had an upsetting and haunting effect on the curator.
Not everything can be explained. The curator of this exhibition was not interested in the role of the participating artists in the history of the development of artistic thought in Estonian society, looking at it from the wrong end of a telescope to minimise the view and create distance. Empathetic and relying on feeling, this exhibition wants its participating artists to be important in close-up, seen from the right end of the telescope. I don’t know where it came from, but suddenly it was there: the sadness over the possibility of a woman’s flexible, sometimes cunning wisdom, her flurry of inexplicable moods, sudden impatience, but also constant patience, her quiet wistfulness which shapes the backdrop to life but fortunately has usually nothing to do with the desire for fame, disappearing from the picture. The fear remains that a woman who has won herself the right will find herself forgotten as a representative of the asexuality accompanying AIDS and pandemics in the blissfully blurred genderless collective image, regardless of her distinctiveness and strength. She dissolves into oblivion to never return, like the girls wandering in Alexei Gordin’s video. They are reclaimed by their old landscapes, because the junkie’s vision of happiness in the haze of drugs will be the last before he dies. It disappears like Vassa Ponomarjova’s Memories of the Grandmother Who Never Knew, or like Anna Škodenko’s figure of Ariadne entangled in the network of fine anxious lines and Maria Sidljarevitš’s fragmented mosaics of childhood memories. At the moment it seems that there is unfortunately still a long way to go to the blissful state where all women are brothers and all men are sisters. And on this journey, the man in a woman is often as awkward as the woman in a man.
“Oh Ariadne, I am coming, I just need to work this maze inside my head … For the life of me, I don’t remember what I came to find …” Anna Škodenko’s Theseus sings in the androgynous voice of Asaf Avidan, spinning in a music box. After such indecisiveness, Edith Karlson’s tiny old family photograph of dinosaurs, Family, seems believable, witty and touchingly carefree. In the background, Jimmy Somerville’s no less androgynous voice from the film based on Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando, starring Tilda Swinton: “Here I am / Neither a woman, nor a man / We are joined, we are one / … / I am on Earth / And I am in outer space / I’m being born and I am dying /…/ To be free of the past / And of the future / That beckons me”. Well, who doesn’t love Tilda?
But let us turn back to the artists in this exhibition and the work that has captured the “pure residue of being” with the greatest generalising power. It dates back to 2007 and is called Lectern. Anu Põder was sixty years old when she created this work, having experienced life’s difficulties much longer than the young female artists beside her. Anu’s compromises and sacrifices to life could not count for the recognition she received when she was gone. And what would it have changed anyway? Her daughter Alice’s miniature sketches before starting work on the large state portrait of Estonia’s first female president are placed face to face with Anu’s work, the non-existent speaker who is burned to ashes at the lectern. It seems like a warning about something that luckily never happened in real life to the real President. Indeed: fragility is bravery, which a woman carries throughout her entire life and even beyond her death.6 Anu Põder. Haprus on vaprus. Kumu Art Museum 17.03.2017-06.08.2017. Curated by Rebeka Põldsam.