The festival of contemporary art ART IST KUKU NU UT in Tartu
Kati Ilves, Art Critic and Historian
15.09.–16.11.2011. Tartu
About the Mentality of Place – Tartu, Estonia
This year the festival of contemporary art ART IST KUKU NU UT in Tartu opens its doors for a second time. The festival with its side-programmes is taking place in different places all over the town of Tartu, starting with the Art Museum of Tartu, and including the Y-gallery and Tartu Art House.

The roots of the ART IST KUKU NU UT festival lie in the Month of Art of Tartu – an art festival that used to take place for one month (February) every year. The format of the previous one wasn’t very clear, it was mainly oriented towards a younger audience, but it lacked an international programme and/or foreign visitors. A year ago, curator Rael Artel and gallerist/artist Kaisa Eiche took it over and a new event – ART IST KUKU NU UT – was born, this time in the shape of an international contemporary art festival. This means quite an ambitious undertaking for a place and scene like the one in Tartu.
The organizers of the Festival of Contemporary Art ART IST KUKU NU UT (from left) Kaisa Eiche and Rael Artel. 2011
The poster of the festival of contemporary art ART IST KUKU NU UT
The event is taking place in the second largest town in Estonia, historically a university town. It is interesting to have Tartu chosen to be an art venue with an international programme, especially considering the local history and circumstances. The history of Tartu is challenging in the context of art. Tartu was the epicenter of Estonian art until the beginning of the Soviet period, when the Stalinist ruling powers decided to disband the group of local intellectuals that had been gathered around the Pallas art school. After dismantling Pallas and moving tertiary education in art to Tallinn, Tartu became second in importance as an art centre. The disposition of Tartu has always depended on the dominant intellectual ideas derived from the university, and so was the art. If you were to try to find a common denominator to describe local art, we could base it on an exhibition that took place a couple of years ago (in 2007) in the Tallinn Kunstihoone, and its curators. The exhibition Estonian art in the 21st century. New Wave,(1) presented the main directions in Estonian art and offered a model for understanding the local art world. The curators Andres Härm and Hanno Soans divided the Estonian art scene into three territorial areas: Tallinn, Tartu and Pärnu. If in Tallinn socalled ‘celebrity art’ is dominant and Pärnu pretentiously represents the opposite of it, then in Tartu the works of art are positively less ambitious and leave space to relate with the surrounding environment much more effectively. The younger artists of Tartu are mostly with a background of semiotics, philosophy or literature; the art is more semiotic and language sensitive. One of the guest curators this year, Ellen Blumenstein, admitted this in her most recent interview.

The line-up of 2011
The festival is hosting three major exhibitions. The highlight this year is undoubtedly Marina Abramovic’ exhibition Art must be beautiful. Selected works by Marina Abramovic at the Tartu Art Museum. Abramovic needs no introduction to knowledgeable art-loving patrons, however the local audience (and here I mean all of the Baltic states, not just Estonia) usually does not have the possibility of seeing Abramovic and other artists without travelling abroad, or has to make do with the works transferred via an alternative reality. With this I mean the observation of art by means of the internet – I, too, kept an eye on her latest significant exhibition The Artist is Present, held at the MoMa, and its programmes and events on the Web, thus getting an overview of everything but missing out on the chance to sit opposite Marina. Hence also missing the main idea of the whole exhibition.

Importing an artist like Marina to Tartu on the art periphery has a seminal importance, and not only in the context of Tartu, but for the whole of the Baltics and Eastern Europe. Rael Artel says she has assembled a display of Marina’s works taking into account the space in which it will be operating and exhibited. Marina also comes from Eastern Europe, yet she has established herself in the West. The exhibition will show-case works from her two solo periods and, according to the curator, the main anchor of the display will be the video piece Art Must Be Beautiful. Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975).

ART IST KUKU NU UT grant KUKU NUNNU winner exhibition
ART IST KUKU NU UT this year announced the KUKU NUNNU competition which offered a 1000 euro production grant with exhibition space at the Y-gallery. Numerous works were received and the organ-ising team picked out the project Leaving Tartu as the winner. Leaving Tartu is a joint project by four artists: Anna Hints, Marja-Liisa Plats, Toomas Thetloff and Eva Labotkin. All either come from Tartu, or are linked to it strongly enough to conceptualise themselves within the context. Within the realms of Estonia the journey moves from Tartu to Tallinn: the capital, which is larger and offers more opportunities. In addition to practical reasons forcing people to move from a smaller place to a larger one, Tartu is often talked about in the context of its own mythological aspects. In Estonia it is often said that “Tartu swallows you”. It is an old university town with a strong mythology of its own; its own time, structure and mind. “Tartu swallows you” is something dream-like: you may think you are going there for a day or two, but may end up disappearing. Tartu can also be viewed metaphorically. It is every place in Eastern Europe, as opposed to the wider world, the real world. Hence Tartu is Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius and Krakow, as well as a string of other cities I cannot remember. The reasons for going away the artists have highlighted in an interview given to Müürileht(2) are different, yet cross over in some aspects. One of the four artists (Marja-Liisa Plats) is convinced that leaving is often an escapist notion derived from the belief that the grass is always greener on the other side. Anna Hints and Eva Labotkin mention both practical and emotional reasons – people leave Tartu to study film, but also to follow the internal call of wanting to try out, discover and explore life elsewhere. This exhibition ought to be viewed in parallel with Marina’s exhibition, to reference multiple realities existing both in parallel and together. One is a success story, the other a story counting on potential success.

The second major exhibition of the festival has been put together by guest curators Ellen Blumenstein and Kathrin Meyer. Blumenstein is a freelance critic working in Berlin and Meyer is a curator working at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hannover. Blumenstein recently visited Tartu in order to prepare for the exhibition and to meet with local artists. Her comments about the local art scene were published by the cultural weekly Sirp(3). In conclusion it can be said that Blumenstein talked about what was expected: that the arena has internalised itself and lacks active, outward-facing discussion and debate. This was the impetus for Meyer and Blumenstein’s project of trying to put the works of different artists into a thematically appropriate discussion. Acts of Refusal is a curator project concentrating on the act of escape and its various metaphors. At the centre of the project are the results of changed political perspectives in the context of the individual. In the press release of the exhibition it refers to the thoughts of the Italian philosopher Paolo Virno: “The act of fleeing is an actual possibility for changing a condition that has become unbearable.”

In addition to the three main exhibitions, the Tartu festival will also present various events and programmes to encourage and host debate and academic learning. What sort of debates will be held and the conclusions reached can only be speculated upon; at the same time a festival like this is exactly the right kind of environment for raising various issues and questions. Before arriving in Tartu, one ought to, as a small home assignment, think about what the art of the previous Eastern bloc was like: its market and direction, its prevailing tendencies and the sociopolitical situation. Importing an art superstar like Marina Abramovic into the environment of Estonia is no doubt important, but at the same time we may want to question the benefits of this desire for the West. Will it fix things in the local creative space, or just present itself as a spectacle? Will it be an encouragement to local artists, in the style of “all paths are open”, or a determined attempt at proving oneself, an attempt to be what we are not (yet)?

Leaving Tartu is of great significance also outside the context of art, and of course beyond Tartu. From both Estonia and other former Soviet states a constant exodus of the labour force and brain drain is occurring. Estonians are attacking Finland, Scandinavia and English-speaking countries. Some time ago, a project called Talents Home was started in Estonia, with its patron being the president himself. The idea of the project is to bring back home the young specialists who have acquired education, knowledge and experience abroad. The start-up definitely had positive results, however, it also opened up a debate on unpleasant and painful matters relating to social benefits and living standards. If one were to view the issue in an even smaller context, purely from the point of view of artists and art professionals, then the reality bites even harder. In addition to the matters of the mundane and the everyday, the issue of the audience’s mindset and level of education also pops up. Contemporary art is unpopular outside its own circles, it has a low reputation and lacks public support. The roots of the problem lie in the weak basic education of visual culture and ignorance by the mainstream media. A project with ambition such as ART IST KUKU NU UT is undoubtedly a positive step – how it will be received and whether the organisers won’t run out of steam for further projects, only time will tell. Until then, the discussion on the themes of ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘near’ and ‘far’, ‘stay’ or ‘go’ will remain. To make a start one ought to, of course, visit Tartu and get to know these topics and themes, and to begin thinking about the issues presented.

1 (in Estonian)
2 (in Estonian)
3 (in Estonian)

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