Tallinn’s Evolving Art Scene Turns Fresh Talents Into Big Stars

Alex Greenberger

BY ALEX GREENBERGERPlus IconJuly 6, 2021 3:49pm

Installation view of Sigrid Viir's solo
Installation view of Sigrid Viir’s solo exhibition «False Vacationer,» 2019, at the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia.PHOTO PAUL KUIMET

For a survey of what lies ahead as the art world looks forward to the future, ARTnews devoted part of the June-July 2021 issue of the magazine to 10 cities to watch: Philadelphia, Atlanta, Vancouver, Guadalajara, Bogotá, Oslo, Tallinn, Casablanca, Abu Dhabi, and Taipei. Stay tuned as each city joins related reports from Seoul and Paris online in the weeks to come.

Over the past three decades, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reestablishment of the Republic of Estonia, Tallinn, the capital city, has become home to a vibrant and evolving art scene that has grown in prominence both regionally and abroad. Artists like Katja Novitskova and Kris Lemsalu have become stars on the international circuit, bringing a new level of attention to a city with a growing gallery scene and a population of little more than 437,000. Together with the Baltic capitals Vilnius (Lithuania) and Riga (Latvia), Tallinn has helped raise the stock of the region’s art scene to rival that of nearby Scandinavia.

Vision via Venice

“If you did something contemporary, it was avant-garde,” Maria Arusoo, director of the Estonian Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), said of the time not so long ago when Estonia was part of the Soviet Bloc. “We had a hunger to make up for the time we lost. But it also means the scene is quite young.”

That sense of youth has been on vivid display in the Estonian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, where for the past decade the country’s exhibitions—programmed by the CCA—have played host to cutting-edge showings by rising stars. By no means is a country as small as Estonia guaranteed success at the Biennale, where attention often goes to pavilions representing nations like the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and Italy. But over the past decade, the CCA’s offerings there have grown weirder, stronger, and more intriguing, and an audience has grown as a result. “People are returning,” Arusoo said of Estonia’s increasingly formidable reputation at the Biennale over the years. “Visitor numbers are growing, but, all in all, it’s not about the visitor numbers.”

Katja Novitskova' Estonian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017.
Katja Novitskova’ Estonian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017.PHOTO ANU VAHTRA/COURTESY CENTER FOR CONTEMPORARY ARTS, ESTONIA

Instead, it’s about the projects. Because Estonia is so small, the CCA is able to seek proposals by open call, with an international jury then called in to pick a winner. “We are not afraid of a bold project. We are not afraid of younger artists,” Arusoo said, citing a preference for “young ideas.”

Those young ideas have led to boundary-pushing projects that have effectively put Estonia on the international art circuit map. In 2017, Katja Novitskova garnered attention by presenting moving baby rockers that appeared to hold alien life-forms. Thanks in part to its otherworldliness, it became one of that Biennale’s buzziest offerings, with an ARTnews review calling elements of it an “absolute exemplar of sci-fi horror” while wondering, “could this be our own vision, as interpolated through a not-so-distant cyborg-inflected future?”

In 2019, for a presentation seen by 30,000 Biennale visitors, Kris Lemsalu—identified in an exhibition description as a “punk pagan trickster feminist sci-fi shaman”—followed suit with sculptures and performance events serving as a meditation on invisible life forces animating Venice.

In a sign of its rising prominence, the Estonian Pavilion for 2022 will occupy a bigger and more central space than usual, in a site that has played home to the Dutch Pavilion in the past. Kristina Norman, based in Tallinn, and Bita Razavi, a Tehran-born artist who works in Helsinki and the Estonian countryside, are planning a project titled “Orchidelirium: An Appetite for Abundance,” with an interest in colonial history and ages-old paintings of tropical plants.

Kris Lemsalu's 2019 Estonian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Recent Venice Biennale pavilions, such as Kris Lemsalu in 2019, have featured offbeat images of the future.PHOTO ANDREJ VASILENKO/COURTESY CENTER FOR CONTEMPORARY ARTS, ESTONIA

The Gallery Shaping Tallinn

Tallinn had no real art gallery scene to speak of in 2010, but that changed with the opening of Olga Temnikova and Indrek Kasela’s gallery. The venue quickly became a force, as it showcased the city’s emerging artists more broadly in international fairs like Liste (in Switzerland), the Paris Internationale, and the Armory Show.

The Temnikova & Kasela roster—much of it hailing from Estonia and the surrounding region—testifies to the success of the city’s artists. Kris Lemsalu, an outré performance artist who has shown at the gallery since 2014, represented Estonia at the Venice Biennale in 2019. Olga Chernysheva, a painter of muted scenes featuring people in vacant landscapes, had a solo show at the Vienna Secession, a closely watched contemporary art space, one year after her first solo at Temnikova & Kasela. Jaanus Samma,who joined the gallery’s roster after showing in the Venice Biennale in 2015, later appeared in the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, expanding his reputation in the Baltic region.

Temnikova & Kasela’s rise—and the attendant ascendance of its artists—is both cause and result of a concerted push to turn Tallinn into a full-fledged art capital with infrastructure in place to support artists and museums. That drive has come mainly from Estonians born in the 1980s and ’90s, those among the first generation to be fully independent of the Soviet Union. “The scene has been professionalized so much,” Temnikova said. “The funds which are available—they multiply 10 percent every year.”

But “there’s not been crazy consumerism,” Temnikova said, adding that ample room remains for more galleries and more collectors as well. “Collectors are saying, ‘Olga, we need to clone you!’” Temnikova said. “And I’m saying, ‘Yeah, I need to clone you.’”

A 2019 survey of art about disability at the Tallinn Art Hall included works by Shannon Finnegan.
A 2019 survey of art about disability at the Tallinn Art Hall included works by Shannon Finnegan.PHOTO KAREL KOPLIMETS/COURTESY TALLINN ART HALL

Museum as Incubator

With relatively few galleries to help artists get a foot in the door, museums play a primary role in Tallinn to empower emerging artists. Signs of such assistance were evident this past winter at the Tallinn Art Hall,which drew great interest in shows for Flo Kasearu, Sirja-Liisa Eelma, Mari Kurismaa, and Maria Valdma, all of whom are less than well-known outside Estonia.

It helped that international interest in the museum was mounting: When New York Times critic Jason Farago wrote in April 2020 that “the smartest museums are thinking beyond the ‘virtual visit’” during the first wave of pandemic-related lockdowns, he cited the Tallinn Art Hall’s digital offerings. But the enthusiasm was driven largely by locals, such that Tallinn Art Hall director Paul Aguraiuja said the museum’s staff was having trouble at the time handling gallery upkeep and admissions.

The goal at home has included hopes for expanding local artists’ reputations worldwide, and Aguraiuja feels the Tallinn Art Hall has been successful in that regard. “More and more,” he said, “there are [Estonian] artists who get to fly all over the world with their work.”

Art Cities to Watch 2021: Tallinn,
Institutions like the Kai Art Center have come to define Tallinn’s art scene.PHOTO ARON URB/COURTESY KAI ART CENTER

The Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia, founded in 2006, has also stepped up to provide early support to emerging artists, and the institutional network is growing with the arrival of enterprises like Fotografiska, an international photography-museum network that opened in Tallinn in 2019, and the Kai Art Center, a luxe contemporary art space in a former submarine factory that opened that same year. (Kumu,Tallinn’s largest art museum, also has a robust exhibition program, but it focuses largely on historical presentations.)

“More often than not, engaging the local community isn’t about a PR strategy or social media campaign,” said Kai Art Center director Karin Laansoo. “You simply keep everyone interested, care about your community, and think along and resonate with what is happening around you. This energy has a ripple effect.”

A version of this article appears in the June/July 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “The Baltic Upstart: Tallinn.”

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