With a population of less than half a million and 44 art museums, Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia clearly takes its art and culture very seriously. In fact the population of the entire country is only 1.3 million and this is well spread out: the population density is 28 people per square kilometre. This would help to explain why Estonia has been relatively unaffected by Covid-19. As both a cultural delight and a safe haven, this northern European country on the Baltic sea is a very attractive travel destination indeed.
For contemporary art fans, essential stops on any visit to Tallinn are Kai Art Centre in the Noblessner quarter, the former shipbuilding area, Tallinn Art Hall in the Old Town and KUMU in the beautiful grounds of Kadroig Park. Also, by appointment only, is the very special Flo Kasearu’s House Museum, a contemporary artist’s private museum in her home.
Launched in September 2019, Kai Art Centre, in a former secret submarine warehouse in Noblessner, is celebrating its first anniversary this month. The buzzy harbor area has an attractive promenade, cafes, restaurants and a movie theatre showing world cinema. It’s the ideal location for a contemporary art gallery. Karin Laansoo, Artistic Director of Kai, says the aim is to promote Estonian contemporary art both at home and abroad. In addition to offering exhibition space in the galleries at Kai, international artist-in-residence programs are organised too.
Kai usually presents up to five shows annually but of course this year, that hasn’t happened. The show that just closed featured Estonian rising star Kris Lemsalu (Estonia’s representative at the last Venice Biennale) and her collaborator (and now husband) Brooklyn-based musician Kyp Malone (of bands TV on the Radio and Rain Machine). Love Song Sing Along (Once Again With Feeling!) included new and previously unexhibited works as well as a large-scale installation that was shown earlier in the year at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin. For this show, the innovative artist duo, who took each other’s surnames, used the world’s creation myth to create a joyful story populated with a swan, rabbit and jaguar. The characters appear in colorful paintings on fabric hanging from the ceiling, in a video piece created entirely on an iPhone by Kyp and in intricate sculptures by Kris. In the artists’ words, “It’s a work that’s taken from the personal in real time then abstracted through myth, some borrowed, some improvised. A cosmogony of our relating to one another.”
Outside on a floating dock, is Marianne Jõgi’s intriguing Interaural Contour I (at Noblessner Marina in front of Kai center until 27 September). Visitors are invited inside the structure to relax and listen to composer Ülo Krigul’s sound piece Water Itself.
Next up at Kai, opening on 19 September (until 8 November 2020), is a multi-media project, Leviathan: the Paljassaare Chapter, featuring work by London-based artist Shezad Dawood, with Kärt Ojavee, Joonas Plaan, Peep Lassmann, ecologicStudio, Robert Treufeldt, Kai Künnis-Beres, Sten Lassmann, Lennart Lennuk, Graham Fitkin, Triin Loosaar, Annika Kaldoja, Katarina Kruus, Ann Müürsepp. Shezad Dawood’s Leviathan explores the links between climate change, migration and mental health, along with works by Estonian scientists, ornithologists, historians, musicians and artists that respond directly to the ecological, political and historical context of the Paljassaare peninsula situated across from Kai Art Center. The exhibition will also feature the world premiere of The Terrarium (2020), a virtual reality experience that takes the viewer 300 years into the future, where 90% of the planet’s surface has become covered by water.
Tallinn Art Hall, is a state-funded contemporary art institution established in 1934, with three galleries on Tallinn’s central square: Tallinn Art Hall (an Art Deco listed building), City Gallery and Art Hall Gallery. The entirely state-funded organisation is a shining example of how a country values and promotes the arts. The gallery is led by Paul Aguraiuja, whose previous career as a film producer is certain to result in some fascinating exhibitions. His TV series Pank (Bank), a huge hit at home and sold to a US network, was based on real events about the rise and fall of a new bank during the newly liberated Estonia in the 1990s. Tallinn Art Hall’s energetic new director is keen to show Estonian artists who deal with urgent social issues like women’s and minority rights and to collaborate with foreign art institutions as well.
Tallinn Art Hall regularly commissions work from Estonian and international artists and organises up to seventeen exhibitions each year in Estonia and abroad. The current exhibition Olev Subbi: Landscapes from the End of Times presents the work of the legendary, late Estonian painter Olev Subbi, alongside several international artists who were invited to respond to the famous Estonian artist’s paintings. Painting, sculpture, video and photography, with themes of eco-feminism, eco-nationalism, queer theory, historical revisionism and Afrofuturism offer an interesting new perspective on Subbi’s more traditional work. Essential viewing in this show is the ethereal seascape video “Buzz,” a stunning, three-screen video installation by Icelandic artist María Dalberg. This fascinating exhibition was curated by Barcelona-based feminist curator, Àngels Miralda.
Continuing its ambitious overseas programming, Tallinn Art Hall have co-produced Modern Love, with the Museum für Neue Kunst, in Freiburg, Germany and IMPAKT festival, Utrecht, the Netherlands. Curated by Katerina Gregos, the touring exhibition will run 3 October – 7 March 2021 in Freiburg, 12 June-5 September 2021 at Tallinn Art Hall and 27 October- 12 December 2021 in Utrecht. And, sure to be a highlight on the arts calendar next year will be Flo Kasearu’s major solo exhibition opening in mid-January 2021, focusing on domestic violence. Tallinn Art Hall is also busy with Kristina Norman and Bita Razavi, the artists they’re working with for the Venice Biennale in 2022.
Kumu art museum, located in the beautiful grounds of the Kadroig Palace (the former summer home of the Russian Czars in the 18th-century, now an art museum as well), shows Estonian art from the 18th century onwards. The vast permanent collection has early classics of Estonian art from the 18th century until 1945. Kumu also shows eight to ten major temporary exhibitions annually, both on historical and contemporary art from Estonia and abroad. Estonian art in the early 20th century, avant-garde artists of the Soviet era, sound art and fashion are among the themes of the shows here.
Fotografiska, a photography gallery, shop and restaurant in the hipster Telliskivi creative area, is sister organisation to the brilliant Fotografiska museums in Stockholm and New York. Currently showing (until 25 October) is Gold, an incredible exhibition of photographs that Sebastião Salgado took in the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil in 1986. At that time Serra Pelada was the world’s largest open gold deposit. Located in the jungle, the mine attracted 52,000 gold prospectors, many of whom endured inhumane working conditions, movingly documented by Salgado. At first glance, the viewer will assume the photos are of a 19th-century mine, such is the state of the miners and the location.
Flo Kasearu House Museum, in a typical wooden house built in 1908, is one of the world’s most unique museums. Established in 2013 in the home, attic, basement and backyard of a living artist, Flo Kasearu, the museum is a site-specific ongoing art project. The museum is filled with fascinating art works, documents and photographs presenting the house’s history and even a library (in the toilet).
The artist’s home belonged to her great grandmother who lost the house after WWII when Estonia became part of the Soviet Union and all private property was seized by the state. The house didn’t return to Flo’s family until many years after Estonia became independent in 1991. Today Flo and her family live in parts of the house while other apartments house creatives from filmmakers to visual artists. Outside, in the large, wild garden, there is more to see with changing installations. A highlight on Tallin’s contemporary art circuit, it’s worth booking to see inside this unique museum.