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If art does not want boundaries

Lauri Astala.

Eksperimenta! director Annely Köster (AK) invited the director of the Art Museum of Estonia Sirje Helme (SH) and the curator of Kumu Art Museum Maria-Kristiina Soomre (MKS) to join in the discussion on the visibility of contemporary art, audience success and the understanding of art. All that to better understand the position of art in Estonia and to map the situation ca one month before the opening of Eksperimenta!.

AK: I remember that when Kumu first opened, very few made it to the contemporary art floor. How do you assess the current situation – is contemporary art visible and are the audiences interested in it?

MKS: That depends on the exhibition. In a sense, we have acquired a steady audience who also provides feedback. Kumu has gained a lot of audience in 5 years and the growth has occurred also on account of those people who stumble on a contemporary art exhibition by accident, as a supplement to another exhibition. However, if we’re talking about whether contemporary art is the main crowd puller of Kumu, it probably isn’t. And it doesn’t need to be.

SH: There are many people who buy the overall museum ticket and indeed walk through all the halls, including the Gallery of Contemporary Art on the 5th floor. The question is whether they merely step in or actually stay to look around. And this depends on the exhibition, on how much the message of the exposition or the form of presentation intrigues the spectator.
Contemporary art often finds it difficult to communicate itself in an original way, because it often employs a language borrowed from other fields, such as social research. Ever since the 1960s, when art went beyond the picture format and chose social analysis as its way of communication in part, it has arrived at a level already inhabited by other “talkers”, other specialists. Art doesn’t have to talk like a philosopher, but it also no longer wishes to restrict itself to the traditional skills of an artist.

MKS: What occurred was “the birth of the spectator[1]”. Contemporary art in its manifold forms limits itself to the spectator who wants to be born through a particular artwork.

AK: You both stressed that it depends on the exhibition. You have no doubt thought about the secret of a good exhibition. What are the components that make an exhibition work, create a discussion, attract the audience?

SH: I don’t have that formula. For example, let’s take Lauri Astala’s exhibition[2], which was in my opinion one of the best exhibitions in Kumu so far. Technically highly complex, visually extremely fascinating. I was certain that it was going to be a real crowd puller… However, a lot of people never achieved the mystical spatial experience that the artist created, because they couldn’t be bothered to stand in front of the works for long enough. And yet modern people have been used to sensing screen optics for several generations, they have accepted the tricks of the virtual space. So all the conditions were there, but no public craze followed.

MKS: I’m beginning to feel more and more that in fact no formula exists. That there is space, particular people, particular works. There are many components, and the exhibition experience creates itself each time anew, having been influenced by what is going on in the society and in the world at the time. An exhibition is very temporal but also timeless – it is as if you step out of your own time, while still maintaining a dialogue with what is “in the air”. And if everything falls into place for you, then that’s what makes a good exhibition.

AK: How important is the media in this respect?

SH: The media has a lot to do with the attendance numbers. At the same time, no direct connection can be made between media coverage and the number of visitors. We have had exhibitions with pretty good media coverage but still an average number of visitors, for example the exhibition “In the Footsteps of Neo-Impressionism. Mägi and Finch”[3], which was perhaps the best exhibition of the year, considering its refinement. Several important works of French neo-impressionism were brought here. Estonians love that era and are willing to pay large sums, millions even, for Mägi’s works. But the museum attendance numbers were in the end just average.

MKS: The art system is a whole. It doesn’t function without professional criticism that is not merely focused on paraphrasing press releases… This problem is not unique to Estonia. My favourite contemporary art experience by far was the Manifesta[4] exhibition in Fortezza. It was superb, I get goose bumps when I think about it. But the entire global art media basically glossed over it. They talked about who attended the opening, who clinked glasses with who… But I haven’t read a single report that actually analyzes and records the essence of the exhibition.

SH: In the media, there is a certain notion of contemporary art – art is most often approached through the perspective of social criticism. When they encounter art that is much more introverted or deals with highly sensitive strings within and around a person, it is much more difficult to understand such art, let alone present a critical reception of it. The most recent Manifesta[5] was in my opinion a turning point in the history of Manifesta – many inward-turned projects, an eerie emptiness, a complete lack of any social utopias. That, too, has passed practically without any serious critical coverage. The media doesn’t know how to approach it, since it goes beyond the paradigm that has been in use for the past 20 years. The media and art criticism are currently (and have been throughout the history) not prepared to acknowledge something that transcends the existing experience and knowledge.

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AK: So is it a matter of understanding art, after all? Can we talk about a 20-year delay of some sort even at the level of professional media and criticism?

SH: I don’t know if it’s a delay, a belated understanding; it’s rather that there is an unwillingness to acknowledge the changes in discourse. It has always been like that. 10 per cent of the audience are very open-minded, whereas ca 90 per cent of museum visitors inevitably have a somewhat clichéd mindset, regardless of age and regardless of preferences. Contemporary art has just as strong clichés as traditional art. Besides – some like modern art, some don’t. It is hard to change established preferences, and do we even need to?

MKS: At the same time, this shutting off is mutual. This also pertains to brilliant artists. I go to exhibitions and sometimes I can understand the message and why the artwork was made, but I’m not enthralled. Some category is missing. I am willing to admit that it is art, because it was made within the art system. But to make the public understand, it needs to have something else. It needs the author’s complete conviction in what he or she is doing.

SH: Unfortunately, it’s an eternal question, this quest for that “something else”. In the 1960s, it became odd to look for the “inner mystique” of art. No new way of thinking about art needed that, and it is still a shunned, if not a somewhat scorned concept. However, as a curator you still expect and look for something brilliant, quintessential etc, something that no one dares to call the magic of art these days. Yet a good curator unfailingly recognizes this “something else”, regardless of what words are used. The curator has to be as talented as the artist. That’s what makes a good exhibition.

AK: That “something” is probably also what determines those works of art that stand the test of time?

SH: In the old days, the system was simple – the criterion of manual talent and subject interpretation (erudition) applied. The audience, too, was able to distinguish between a good and bad work within that system. Before the 19th century, art was, as a general rule, evaluated by educated people. In the second half of the 19th century, however, people whose education no longer satisfies the classical criteria enter the professional cultural field; the age of mass culture begins.

MKS: Basically, that big change was brought about by the opening of Louvre to the public in 1793. The whole relation to art changes – I don’t need to know something about art to look at it, I don’t need to be “somebody”.

AK: … perhaps art belongs to the people, so to say?

MKS: First it belongs to the state. Citizens’ state. It takes another 100 years for it to belong to the people. And suddenly the world of art becomes artist-centred.

SH: It is no longer centred on the God or the king. And because the former evaluation criteria dissolve, a new so-called art world emerges and starts to construct value judgments through a complicated network of relations. Of course, that abolishes the meaning of the criterion of good and bad art; the concept itself is lost, even. That also leads to the incapacity to judge any individual object.

MKS: Art is a part of the society.

AK: This brings us back to the start – is contemporary art visible and understandable in the society?

MKS: It should be. It’s a matter of habits. There is a bad habit not to concern oneself with or understand contemporary art.

AK: How to break that bad habit?

MKS: It’s a question of world-view. In my opinion, that bad habit is not for us to break. It must break in time and society. It’s a part of being a citizen. If I as a citizen have taken the position that the world concerns me, then art, too, must be included in that world. As a citizen, I must try to understand and carry on a dialogue with art and artists. Tony Bennett has said in his book “The Birth of the Museum” that the museum was and still is the school of citizenship.

[1] cf. “the death of the author”
[2] http://www.lauriastala.com/Site/Lauri_Astala.html
[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=eT_zaszN2Aw&feature=player_embedded
[4] http://manifesta.org/manifesta-7/
[5] http://manifesta.org/biennials/current-edition-8/

See in KUMU:

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