An express interview with exhibition's organisers Michael Haagensen and Siim Preiman
Kilometre of Sculpture 2015 Exhibition ‘The Visitors’ Võru, Estonia July 4 – 26, 2015
Last year saw the Kilometre of Sculpture (KoS) international outdoor exhibition held in Estonia for the first time. Works by Latvian, Estonian, Swedish, Finnish and Austrian sculptures were displayed throughout an approximately kilometre’s worth of walking in the rolling castle park and urbanscape of the North Estonian town of Rakvere. The new initiative was undertaken by Michael Haagensen with a team that included principal curator Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk from the Netherlands. This year, an edition of the Kilometre of Sculpture exhibition entitled The Visitors has been put together by guest curator Andreas Nilsson from the Moderna Museet, Malmö, with assistance from exhibitions manager, Siim Preiman. And this year it is Võru, a town in the south-east of Estonia, that has become a temporary home to the works of the outdoor sculpture exhibition. Meanwhile, three of the twin towns of Võru – Alūksne (Latvia), Landskrona (Sweden) and Laitila (Finland) – have been chosen as the venues of KoSx Side Programme, the parallel programme of the Kilometre of Sculpture exhibition.
Arterritory.com asked the brainfather of the Kilometre of Sculpture exhibition and project manager Michael Haagensen and exhibitions manager Siim Preiman with some questions regarding the new outdoor exhibition. The express interview also touches upon Michael Haagensen’s view on contemporary art in Estonian public space in general and his secret dream in this respect.
Please tell us about the Võru landscape and what was taken into consideration when integrating this year’s exhibition in it?
Michael Haagensen: The landscape around Võru is about as hilly as Estonia gets. So the landscape generally is open and picturesque. The town of Võru features a fascinating combination of architectural styles from a range of eras. It includes many extremely old wooden and stone buildings as well as Soviet structures that filled the gaps left after bombing destroyed parts of the town during WWII, and also a scattering of more recent buildings. But being the largest town in the south-east, and therefore the furthest from the capital, it also suffers from a population drain that the larger centres exert upon it. For that reason, many buildings are empty, and property prices are among the lowest in the country. One of Võru’s biggest assets is being situated on the shores of Lake Tamula, which makes the whole town like an inland seaside resort, and summer is the season to visit. So it sounds like a town of contradictions, and in many ways this is true. I have been particularly struck by how positive and energetic the locals are, considering the obvious economic problems the town has to deal with. The people are the life of the town, and they really have something to be proud of in that respect because the feeling is palpable.
The exhibition for 2015, The Visitors, has been put together by guest curator Andreas Nilsson from Moderna Museet Malmö (Sweden). Could you introduce us to Mr. Nilsson and his experience or background in sculpture?
Michael Haagensen: I am not sure that Andreas has any special connection to sculpture as such, but we knew that he had been involved in curatorial projects in the Baltic States, and more importantly, that he had a professional interest in the region. In 2014, he co-curated the Moderna Exhibition (Society Acts) for his home institution along with freelance Latvian curator Maija Rudovska. This exhibition put together an exciting and varied collection of work from the Baltic Sea region and formalised Andreas’ interest in the contemporary artists of this part of the world. This was perfectly timed in many ways, because the research involved in such a major show, a smaller version of which later travelled to Kim? in Riga, meant that he could readily put together an interesting exhibition for Kilometre of Sculpture. And in regard to sculpture, he saw the township of Võru as an ideal canvas for exploring the limits of what we call sculpture or public art by presenting works of a more temporal and ephemeral quality.
Could you tell us what unites, and what divides, this year’s entries you received after the open call? What is this year’s ‘common feeling of sculpture’?
Michael Haagensen: My feeling at the moment, and I am sure it will change as the exhibition unfolds, is that the exhibition The Visitors seems to be about telling stories. Some are themselves inspired by Võru, its people and history; others are brought like gifts from other cultures; still others are built as a result of interaction with the local people and their town, while the remaining works seem to comment on narratives that could apply quite universally but nevertheless engage in this case specifically with the urbanscape of Võru. A number of the works are performance-based, and some require local participation, so there is not much chance that the locals can stand by as Kilometre of Sculpture comes to town in a flurry of activity and leaves three weeks later. The people of Võru, whether they like it or not, will be a crucial part of this exhibition.
Siim Preiman: We received quite a lot of entries for the open call, over 40 applications in all. At first the works seemed quite different both from each other and from the curated section. Andreas' selection of works naturally shares a lot of qualities and relates strongly to the overall conception. Only after finishing the open call selection process did I start seeing the selected works in their full potential as parts of the exhibition. Both sections of the main exhibition share similar qualities like site-specificity, ephemerality but also a kind of subtlety and weightlessness that we wouldn't expect from sculpture in the traditional sense. Even the few works that have, let's say … more body or weight than others still differ in their subject matter from the kind of monumental or traditional themes usually associated with sculpture.
Were there any other conditions that artists had to take into account when creating their work?
Michael Haagensen: Well, the general brief indicated they should consider the town itself of course, but Andreas’ concept started from Joseph Beuys and his notion of social sculpture and the idea that a sculpture is never finished but always negotiated and re-negotiated with its public, and this social dialogue drives the concept. But maybe you can talk some more about that, Siim…?
Siim Preiman: I think something to take into consideration with a town like Võru is the nature of the public space itself. It seems that not only artists but also other team members had something slightly different in mind when we talked about public space. In Võru's case it doesn't have all the elements or visual qualities that we take for granted in bigger cities – there are only a few large shop windows, no high-rise buildings at all, etc. The cityspace is rather an extended private space we have been invited into and given warm permission to access. This private nature of the public space sets its own rules and possibilities for action. There is no abstract anonymity in the sense of bigger cities, there's no chance of slipping under the radar and organizing an exhibition (even an ephemeral and lightweight one) without someone noticing you snooping/looking around and recognizing you as a visitor.
The opening weekend will feature special performances by GIDEONSSON/LONDRÉ, Laura Kaminskaitė, Essi Kausalainen and Liina Siib. Could you tell us what exactly will be shown?
Siim Preiman:The opening weekend will start off with Essi Kausalainen's performance on the main square. In her work, she explores the relations between people, animals, plants, minerals and objects. You could say that through her work she proposes an alternative way of understanding the co-existence of essentially equal agents in the game of life. GIDEONSSON/LONDRÉ have installed modest wind-up clocks in five different public locations all over Võru. During the opening weekend they will personally walk around Võru and wind up their clocks, a task which will later be carried out by the people working at the locations. Laura Kaminskaite will have an actor present her previous works in an intimate café setting. Liina Siib will re-enact poetry readings at the monument of Estonian writer Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald, which originally took place in the late 80s and were organized by young people protesting against the Soviet rule.
Last year, when asked about the origin of KoS idea, you said that it originally came as a response to two main problems that had been discussed in the Estonian media for some years. First, the gulf that seemed to have emerged between the field of contemporary art and the general public, and secondly, the lack in Estonia of any major event specifically designed for artists working in three dimensions. What has changed since then in the context of contemporary art in the public space? And what is the way forward?
Michael Haagensen: In the field of contemporary art in Estonia, I think a lot has changed in the last two or three years. In many ways, the environment here in the aftermath of the financial crisis was ripe for new initiatives and new directions. A new team had just taken over at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Estonia; the Köler Prize was establishing itself; galleries were starting to embrace more internationally-orientated ambitions and were assisted in that by independent public initiatives, and a whole new generation of art practitioners and producers were graduating and coming online. So I think there were a number of initiatives, Kilometre of Sculpture being just one, that all emerged around the same time. Some of these have been truly innovative in a universal sense, while others are just new for Estonia. Kilometre of Sculpture, for example, is not new at all. Exhibition events in the public space have been held in many places in the world for decades, and there is nothing particularly innovative about the format. It just seemed that there was a gap and, as you mention in your question, there was a problem, and so we started with that. Now that we are in our second year, the process of adapting an old idea to the particular context of Estonia and the Baltic Sea region is taking us as an event into interesting new directions. We have started to explore the general value of one of our promises – to bring a quality international exhibition to a regional town – and this means two things. First, that we have to be ready to engage with the host town in a very thorough manner. We have to be ready to research the town and co-exist with it during the organization process, so we can penetrate the public space we are working with, but also to let that space penetrate us. Landscapes and urbanscapes affect us as people, and vice versa. And this element has to be a part of how we become cognizant of our contribution. It is partly about being sensitive to the host town, but also just being aware of how our presence changes things, changes us, changes everyone. Secondly, we realized that one way to try to make sure this one event in a single regional town could have a more lasting impact was to key it into a network of similar regional towns in neighbouring countries. So we started with the twin town network and sought out creative exchanges. This year we have three such exchanges – with Alūksne in Latvia, Landskrona in Sweden and Laitila in Finland – and these take the shape of exhibitions which are part of our Side Programme. We will then also send each of these twin towns a flat-pack documentary exhibition of what happened with Kilometre of Sculpture in Võru in 2015.
LIKE by Kristine Niedraja (LV)
Don’t you secretly dream of a permanent sculpture park somewhere in Estonia?
Michael Haagensen: I certainly don’t. My dream is a little different. I would like to explore the notion of ‘long-term temporary’. In the coming years part of our programme will be to introduce this idea as part of our exhibitions, so that each year the guest curator might consider commissioning a work from an artist that stays behind in the town as a long-term fixture, but one that has an expiry date. Say, 3–7 years. We have for too long been straightjacketed by the processes and traditions surrounding monuments and public art. The whole selection process and bureaucracy involved not only wastes a lot of public funds, but also seems to cause a lot of conflict in the community. No artwork will please everyone, but that is no reason to stop offering public commissions to active contemporary artists. The public space belongs to its community, so what better place to have a kind of visual forum, an exchange of ideas that is both positive and challenging? We all need to be reminded which century we are living in, so it is pointless to commission public art that belongs in the 19th or early 20th century. So no, I don’t dream of a sculpture park for Estonia, but instead perhaps… of an active dialogue about public art in regional communities, and a temporary work or two as focal points for that dialogue.