This year an international jury chose Anu Vahtra as the winner of the Köler Prize, an annual award for young artists established in 2011 by the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM). The decision was made based on the nominated artists' works from the last three years, as well as on works completed specifically for the Exhibition of Nominees.
Anu is an artist, photographer, a teacher at the Estonian Academy of Arts, and a co-founder of Lugemik Publishing and Bookshop, which she runs together with graphic designer Indrek Sirkel.
After spending seven years in Amsterdam – at first studying at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, and later on engaging in various artistic projects – Anu returned to Estonia a couple of years ago.
As an artist, Anu Vahtra makes site-specific installations and photographs. For instance, a part of the installation “Illusion, distorted perspective, lack of balance, another dimension I–III”, created for the exhibition “Archeological festival_a 2nd hand history and improbable obsessions” (curated by Maria Arusoo) at Tartmus, is a replica of a construction erected on the wall of the museum during its renovation in 1982. Anu's works are refined and intelligent, but they can also be perceived on a purely physical basis.
Winning the 7000 euro prize gave Anu the opportunity to concentrate fully on making art, and to start preparing her first solo show in Tallinn.
Anu Vahtra. Photo: thingsialmostremember.blogspot.com
Anu, congratulations on your triumph! In the interview with the nominees you remarked that Edith Karlson should win because she is a true artist. What is art to you, as someone who can be called a true artist?
Thank you, Sandra! As in the Köler Prize documentary, every participating artist needs to state why each of the other nominees should win the prize, and this remark was the answer to that question when it was time to talk about Edith Karlson and her work – I do admire her focus and her total commitment as an artist. Edith seems to be working 24/7; for me, she and her work are, in a way, one. Maybe that's why I called her a true artist. It is, of course, a bit of an epic word pair – because indeed, who is a true artist?
When it comes to me, I can hardly call myself only an artist – I'm also a photographer, a teacher, a publisher, and I run a bookshop. So there are always a number of parallel sequences going on, from time to time intertwining and feeding on each other. My artistic practice is one of them.
Throughout your artistic career, you have shown confidence and consistency. How do you deal with self-doubt?
For me, self-doubt is a natural, and I guess, also a necessary part of the process. There has to be some doubt in order to reach confidence. I see it more as a stage of carefully considering, and sometimes re-considering, all options before making a decision. It shouldn't last too long, though. However, during this stage, a dialogue with friends and colleagues is also important for me – this helps me to distance myself from the work in progress, and to resume an objective point of view.
Your works can hardly be thought of as made by a woman. Many female artists use art as a weapon of feminism. Do you find it important and necessary to use art as a political platform?
I think it all comes down to from which angle a work is analyzed, or in which context it is shown. It definitely is important to use art as a political platform, as well as theatre, cinema, music, literature, video games, etc. I myself use different weapons, but gender is not directly one of them. My work is made by me and I am a woman, but I don't feel the need to add this information into the work itself.
I like the fact that your work, being intelligent and subtle, also has access points to any person, regardless of age or education. With whom do you communicate through your art?
With whomever enters the space. As you say, there are several access points. I never have a specific "target group" in mind; it's mostly about the space (either photographic or physical) and the context – the person who enters is simply part of it.
I read in another interview that before choosing to pursue a career as an artist, you enrolled at Tartu University to study medicine. Can art heal a human soul? Do we need more doctors or more artists?
Yes, somehow medicine was carved into my mind back in the day, even though I was busy mostly with art during my secondary school years. So I applied both to the Estonian Academy of Arts and to Tartu University – it must have been self-doubt.
I think nowadays a human soul can be healed through healthy brain activity. And art, next to everything else, is definitely something that should function as a trigger.
We need both good doctors and good artists, but I'm sure I can be of more use in the art field than I ever could have in the field of medicine.
Part of "The walls stand, speechless and cold", 2015. A site-specific installation at the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM) for the Köler Prize show
Since you run a publishing house and a book shop, you must be fond of reading. What books have had the greatest impact on your life and art? Also, any summer-reading recommendations are welcome!
I've always been indeed fond of reading, both textual and visual works. To name a few examples – "Ways of Seeing" by John Berger, "Dot Dot Dot" magazine, books from Afterall's "One Work Series", "During the Exhibition the Gallery Will Be Closed" by Camiel van Winkel, "Take Place: Photography and Place" by Helen Westgeest, "A not B" by Uta Eisenreich, "Parallel Encyclopedia" by Batia Suter, "As Long As It Photographs / It Must Be A Camera" by Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs…
When we started building the bookshop with Indrek Sirkel, I was so looking forward to being surrounded by all the books I would like to read without having to drag them along from abroad. The reality is, however, that next to the practical side of publishing and running the bookshop, there is hardly any time left for reading.
For summer reading I think something from the "genre" of artist novels would be good. A number of them have been published in the past years. For example, the "New Lovers" series (published by Badlands Unlimited), K.D.'s "Headless" (published by Sternberg Press), Paul Hayworth's "Silk Handkerchiefs" trilogy (published by True True True), and "Artist Novels" (published by Sternberg Press), which is a good insight into the phenomenon.