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Photo: Rasmus Jurkatam

Olga Temnikova: “Living, not surviving” 0

An interview with Gallerist of the Year named by the Federation of European Art Galleries Associations

Sergej Timofejev

2016 has so far been a triumph for the Temnikova & Kasela gallery and its co-owner Olga Temnikova. February saw her receive the Order of the White Star from the hands of President Ilves for promoting Estonian art abroad. And in early summer the Federation of European Art Galleries Associations awarded Temnikova & Kasela its special prize for ‘for creativity and new inspiration’. Olga Temnikova was presented with the prize at a special reception on the opening morning of the 2016 edition of the prestigious Art Basel art fair.

At the time of our conversation, in early May, the fact had already been announced. The gallery at 1 Lastekodu Street was running an exhibition by the Latvian artist Inga Meldere. We agreed to meet at 12. The gallery was easy to reach on foot, so that is what I did –  and, to my surprise, ended up arriving early. I walked around the Stalin Era building at the address given on the website, asked for directions in a fashionable hairdresser’s and was told with a wave of a hand to turn around the corner – which I did obediently and found myself in a yard. And only then a local resident, busy loading something into his car, directed me to a door adorned with a neon sign – one that I simply had not noticed before.

‘Clearly no-one is wasting energy and time just for the sake of swagger here,’ I thought and stepped inside. The gallery was neither big nor small – exactly what a young and growing – but already recognised – art organism should be. One wall was adorned with an artful tangle of heating pipes painted in black. The rest were populated by Inga Meldere’s works. Olga, who greeted me with a smile, had already been about to switch on the coffee maker. We had 50 minutes at our disposal; then she would have to rush away for a meeting with a Russian gallerist. And at the end of the conversation she really did disappear, deserting me alone in the gallery with a fellow-Orbiter, Vladimir Svetlov, who had dropped by to see Inga’s exhibition, asking us just to close the door properly and make sure that the lock clicks shut before we leave. For some reason, it seemed like a deliberate gesture. A gesture by someone who knows when to take control and when to go with the flow, trusting people and circumstances. I may be wrong – but I really think that it is the only way to make a dream come true. And I also think that Olga Temnikova is exactly one of those who do make it come true, always with a joke or a funny story, with a dose of ironic self-deprecation and, at the same time, a certain genuine quiet solemnity – with Indrek Kasela, of course, a bearded Estonian millionaire with a reputation of a magician.

And that is despite the fact that Olga belongs to the generation that cut its teeth in the late 1990s and early noughties and was, it would seem, taught to stand firm on their own two feet and not get carried away by abstract and hard-to-attain goals. ‘I come from a family that was close to the art world. Dad is an amateur artist. And I grew up surrounded by art and artists. I wanted to study painting but Dad talked me out of it, so I chose graphic design instead. – Why? – Dad told me that the artist’s profession lacks stability. And he was right. He wanted me to know how to do something properly, to master a practical skill of some description. And so, in the area between an artist and a dentist, I found graphic design.’

These words were said by Olga to another journalist and under different circumstances, but I find it very easy to imagine her saying them – with this attentive and lively sparkle in her eyes that seem to be looking at you and through you at the same time, at something and somewhere in the distance of three or four years. I think they used to paint saints and princesses with eyes like Olga’s in Northern Russia. Today, apparently, young women like her devote themselves to contemporary art, searching for dialogue and revision of established art hierarchies.

So, ladies and gentlemen, please meet Olga Temnikova!

Kris Lemsalu. Genetic Misunderstanding, 2016. Porcelain, textile, mixed media, 145 x 115 cm. This work was exhibited at the gallery’s stand at Art Basel 2016

You were born in Tallinn?


In which part of the city did you grow up?

In Lasnamäe. (A large district of panel blocks and apartment buildings dating mostly from the Soviet Era. – S.T.) 

Where did you study after school?

At the Academy of Arts; I graduated from the Department of Graphic Design.

Was it already during your studies that you decided that you were going to focus on the ‘running’ of the art process, as it were, instead of creating your own art?

No, I actually had a number of shows. 2009 was the last time that I exhibited as an artist. And I still haven’t decided for myself that this change of a role is final – not least because the work of a gallerist is a very creative one, much more so than it is generally believed to be here in the Baltic countries. It was gallerists who discovered most of the artists – who created the conditions necessary for their art and provided them with opportunities for a dialogue.

How would you describe the works you were showing back then?

One of the projects dealt with integration and the ways in which the mass media manipulate with us. It had nice visuals and a good video. As for the second project, I showed it after five years as a head of another art gallery. We have this discourse at the Estonian Academy of Arts... it’s a bit backward, a bit Marxist. It’s all about market being a bad thing and gallerists drinking the blood of artists. And when I encountered this attitude at work, I decided to make an exhibition about that – about the lack of a correct connection. About people trying quite aggressively to distance themselves from each other, although it would seem that we are all part of the same scene. I am not saying that we have to collaborate in a conformist manner on this scene. The market has its preferences, and it has been known to dominate in certain aspects. But if you take a medium-level gallery, we are all in the same boat here, and gallerists sometimes take on a huge risk.

The exhibition was called ‘One Night Stand’, a reference to the fact that the artist exists in his own reality, creating something, and then an art collector arrives and acquires this work. And the piece then hangs on the wall above the fireplace or above his red sofa, but there is no communication, no progress. There is no movement, just a superficial vibration.

In other words, an art gallery to you is exactly a place where everything comes together and starts shifting around.

When that happens, that is exactly what is needed.

So until you started your own thing, you were the director of another gallery.

Yes. I’m a co-owner of this gallery; at the other place, ArtDepoo, I was just the director. It was a good gallery. But then the crisis happened, and I wanted to have a project of my own. I offered them investments; they refused. So I left to open my own gallery, whereas they closed down. Well, things are not really as bad as they sound, because they were actually a branch of another art gallery, of the Haus gallery that still exists; it’s just that they decided to invest all this crazy pre-crisis money into the younger generation. Things changed, though, and it turned out that, without me, they found it difficult to... make these investments.

Was it important for you to become a co-owner?

It didn’t make any fundamental difference regarding my approach; it’s just that I wanted to be more involved in everything – seeing that I had been working my socks off for five years at the place. When someone is completely committed to what they are doing and giving their all to their job, it should probably be recognised in some way. In Estonia, however, it is very popular to subscribe to the view that there is no such thing as irreplaceable people...

Indrek Kasela in Riga, 2012. Photo:

And that’s when Indrek Kasela appeared...

It’s not that he really appeared from nowhere; I made him appear, so to speak. He is generally frequently sought out by people with ideas – they seem to notice him immediately. He has this crazy subtle energy inside him that keeps moving upward, and people notice that. I met him at an exhibition opening when we were showing Artemy Troitsky’s collection. And I thought – I must have a word with him. He agreed. I did not really need anything from him, not even a start capital. We did invest into the gallery a bit later, because we needed to buy things. But the beginning was really simple: ‘Perhaps you would like to...’ And he liked the idea, because he wanted to be involved in art in some way. 

What about you – did his name matter?

His name mattered in a number of ways. It was certainly interesting to launch a Russian-Estonian project. Also, I thought that this way I would find it easier to integrate, although I already knew all the major players on the scene by the time. But I did need a certain dialogue. And I very much liked what he was doing; he had just opened his renovated cinema, and he had all sorts of ideas. Whereas I, a resident of Lasnamäe, not even middle-class – a ‘bottom-class’ one, I would say (laughs)... I was simply incapable of thinking in these terms. Even financially. For instance, to accumulate something, you need to provoke situations, to be pro-active. I was just a nice girl with good taste, and I needed someone who would…

‘Explode’ you?.. 

Yes. In hindsight, I actually needed Indrek very-very-very much.

Sigrid Viir. From the Sweet Smiles and Golf Clubs series. Photo: Temnikova & Kasela

At the time, when you had this first meeting with him, you must have had a certain idea, a thesis of sorts. What was it?

My main idea was doing something international. I believed that, to operate on an international level, you don’t need a posh space, super-expensive lighting and so on... I told him that I have some artists who would like to go on this journey with us – so let’s have a shot at it – let’s go to a couple of art fairs. Basically, I had no international contacts at the time. We rented a small space in the Old Town, on Müürivahe, and started to do this thing from there. In fact, we did not even have this little space when we had our very first exhibition; we persuaded Theatre NO99 to take down the giant posters of their artists that were hanging on their lobby walls framed by little lights,  and temporarily hand over the hall to us. And we mounted an exhibition of some brilliant Japanese artists. It was an incredible pressure and stress, but we did open a gallery without even having a space of our own. That was so cool.

And you opened it with a show by Japanese, not Estonian artists at that.

Yes, that’s the way it happened.

But you did also have an initial list of artists whom you wanted to show more or less regularly?

Yes, and speaking of Latvians, Inga Meldere was one of the first on the list of artists with whom I wanted to work. There were some artists with whom I had worked on and off previously, at the other gallery, and I knew that I wanted to do that on a more serious basis. But somehow I was most of all moved by the fact that there were a number of older artists, fifty-somethings, like Jaan Toomik, Kaido Ole and Marko Mäetamm, who had incredible CVs and excellent portfolios but no international representation. I was simultaneously excited, upset and challenged by that. I wanted to do something to help them – while continuing to work with young artists as well. Strategically it was quite difficult to find a solution. First of all, it meant focusing on the Baltic region – and it is a region that no-one really knows anything about. It is a region that practically lacks a market. Besides, this kind of approach, where you simply choose a specific region, is a bit of a dead end. Admittedly, I do know quite a few galleries based on exactly this kind of platform – in Romania, the Czech Republic and Poland, but the situation is a bit different there. And the fact that I took on several different generations of artists at once – that makes it very complicated as well... There is so much I have learnt and realized during these five years.

Inga Meldere. Students painting some of the remarkable scenery in the park, 2016. Digital print, oil, acrylic on canvas. 120 x 75 cm. Photo: Temnikova & Kasela gallery

If you were starting now, already equipped with this experience – would you not choose to make it a regional project?

It is not really about that. A year or two into our existence, we started to get the hang of presenting the whole thing. To present your art ‘over there’, you must demonstrate how it works within a dialogue. Because we have a slightly different aesthetics, a different approach to art... And the West is not equipped with a straightforward code for reading it. They think that the actual form is perhaps too crafty, too virtuoso – that we have not been spoilt by the market and that is why everybody is trying so hard to make their art look beautiful. There is an element of Asian influence there, as well as our take on the famed Scandinavian ‘good taste’.

Anyway, so I finally realized that it works if you construct a dialogue. If you do, their viewer goes: ‘A-ha! So our – let’s say, British – artist is doing this thing, and this one is responding to him... Now I see what this is all about!’ Because artists do often talk about the same thing. We are all part of the same contemporary times after all.

Last year we were at Paris Internationale; it is a very cool, very intellectual art fair for young galleries, and I was showing a Brit alongside my local artist. People walk in, Hans-Ulrich Obrist walks in and – bang! – immediately notices the British one. There is no name next to the piece, but he instantly gets the code. And then some people from a London collection walk in with whom I have been longing to get better acquainted. They already know me, and I have already been telling them all these things, and it has been dragging on and on. So they walk in and (snaps fingers) – ‘That’s it!’ I was gobsmacked. (Laughs.) I thought – how is this possible? You have been toiling away like crazy, and all you have done now is hang a British artist on the wall... I was in shock.

And did they get interested in this Estonian artist through the British one?

Absolutely. This is what makes them understand better what my gallery is about in the first place. Before that, they can simply pass me by completely.

The visual code does not strike a chord with them?

Neither the visual code, nor the actual message. All of these things work together in art. 

Have you defined for yourself the cause of this ‘attention deficit syndrome’?

It is very difficult to put it in words. But there is a difference in the aesthetics and a difference in approach and in methods. We are certainly more romantic, softer and more often crafty. There are also some agents provocateurs among us – but that is exactly where a subtler approach would work better. Because it is worth being provocative in such a way that no-one would co-opt you – that your art remained free. Sure, you can say: ‘The US are complete rubbish!’ But you become an instrument in someone’s hands as soon as you say that.

People can do that easily here. For instance, our local artists can mop the floor with the American flag.

They do not pay attention to these subtleties?

Well, of course, gestures like mopping the floor with the American flag deserve a special discussion. (Laughs.) You cannot say: this is good and that is bad. It is always a matter of context...

Flo Kasearu. Uprising 2, 2015. Temnikova & Kasela

How did your gallery manage to make this breakthrough and start participating in reasonably large and prestigious art fairs?

A programme, I guess. You must, of course, already have an international presence, appear at international art fairs; then it is obvious that you have a good network of contacts and you can afford it. This thing has a hierarchy of its own.

But what was the first time when everything clicked into place and the door opened for the first time?

There was no first ‘click’. It is, after all, a system; there are a number of different ‘clicks’. However, it was definitely very important for us to get accepted, for instance, at Artissima. Looking back today, I realize: ‘Well of course, it’s only logical!’ Back then, it seemed very difficult, almost impossible... I knew that it was a good art fair with a good image, but I did not think that it would take us to the next level; I thought that the level of Artissima would do for us. The whole world of art fairs is like a country within a country. There is a certain social system that you have to study well to find your place within it.

However, I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the whole thing. I am not good at lobbying and adapting to the personal tastes of each panel of judges. I’m almost happy if I don’t get selected to an art fair. Of course, it’s simply a matter of survival. By infiltrating these structures, you are proving that you are capable of negotiating, that you make sense in the eyes of the judges, and all of that matters to the collectors. But the structures are not very transparent and, in some aspects, are almost Mafia-esque. I can’t say that we manage to get in everywhere automatically.

Still, you went to Dubai...

Yes, we did last year. I didn’t go this year. There are some art fairs in which we don’t take part every year. We have chosen Hong Kong for next year.

How do they look at ‘Northern’ artists in Dubai, within their specific context?

You know what – I came back from Rome last night. They don’t have a proper art fair of their own, and the contemporary art scene is somewhat sluggish in general. So I made a list of galleries and art institutions that I wanted to visit. I decided to leave the museums for another time. And if you do that, it doesn’t matter where you are. For instance, when you walk around their contemporary art galleries, it is quite possible that you won’t see a single Italian artist there. There is a certain universal aesthetic and thematic filter in place...

Krista Mölder. Lamp with Doors from the Being Present series. Pigment print. 2012

Is the public also pretty much the same everywhere?

Not completely. But there was an astonishing number of expats in Dubai, for instance. Including Italians, by the way. And at the end of the day, the client we found there turned out to be a Paris-based Palestinian.

What caught his eye, if it’s not a secret?

It was a Merike Estna. We also sold a Kaido Ole, also to Europe.

The mechanism is very interesting. Let’s say you are a classy collector from Paris or maybe Finland; you have come to check out what they are selling in Dubai. And you realize that nothing really speaks to you here, nothing at all, because the code is completely different. And suddenly you notice something Scandinavian, and there is immediately a spark: ‘Ohhh... Why don’t I go and buy it?’ I frequently bring Baltic collectors with me, and they criss-cross the whole art fair and then tell me: ‘Your stand is the coolest one anyway!’ And in many respects that is a matter of recognition, of course, of legibility.

In that case, what was it that the Paris-based Palestinian collector read in this art?

He bought the piece because a friend of his had already purchased lots of stuff from us. And he simply thought: ‘Okay, I like this. My friend has already given his vote for this. Let’s support this artist together.’

Does it mean that friendly ties are sometimes also an element that plays a role in this business?

Yes. And there have been situations where you sell things to three different collectors, and then all of their friends come and buy stuff as well – seriously! They meet up at night – at dinners or parties – and show each other what they have found during the day. It’s easier that way.

Three years ago we were in Barcelona, at the Loop video art fair. The whole thing took place at a hotel where everybody had a room where they showed their videos, also had their meals and slept – very funny; an excellent project. We showed a piece by Flo Kasearu and a few other videos that I simply had in my iPad. There was a very beautiful and romantic piece among them where a video projection of a horse is running through the nocturnal city. And everybody kept approaching us and asking: ‘Could you show the one about the horse, please?’

Then there is this phenomenon of the back room; every gallery has a little storage room. And everybody is dying to see what’s in there. No-one is looking at what you’ve got hanging on the walls at the moment. Surely the back room is where the most interesting things are stored. And it has frequently happened that I have a piece there that is not in any way connected with what I am showing in the booth – and it is precisely this work that is bought. This whole thing is very much about emotions really...

And now, when you are working with artists on forthcoming art fair exhibitions – can you predict for what there will be a demand and where?

When we were showing in Miami, I asked Jaanus Samma, who represented Estonia at last year’s Venice Biennale... He had this series back in 2005 where he embroidered an archive photo of a swimming pool with glitter, covering the whole surface of the water with all sorts of Swarovski crystals. Very beautiful. And I asked him: ‘Could you make a few of these for me? Because I think that they would look good in Miami. And we are showing you anyway.’ And he said: ‘Okay.’ He got somewhat carried away and made 10 pieces, one of which I left behind by accident – so I brought nine pieces to Miami. We sold them all during the first half hour. Would I say that I saw it coming? No; had I really known it would happen, I would have brought 20... (Both laugh.) We took quite a few commissions. It is a very beautiful and sensual series; you could use it as an illustration to the interview. They are like bonbons...

Jaanus Samma. From series Swimming Pools 2

So it means that you had a sort of premonition? Or was it logic?

In America, people make their decisions quickly. It is important to them that the work can be read quickly and directly. Although, of course, a good work will always have a number of different levels of meaning – like good literature.

What is the next exhibition scheduled at your gallery?

It is going to be Mikko Hintz, Inga Meldere’s partner in life. We already did a joint exhibition once; now we are showing them separately. Mikko is a brilliant artist and he has lots of excellent friends everywhere in the world – we absolutely have to make them happy. Because we haven’t shown him for quite some time now.

The fact that you work with Inga... Was it that things just clicked together, intersecting naturally – and you started working together? Or were you perhaps searching for a long time, looking at various Latvian artists before you invited her to work in your team?

There was a time when I was one of the few gallerists who travelled around the Baltic region looking at artists. The younger generation today is travelling much more; they are looking around much more. We met in Riga, 10 years ago. And I was really interested in covering the whole region. I already had a Finnish artist... It was someone else, not Mikko, by the way. But he started to move in a different direction, one that was not necessarily useful to me. He is undoubtedly a very good artist, but I was also looking at the general structure of the gallery – at what works together. And he somehow did not fit in... Anyway, so I found it interesting to show the whole region: Finland, Estonia and Latvia, and how do our respective art scenes relate. I wanted to show how different we really are, because everyone seems to think that we are the same. Although there is nothing like Latvian painting in Estonia. And vice versa. We have a very different approach to visualisation. 

What is the difference?

Latvians often are very skilled with colours; there is something more romantic about them – it’s more painting-painting. We have more conceptualism in our art. Although we do have some very strong colourists, the general vibration in this sense is stronger in Latvia. At the same time, the younger artists are now much more accurate with this. At the time when I actively travelled to Latvia to look at things, everything was much more...


…More naive, perhaps.

How do you feel here in Tallinn? Do you have competition here – or have you already moved to another level altogether, a more international one?

We certainly cooperate. For instance, there is the Vaal gallery where I have made several purchases, and they have bought some pieces from us. On the whole, the atmosphere is quite healthy here now. Indrek and I also launched a non-profit organisation called Estonian Contemporary Art Development Centre; we had an opportunity to apply for EU funding for that. Center has received some support and we found people who are now working for the foundation. For instance, educating gallerists. The second group are about to start their studies now; the first one spent about a month attending classes here in Estonia; then the best ones were sent abroad to work at art galleries there. They are back – and they are all completely different people now. That’s fantastic! For instance, they now have a much better understanding of what I am doing. Before that, I felt like an alien body here, like the Eternal Jew... Anyway, so they train gallerists; they invite over art collectors; they have founded this organisation called Outset. It is an international franchise that first emerged in Great Britain as an organisation of art patrons who help artists create large and ambitious projects. There has never been anything like that in the Baltic region. The only other project of this scale is the Venice Biennale where money is allocated once every two years for a project production of 10 000 euro. And if you have done Venice, you will never ever have this kind of opportunity again. Whereas we help artists realize projects of this kind – and we also help to show these projects in museums through this foundation. It is very very important, and I could never do all these things on my own. But it is made possible by the foundation. They do a lot of very important things – it’s a brilliant organisation.

Is there a gallery that was or still is something like an example, a role model to you?

I think that there can really be no role models, because the art world is constantly changing; it is constantly undergoing all sorts of crises and is on the lookout for new solutions – has been for the last 10 years. So what you have to do is simply look for ways to lead a productive existence under these circumstances. Because the way galleries were working 20 years ago is inapplicable today. The competition is insane, and the speed...

Everything is accelerating...

Yes-yes. And you can try and keep up and also accelerate all the time – but then there is this danger of forgetting why you are doing all these things in the first place. And therefore...

At the Temnikova & Kasela gallery

A certain balance is required?

Yes, and I think that the very fact that we are here – there is this balance in that. That the ‘provinces’ are the new centre, that’s certainly old news by now. But because we are here, we are appreciated by the local scene, by the local ministry of culture; we educate our public. Clearly, considering the fact that the popularity of collecting art was gravitating towards zero in Estonia, there is always room for improvement. And that is exactly what we are doing – alongside participating in the international race, of course, only now we don’t have to embrace it so furiously as a couple of years ago, when we took part in seven or eight art fairs every year. This year, the number will be five – no more than that, I hope. It is very complicated, of course, to stick to this balance and downsize your presence – exactly because of this rat race. Sometimes you check out the Facebook and you feel like everybody is making fun of you. There was a moment when my friends, all of them professionals of the same industry, were simultaneously at three important events in three different locations: one of them was in Greece, another one – in London and the third one in Italy, while I was sitting here, back in Tallinn, and I sincerely almost felt sick: ‘Why am I here instead of there?’ But the truth is, you really shouldn’t give in to this mindset. Sometimes it is enough to stay up to date by reading; you do not necessarily have to be present at every event. On the other hand, if you are such a small gallery, you have to be careful not to hurt yourself…

So how do you survive?...

How do you survive – that’s what everybody is thinking about, and it is a bit foolish. No, I do not want to survive, I want to live. And I want my artists to live, too, and enjoy living and never forget why we are really doing it in the first place.

A great finale! (Claps.)

That’s it. Taxi! (Laughs.)