As Estonia’s Soviet heritage is disappearing from the built environment there has been increased attention paid to the value of this cultural legacy. The just passed Tallinn Architectural Biennale housed its displays and activities in and around Soviet era buildings like the Tallinn Linnahall, the Kosmos Cinema and the housing projects of Väike-Õismäe. The Estonian showcase at the last Venice Architecture Biennial also addressed this history. The current exhibition at Kumu, Notes on Space, by Estonian photographer Paul Kuimet examines the legacy of monumental public art from the second half of the 20th century
The appreciation of Soviet cultural products is not without a strong dose of nostalgia for older Estonians and a measure of kitsch for the young. Kuimet’s pictures avoid these sentiments. In 2012 he traveled all over Estonia looking for art painted on walls and the sides of buildings. His pictures of these decaying works are a commentary on cultural obsolescence, all the more poignant for their lack of overt emotional content.
The pictures are conceived in such a way that the space the subject occupies frames them geometrically, leading to a blurring between abstraction and realism. The subjects of his pictures have been given very little attention from either the academic or artistic community.
“We set out to find how many of these works still existed, what condition they were in, etc. And of course, what kind or works they were, because this genre of art has never been fully documented or even written about,” Kuimet explains. “This is somewhat bizarre considering that it was quite a prominent and important genre within visual arts, especially during the late 60s, 70s and 80s and I'm very pleased that this exhibition took place in this space at Kumu, because it's surrounded by the 'official' art history of the same era.”
Kuimet’s pictures can also be seen to address historical process and the creative destruction of post-Soviet Estonian capitalism. Photos of stained glass works and religious murals from the interiors of empty churches speak of the Christianity that never entirely found a home here, the Lutheranism that departed with the Baltic Germans and postmodern agnosticism. Many of the Soviet-era wall murals have since been covered by advertising or painted over all together. Some of this socialist art was of high caliber and has been thoughtlessly lost.
Kuimet’s pictures are a series of 38 black and white photos which not only document but enhance the viewers' understanding of context for these publicly commissioned works, which were intended to inform attitudes and social norms in Soviet Estonia and are fading from memory.
“There is sequence of images in the exhibition that show early painted advertisements from ca. 1990, an over-painted blank wall and another wall that now boasts a large L'Oreal advert,” Kuimet says. “These blank walls of which several more were also included in the book all held large Supergraphics in the 1980s. These Supergraphics were some of the better examples of urban design in my mind and sadly a lot of them are fading or already gone. They've been replaced by advertisements.”
The exhibition Notes on Space is based upon Kuimet’s book of the same name and runs until 5 January at Kumu.
Mike Amundsen is co-editor at Tallinn Arts.com