Estonian graffiti and street artist Edward von Lõngus, who has remained a mystery in the art scene, keeping his appearance and personal details hidden from the public, tells Shameema Binte Rahman in an interview about his approach to social issues, creative process and why the art matters more than his physical body.
The famous Estonian graffiti and street artist Edward von Lõngus, also known as EvL, has remained a mystery in the art scene, as he has always kept his appearance and basic biographical details hidden from the public. Much of his work satirizes and criticizes capitalism and consumer culture through historical figures, symbols and cultural codes. His guerrilla style of creating artworks on the street, use of the stencil technique and his criticism of sociopolitical issues have popularly dubbed him the "Estonian Banksy." After about two months of trying, EvL agreed to be interviewed via email.
Let's start with your last exhibition "Hello Mister Police Officer" in Berlin, which ended last month, on June 24. What was your experience there like?
It was a group effort by a gang of Estonian street artists who came to leave their mark on Berlin. Berlin has been an important influencer of the Estonian street art scene from the very beginning so we came to share some of our creation in return. The mission was a great success, the gallery show was received very well and we got to do some nice work on the streets. Even had a fun little encounter with the police. Berlin has definitely changed over the years but kept its free spirit and proud counterculture. It was a great pleasure to be back.
Before we get to more questions about contemporary things, could you please tell us about your beginning, how it all started for you, especially street art and graffiti? Is there any event or moment that sparked and led you on this artistic journey?
Edward von Lõngus is a fictional character, an emergent result of the right set of cultural circumstances, created into (or out of) conditions attributable to specific coordinates in space and time. EvL emerged from the fertile conditions of the information era, to a place bordering several different worlds, in time where local culture is merging with global culture, old ideas integrating with new concepts and ancient wisdom with modern technologies. EvL is a reflection of a collective subconscious desire for the establishment, challenging the trickster archetype. An incorporeal, memetic being which exists only as a collection of thoughts and ideas, self-replicating itself piece by piece into the minds of the audience. Like a computer virus outside of computers.
So far, I've noticed that you choose historical events, characters and Renaissance paintings, e.g. Michelangelo's artwork, and juxtapose them with contemporary context. Would you offer some focus on your subject, how do you choose a subject for your artwork and how does it lock into your mind and become thoughts? I'm just sharing some titles of your artworks that may be a cue to this question: "Democratos and Capitalismas," "Esteemed Business," "Judgement Day," "Follow the Money." I am also interested in the subject choices of "Naked Emperor" and "Satan Devouring a Burger."
The process of culture works by memetic regeneration -- taking old ideas and building new ideas on top of them. I'm a servant of these cultural processes. I just observe the cultural code and notice possible new connections. Some connections make more sense than others. I cut out bits and pieces of existing code and paste them together in new ways with a new meaning.
The relevant question is, why do you infuse your street art with commentary or messages that seem anti-capitalist or anti-consumerist, or I can say there is a kind of rebellious tone or resistance to normativity, the conventional way of seeing?
I merely point out the absurdity of reality. It takes great effort to realize that everything which is ordinary is not necessarily normal. This rat race is messed up in so many ways and we put great effort into ignoring our collective problems instead of facing them. I refuse to call this self-destructive consumerism madness normal.
You have already made two projects in which you use digital tools and techniques: "Restart Reality" and "Doomsday Cathedral." Could you please explain these two projects and how did you get the idea that street art can also be virtual?
Street art has always had a virtual dimension since the rise of the internet was the ultimate catalyst for the rise of street art. It provided a global support structure which made it possible for street artists to reach wider audiences, unleashing a wave of illegal artistic activities throughout the world. Experiencing those pieces online is already a virtual experience, which is totally different from having a real-life encounter with an artwork. Even when one encounters street art in real life, what's the first thing they do? They take out their phone to create a virtual version for hundreds of others. The Restart Reality app used this idea to animate the virtual copy of the artwork. In the future I see most art having an augmented layer. Currently the technological solutions for good AR are still in their infancy, but in a few years, augmented reality will really kick in. The idea around "Doomsday Cathedral" was to create a sacral space dedicated to human extinction, featuring among others such works as "Death Dance," "Last Judgement Day" and "Doomsday Clock." I had been working on it over a year when the pandemic hit, making it an extremely prophetic project. In order for everyone to be able to visit it in these troubled times, it was taken on a virtual level where it could be visited by anyone around the world.
Does the use of digital tools in creating a virtual reality have anything to do with the concept of e-Estonia, which is completely different from the idea of the state in the Soviet regime?
Estonians are quite pragmatic. An E-country was the most logical tool of choice for creating an effective self-governing system. Our advantage in building this system was having no prior bureaucracy. In the nineties, we had to start from a clean slate so we had the necessity of actually engineering our systems instead of endlessly maintaining a clusterfuck of outdated and costly solutions which come with the baggage of being an older country. Looked at from the inside, it seems nothing special but just the logical next step.
We think that the use of digital tools in creating the virtual reality of street art is a kind of uniqueness of your artwork which opens a new door in the presentation of street art and engagement of onlookers as well. What is your opinion on this newness?
Every artist uses the tools of their time. I have never limited myself with boundaries of traditional street art, because the streets are not my battleground. Minds are. I don't work with paint, but with ideas. I am always willing to experiment with new tools and possibilities if I can use it to engage the audience in new and effective ways. I once trained a team of wild mice to perform choreography in front of a camera to make a point about our unsustainable forestry practices. I have created art using deep learning neural networks like Google's DeepDream and used experimental spray printing technologies to realize my works into mural form. I'm also fascinated by AI generated art. This will open up so many new possibilities. It is important to keep exploring and mentally expanding, otherwise it's not creation anymore, but production.
Tell us about your physical presence? How do you identify yourself? Why do you keep yourself hidden? Is there any influence from the famous Banksy? You've improvised some of Banksy's artwork; what do you think about Banksy's mysterious identity and artwork?
Our society is so hung up on individuality and personal fame, but I think of these things on a much larger scale, in terms of systems and processes. Society is a complicated organism. Like any organism, a society can only survive by constantly recreating itself. An artist is a neural cell in that system: receiving and transmitting information; creating new culture out of old culture. I cut out pieces from existing culture code and paste them together in new ways. I love to share my ideas and I am happy for my work to be known, but I have no desire for personal fame. There is nothing very special about this face or physical body. It doesn't matter. What matters is the creation.
Who are your favorite street artists? What makes them your favorites?
I feel connected to every artist throughout space and time for we are all followers of the same inner calling. It seems as if we are all participants in realizing one grand scheme, "the EvL masterplan" as I like to call it. It gets more interesting the further back it goes, so I would say my favorite pieces of public wall art are the earliest we have found: I'm obsessed with cave paintings and ancient rock carvings. Prehistoric rock art wall from Colombian Amazon (introduced to the Western public in the end of 2020) was a real treasure trove for me.
How would you describe the Estonian street art scene and what makes it special?
Estonia, being a very unique country, has a very unique relationship with its street artists, perhaps best characterized by the fact that it might be the only country in the world which has publicly awarded a street artist and paid him to paint all around European capitals as a cultural representative of Estonia. I can't really think of any other country where something like that would be even considerable. This appreciation for street art takes a whole new level in Tartu, a vibrant university town of 100,000 and home to the biggest part of the Estonian street art scene, which openly supports it's street art as part of the local identity and proudly celebrates the annual street art festival "Stencibility," (part of which was also the Berlin exhibition). The phenomena of street art in Tartu deserves a whole new article in itself.
Are you working on any project(s) currently or weaving ideas for a new project? What do you have in mind for the near future?
After visiting all the European capitals, I would like to visit small local towns for balance. To make art for unconventional rural areas, in places one would never expect to find it. That would be quite fun.
Editor: Marcus Turovski