The Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia as an alternative institution, as well as the city of Tallinn, function successfully as contexts for the project City Agents, a group exhibition including 11 international artists and film screenings by three artists. The project is put together by Finnish curator Jussi Koitela as part of an ongoing curatorial research project on financial skills, Skills of Economy. Its thematic concerns how economical thinking affects us as humans, mentally and physically.
In Tallinn one witnesses the meeting between the remnants of a Soviet approach to urban structures, and the tourist-filled, thoroughly restored medieval city center, a Unesco world heritage site since 1997. Amidst these extremes, a contemporary, economy based urbanity has quickly developed, with anonymous glass facades towering increasingly tall above the city. The city is re-shaped piece by piece, yet traces of KGB torture chambers as well as the mystical zone from Tarkovsky’s Stalker are still visible in the urban crevices.
Urban reality is created and recreated by dynamic forces where many smaller actors struggle to maintain their spaces for living, while at the same time taking part in producing new spatial conditions. The Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM) is a part of this process. The museum constantly questions the function of space, its organizational structure, the public encounter and the accumulated production of meaning without arriving at final conclusions. The idea of the institution is at once renegotiated and established. The poor condition of its exhibition rooms would have had the Finnish authorities forbid public events there, while the book shop offers a versatile and current selection that one could only dream of finding on the other side of Gulf of Finland.
The artists participating in City Agents in different ways reflect the city as the base for an economical machinery, and the place of people within it. It is a machinery where even ecological structures are subject to economical interpretation, something that is concretely materialized in Australian artist Barbara Kneevic’s somewhat peculiar object installations that uses clay and leather to reference the productivity of life, as well as in Estonian artist Uku Sepsivart’s slightly absurd installation, where the main character is a beaver that produces wooden sculptures.
The diversity of artistic expression follows the rhythm of the exhibition’s multifarious spaces, which makes the tour interestingly labyrinth-like. This is literally visible in the work Land Distribution by Romanian-Swiss duo Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor, where meaning becomes clearly dependent on the visitor’s physical presence inside the installation, as limiting material obstacles create an awareness of the body’s movement through the space. In his video piece No Alternate Route, Norwegian artist Jon Benjamin Tallerås shows an example of individual resistance to the direction of city planning in a small, comical format. The work’s main character moves through the urban landscape in the most incredible ways that are physically possible. It makes reference to the urban flaneur and the city as organic form, where the demand for freedom of movement and choice are central.
Above all three works distinguish themselves artistically and, for me, they represent the kernel of the curatorial ideas as well. American artist Zachary Formwalt’s video work In the Light of the Arc is a remarkably worked-through visual and textual narrative about the financial system with the Shanghai Stock Exchange at its center, and about the structural and the architectural forms that result from it. The work is an odyssey through the history of ideas where the notion of value appears at once obscure and as the most imposing concept in our vocabulary. Formwalt deconstructs the discourse on value while making visible the consequences of global financial trading in the lives of individuals, and the way that this power is camouflaged by an increasingly anonymous architecture.
In Danish artist Asbjørn Skou’s nearly dystopian mural XERO/POLIS #1: Golden Cities Golden Towns, text and image appear as graphically interwoven in a sweeping spatial installation. Its visual associations are that of pre-medieval cities and styles of writing, while the voice of the text belongs to the contemporary individual, an existence burdened by debt and constant financial serfdom. The epoch of the western, modern and liberated human being reveals itself as an illusion, a fleeting mirage.
Finnish artist Alma Heikkilä, who is one of the most interesting and renowned painters of her generation, exhibits her installation Microbiota. Here we stand before a post-apocalyptic scenario, what happens after the supports of humanity have broken and the microbes have taken over. Heikkilä conjures an incredible beauty, which reveals the devastating effects of matter over time only through the small oozing forms at the fringes.
A screening of three films by Finnish artists Anu Pennanen and Arttu Merimaa and Estonian artist Ingel Vaikla formed a counterpart to the exhibition during the opening. All three artists have worked with contemporary ruins, mental as well as architectural. The work by Pennanen and Vaikla documents social and spatial effects of the political shifts in Estonia over the last decades, while Merimaa’s film departs from historical events in the Finnish city Björneborg, and the ability of humans to create spaces for living under extreme circumstances.
City Agents appears as an experimental collection of thoughts within a network of human and non-human processes and ways of understanding contemporary realities. The project is grounded in a geopolitical, historically specific, situation and place that marks the art and the project as a whole. It may be naive to speak about the art of a generation, since after all the artists are born between 1975 and 1992, yet it is possible to discern a time-bound approach in this exhibition, a shift in understanding living conditions. The mental effect of the place, the parallel processes in the urban architecture and the psychological narratives that the works in different ways offer, are all part of this shift. City Agents condenses this shift. In my view it is about making visible a changing urban sphere of living, where the individual’s attempts at grasping its own situation falters, mentally as well as physically, unless one manages – at least metaphorically – to cling to an edge or an nearly invisible crevice.