Kristina Norman is one of the participants of Ludwig Museum ‘s current group exhibition Related By Sister Languages in Budapest. This exhibition focuses on the connections between contemporary Estonian and Hungarian art. Tallinn based Kristina Norman’s interdisciplinary practice includes video installations, sculptural objects, urban interventions, as well as documentary films and performances. Assistant curator for Related By Sister Languages Jan Elantkowski started a discussion with her in Budapest and Tallinn. Among other topics they were talking about Norman’s video Bring back my fire gods exhibited in Budapest as well as her “scandalous” public intervention and video After-war in which she touched the sensitive issue of a conflict surrounding the controversial Bronze Soldier monument in Tallinn and the problem of the mixed Russian-Estonian identity.
Jan Elantkowski (JE): Exploration of the political potential in contemporary art seems to play an important role in your artistic practice. You often undertake „socially engaged” issues like identity, human rights, and the politics of memory. Is it a mission or those topics just intrigue you?
Kristina Norman (KN): For me, art is a way to connect with life, a form of communication with society. It appears to be the only language I can speak to tell how I feel about the issues that concern me directly or by which I feel touched as a human being. So most of my works deal with what is going on in my closest surroundings. I have been using art to learn to understand these processes and to see where I am standing, what is my position. In addition to the cleavages emerged in the post-communist societies stemming from different accounts of the experience of the WWII and the post-war period, there are new processes that affect these countries now categorized as part of the Global North. As a consequence, our societies are more and more politicized and polarized. The more polarized a population is, the less is the space between the radical positions – the space where actual inclusive democratic negotiation can happen. It should be the mission and the responsibility of artists to intervene – using their own specific language and their own specific tools –, in order to create space for alternative positions and generate political imagination outside the black-and-white paradigm. I believe that good art has a deterritorializing effect. It invites you to step out of your comfort zone and encounter something unfamiliar within the familiar. It shows you that there are multiple ways of watching and seeing, listening and hearing, and thus of letting go of stereotyped ideas and positions. A good artwork might confuse or shock you but, unlike the aesthetic products of political propaganda, it is open to different interpretations and thus it has the potential to lead you into recognizing that you have the agency to decide in which direction you want to emancipate.
JE: It is not difficult to notice that your favorite medium to investigate the world around you is film, or rather a video installation … Is it because of its documentary-like character?
KN: My works take different forms, but it is true that even if the final outcome is not entirely documentary or is not documentary at all, digging into archives and examining the existing or recording new documents is always part of the research process for the work. As an artist or a documentary filmmaker, the most important task to resolve is how to manipulate the documentary material, how to make magic with it. Given that most of journalism is all about manipulation with public opinion, document-based art and filmmaking are about intervening and bending the process of opinion making. It’s about participation in history writing, first and last it’s about democracy.
JE: With the work After-war you represented Estonia at the 53rd Venice Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2009. The Bronze Soldier monument, a Soviet statue that has been removed by the Estonian government from the center of Tallinn and the controversies arise around this incident became „protagonists” of this work. Do you see the aftereffects of your action within the Estonian society? Was it your intention at all to stimulate people, to move them with such an intervention?
KN: I surely had a hunch that the intervention I had been planning might well be received as provocation. And in hindsight, the appearing of my life-size replica of the Bronze Soldier monument painted golden color in its original location on the 9th of May, two years after the drama of the relocation, proved to be very provocative indeed. The situation I intervened was, metaphorically speaking, a huge toxic abscess that was glossed over with a thick layer of make-up. The reaction to my intervention exploded the soar that was hidden underneath the seeming status quo. It revealed the fears that continued to govern the society, even more so after the monument’s relocation. The monument was a site of the counterculture and over the nearly two decades of national independence, it had become a symptom of the society’s illness. This illness is caused by a nationalist policy that never allowed for an inclusive democratic discussion of such important issues as memory, remembrance, and the political status of ethnic minorities. The fact that I was arrested and my gilded statue withheld for two weeks is eloquent. Technically speaking, I had taken a light soldier-shaped gilded polyurethane sculpture with me and walked in what the government declared was now a “usual park”, as the Bronze Soldier had been removed from there and the remains of the Soviet soldiers had been excavated and distributed among the relatives in Russia and elsewhere. Also, the day of 9th May is of no special importance since it is officially “Europe day” and not what it was in the Soviet time – the Victory Day. Such state of affairs would make anyone walking there on that day with flowers and candles like a casual passerby. This passerby would stop to take pictures with a shiny golden sculpture just for her or his love of art. But in reality, the police was there, alert, guarding the shabby victory over the Bronze Soldier and its uncomfortable publics attained two years earlier. To resolve the “Golden Soldier incident” the same technocratic model of problem solving was enacted – the artist arrested, the sculpture knocked down and quickly removed from the public eye.
In the media reception, the discourse of violence prevailed. Not mentioning the death threats I received in the social media and those of the major daily newspapers, the only violence that actually occurred was that of the police officers who had to improvise what to do with the sculpture on site. But most often, they tried to make me legally or at least morally accountable for the violence that my intervention might have potentially provoked.
My intervention addressed the audience from an ambiguous, ‘third’ position, which appeared to be the most confusing and unnerving thing for critics from both “camps”. My mixed Russian-Estonian background and my declared in-between political position were used for discrediting my artistic endeavor. The Russian side stated that, as somebody who does not fully belong to the community, I had no right to touch upon the Bronze Soldier, because I could not possibly understand the sacral nature of the entire issue. The Estonian side labeled me a Kremlin’s henchman, declaring that as a half-Russian, I cannot be expected to be loyal to the Estonian state. While claiming my right to transgress the Estonian-Russian dichotomy, I found myself in a minority, representing a collective that has yet to be imagined: a political subjectivity that is yet to come. All in all, the history of the Bronze Soldier cannot be considered complete without the chapter of the Golden Soldier in it.
JE: Do you at all see the impact of contemporary art in today’s Estonian society? Estonian art is thriving nowadays, offering a palette of various topics and mediums – at least seen from outside – but is art in Estonia actually reaching people, provoking a discourse, or would you rather say it is problematic for art to escape the white cube?
KN: It is true that the Estonian art scene is diverse. But it appears that in line with the mainstream neoliberal political thought, the strongest voices in the scene advocate for art that has a potential to be successful on the international art market. Since some years ago, we have private-public institutions that specialize in fostering the commodification of contemporary art. To me, personally, it remains a rather theoretical question whether it is possible at all to secure a commercial success while attempting to convey a strong political message, to provoke a discourse. But in general, it appears that as a result of the work of these art institutions the contemporary art is more and more visible in the media and social networks and is becoming a normal part of the social life. And this, I would assume, often at the expense of art’s political agency. My personal agenda has been finding an alternative institutional framework to produce art, to preserve as much autonomy as it feels possible in these circumstances, and add to the diversity of the Estonian art scene by this political stance. Along with alternative institutional frames comes also the challenge to experiment with other outputs than a traditional exhibition in a white cube.
JE: You are one of the eight artists participating in the Estonian-Hungarian exhibition Related by sister languages in the Ludwig Museum in Budapest. Your newest project Bring back my fire gods is presented here, in which languages and their usage play a crucial role…
KN: I believe that Bring back my fire gods fits the topic of the exhibition very well as it really is a piece that intends to criticize the Estonian ethnic nationalism, an ideology and a policy that hinges on its obsession with language. As for our exhibition, I hope one day there will be a new edition titled “Related by Sister Languages. Version 2.0”. The exhibition would bare this title not only to legitimize the participation of artists from Hungary and Estonia and it all being part of the cultural program dedicated to the celebration of the centennial of the Republic of Estonia. It would take a critical stance towards the role of the ideology of Finno-Ugrianism in the identity politics of these two countries.
JE: In Bring back my fire gods you also touch upon the notion of a nation, its construct, and the Russian-speaking minority (so again, language). It’s a work with a beautiful aesthetics and profound historical and literary symbolic. Could you tell about it?
KN: The starting point of Bring back my fire gods is a recent heated discussion in the Estonian media about how it is impossible to include even just one song in the Russian language into the repertoire of the Estonian all-national song festivals. The tradition of choral singing festivals was introduced to Estonians by the local Baltic German élite in the mid-19th century and, subsequently, this was considered the main impetus for the Estonian national awakening. The Song Festival grounds in Tallinn with its distinct Soviet-time modernist architecture is associated with the Singing Revolution that started in 1987 and that eventually led to the secession from the Soviet Union in 1991. The all-national song festivals are held regularly every fifth summer and they always start with a ritual igniting of the festival fire on the top of a special light tower next to the arch above the choir tribune. The fire is a symbol of unity. But the above-mentioned discussion about the impossibility of embracing even a tiny bit of Russian culture as part of the festival reminded us once again that not everyone is entitled to having a share of this unity. In my piece, the festival grounds are turned into a place of contemplation about the history of all things and symbols presented to us as essentially Estonian but are actually loans from other cultures. I attempted to create a situation in which the commonplace ideas about strangers and strangeness would be mirrored back to us in the way that our own faces would appear to have a somewhat strange flare to them. It’s an invitation to acknowledge our own strangeness. Joggling with the main symbolic elements of the festival, the piece is a cinematic image of an imaginary song festival for just one singer. The singer enters the sacred territory and by her mere presence reverses its whole power structure. Instead of tens of thousands of (white) people singing patriotic songs in the Estonian language, the performer – an opera singer Sofia Jernberg –, appears as a Someone who due to her African origin looks unusual for the Estonian context but whose singing nevertheless sounds as familiar as one’s mother’s voice, be it an Estonian or a Russian mother. Due to her profession, Sofia can easily switch between languages and both her Russian and her Estonian sound nearly perfect. We hear her singing “Transvaal, Transvaal”, a song that is equally a part of the Estonian and of the Russian folk tradition. The song emerged first in Russian a century ago and as it soon became very popular all over the Russian empire, an Estonian version was made of it. Both versions survived until nowadays. Specially for this work, an Estonian composer Märt-Matis Lill transformed the folk song into a piece of contemporary polyphonic music where both languages can at times be heard at once, mixing. The song is a testimony of close historical ties between the two cultures – the Estonian and the Russian, but it also proves that people’s minds and whole cultures had been at times affected by events in places geographically so distant one could hardly spot on a map. “Transvaal” refers to the Anglo-Boer colonial wars in South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century. Back then the sympathy of the peoples of the Russian empire was with the Boers who were considered victims of the British aggression. In the age of great empires, it probably did not cross too many people’s minds that the Boers themselves had been the oppressors of the indigenous African population long before they fell victims to the British invasion. In the carnivalesque situation constructed in the artwork, the singer subjects the folk song to her performance of it and thus warps the commonplace understanding of the Estonian’s role in the history of ideas and discourses about slavery and colonialism.
(Budapest – Tallinn, autumn 2018)
Cover image: Kristina Norman: Bring Back My Fire Gods, 2018. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph: Karel Koplimets, Tallinn Art Hall