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Reality Check
From the Art of Pickle Politics to the Science of Freedom

Patrick Tayler

Róna Kopeczky recently curated a large-scale, international exhibition in Tallinn reflecting on the many current dilemmas and issues we face in the Central and Eastern European region. I talked with the curator about the philosophical-social insights that shaped the exhibition’s conceptual background and the larger-scale perspectives that permeate the complex network that connects the showcased artworks and practices.

Slavs and Tatars: Figa 2016 screenprint on polished steel 198×76 cm edition 3/3 + 1 AP. Installation view at Põhjala Brewery and Tap Room, Tallinn Courtesy of the artists.

Bojan Stojčić: From Victory to Victory (detail) ╱ 2013–2022 ╱ from the series No Trace Promises the Path ╱ wallpaper and photographs ╱ dimensions variable ╱ Installation view ╱ EKA Gallery, Tallinn ╱ Courtesy of the artist.

Patrick Tayler: What were the political and art-theoretical issues and questions that gave rise to the exhibition’s concept? What kind of propositions did you want to articulate in your curatorial vision?

Róna Kopeczky: The exhibition is entitled WARM – CHECKING TEMPERATURE IN THREE ACTS.1 It is a multi-part exhibition that primarily gives thought to the radical political, cultural and social turns that affect Central and Eastern Europe, but it also inscribes these changes in a global perspective through the lens of universal absurdity. The project gives voice to contemporary artists based in or originating from the Central and Eastern European region who reflect boldly and critically on burning issues such as the rise of far-right politics, globally misplaced priorities, the collapse of democracies, the shrinking of freedom – in both life and art – and the general sense of conditioned fear and hostility prevailing today. The title reflects more precisely on the mechanisms through which positive notions shift in our interpretation towards the negative realm and become associated with different, contradictory contents depending on the new contexts or situations they are used in. More concretely, how the originally positive signification of warm – an agreeable feeling, the sense of a fairly or comfortably high temperature, and a behaviour showing enthusiasm, affection or kindness – becomes a warning sign of political turmoil, social irritation, symptoms of climate change or global pandemic and therefore a signal of both natural and social global instability. In meeting this shift of signification that echoes the misleading phenomenon of general disinformation experienced around the world, Warm aims, first of all, to be a contemporary reflection on the fundamentally absurd global condition and on the dissonances of the human condition. It also looks to reflect on the hardships faced by contemporary artists, and the conceptual as well as visual answers they seek to soothe the tension and anxiety arising from our critically contradictory times. Their challenge – and ours too – is to bear the absurd reality with dignity and responsibility, by avoiding easy solutions and comforting illusions, attacking comfortable certainties, confronting difficulties on a path of survival through resilience or transformation, finding a way to create new meanings and striving for freedom of art and liberation of self.

Eva Koťátková: Room for Restoring Empathy (detail) 2019 installation dimensions variable Installation view Temnikova and Kasela gallery, Tallinn Courtesy of the artist, Meyer Riegger Gallery, Berlin/Karlsruhe; and Hunt Kastner Gallery, Prague.

PT: Because of your work at Secondary Archive2 – an innovative platform for women artists from Central and Eastern Europe – you have a comprehensive overview of the Central and Eastern European area. What do you think about the region’s current cultural and artistic situation? Is there a chance to strengthen links through art?

RK: The Secondary Archive project offered one experience of the region, of course. But my knowledge and exploration of the Central and Eastern European art scene can mainly be linked to Easttopics3, a platform dedicated to the CEE contemporary art world and that I have been developing since the end of 2013, first with Fruzsina Kigyós, then also with Alexandra Nagy. The cultural-artistic scene in the region is critical, relevant, rooted in our times. It is nevertheless divided into self-sufficient sub-regions – if I may say so. According to my perception, there are some exchanges, dialogues, and cooperations, but not as much as there could be. While there definitely are common points, contexts and issues, the Baltic region knows very little about the South Balkans, or vice versa, and this observation is also valid in the case of many other sub-regions/countries, even those which are closer to each other. I think it would be essential to strengthen the network of Eastern European biennials/triennials – the East Europe Biennial Alliance (EEBA) is a great example of such intention –, as well as the cooperations between the CEE countries as their respective artistic practices and curatorial discourses, are relevant to and are able to reflect on each other. I have somehow felt this curiosity and urge to know, focus on and listen to my art neighbours much more strongly than far away capitals for quite some time now.

Eva Koťátková: Room for Restoring Empathy (detail) ╱ 2019 ╱ installation ╱ dimensions variable ╱ Installation view ╱ Temnikova and Kasela gallery, Tallinn ╱ Courtesy of the artist; Meyer Riegger Gallery, Berlin/Karlsruhe; and Hunt Kastner Gallery, Prague.

Eva Koťátková: Room for Restoring Empathy (detail) ╱ 2019 ╱ installation ╱ dimensions variable ╱ Installation view ╱ Temnikova and Kasela gallery, Tallinn ╱ Courtesy of the artist; Meyer Riegger Gallery, Berlin/Karlsruhe; and Hunt Kastner Gallery, Prague.

PT: How does this exhibition relate to the previous editions of the Triennial?

RK: The previous editions of the Triennial were also curated international exhibitions articulated around a concept and prioritised/highlighted more the medium of print. For this 18th edition, the Tallinn Print Triennial Foundation was looking for a concept focusing on the Central and Eastern European contemporary art scene, its cultural and socio-political scenes and contrasts. The overall concept needed to primarily depart from or focus on the complex and changing socio-political climate now prevalent in Central and Eastern Europe (especially Poland, Hungary, Estonia) – also more specifically, the rise of the conservative right-wing politics in Europe as well as in the Americas (USA, Brazil).
The proposed exhibition project had to investigate or elaborate on how an individual or how different communities could ‘survive’, ‘settle’ or ‘transform’ in these circumstances. For example, what are the daily challenges of the individuals living in these contexts; what are the possible countermeasures or means of survival in these societies which have, from some perspectives, become close to absurdist spectacle.
Deriving from its origins, the general concept of the Triennial was still meant, preferably and to some extent, to incorporate or relate to the print / graphic medium (in the broadest sense of these two terms). Still, in general, it is nevertheless, as an event, located in the wider context of international contemporary art, where not the medium but the content and its social relevance prevails.
As the previous Triennials have taken place usually in institutional contexts (e.g. 17th in the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM) and the Kumu Art Museum / 16th in the Kumu Art Museum), we intended this time to move towards fewer institutional spaces as well as non-exhibition spaces in North of Tallinn. This is how we ended up with seven venues in total: KAI Art Center presenting a large part of chapter I and II, Temnikova&Kasela Gallery and Põhjala Brewery hosting two larger installations of chapter II, EKA Gallery (the gallery space of the Academy of Arts) and the Liszt Institute in Tallinn featuring chapter III, as well as Flo Kasearu’s House Museum and Kanuti Gildi SAAL giving space to performative pieces.

Irena Lagator: Limited Responsibility Society Automatism (detail) 2012– columns made of bill rolls with textual intervention by the artist; LED light dimensions variable Installation view KAI Art Center, Tallinn Courtesy of the artist.

PT: While browsing the installation shots, one is confronted with classical artworks, environments and transformed social spaces. What kind of art practices did you juxtapose in the exhibition? During working on the exhibition, what exact definition of the arts did you rely on?

RK: Inviting artists from the regional contemporary art scene with existing works and new commissions, WARM comprises three intertwined cycles entitled THE NATION LOVES IT, PICKLE POLITICS and THE SCIENCE OF FREEDOM, which refer to artworks included in the exhibition – Jasmina Cibic: The Nation Loves it; Slavs and Tatars: Pickle Politics – or are quotations from artists – Joseph Beuys: „To make people free is the aim of art, therefore art for me is the science of freedom”. The imaginary, conceptual theatre play that embraces these three acts is conceived as dramatic and intensifying narration. It articulates the spectacles of absurdity with the intention to dissect, appropriate and distort them, but also to playfully propose humour and derision as an intellectual antidote or strategy, an imagined alternative that builds on visionary defiance or poetic escapism.
The first act entitled THE NATION LOVES IT addresses the general mechanisms of nation-building, which is often carefully crafted and used by political powers. It explores the instrumentalisation of visual language and rhetoric in the implementation of a new political order and the construction of the State as a confusingly toxic spectacle. The works presented in this chapter also use and distort the tools of communication of power structures (maps, emblems, signs, architectures) in order to identify how the patriotic spectacle specific to each new national discourse and apparatus is built. Pointing out the universal systems, priorities and reflexes that constitute these processes, this cycle intends to elaborate a toolkit for reading and deciphering the contemporary world. Artists exhibited in this section are Jasmina Cibic, Ferenc Gróf, Société Réaliste, Alexander Manuiloff, Volodymyr Kuznetsov, Hubert Czerepok, ArtLeaks.4
Act II – PICKLE POLITICS – brings in a satirical and witty trait that disturbs the well-oiled patriotic machinery. Inspired by the tradition of pickling characteristic of Central and Eastern European popular gastronomy in which the fermentation process transforms both the texture and the taste of food, it metaphorically strives to turn sour the roman¬tic con¬cep¬tion of father¬land and power, but also the carefully constructed reality we live in. Also known as an Eastern European home remedy against hangover, digestion facilitator and health booster, the consumption of pic¬kled juices becomes a metaphorical antidote to patriotism, to the political rhetoric of us-versus-them and, more generally, to the rigid pathos of power that shapes our everyday. Artists featured in this section are Slavs and Tatars, Dan Perjovschi, Driton Selmani, Flo Kasearu, Marko Mäetamm, Irena Lagator, Oxana Gourinovitch, and Eva Koťátková.
The third act entitled THE SCIENCE OF FREEDOM presents a variety of proposals to counteract the oppressing situations of present times by referring loosely to natural sciences, biological and mathematical systems that, sublimed by imagination and given unknown forms, allow to visualise alternative ways to exist, perceive and behave. Humour, poetics and absurdity are the main conceptual pillars of this section and are employed to playfully divert or lyrically distort reality through the gentle negation of fixed roles or functions. In this newly created situation, instincts prevail over order and discipline, and make space for rethinking the unquestionable rules of our existence, imagining and demanding the impossible, and ultimately freeing ourselves from existing and imposed frames. Artists exhibited in this section are Olson Lamaj, Igor Eškinja, Flo Kasearu, Nada Prlja, Katja Novitskova, and Bojan Stojčić.
As an echo from the recent past, the subchapter entitled THE SCIENCE OF FREEDOM – FUTURE ANTERIOR presents works with a similar approach from Hungarian and Estonian artists of the Neo-Avant-Garde generation and the first wave of Conceptual Art from the 1970s. As a dialogue unfolding in space and time, these artworks exemplify how the power of imagination can beat alternative paths to social and individual freedom, and act as precious lessons for future generations. The artists featured in the subchapter are Agnes Denes, Géza Perneczky, Endre Tót, Dóra Maurer, Raul Meel and Kaisa Puustak.

4. ArtLeaks artistic activities and editorial of the ArtLeaks Gazette #6 are orchestrated by Corina L. Apostol, Rena Rädle & Vladan Jeremić.

Eva Koťátková: Room for Restoring Empathy (detail) 2019 installation dimensions variable Installation view Temnikova and Kasela gallery, Tallinn Courtesy of the artist; Meyer Riegger Gallery, Berlin/Karlsruhe; and Hunt Kastner Gallery, Prague.

Katja Novitskova: Pattern of Activation (On Mars) 2014 installation photo backdrop, stones, polyurethane, rubber, aluminium stand, digital print on aluminium cut-out display 300×600×600cm Installation view EKA Gallery, Tallinn Courtesy of the artist and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler Gallery, Berlin Collection Köser, Cologne.

PT: What was the conceptual basis when devising the list of exhibitors? Were there any synergies that might contribute to the creation of new formations in the future?

RK: The list of exhibiting artists was the result of a long – online – research process. When I started elaborating the concept, I already had some concrete works in mind, or artists I would absolutely want to work with. There also were some collaborations existing beforehand, such as the Cold Wall project presented in Budapest at the FKSE, then in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Novi Sad, with contributions by Ferenc Gróf (HU/FR), Volodymyr Kuznetsov (UA), Vladan Jeremić and Rena Rädle (SRB). This formation can hopefully be reactivated in the future. The Neo-Avant-Garde artists presented in the Liszt institute were important for two reasons: Firstly, how this generation developed artistic tools, messages and conceptual attitudes that are still valid and inspiring today. Secondly, what are the common grounds, topics, concerns linking Estonian and Hungarian artists of this same generation. However and unfortunately, there are many artists I never met in real life. We discussed their contributions online during the whole preparation process of the Triennial. This is something I have on my to-do list, meet and exchange with everybody in person and switch back to analogue mode, as much as possible.

PT: What was the reaction from the local art scene?

RK: The local art scene was open and curious to discover other artistic voices from Central and Eastern Europe. Although the curatorial and artistic practices are usually less politically critical or confronting questions related to nationalism, statecraft and national identity. The diversity of the approach to the medium of print was definitely something that raised some eyebrows as I integrated both indirect and direct uses of print in the exhibition. Also, the inclusion of institutions/organisations – such as ArtLeaks, the Flo Kasearu House Museum or Slavs and Tatars’ Pickle Juice Bar – in the Triennial as ethical, critical stances or positions was surprising, positively it seems. I also believe the exhibition generates many discussions and finds a renewed and very unfortunate ’timeliness’ in the face of war. One of the exhibiting artists who realised a newly commissioned piece dealing with the thematic of occupation is Volodymyr Kuznetsov, from Ukraine.

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