I had never been in Estonia before, but heard a lot about Tallinn. My first encounter with Estonian contemporary jewellery had happened in Munich two years ago, where I got to see Estonishing!. The show was my first glimpse into the work of Estonian makers, especially its best names, from Kadri Mälk to Tanel Veenre and Eve Margus-Villems. But this time I wanted to peep into the coming generation, step into the crucible of tomorrow’s names.
Sitting on my 6:45am plane in Stansted airport I start wondering how it would feel to grow up in a place like Tallinn. Estonia obtained its independence in 1991, which is the year I was born. Before that, the country had been under a centuries long sequence of foreign dominations, from Denmark to the Teutonic Knights, from Sweden to the Russian Empire and the URSS. Still, the Estonian national identity is very distinct, defined both by a rich traditional folklore and a vibrant contemporary culture. How has the coexistence of its ancient heritage and the rapid transformations of the recent times shaped the character of Tallinn’s youth? I am eager to know more.
Once landed, I meet with Daniele, who came to pick me up. ‘I walked here’. Walking to the airport? The Londoner inside me split her cup of tea hearing these words. In fact, the city centre is small, very small. Fifteen minutes later we arrive at Elena’s, Daniele’s mysterious friend who invited us here. Elena is an intriguing character: on paper she should fall in the ‘grown ups’ category, but her outbursting energy gives her the kick of a twenty-something girl. She has invited us to help out with a secret party, ISOLA, which she has been organising together with Mürk, a local music label. I feel a bit embarrassed to show up at hers with my backpack and my sleeping bag, but she welcomes us in her home as old time friends and my uneasiness quickly fades away. We don’t have much time to relax though, we planned our first meeting at Hobuspea 2, the city jewellery headquarters, with Tanel Veenre.
It’s around 3pm and the sun has already set. We sneak into the iron gates of this tall, shady building and find ourselves in the White Rabbit hole. Following the steps in a staircase decorated with frescoes, we make our way into this maze of corridors, half-closed doors and worn-out wallpaper. From the first decades of the Twentieth century up to the Twothousands , history has piled up inside these walls, layering its dusty strata on the creaky parquet and the soviet-esque linoleum flooring. Tanel lets us into his studio in the attic of the building and prepares us a tea. The wooden board that make up the walls, the colours of this room and the dim light of a candle on the table plunge me back into my child fantasy of a witch hut. This place trickles with an uncanny energy, comforting and spooky at the same time. Tanel is friendly and talkative, not really what you would expect from someone so renowned in the field. Asking him since when has he been making art jewellery he answers ‘…where do you start counting? Because I was already represented by Birò gallery during my studies, I find it difficult to set a date, an official start. Maybe something like 12 years ago? My career in this world kicked off quite strongly since the beginning, I became visible quickly. I had been selected for Schmuck a few years in a row…. when I think about it, it feels like such a long time ago!’ Talking about the thin border between wearable ornaments and sculptural objects in contemporary jewellery he explains ‘The art world in general is a game and is based on specific agreements, specific frames that we agree to. When I decided to take part in it, it was a very conscious decision. I accepted the rules of the game and I think there’s nothing wrong with it, I’m really honest about this. In my recent work the relationship with the body has become very loose, my jewellery turned sculpture really. For my Black Books carvings I was inspired by medieval sculptures, where you see the draping of gowns and clothes very meticulously reproduced on the body, to hide its shapes, its nude form. So the body is still present, but in a different way, more as a reference than as an active element. These pieces are made to evoke the body rather than being worn on it. I know that there is a controversial aspect about this… but at the same time I don’t really want to bother defining my position – fine arts, design, jewellery… I think these kinds of questions don’t lead us very far. I remember being in the Netherlands while an exhibition titled ‘Why Not Jewellery’ came out, and I really love this quote. Why not..?’.
After some chocolate on Tanel’ sofa, we move on to have a look at the neighbouring studios. Going from floor to floor in a doorless goods lift, we walk into a shared workshop, notably Marita Lumi and Urma Lüüs’ studio among the others. The desks are covered with soviet iron pots cutouts, animal-shaped electroformings, wine glasses and cheese… we interrupted the aperitif. We say goodbye to our hosts and make our way back home. I need to get a proper night of sleep before tomorrow party.
Elena’s flat is buzzing with the frantic movement of a Iti and Hugo, her collaborators, running around to sort out the sound check, the bar supply and the diplomatic dealing with the venue’s neighbours. As the day quickly slips back into the dark, we walk to the location. Beyond a pair of crusty doors just off Virnu, we discover a hidden pearl: Kino Helios is an abandoned cinema theatre in all of its post-apocalyptic splendour. Marios, a fashion designer from Milan, is rehearsing a performance that will be staged by a group of young dancers. The lysergic wall projections have been designed by Yus Visuals, while on the mezzanine we see Universumi Meister, an acclaimed Estonian movie-maker, testing some McGiver tricks with a scarf and a projector. Our voices resonate in the high ceilings and our breath condensate in little vapour clouds while we speak. But this place will soon be on fire.
It’s Monday, and our brains are back into our heads. We’re walking steadily towards the Estonian Academy of Arts’ Jewellery Department, which is located in a chunky slice of a building just outside the Old Town. Robert Baines is giving a talk this morning. Of course we’re late. The slides on the wall are showing Robert’s work as a mischievous forger. His pieces re-elaborate the motifs of antique jewellery and are set within a chronological sequence of historical events that ends up mixed and stirred in an ironic theory of etymological proofs and counter-proofs. What is the immaterial value of jewellery? Is such value a feature that can be artificially attributed or does it grow naturally, like crystals in a cave? Can we make up value?
The room was full and everyone was silent, listening to Robert’s elaboration on these questions. After the talk we meet the Masters students. It’s quite a diverse group of people, with students from Japan, China, the States and other European countries. Chatting with them and looking at their pieces I soon realise how their work strongly expresses the influence of the environment that surrounds them. The teaching figures that revolve around the department are clearly seen as mentors, and the students’ closeness to the subjects and themes tackled by the previous generation of jewellery artists comes up in the conversation. ‘There are some magical things that are happening here, something poetic, and that is what I connect to. When you see Kadri’s or Eva’s work, it’s incredibly poetic,’ says Erinn, explaining why she chose to come to Tallinn from Chicago. Soue, a Japanese exchange student, tells me ‘I am interested in reproducing natural shapes, as I think that from nature comes a primordial beauty. As humans we are part of nature and we should try to reproduce this beauty’.
Together with poetry, sensuality is a recurrent topic in the works I see. In particular, Hanna-Maria Vanneküla’s Hedonism necklace – which has been selected for Schmuck – strikes me. ‘I casted charcoal into condoms with epoxy resin and glitter. I intrigued by the idea of approaching erotism with such a dark material, which contains both the concepts of emptiness and strength in itself’.
The fascination with the body and its functioning is a strong element in Erinn’s work as well: ‘I am interested in the idea of a connection between the body and the mind. How does physical functions of our body affect our experiences? How do they affect the way we retain memories and conjure things in our psychological selves? I am exploring this connection. For example, I think there is something tied to the act of breathing and sadness, or the act of digestion and anger. There is a truth to be found in this connection.’
We ask Federica, our guide for today, to bring us to the infamous Blacksmithing Department. In stark contrast with the proverbial grumpiness of metalwork technicians, Timmo receives us with a large smile on the basement’s door. Despite the dusty shelves filled with funny-looking objects, the crusty containers with skull-and-bones labels and the crippling sound of the MIG-welder, this place feels strangely cosy. This impression of warmth probably comes from the fact that there’s nothing looking to fancy and shiny around here, with all the machinery proudly showing the bite of rust in its paint and CCCP metal plaques bottled on them. Still, the students seem to be making the most out of this equipment, judging from the selection of blacksmithing works in the school’s corridors. On our way out we stop for a cigarette in the courtyard, where we catch the sunset reflecting in the glimmering sides of the buildings that surround the Academy. Meanwhile someone turned on the light in the biblioteque, casting a yellow shade on us from its elongated windows. Again, the creatures of the past face those of the future with a most elegant nonchalance.
Today is presentation day. Me and Daniele have been invited to attend the end-of-term controls and be part of the jury. While I rush up the floors looking for the right room, a student overtakes me hurrying up to get to his presentation. Half a smile appears on my face, betraying my amusement at the idea of finding myself on the other side of the table just six months after my own very stressful final exam at RCA.
The room is crammed with people, with Masters students, tutors, alumni and technicians assisting at the exams all together. Among others, the outcomes of a workshop led by Darja Popolitova called Digital Intimacy are on display. A few minutes into it I realise I didn’t take into account a fairly important detail when considering my contribution to the students’ evaluation: the presentations are in Estonian. Shaking away a brief moment of confusion, I try to articulate my thoughts around the subject of this workshop.
Crafting handmade objects in the digital age is to me a desperate, passionate, unapologetic quest for the re-humanization of our environment that is quickly evaporating into virtuality. The re-affirming of human bodily presence through tactility, material experience and sensuous impression is what push us to use files and hammers while we could be using auto-CAD. But at the same time the historical relevance of the digital realm cannot be ignored and craft making must be kept away from the menace of obsolescence. So the question asked by Darja’s workshop is greatly relevant: how do we build the link between our human experience and the digital tools of expression that are growing more and more predominant? How do we let a 3D printer give shape to our gut feelings?
Two projects gave an interesting interpretation of this issue: Sille Luiga’s and Lotta Koov’s. ‘I think of intimacy as something a little brutal, as if cutting a person out of context. You are left fragmented and hence searching for a new whole. I wanted to look at the fact that intimacy puts people in a vulnerable position and this human fragility is at same time a bit repulsive and attractive. My final pieces for this project are these leather puppets, which are printed with a human skin layout that is normally used as body-texture maps for animation. Printing these textures on leather and using them in real life, I found myself making object-humans in a way, which has been fascinating for me. By sewing the parts together I connected the digital aspect of human existence to the physical presence of human bodies’ explains Sille.
Lotta instead took on her passion for computer games: ‘I wanted to explore the interaction of human beings with the virtual world, how we can change ourselves when we enter it. In computer games you create your avatar, and you can make it look the way you prefer. As well, the anonymity of the internet allows you to be whoever/whatever you want, going away from your ‘real life’ self. For my work I chose a form that can be recognisable to everyone, a bottle of Coca Cola, and started deforming its shapes. I wanted to reach a level of deformation that would make it impossible to recognize the original object. My research was focused on this border, on this crossing of the limit beyond which we loose the reference to the original shape. How far away can you go from yourself? At what point does the original You get lost?’. Asking Lotta in which context she intends her pieces to be worn, she answers: ‘These pieces should be worn to ‘come clean’. To take courage and show the world the mask, in a way. Wearing them one admits that yes, he/she does go away from his/her original self. I know I do: while playing online what I love the most is the ability to go away for a little, give my Self a break, rest from it. So these piece should be worn when you can admit to yourself that you are doing it, when you can accept it’.
On our last day in Tallinn, Katja Adrikova, ISOLA’s resident DJ, shows us around her studio, which happens to be inside one of the towers of the City Wall. Trying my best to hide my amazement and my envy for such an incredible space, I walk up the spiral staircase to reach the attic. From the wooden walkway that connects the towers we overlook the Old Town, with the skyscrapers and the TV Tower on our back. Listening to Katja’s ghost stories about this place I think about how magic and sorcery have been a recurrent theme in the past days. From Tanel’s witchy studio to Kadri Mälk spellbinding aura and the students’ fascination with Estonian magical folklore. One conversation on traditional woven belts comes to my mind: ‘There are specific patterns woven in the belts’ told me Helini Risti, a student from EKA, ‘Living stories knotted in. By weaving such patterns women were sort of casting a spell on these objects, giving them power. On one hand the belts were used to support your back while working on the fields, on the other it’s an object that protects you. There is an alternation, a duality in Estonian culture between the material, realistic aspect of things and their mystical features’. I guess this is the answer to my initial question: in the constant drumbeat of material reality and its magic counterpart, this is how life in here feels like.
All images by Daniele de Carolis
Margherita is a freelance writer as well as a maker with an interest for site-specific works and body-related objects, with a practice spanning from land art to performance and product design. A recent graduate from the Royal College of Art’s Jewellery & Metal department, her work focuses on the investigation of the body as an expression of contemporary human condition. The belief that making is a political statement informs her practice, whatever the medium. She is the recipient of Françoise van den Bosch Foundation’s 2017 Artist in Residence programme, where she will explore the concept of jewellery as tool to map the body and redefine our perception of it.
Daniele de Carolis
Daniele is a photographer based in Milan, where he was born and bred. Working both in commercial and artistic photography, he developped a style characterised by the use of special effects and unusual contexts. The process through which he produces his work is defined by a substantial background research and a ready implementation of ideas. Daniel likes to think of himself a rascal, a mischievious image-maker: to him photography can only be truly meaningful when it shakes things up. His work has been published on magazines such as Wallpaper, Elle Decor Italia, Domus, AD.