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Tallinn: Making It New

As in much of the former Soviet Union, a number of Estonians—or people of Estonian descent—who were living abroad have moved to Tallinn since independence. Viviann Napp is one of them. She left Canada for Tallinn in 1990 and opened La Galerie Passage on Narva Road, in a 1930's building where her grandfather used to live. I meet up with her at one of Tallinn's best restaurants, L'Artiste, in the Hotel Olümpia, a glass-and-concrete box that was once the height of luxury for Soviet apparatchiks. The restaurant, set on the mezzanine, is all kitschy, dewy pastels.

Napp tells me, a little breathlessly, that before independence Estonian painters had to join the Soviet-style artists' union in order to buy supplies, and had to produce artwork that met the state's requirements. Navitrolla, Napp's top artist, chose to make his own brushes out of pig hair (his parents owned a pig farm). There is something in her tone that suggests she regrets not having been present when art had to be made clandestinely, that she is more than a little in love with the idea of the artist as provocateur.

As she talks about art in her adopted city, the chef, Imre, who trained in America, hovers over the table. At one point he interrupts good-naturedly to inform us that businessmen regularly chopper in from Helsinki and Stockholm to lunch on his steamed clams. When he brings some out, I begin to believe him. He pours champagne, and serves us enormous shrimp. It's easy to feel as if he and Napp scripted the whole thing beforehand, to prove to me that Estonia could in no way be mistaken for a dour former Soviet satellite.

For Napp, Navitrolla's canvases, which depict bright, Magritte-like worlds, reflect the equally bright future of Tallinn. But Navitrolla is more Mark Kostabi than Magritte: not just a liberated artist, he's a one-man enterprise. His images adorn T-shirts and coffee mugs all over Estonia. Once, Napp says, while she and Navitrolla were having lunch in the Old Town, someone walked by wearing a T-shirt with his name and one of his pictures across the front. Barely looking up, Navitrolla muttered, "At least I can afford brushes now." It's hard not to trip over the irony: today, Navitrolla produces for the West the art for the masses he resisted under the Soviets. The ideologies of socialist realism may be dead but the look is alive and well. In fact, many Tallinn galleries show a mix of cartoony landscapes and hyperrealist, often larger-than-life figurative paintings that, like it or not, owe a good deal to their Soviet predecessors.

Still, not all Estonian art is so T-shirt friendly. At the Estonian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale last year, the much-talked-about video installation Oasis, by Ene-Liis Semper, showed two hands opening a mouth, filling it with potting soil, planting a flower, and watering it. It's a piece that most people watched more than once. Like Bruce Nauman's and William Wegman's early video work, it's at once funny and unsettling, a metaphor for an uncertain age. Another video, FF/REW, from 1998, is even darker. In it, Semper hangs herself, reads a book, and shoots herself. Her face remains static, indifferent, as the scene jumps forward and then reverses, as if life were a journey thwarted by a feedback loop.

Jaan Toomik, another Tallinn-based artist, shares a similar aesthetic and is, like Semper, well-established on the international biennial circuit. His videos tend to show him alone and in motion—on a ferry, traveling to different cities, or, as in Father and Son, skating naked across a sheet of ice toward the viewer and then away to the sun-filled horizon as his son sings sweetly, mournfully, in the background. Toomik's predicament has something of King Lear in it and of Samuel Beckett, too—a sense of comic, painful vulnerability.

At its best, Estonian art seems to get at something fundamental. And that's true even when it has a mass-market appeal. Last summer, No. 6 on Estonia's best-seller list was a pack of playing cards. On the backs of the cards were photographs of five of the country's leading young poets—all attractive, and all shot in noirish black-and-white. It sounded pretty gimmicky, until you noticed that each card contained three stanzas in free verse, the sort of thing you might worry about if it were dealt by a fortune-teller. The cards were somber, but they were also playful, as if to say that one's luck could be a kind of fortune, meted out by a poet not of the past but of the new age.

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