The opening of the 1971 exhibition of independent student works at the State Art Institute in Tallinn culminated in the happening “Colouring the Elephant” in a nineteenth-century suburb of Tallinn. During the happening, a large group of art and architecture students repainted a run-down children’s playground that had a wooden elephant slide in the middle. The event was initiated by artist and design student Andres Tolts, who had a studio in the neighborhood. It was officially sanctioned as a renewal project and paint was provided by the local municipal housing committee. The happening is documented in Jüri Okas’s film Elephant (8 mm, color, 15 min.).Happenings, walks through neglected areas and wastelands of the city—“places abandoned by socialism that had themselves abandoned socialism,” as Lapin put it—and interest in strange and uncanny encounters had all been among the practices of a group of young architecture students since the late 1960s. In 1972, a year after “Coloring the Elephant,” architect Vilen Künnapu and poet Juhan Viiding published their article “A Proposal” in the main cultural newspaper. The article called for a rediscovery of the neglected spaces of Tallinn—its anonymous courtyards and wooden dwellings—and suggested that they “modestly supplement them with beautiful vibrant colors.” Emphasizing the aesthetic value of elevator shafts, staircases, external plumbing, and ventilation ducts as anonymous works of art, they pleaded for them to be enhanced with color. The blank walls of industrial structures were to become exhibition spaces filled with posters and images.
The happenings and walks initiated efforts to revive these urban spaces, but resisted uniform redevelopment. Characteristic of these happenings was the use of playfulness as a specific tactic to counter the rational and normative aspects of everyday life and as a reaction to the seriousness of prevailing art forms and dominant powers. (One should not overlook the ironic appropriation of subbotnik—Soviet “voluntary” community work—in “Coloring the Elephant.”)
In his speech “Art Designing the Environment” at the same exhibition of independent student works, Lapin proclaimed that “the human living environment has become the central concern for contemporary culture.” Lapin criticized “beautiful art” as merely a decorative form of commodity, and confronted it with art that contributes to the production of new environments. Both design and happenings were intended to help achieve this goal. Ideas such as those announced by Lapin would define art practice during the following years; among the defining characteristics of these practices was their interdisciplinarity.
Document: Vilen Künnapu, Juhan Viiding: A Proposal
Date: 24 April 1971
Participants: Ülevi Eljand (1947), Tiit Kaljundi (1946-2008), Ando Keskküla (1950-2008), Vilen Künnapu (1948), Leonhard Lapin (1947), Avo-Himm Looveer (1941-2002), Kristin Looveer (1947), Jüri Okas (1950), Jaan Ollik (1951), Sirje Runge (Lapin) (1950), Andres Tolts (1949), et al.
Location: Children’s playground in Pelgulinn, Tallinn