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Mari Laanemets: From the ivory tower of unofficial art to institutions of official art

The optimism caused by Khrushchev’s Thaw inspired young artists to become more active and seek opportunities to exhibit their work. Exhibitions were held at schools, cinemas, theaters, and a bit later at academic institutions. Summer camps set up the magazine Noorus (Youth) in Paralepa and later Kabli became a testing ground for new art; it was at these camps that the first happenings took place, installations were made, and experiments—in air art, for example—were conducted. In 1964 graphic art student Tõnis Vint initiated a new exhibition format at Estonian State Art Institute—the exhibition of independent student works—to which students could submit their work made outside of the school’s curriculum. The exhibitions were accompanied by discussions and presentations on contemporary art. The 1971 independent works opening ended with the group action “Coloring the Elephant.” Walks and exploration trips in decaying areas and abandoned territories of the city were part of the art practices of the early 1970s. At the same exhibition, Leonhard Lapin gave a speech titled “Art Designing the Environment”, in which he criticized “beautiful art” and proclaimed the purpose of art to be to shape the environment and create a new reality using new materials and, most importantly, new technological means.

Cafés became official exhibition spaces for alternative art—for example, the café at the University of Tartu and Café Pegasus in Tallinn, where the legendary Pop Art exhibitions “SOUP69” (1969) and “Estonian Avant-Garde Art” (1970) were held. In the few remaining photos of the 1970 exhibition one can see assemblages fixed to the café wall made from provocatively cheap calico and readymade elements, which consciously and aggressively interfere with the café atmosphere.

Already in the 1960s an exhibition hall had been set up on the third floor of the Artists’ Union where artists could exhibit experimental art “not suitable” for official exhibitions—Lapin called it the “salon of the rejected.”[1] These were rarely exclusive exhibitions, but the number of visitors was limited due to the fact that the exhibition space was accessible only through the rooms of the Artists’ Union. In the 1970s, Sirje Runge, Lapin, and others held their first solo exhibitions there. Jüri Okas put together the first installation, which incorporated the entire space, and the space itself became the object of the exhibition.

A turning point occurred in 1966: the art group ANK64[2] decided to present abstract and surrealist works at an official youth exhibition, blurring the line between official and unofficial art. One of the reasons, however, why artists still sought alternative and semiofficial spaces for exhibitions was the self-organized and progressive context these exhibitions provided for their works. For example, most of the works that were shown at one of the most grandiose semiofficial exhibitions—at the Estonian Research Institute of Agriculture and Land Improvement at Saku in 1973—had already been displayed at official exhibitions. The last semiofficial exhibition outside of art institutions was “Event Harku ’75: Objects, Concepts” at the Institute of Experimental Biology in Harku. This exhibition is considered the end of the avant-garde and the following period an era of compromises, during which unofficial art became conclusively institutionalized. However, it was during the following years that conceptual exhibitions took place that not only aimed for public exposure, but also for public influence, by presenting aesthetic and political views through the exhibition format.

In the spring of 1976, as part of the official retrospective “Estonian Monumental Art 1902–1975,” Lapin organized an exhibition of new art, involving young artists and architects. The aim of the experimental intervention was to redefine monumental art, in which interdisciplinarity featured strongly, integrating experiments of architecture, design, and art.

The “Architecture Exhibition” that followed in 1978 can be considered the peak of the ironic, critical, and interdisciplinary (exhibition) practices of the previous decade. On one hand the exhibition confronted the dominating architectural practices and institutions, and on the other it was a means of self-assertion. The media-aware architects used the exhibition to construct a framework for their agenda—to initiate a public dialogue and shape public opinion.


[1] Lapin’s ironic reference to the Paris Salon des Refusés of 1863.

[2] ANK’64 was the first artist’s group in the Soviet period. It formed 1964 from the students of printmaking at the State Institute of Art, including Tõnis Vint, Malle Leis (1940), Jüri Arrak (1936), Kristiina Kaasik (1943), Tiiu Pallo-Vaik (1941), Enno Ootsing (1940), Tõnis Laanemaa (1937), Aili Vint (1941), Marju Mutsu (1941-1980), Vello Tamm (1940-1991). Their pursuits in art were connected with youth culture, Pop and Op Art, as well as with the Avant-Gardes of the early 20th century.



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