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Colouring the Elephant – happening

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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

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


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Group exhibition in the Republican House of Science, Riga

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Date: 1971

Participants: Jānis Borgs, Atis Ieviņš, Laimonis Šēnbergs, Arvīds Priedīte, and Henrihs Vorkals.

Location: Republican House of Science,  Riga.

This exhibition was the first visible event in Riga in which direct Western influences and the linking of art to a sense of real time were manifested. Participants were a group of like-minded artists studying design, interior design, and textile arts at the Art Academy.

The exhibition had an innovative, experimental arrangement. The central object was Henrihs Vorkals’s spatial tapestry Icarus, in which colorful circles and crescents united a human figure’s inner and outer worlds, allowing it to be interpreted as a target, victim, or struggle. The exhibition’s second strong accent was Jānis Borgs’s super-graphic in which the cartoonish label “Sviuuu …” was placed over an abstract geometric base. This was complemented by similar silk screens, sketches, paintings, and posters scattered around the perimeter of the circular hall.

The exhibition was popular and attracted both controversy and praise. Its organizers later acknowledged that it was intentionally imitating Pop art, noting that “Pop art was everywhere”—in design, interiors, fashion, on record covers, and in musical taste and lifestyles. As written in a review of the exhibition, it was a period of “the universe, electronics, a dynamic living pulse, shifting information requiring heightened intellectuality where earlier intuition and emotions had sufficed.”[1]


[1] Georgs Barkāns, “Izstāde svētku noskaņā” [Exhibition in a Festive Mood] in Padomju Jaunatne (6 February 1972)


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Celebrations – design and interiors exhibition

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Date: February 1972

Location: Exhibition hall of the Institute of Scientific Technical Information and Propaganda (the historic Stock Exchange), Riga.

Participants: Exhibition installer and chief artist: Jānis Pipurs. Creative team: Jānis Borgs, Nora Ķivule, Jānis Osis, Leo Preiss, Laimonis Šēnbergs, and Viesturs Vilks. Altogether forty-nine artists took part.

The ninth Young Artists’ Exhibition was devoted to the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the USSR and presented a wide-ranging program. An exhibition of paintings, graphics, and sculptures was held in the Foreign Art Museum, while the Stock Exchange hosted the experimental collective interior design exhibition “Celebrations.” This latter event was one of most capacious presentations of contemporary art, which demonstrated that the avant-garde was not based just in alternative circles, but, through peculiarities of the Soviet system, it was also part of the official, politically acceptable process.

The exhibition’s title was open to various interpretations, and its formal alignment with the anniversary of the USSR, as well as its designation in the design category, made it possible to present a broad, atypically Soviet range of works, with much less painting and sculpture. It was “a dynamic exhibition-show and improvisation in which everything pulsed, moved, glittered, beeped, or revealed other dynamic-kinetic expressions.”[1] Viewers were surprised by the moving floor that beeped when walked upon, the “thirsty” silver fishes that moved in the air against the background of a sunny Pop-art painting, rotating cylinders and towers, etc.

The exhibition emphasized formal and aesthetic solutions, but it also paved the way for the hybrid and art-synthesis processes of the 1970s. Involving spatial, architectural, urban-planning, psychological, and other elements, it changed the way of art perception and the role of the audience.


[1] An interview with J. Borgs in April, 2009.


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Estonian Monumental Art 1902–1975 – a show of historical and experimental works

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Date: 17 May – 28 June 1976

Participants of the experimental section: Villu Jōgeva (1940), Tiit Kaljundi (1946-2008), Vilen Künnapu (1948), Leonhard  Lapin (1947), Jüri Okas (1950), Toomas Rein (1940), Sirje Runge (1950),  Harry Šein (1947), Aili Vint (1941), Tõnis Vint (1942)

Organizers: The Ministry of Culture, designed and curated by Leonhard Lapin (assisted by art historian Viivi Viilmann)

Location: Tallinn Art Hall

The main exhibition was a retrospective of twentieth-century Estonian monumental sculpture. In the main hall were photographs of monuments from the Soviet period with a bust of Lenin in the center. In smaller halls were decorative sculpture and some constructivist forms from the 1920s, and in the farthest room from the entrance was the small show of experimental works. The latter featured designs and models by architects, as well as abstract paintings, prints, and kinetic objects, and a separate brochure was provided in addition to the main catalog.

The abstract artwork might be considered as way to camouflage monumental designs—a tactic often ascribed to unofficial art, enabling works to be exhibited that did not conform to official standards. However, this show was different in that it included architects, designers, and artists equally, without differentiation. The goal of this intervention was not merely camouflage, but the transformation of the official genre, to re-shape it into an extensive design of public space.

An anonymous review (actually written by Lapin), published in the local arts magazine Kunst, explained that the new monumental art was moving away from the design of single monuments and towards the organization of total environments. Architecture as well as street lighting systems would be the field for this new art.

The idea for the exhibition was related to discussions on monumentality and monumental art in the Soviet Union and also to the crises that had arisen since the 1960s concerning the new modern industrially constructed city—itself in need of a new kind of monument. Representational monumentality was confronted with a new kind of synthesis based on art, architecture, and new technologies. It was about the creation of new city structures and, as result, a different kind of public space.

Lapin used the exhibition format to make a statement and to open dialogue with official art. His exhibition design used the colors of the French national flag— blue, red, and white—to refer to ideas of freedom, brotherhood, and equality.


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