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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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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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Reconstruction. Idea. Project. Object. – Jüri Okas’s solo show

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Date: 18­–29 March 1976

Participant: Jüri Okas (1950)

Location: Tallinn Art Hall, exhibition space on the third floor of the Artists’ Union

In the late 1960s, the Artists’ Union set up a small room on the third floor of the Tallinn Art Hall to enable artists whose works had been rejected from official exhibitions to show their work. Access to these exhibitions was technically open to all, but since one could enter the space only through the premises of the Artists’ Union, the wider public was automatically excluded. The exhibitions were approved by a board of Artists’ Union functionaries and a poster was produced for each exhibition.

The walls of the exhibition space displayed black-and-white photographs and print works—what were called “reconstructions”—dealing with structural analyses of concrete, mostly urban, environments. With the additional use of black-painted wooden staves and mirrors, Okas created an all-encompassing perceptual environment, and with this installation he made one of the first attempts in Estonia to redefine the exhibition genre and also the art object.
Perhaps referencing Minimalist art practices as well as El Lissitzky’s Proun Room (1923), Okas fully engaged the viewer with the exhibition space—distorted and deformed by mirrors, it was a deconstructive space that confused and disoriented viewers as they moved about. Following the exhibition, Okas shot the 8 mm film Environment (1976, black and white, 5 min.). The film combines exhibition views with exterior views of the city. Like Reconstruction, the film is characterized by bustling montage, jumpy rhythm, and sharp cuts; it provides an analysis of the space and perceptions of it.

Later, Okas preferred the title “Environment” for the exhibition as well as the film.


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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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Architecture Exhibition `78

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Date: 22 May­–08 June 1978

Participants: Veljo Kaasik (1938), Tiit Kaljundi (1946-2008), Vilen Künnapu (1948), Leonhard Lapin (1947), Avo-Himm Looveer (1941-2002), Jüri Okas (1950), Jaan Ollik (1951), Matti Õunapuu (1945), Ain Padrik (1947), Toomas Rein (1940), Andres Ringo (1938), Harry Šein (1947), Tõnis Vint (1942)

Organizers: The Youth Section of the Union of Estonian Architects, initiated by Tiit Kaljundi and Leonhard Lapin

Location: Foyer of the Academy of Sciences Library in Tallinn

The foyer of the Academy of Sciences Library, situated in the center of Tallinn opposite the local Communist Party Central Committee building, was generally a site for exhibitions on the lives of important scientists. Many scientific institutions in the Soviet Union were already offering space for progressive art exhibitions, and the Academy of Sciences Library had also hosted shows in the past: for example, in 1966, an exhibition of art and photography.

The idea of the exhibition originated with the 1972 manifesto “Program for an Exhibition of New Architecture,” signed by Tiit Kaljundi, Leonhard Lapin, Vilen Künnapu, Avo-Himm Looveer, and Ülevi Eljand. The manifesto marked the beginning of a process of rethinking architectural practice in Estonia instigated by a group of friends and colleagues who later became known as the Tallinn School.

The exhibition format was utilized as an effective medium for communicating ideas about architecture, and for engaging the wider public in a discussion about the practice and goals of architecture. The exhibition was critical of Soviet mass construction, standardization, and modernist urban planning. At the same time, it posed questions about the institution of architecture and about architectural representation.

The exhibition was divided into two parts: black-and-white photographs showing examples of built works and—the sensational part of the show—pieces drawn on cardboard panels, each one meter squared, which lined the large glazed wall of the foyer. These pieces presented critical and ironic commentary on architecture and the modern city, and they adopted the standard format used by the state architecture offices for exhibiting architectural designs. Their unusual execution and content were new and surprising.

One of the crucial works in the exhibition was Lapin’s The City of the Living—The City of the Dead. The design proposed the creation of cemeteries in the green public spaces between the panel houses of the new housing districts. The cemeteries would include garage-tombs, in which bodies could be buried inside cars. The gravestones would function simultaneously as a children’s playground. This ironic proposal was intended to “complete” the micro housing districts, so that “inhabitants could remain in their neighborhoods forever without ever having to traverse a single highway.” In addition, the design made direct reference to official architectural institutions: it included a communal grave for the Architects’ Union and a grave for the union head, Mart Port, with the epigraph, “M. Saddamm—the leader—1922–1979” (indicating that Port was expected to die the following year—in reality he was to resign as head of the Architects’ Union). The design also included graves for Lapin himself and his fellow architects. It can be understood as a political statement.

Many of the exhibited works used irony as a tool for criticizing and questioning the ways in which we think about architecture. The exhibition prompted many responses in the visitors’ book as well as in the media, where nonprofessionals commented on the exhibition. Reviews were also published in Finland and the GDR.

Document: Program for an Exhibition of New Architecture


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Models – Māris Ārgalis’s solo exhibition

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Date: November–December 1978

Participant: Māris Ārgalis

Location: Exhibition hall of the Republican House of Science, Riga

This was the first solo exhibition for 25-year-old Māris Ārgalis. At the time he was one of the most creative artists, who openly provoked the authorities both through his work and personal attitude.

Ārgalis came to the attention of the art world thanks to his surrealist and hyperrealist graphics. His visionary urban-environment plans, photo collages, and spatial objects were just as original, breaking boundaries and pointing towards collaborative art practices. In the “Models” exhibition, the artist playfully turned the surrounding environment into an equal partner in the artwork, involving the viewers and provoking spontaneous actions.

The various segments of the exhibition synthesized into a whole and the artworks “stepped out” from the illusionary world into the physical space. For instance, the graphic works were complemented by spatial-cube modules that the viewers could shift around, thus becoming coauthors of the work. The city landscape visible through the glass of the windows that the graphics were displayed on also became part of the artwork. The photomontage series Bizarred Riga by Ārgalis’s informal Emissionist Group was a rare example of unambiguously critical, ironic commentaries and interpretations of the urban environment in 1970s Latvian art.


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