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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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Event Harku ’75 – Objects, Concepts

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Date: 6 – 14 December 1975

Initiators and organizers: Artists Leonhard Lapin (1947), Sirje Runge (1950, at that time Sirje Lapin), Raul Meel (1941), and physicist Tõnu Karu

Participants: Silvi Allik-Virkepuu, Villu Järmut, Toomas Kall, Kaarel Kurismaa, Leonhard Lapin, Raul Meel, Jaan Ollik, Jüri Okas, Illimar Paul, Sirje Runge, Silver Vahtre

Location: The Institute of Experimental Biology in Harku, near Tallinn

Scientific institutions often offered spaces for alternative art exhibitions. Two years earlier, in 1973, another exhibition was held at the Agricultural Research Center in Saku, near Tallinn.

This exhibition is considered to have been the last unofficial show in Soviet Estonia. The exhibition itself, like unofficial shows in general, was eclectic and presented such diverse trends as Pop Art along with the most influential developments in Estonian alternative art since the late 1960s—kinetic objects, concrete poetry, and geometric abstraction. The few surviving photographs documenting the exhibition show a lively, slightly chaotic environment: oversized packets of Georgian tea hang from the ceiling (Jaan Ollik and Villu Järmut); in the middle of the space Sirje Runge’s Altar displays a colorful geometric pattern; nearby is Kaarel Kurismaa “chamber fountain”—a round side table with a cubic basin mounted on its top: etc. At the opening, Mess performed—the first Estonian progressive-rock group, famous for their interdisciplinary approach and collaboration with the artist Kurismaa.

Although the Artists’ Union gave permission for Leonhard Lapin and Raul Meel to present and discuss their work with young scientists—the event was officially announced as a meeting of young artists and junior researchers—the show created a scandal as more artists, mainly graduates of the State Art Institute, were invited.[1]

On the last day of the exhibition a seminar was held with participating artists, physicists, and writers. Being the most relevant tendency in contemporary art, the main topic of discussion was Conceptualism. More generally, issues were raised concerning the role and function of art and artists in society. The significance of this exhibition differentiates it from previous unofficial art shows: rather than being simply the typical compilation of progressive works of varying focus, it aimed to relate art, the role of art, and the changing context of art production.

In his speech, Lapin presented the notion of “objective art” as the future of art practice. Lapin called for a new art of forms based on, and developed in accordance with, contemporary industrial reality and technological progress. For Lapin, changes in the environment (particularly industrialization) and developments in technology would introduce completely new environments and means of production and communication, and had fundamentally changed the concept of art and the role of the artist. The main goal of this new objective art was to create an integrated aesthetic environment. Art was to overcome the boundaries between the various disciplines of painting, sculpture, and architecture, and would encompass a variety of techniques, notably in multimedia and electronics. A year later a compilation of the exhibition presentations was edited and independently published in a typewritten manuscript by Meel titled Let a Man Be.

Only one review of the show was published, in the University of Tartu’s newspaper. The announcement of the opening was published in the weekly cultural newspaper Sirp ja Vasar, causing resentment from the Artists’ Union.


[1] See the records of the session of the Board of the Artists’ Union and the Communist Party unit.  Estonian State Archives (ERA), f 2477, n 15, s 17,1.83.


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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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