Estonian street art and post soviet spaces

I went to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and former capital of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (ESSR) the other week. Aside from denouncing the map and taking part in some dérive around the old town centre with its medieval castle wall, its pastel coloured amber souvenir shops, cobbled lanes and sprinklings of Russian onion domes (none of which are depicted here), I also decided to hang out around the defunct city concert hall (Linnahall) by the sea. Designed in what has been described as a Rationalist and/or Brutalist style of architecture by Raine Karp and Riina Altmäe, the hall – originally called the V.I. Lenin Palace of Sports and Culture – was built for the hosting of the sailing events of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and included a heliport. It’s a colossal concrete edifice whose worn exterior has engulfed its interior – which is closed and now wasted as a potentially functioning cultural place. It offers views of both the old city and the harbour, although it captures the icy breeze of the latter, particularly at the top. Its shell has been left to deteriorate since the end of the Soviet occupation in 1991, with its paving stones gathering moss, its sharp steps crumbling – yet not cordoned off to the public – and many of its walls graffitied. Through light to dark, it’s a regular haunt for teenagers – acting as a kind of perpetual street corner – also popular with lovers, friends and tourists, although on my first visit it was suitably deserted. Much of the graffiti took the form of coloured tags, although there was some spray painted figuration present also, such as a man in a zoot suit pointing a pistol (spot the photo). Nearby the hall and in other parts of town were some striking and not so clever examples of post-graffiti. The stencilled head wearing a flat cap on the side of a park bench appears to be echoing a soviet era bust behind it – perhaps an example of place-specificity which works to contest the historic Soviet domination of space in the city.

Next to the city hall is a ‘regenerated’ stretch of land which is simply a two kilometre gravelled pathway which runs alongside the neglected harbour buildings, and which is popular with joggers and cyclists. It was built to coincide with Tallinn’s status as European capital of culture in 2011 but it doesn’t showcase the city’s highlights from a tourist board’s perspective. Along the ‘Culture Kilometre,’ I saw a closed contemporary art gallery (E.K.K.M), various post industrial structures, an old prison, a neglected car park and derelict houses. The journey ended abruptly with a disused petrol station and another decrepit, empty building with a palimpcestuous sniff of the Soviet about it. Many of the buildings alongside the culture kilometre were swathed in an assortment of enduring and makeshift forms of fencing, industrial bandaging and that old symbolic chestnut which is often seen to stand simultaneously for oppression and modernity: barbed wire. Whilst Estonia is no longer occupied or ‘oppressed’ by the USSR, it is subject to forms of late capitalist acts of tourism which don’t always add up economically, nor in the way the local community relates to these post soviet spaces in the city’s transitional city zones[i].

Below are some – more or less chronologically ordered – photos I took on my walk from the city hall to the end of the culture kilometre, which crosses the borders between the inner city and the suburb of Kalamaja (see image with this word usefully graffited on the side of a building.) Following this, are some examples of street art, found around the Old Town centre. The pictured graffiti, post-graffiti or street art (depending on your definition) were captured (by my camera) because they appeared to stand out as synchronically aesthetic and political examples of city space art making. However, the camera didn’t do the choosing; the decisions of what to shoot and the subsequent editing were imposed by me. What I think I was looking for, were instances of art work which were responding to Tallinn as a post soviet space – its somewhat interstitial identity as a present European tourist attraction and a former subsumation of a closed soviet empire. The latter gives rise to the presence of possible traumatic residues in the city, whilst the former creates a vacuity of enforced commercialisation. I spotted street art which tended to contain forms of gas mask, armour, peace symbols or verbal references to war but it is possible that I am selecting, misreading or misinterpreting these images to fuel my own socio-historical interests, rather than picking up on sociovisual zeitgeists. Due to the very nature of unsanctioned public art it is difficult to know what the intentions of the artist or tagger were in terms of their relationship to particular city spaces and places at a certain moment in time. The capacity for the open processing of such images as they are noticed by passersby is also what makes them valid and instigative of debate.

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A few relevant references

Bloch, Stefano (no date) ‘Graffiti,’ <http://stefanobloch.wordpress.com/graffiti/>, accessed 28/04/2012.

On derive:  Debord, Guy (1958) see Internationale Situationniste #1, first published in Paris.

Farris, Lynley (2005) Challenging Conceptions: The Fine Art of Graffiti, University of Missouri , Kansas city.(university thesis, limited preview available on google books)

On Linahall:  Hayashi, Tomomi, (no date) ‘To the Sea,’ Lift11: Linahall Festival 2011 [online], <http://www.lift11.ee/installation/to+the+sea>, accessed 28/04/2012.

Krell, Alan, (2004) Devil’s Rope: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire, London: Reaktion.

 Kurg, Andres (2004) ‘The Tallinn Utopia,’ Estonian Art, 1/04 (14), Estonian Institute, on <http://www.estinst.ee/Ea/architecture/kurg1.html>, accessed 28/04/2012


[i] See the Chicago School of Sociology, in particular Burgess’s and Park’s work on concentric city zones in the 1920s.

by Beccy

About Art Theory and Practice

BA Contemporary Art History Manchester School of Art http://www.mmu.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/courses/2012/9406/

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