From Kissing the West to Losing the Virginity: Estonian Performance Art during Perestroika

  • Abstract:

    In June 1988 Siim-Tanel Annus, an Estonian performance artist having sailed on a boat from Tallinn to Helsinki kissed the ground of the Finnish coast on arrival. The intention of the artist was to precede with the action the pope who was coming to Finland soon after and bring Southern blessing to the neighboring country. However, a Soviet artist kissing the soil of the West had a political connotation for the audience. The interpretation of (post-)Soviet art primarily through socio-economical perspective has contributed to the East-West confrontation. In my paper I will discuss the topic of Estonian performance art and its reception during perestroika in an edeavour to overcome the obstacle of the East-West dichotomy. The isolation of the Soviet society has been both over- and underestimated. Is there a mid-ground in the essence of the genuine artworks that surpasses the dualistic prejudice? Characteristic for Estonian performance art of the 1980s was its closed world of transhistorical archetypes, metaphors and myths. The controversy of the political turmoil in the second part of the decade and the socially seemingly disengaged art with its obsession with the spiritual presents us with the question of artists’ relation to their own era and history. The metaphoric symbols in the performance art of the period are open both to political and art-centered interpretations. The artistic rituals were often carried out in a serious manner which left no room for irony. Raoul Kurvitz, another performance artist of perestroika, has reflected on the period as a transition from earnestness to cynicism (Kurvitz 2010, 172–173). The “age of innocence” in Estonian performance art was therefore short-lived. The transition corresponds with the shift in the society from idealization of the West to sobering up to the reality of capitalism.