The State is Not a Work of Art – A Review

‘If an Estonian were to visit a zoo’…I am initiate to a local anecdote…‘they would muse, “I wonder what that elephant thinks of me?”.’ In the midst of Estonia’s centenary of independence, this tale ventures a loose definition of a national identity; an analogy for a conscientious concern with outside perspective. These stories we tell lend palpability and form to abstract histories, epitomising the very human and ironically surreal drive to position the individual within a community. To belong to somewhere, or something, bigger than ourselves.

The repetitive, often subliminal delivery of such narratives and phrases feed a banal nationalism (coined by Michael Billig in 1995) – in short, practices recalling shared histories, constituting “us” versus “them”, “ours” versus “theirs”. Rendering the internalised explicit, Lise Harlev probes the nature of these sustained chronicles. ‘My Own Country’ (2005), employs graphic media formatting and bold typography to query national uniformity and cultural norms; ‘I often catch myself defending my own country. But do I really believe it’s that good a place? Or did I just grow up believing it is?’. It’s a tricky pause for thought in 24 artist strong ‘The State is Not a Work of Art’, an international group exhibition exploring tangled constructs of nation, state, and nationalism at Tallinn Art Hall and neighbouring venues. In a banner covering the Art Hall’s facade, and a series of six posters dispatched citywide (one of which stating ‘It’s hard to ignore people who speak your language’), Harlev dissects and exposes rooted lingual margins.

In a similar vein, language is stimulus for Kristina Norman, who reconsiders mutual histories and their inherent exclusions. Documenting a site specific performance, Norman’s elemental video ‘Bring Back My Fire Gods’ (2018) sees Swedish/ Ethiopian opera singer Sofia Jernberg performing ‘Transvaal’ (a Russian folk song which also has an Estonian version) amid soft snowfall and fire at Tallinn’s vacant Song Festival Grounds. As the site of the Singing Revolution (1988), the grounds and their quinquennial Song Festivals hold iconic significance in Estonia’s collective imagination as loci of a national awakening and regained independence from the Soviet Union (1991). In its candidness Norman’s work highlights some painful patches of history’s quilt. The manipulation of Jernberg’s recital, from singular voice to cacophony of harmonies, becomes hypnotic metaphor for common memory as composition.

Just as art objects accrue agency through applied social history so too can states, but by what means and by whom is the state authored? Szabolcs Kisspál harnesses docu-fiction film and faux museum display in ‘From Fake Mountains to Faith (Hungarian Trilogy)’ (2016), to show how myth and cultural philosophy inform present state policy in Hungary. Similarly, Jaanus Samma’s ‘New Years Boy’ (2018) (citing the Estonian tradition of young men going New Year’s eve well-wishing in straw costume) shows the erratic nature of compiling collective history, but does so by revisiting omitted narratives. Larissa Sansour utilises the often fictitious elements of shared history in ‘Nation Estate’ (2012), a sci-fi short film presenting a droll solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict in the form of Palestine as high rise, the artist’s native Bethlehem on the 21st floor.

Physical and societal borders upheld through national narratives inform works by Loulou Cherinet, Femke Herregraven, and Ella Littwitz. Swedish born Cherinet’s ‘Statecraft’ (2017) looks at the concepts of ‘innanförskap’ and ‘utanförskap’ (‘insidership’ and ‘outsidership’), which have beset her homeland’s politics since the 2006 elections. Here, people from varying societal backgrounds present personal rationalisations on the ambiguous terminology which has found them placed “outside” the system. In her app-store turned showroom ‘Liquid Citizenship’ (2015/2018), Amsterdam based Herregraven vibes on current issues of citizenship as commodity, to be bought, sold, and withdrawn. Herregraven comments, “Borders are hard, but become porous with financial means”. Seemingly, only the few can choose whether they lay in the bed their country has made; this is something Littwitz knows only to well, and expresses simplistically yet effectively in ‘The Unknown Land of the South’ (2017). Hailing from Israel, Littwitz composes the soil from 24 countries which deny her entry (only 17 samples could be retrieved, each at risk) into a circular sculpture referencing Ptolemy’s hypothetical ‘Terra Australis Incognita’; a utopic land without parameters. Ironic then, that this work is situated in a venue not wheelchair accessible.

Whilst ‘The State is Not a Work of Art’ may fall short in relaying its liberal cause, it does well in presenting us with an international cross section of artists engaging the strange amalgamations of our national narratives. For art historian Burckhardt, the Machiavellian political formation of the Italian Renaissance rendered the state a work of art; for philosopher Hegel, art relayed a perfection unattainable for a state. Here we have, respectively, definitions of art as genesis, and as conclusion; whereas art is, much like the narratives of nations, elaborate and ongoing.


Laura Frances Green


‘The State is not a Work of Art’ – Tallinn Art Hall, Tallinn City Gallery, Art Hall Gallery, Vabaduse Gallery – until 29th April 2018

Image: Jaanus Samma, ‘New Year’s Boy’ (2018) Installation and performance commissioned by Tallinn Art Hall, 
Installation view of The State is not a Work of Art at Tallinn Art Hall, Estonia. 16 February – 29 April 2018, Courtesy the artist and Tallinn Art Hall, Photo © Karel Koplimets