Monday, May 24, 2010

Longing through Line: Drawing Back One's Home

The Estonia shown to foreigners — or, more accurately, the side of itself Estonia chooses to show — has never struck me as the real Estonia. Brochures with strings of suspicious superlatives about the most meteor craters per square kilometer of island, Laetalu’s record 70 plant species per square meter, or even the country’s impressive number of Olympic Gold Medal winners per capita have never held appeal, and seeing them in print brings to mind the desperation of Kansas farm towns I once witnessed on a car trip with my parents across the prairie: offerings such as the world’s tallest prairie dog, the world’s deepest hand-dug well, the world’s largest coal shovel, and the world’s largest ball of twine. What Kansas had to sell, I thought, was a safe, cheap, Africa. Endless, sweeping vistas with a lower likelihood that one might be eaten by a lion. And so it is with Estonia: its nature is what holds the appeal.

And not just nature. What, to me as an outsider, makes Estonia remarkable in the larger context of the overpopulated, over-hyped consumer society in which we live, is the subtlety of its nature.

But subtlety, by definition, doesn’t lend itself to easy description, which makes it doubly difficult to market. And most marketers would surely look askance upon someone who advocated the appeal of sitting against a tree and staring into the forest to watch light play against pines, or lying on one’s back staring into a Navitrolla sky.

Perhaps, then, representing the subtlety of Estonia is best left to artists. Perhaps art is the only medium which can to justice to Estonia’s subtlety?

The work of artist Jaanika Peerna does it justice. Whether speaking of her drawings or her installations, the Estonian artist’s work is devoid of superlatives and chest-beating declarations. Her drawings, in particular, bring to mind a rural landscape in a particularly cold March: the earth’s still-frozen surface with life below quietly waiting its turn. And he who takes time to contemplate it, somehow sensing the northern energy of spring which will not burst forth, but will emerge in its own paced, measured fashion which, like the Estonian temperament itself, can occasionally deeply frustrate outsiders.

Peerna lives in the picturesque Hudson Valley north of New York City, but spends summers in Estonia. She did coursework in Estonian art schools while earning degrees in art education from Tallinn University and the University of Art and Design in Finland. Her work cannot help but reflect her background and environment. “What I got from Estonia was a sensitivity to light and to the subtle, slow workings of nature,” Peerna says. “Every time I return to Northern Europe, I am reminded of that patience in nature – no big forms, no impressive anything. Only the quite flow of things.”

But to appreciate what you have, you sometimes have to lose it, and being an hour by train from the heart of New York City, for what it has deprived her of, has certainly given her perspective which informs her work. When she and David Rothenberg, her writer-philosopher-jazz-musician husband moved into their home in Cold Spring, New York, deep inside the Hudson Valley, she found herself yearning for open space and horizons. “I caught myself painting long horizontal works with horizon lines which were only visible here if you climbed to a mountain top.”

In her second graduate school experience, working for a Masters of Fine Arts at SUNY New Paltz, Peerna turned to inner landscapes, as well as works with micro- and macro levels of reference, microscopic imagery as landscape. No matter how her art developed, her yearning for an Estonian landscape somehow surfaced in her work.

“I am very aware that the reason Estonia’s nature influences my work so much is because I moved away from there,” she says. “If I was living in Estonia, I might not notice the things I described. So there is some nostalgic and idealistic tone to it all. But what can I do?”

Since the late 1990s, she has quietly recorded Estonia’s subtlety in drawings and video installations and shown them in galleries in New York, Lisbon, Aarhus, and Dubai. Two years ago, after a show at the Galerie Lavignes Bastille in Paris, two of her large drawings were acquired for the French National Art Collection.

Peerna is an Estonian artist better known outside Estonia than she is inside her homeland. This, in large part, comes from not having aggressively pursued a reputation on the Estonian art scene, but it also comes from having developed as an artist outside the traditional Estonian path. A graduate of Tallinn Pedagogical University, Peerna studied art teaching, rather than art itself. “For a career as an artist in Estonia,” she says, “I did not have the right credentials.”

To an outsider, “making it” on the Estonian art scene seems a struggle one might do well to avoid. Estonian artists seem to live in a revolving struggle: Scrape to buy paints and canvas; build a collection of works to show; wait two years to show at a decent gallery; pay the gallery owner; buy alcohol for other poor artists to drink at your opening; endure the obligatory speech about the significance of your work; hope your kultuuri kapital stipend will cover the costs when your work doesn’t sell; and beg any buyers to pay you black cash to escape social taxes. Then do it all over again and again until you die.

But home is in the blood, and sooner or later the artist must journey there. Especially when she’s been painting it for so long. Peerna has slowly begun to close the gap to her homeland, and her first bridge to the Estonian art world was provided by the New York Estonian House in 2001. Since then, she has had only two shows in Estonia (in 2001 at the Art Academy Gallery and at Linnagaleri 2002). She is quietly developing a following among Estonia’s few serious collectors. This June, she will have a solo exhibition at Tallinn’s ArtDepoo, her first show in Estonia for eight years, which she hopes will be one more quiet, subtle step toward being thought of as an Estonian artist.

Being recognized by the art world anywhere is no easy task, and it is certainly far more difficult in the United States than in Estonia. Despite Raul Meel’s rather sweeping, critical view of the Estonian art world in a 2006 Eesti Ekspress, where he wrote at length about lack of public funds for financing exhibitions and general artist survival, getting grants in the United States is even more difficult, because there are so many artists and so little government support.

Statistically speaking, for a nation with an adult population in its prime of only slightly over one-half million, one living artist breaking through in the West would be an achievement. For Estonia to have even a pair (Raul Meel, Jaan Toomik) whose names are familiar to art collectors and gallerists in New York is remarkable in itself.

Jaanika Peerna is too modest to add her name to that list, but she is working toward it. She was recently interviewed and photographed for inclusion in an upcoming American book called PRIME, profiles of international women who are in the periods of their lives where they are at their most productive. The book includes just fifty notable women, including political heiress Caroline Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, supermodel Christy Turlington, and Estonian/American artist Jaanika Peerna.

“I’m flattered to be included in the book,” Peerna says, “though I thought my ‘prime’ was ahead of me! There’s so much more to do.” More to do includes shows in her adopted home of New York, but also a kind of spiritual fulfillment and satisfaction for the soul through closer attachment to the art world of her native land.

Jaanika Peerna’s work is at ArtDepoo, June 2nd through June 30th.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Class Confusion

“Don’t be friendly with my builders,” cautioned a contractor we hired to work on our house several years ago. “If you get too close, they’ll take advantage of you.” Of course, I’d already gotten too close.

In Canada and the United States, where we’re all part of a conspiracy to pretend class differences are minor, we are inculcated from birth to make extra efforts to show that while some have more money than others, we’re all created equal (or if we’re not, then Colonel Colt made us so). Children are taught to say “yes sir” and “no sir” to even the plumber’s assistant who arrives to remove the giant hairball from the bowels of the bathroom sink. While father may get in his Mercedes to drive to the office, he is not above standing in the driveway for a morning smoke with a crew of workers arrived to put on a new roof. It’s important to make a show of it.

The classes of society may or may not have something in common, but all seem at least superficially engaged in a quest for a classless society. Like Henry V moving incognito among his soldiers’ campfires to take their temperature on the eve of battle, children of America’s middle- and upper classes are often sent to work summers in the company of the country’s lower class, the logic being to help them understand the real world, as well as to appreciate how good they’ve got it.

And so as a North American, it was not unnatural for me to sit in the garden with a crew of Estonian house framers, share a few beers, and discuss everything from a builder’s choice of mountain bike to the merits of steel-toed work boots. Little did I know that from the moment I popped the bottle cap off that first Saku, I had upset a thousand years of Estonian tradition.


Orjapidaja ei räägi orjakeelt,” I’d heard a dozen times—the slave keeper doesn’t speak the slave’s language—though I first saw it only as an explanation why Estonia’s rulers never deigned to learn the language. Only later would I realize that a language barrier is immensely practical: it further ensures a solid class barrier. Had I been unable to speak Estonian, I would have been forced to honor a thousand years of history and not gotten myself in so much trouble. Without a common language, I would have remained an unknown entity. Had they not gotten to know me, they perhaps would have feared me. And as it turned out, the very moment I was no longer mysterious is the moment they started taking advantage of me.

I knew they were drunk because of the questions. An Estonian may have burning questions inside him, but he will rarely ask them until he is drunk. “Tell me, Vello,” dared Sven the floor layer. “How long did it take you to learn Estonian?” It was a compliment, of course, but a devious and calculated one. By answering it I permitted him inside my perimeter. Flatter the manor lord a little bit. Take him off his guard.

While I should have politely answered “six months” and kept on walking, I had a five-minute conversation with him, which led him to conclude I was a pretty good fella. And pretty good fellas stick together. Sven informed me that it was his cat’s fifth birthday and that tomorrow was Walpurgis Night. Of course, this was code for: We’re drunk now and will remain so indefinitely. Over the next two days, Sven and his crew installed floorboards with gaps between them big enough to insert your finger and inexplicably created fist-size holes in sheetrock walls. One simple human gesture had given rise to a full-scale revolt.


As a solution to the problem of forming relationships with workers, I’d tried an overseer, the man whose job it is to monitor quality. In practical terms, this means he screams at the workers on a regular basis, as if they were motivated purely out of fear. But the overseer concept never worked for me, since I could not afford to have one on the job site full time, and I tend to want faulty work corrected long before too much of it has been done.

But I see the system’s merits. When the German nobility departed Estonia, they did not leave a vacuum. Estonians themselves (often military officers) stepped into the role of manor lords, and the overseer fit nicely into the new management structure, serving a similar purpose to the overseer on a slave plantation in America’s antebellum South. The language barrier that existed for 700 years in Estonia may no longer be present, but the overseer provides a time-tested buffer to ensure the work process goes smoothly. He is the manor lord’s hatchet man. He knows which swearwords will have effect. He even wields the whip, which I have seen effectively used: a overseer entering the workers’ hut and literally beating the shit out of a drunken plasterer.

Until I served as my own overseer, I believed Estonians overdramatized the country’s class system. How could a people who so readily admitted that they were all once slaves have need to develop such a nuanced system for creating boundaries between them? But it was this way, too, in America’s antebellum South. Lines within the slave class were drawn by both skin tone and the type of work they did: field slaves versus house slaves. Estonians have drawn their class lines via education. Pairing the word “haritud” with an Estonian means far more than he is educated. An educated Estonian is one who is sensitive to the ways of your foreign culture, who likely speaks your language, one with whom you will find something in common. It means that he is less likely to, in the vernacular of Estonian literature, Rehepapp you.

Of course, a builder can be educated. In the west there are plenty of PhDs who can be found toting hammers, and there are plenty of autodidacts (and the occasional published poet or novelist) to be found among tradesmen such as carpenters and cabinetmakers. I find it odd that Estonians, a people who took quick advantage of the German system of higher education offered them, did not replicate the German guild system, the very soul of pride in one’s trade. Indeed, try to find a bonded workman today engaged in residential construction. The best the homebuilder may hope for is a builder with a company which has withstood the test of time, but even he will be relegated to employing some workers who would be far happier lying stone drunk behind a haystack in a sunny field.

There are of course plenty of Estonians lacking formal educations who will not Rehepapp you, but these tend to gravitate toward other fields. To Estonians, there is little sexy about construction, despite that the fact that, when done right, it is honest, even honorable work. On the New York City subway, one may observe tradesmen on their way to work, dressed in stylish work clothing, carrying their tools in bags which can cost nearly as much as the tools inside. Such is the pride in their craft.


Although I think I’m closer to understanding the way things are in Estonia (though you may dispute my theory about the class system), it has proved to be of absolutely no practical value. I haven’t learned a damned thing about dealing with workers. Despite keeping my distance, as soon as they learn my name they ask to borrow money. “Doesn’t your boss pay you?” I asked the most recent worker at my doorstep.

“Yes, but not this week.” He scratched his head and then turned around to spit. “Because you weren’t happy with the work.”

“That’s true. You want me to show you the window you installed upside down?”

“I just need to borrow some money. Could you give me a thousand kroons?”

“Only if it’s against money I owe your boss,” I said, hoping to find a way out of it. “So your debt would be to him, and he would have to approve.”

“Oh,” and he looked at his feet, pausing to think about that one. “No,” he concluded. “The boss can’t know.”

“I don’t even think I’ve got any cash in the house,” I said, trying to think of another tack. He was just about to turn away when a voice came from above: “I’ve got five hundred kroons you can give him.”

It was Liina from the top of the stairs. Ruining things. And sending me back to square one with the builders.


Illustration courtesy of Hilde Kokk De Keizer.

Read it in Estonian in Postimees.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Info Hole

“The United States dollar will be worth nothing by the end of next week,” declared my friend Tanel only two weeks ago. Tanel is a very smart, highly-educated Estonian man who loves conspiracy theories. He’s so good with Google that he can uproot the most obscure websites run by paranoid crackpots living with their heaviest furniture pushed tight against the door, loaded shotgun by the bed. The trouble is that Tanel sees little difference between a fanatical website and a newspaper of record. To him, all information is equal.

According to Tanel, the world is run by a cabal of white men in black suits with good manicures who spend their days around a burled oak table discussing what to do with the rest of us. Tanel cites the Illuminati, Freemasons, Wall Street, the Jews. Always the Jews. Name a group, and Tanel will tell you how they’re manipulating us.

Conspiracy theories, as I’ve heard them best described, are convenient for those who can’t be bothered to try to understand the complex world around us. They’re ideal for those who are not actually Masons, have not worked at Bank of America or Merrill Lynch, or don’t have any friends who are Jews. Conspiracy theories are ideal for those who want to believe they have made the conscious choice not to participate in The System. Tanel segregates himself, does not get involved, and then convinces himself he’s outside the club because he was refused entry, though in fact he never even applied for membership. Tanel says they know who he is. Just like they know who I am. Like they know who you are. And none of us will ever get anywhere.

What Tanel refuses to believe is that getting into the corridors of power in the United States (the seat of all evil, according to Tanel) is not that difficult. I’ve tried to persuade him that any American with a university education and a lot of resolve can, in fact, penetrate the sacred corridors of power. The worker starts at the bottom, where his most important responsibility will be to make sure the insignificant Congressman he works for (and has only met once) gets his dry cleaning starched and his Chinese food delivered hot. If the young person is smart, he’ll move up quickly, and sooner or later he’ll find himself in close contact with those who make the actual decisions. At some point, he will have to make a decision: Does he want to be a decision maker himself? Is he willing to make the sacrifices necessary to play that key role? I know a half dozen men and women who have worked hard and penetrated the ranks of the power elite in the United States, some in government, some in corporate America. None, though Tanel says I’m wrong, is the genealogical heir to Thomas Jefferson. None was taken as an infant from his crib and raised as a prince in the palace. All took financial and career risks by moving to a major city and getting a job which was far from glamorous, suffering as a small fish in a big pond, despite the fact each owed over 100,000 dollars on two university degrees.

It is this fundamental truth that Tanel refuses to accept: the evil men in suits behind the curtain were once just regular white guys like us. Instead, Tanel views himself as a helpless passenger in the world, with no chance to drive. With no chance to even suggest the route. Tanel is a lost cause, and I long ago stopped arguing with him. But I sometimes worry that Estonia’s young people may be leaning toward a Tanel-style of easy explanation for everything wrong in our lives. I can’t count the times someone has cited a Michael Moore film or YouTube video as an unassailable explanation for the way things are.

Part of our problem is the Info Hole. Tanel is of the generation whose window on the free world was Finnish television. He says Finnish TV showed him how things in the world really were. I wonder. Finnish TV is possibly better than American TV, but it’s still TV. But I don’t want to blame television. It’s too easy a target. Maybe it’s what Tanel’s reading?

Although the Estonian press has been free to write what it wants since 1991, the major papers still occasionally resemble the neighborhood paper I read growing up in Scarborough, Ontario. It was full of small-town-boy-done-good stories and columns by community blowhards titled “As I See It.” Sometimes Estonian journalism catches a case of Scarboroughitis and devotes the front page to a story on the shape of the NATO table (round), its cost (130,000 EEK), or its provenance (Estonia!), when the real news might more likely be how smart the Estonians were to exploit every opportunity to put Hillary Clinton and Anders Fogh Rasmussen on camera saying in plain English that NATO will defend Estonia if Russia attacks. Given the stories about The Table, I half expected a follow-up feature on the length of the delegates’ turds after their meal (served by Carmen Catering, I read) in the Estonia Concert Hall.

True, sometimes international papers are no better. The New York Times publishes information about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s house in Bermuda (550 square meters) and favorite steak (coffee-rubbed New York strip), but the items are not the stories themselves and the paper stops short of putting them on the front page.

I often wonder where is the real meat for Estonian newspaper stories? I often see stories in the local business press which are rehashed versions of what the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal published the week before. Where’s the regular fruit of hard-core original research and reporting? And what kind of stories is Tanel left to read in his native language? By the very nature of the reporting, Tanel is made to feel like an outsider: the west makes policy; Estonia makes tables.

I once needed to conduct a proper background search before meeting an interview subject and called up an editor friend at an Estonian newspaper to ask to borrow the paper’s LexisNexis subscription. “Estonian journalists don’t fly that high” was the answer I received. The paper had no subscription. (LexisNexis joins five billion vetted sources and is the world’s largest collection of public records, opinions, legal, news, and business information. In a journalist friend’s words: “It eliminates from the equation the millions upon millions of bullshit blog posts written by nutjobs in their parents' basements, and takes you straight to legitimate publications.”)

If we want to carry a public conversation beyond the provenance of the NATO table into the realm of political dialogue, and if I want Tanel to ease up on the conspiracy theories, then some better informational tools to widen the view of our journalists are surely needed.

But that’s a small step, of course, and it isn’t likely to have any impact on Tanel. He’s convinced he’s really on to something now, since he predicted the downfall of the American economy. Of course, he’d been predicting that since he first got internet access, so it was only a matter of time. But he still claims he told me so. Which I guess he did.

The one I’m worried about his 2013 prediction for the violent reversal of the earth’s poles, which will basically wipe out humanity. But since he has inside information (a website he refuses to disclose), he’s contemplating the construction of some sort of ark for his family. They’ll float with the earth’s currents until they hit dry land, where they’ll begin anew, eating their just-add-water spaceman food until their first crops come in. He hasn’t invited me to come along, and I haven’t asked. I know there’s no room for people under the spell of The System. Tanel needs fresh thinkers for his new frontier. People who see the world as it really is.


Illustration by Hilde Kokk De Keizer.