Estonian modern culture
Situated between Eastern and Western Europe, Estonia is also culturally a border area, or a crossing point to be more exact. In the traditions of these parts, one can find elements originating from the East as well as the West, but mostly the Estonians consider themselves a northern people and conceptually bound to Scandinavia. Marginal and border cultures are where one can find interesting phenomena and combinations. In this regard, Estonia happens to be a country of a dozen possibilities. Estonian modern culture, in spite of its size, includes a great number of different facets, for which it is often difficult to find common denominators.
One of Estonia's calling cards is undoubtedly modern classical music. Composers Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis and Erkki-Sven Tüür need not be introduced to the fans of more serious music. The same applies to conductors Neeme Järvi, Eri Klas and Tõnu Kaljuste, who work with different orchestras and choirs all over the world, as well as Anu Tali, who is attracting more and more attention.
The role of music and singing has throughout the centuries been of utmost importance for the preservation of the Estonian nation. The tradition of great Song Festivals, which got its beginning in the swell of the national movement in the 19th century, has remained a distinctive cultural event up to the present day. In recent years, the Viljandi Folk Music Festival has become a popular event for all ages, while keeping alive and interpreting the traditional music of different peoples.
The Estonians who have dedicatedly engaged in jazz music through the decades have created a base and a following for jazz music and Jazzkaar (Jazz Arc), an international festival that takes place in Estonia in the spring. The festival Hea Uus Heli (Good New Sound) is a forum for experimental and alternative music.
The collections of Estonian alternative musicians like Rulers of the Deep, Dave Storm, Galaktlan and many others have merited recognition in the USA, Great Britain, Germany, and around the world. Estonian pop artists like Vanilla Ninja and Maarja are now within earshot of the West and are making progress on pop charts there. In 2001, Tanel Padar and Dave Benton, as the representatives of Estonia, won the Eurovision Song Contest.
The most anticipated and important art event of recent years was undoubtedly the opening of the new main building of the Art Museum of Estonia – KUMU Art Museum—at the beginning of 2006 in Kadriorg. The building, designed by Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori, winner of the architectural contest that took place more than ten years ago, has merited international attention. However, to the local public the most important is surely what can be seen inside the building. For the first time in its 80-year history, the Art Museum can display the entire permanent exhibition of Estonian art from the beginning of the 18th century up to the 1990s. The scope of the exhibited collection of classics is similar to that of the post-World War II art, including the works of avant-garde classics Ülo Sooster, Leonhard Lapin, and others, as well as of the public favourites Jüri Arrak and Enn Põldroos. Alongside the permanent exposition in KUMU, there is a gallery of modern art and a big exhibition hall, where Estonian as well as international art is exhibited. The purpose of KUMU is to be one of the main Baltic art centres and an important venue in the life of art in the Nordic countries and the rest of Europe.
Although visual arts know no language barriers, the path to international success for Estonians in this field has been a little bumpier than in music. Since 1997, an important role in introducing Estonian modern art has been played by the Venice Biennial, at which Estonia has been represented by the most internationally well-known Estonian artists Jaan Toomik and Ene-Liis Semper, as well as by Marco Laimre, Kaido Ole and Marko Mäetamm etc. Among expatriate Estonian artists, Mark Kalev Kostabi and his Kostabi World in New York have attracted the most attention during the last decades.
Due to the Protestant tradition, Estonian culture has been regarded as centred on words rather than images. As a result, literature has been seen in a preferred position to the other arts. In the present kaleidoscopic scene of literature one can find several different trends. The works of Jaan Kross, the grand old man of Estonian literature who addressed the history and the fate of the Estonian people, are still popular and well-known. Jaan Kaplinski, a versatile prose writer, poet, essayist, and translator is also influential in his works. In the past decade, the fiction works of Tõnu Õnnepalu have evoked resonance, and the texts of Hasso Krull have played an important role in revealing the significance of culture. Viivi Luik has written poetry and prose blending together historic and personal experience. Doris Kareva is carrying on the viable tradition of Estonian women’s poetry. In Estonia, Andrus Kivirähk has become one of the most popular writers, writing his own style of Estonian mythology. The same applies to Kaur Kender, who depicts the modern early-capitalist society. Active young Estonian poets have gathered into several groups.
The Nordic Poetry Festival that takes place in the spring presents new local poetry, as well as the poetry of neighbouring countries.
In addition to Estonian literature, translating has had a key role in the interpretation of classics of fiction, as well as on the history of culture. The problems of the preservation, development and modification of the Estonian language, spoken by less than a million people, as well as the creation of a proper vocabulary in all spheres of life, are becoming increasingly relevant in the modern and ever more open society. The cultural media fills the same role, since its readership is proportionally large compared to the population.
Compared to individual creativity, the theatre is a more complex system, and changes have been slowed and more arduous. Though the theatre was once at a low ebb, the playhouses were full again at the beginning of the 1990s. The oldest Estonian theatre, the Vanemuine in Tartu, has retained its universality by staging drama and music, as well as dance performances. In addition to the Estonian Drama Theatre and the opera and ballet house Estonia, the Tallinn City Theatre has become a top-level theatre primarily thanks to its strong-willed leader, producer Elmo Nüganen.
The Von Krahl Theatre, headed by producer Peeter Jalakas, consistently deals with alternative forms of performance. The late playwright and director Mati Unt played an important part in introducing post-modern strategies and tactics in the theatre, as well as in building an audience. The newest Estonian theatre, named NO99, has drawn keen interest thanks to its director Tiit Ojasoo's experimentalism, analysing the limits as well as the essence of performing art. The summer theatre has become a phenomenon and public magnet of its own. The theatre discovers new playing places that allow for the creation of entertaining, as well as more serious, performances outside ordinary theatre spaces. Alongside of big state theatres, small freelance troupes are becoming more and more viable; also a circle of those actively engaged in modern dance has sprung up, involving a number of troupes, agencies and festivals.
Along with the theatre, film production is getting on its feet again. There are new economic and creative resources, as well as a new generation of film directors (Andres Maimik, Jaak Kilmi, Veiko Õunpuu etc.) to add to the list of established directors (Jüri Sillart, Peeter Simm). The annual highlight of film scene is undoubtedly the international Black Nights Film Festival, which has developed into a meeting place for Estonian film lovers as well as for neighbouring film buffs. The Pärnu Documentary and Anthropological Film Festival organised every summer by filmmaker and versatile mediator of culture Mark Soosaar has also found an audience. The trademark of the Estonian film industry has for decades been animation, and its calling card Priit Pärn's animated cartoons are considered among the best in the world.
The Estonian living environment has undergone as many changes as the spiritual space. Architecture and urban renewal have in the last decade been the topics of a lively discussion primarily in Tallinn, where the old town, included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage, and a new city space with mirror-glassed offices and bank buildings, hotels and malls stand side by side. Another topic of conversation has been monuments, which recall complicated and at times controversial events throughout Estonian history as well as standing as works of art and specimens of urban design. In addition to the spiritual and physical environment, the role of the third space, virtual reality, is becoming more and more important in everyday life as well as in the cultural life of Estonians. New technological mediums have left their mark on the development of visual arts, but also as a means of communication through professional electronic journals and web sites. The openness towards new possibilities reflects the mobility of a small culture and its readiness for change without losing its identity in the process.
Anu Allas, art critic