Members Only: Flo Kasearu at the Performa 17

Ernest Hemingway once said, “In every port in the world, at least two Estonians can be found”. This is also true about New York, where more than a few community members share their Estonian House, New Yorgi Eesti Maja. The New York Estonian Educational Society was founded in 1929.  As a great coincidence, and as a brilliant and thoughtful part of the Performa 17 biennial, which took place from November 1 to 19, Estonian artist Flo Kasearu created a nostalgic ode to this members’ club house. Her site-specific performance tour guided groups through different rooms of the house. Her artist-led tour highlighted the very house’s past, changing its authentic traditional feeling into an updated stage, in which the local members themselves took part in the performing. All staged and directed by Flo Kasearu.

Kasearu runs also an artmuseum in her native Estonia. In Tallinn, visitors can book special guided tours in the Flo Kasearu House Museum. The historic wooden house belonged to the artist’s family from the time of its construction.

Flo Kasearu's House in the family history pictures.
Flo Kasearu’s House in Tallinn in the family history pictures as shown in the New York Estonian House performance, Performa 17.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Your great great-grandmother was building the house in which you live now in Tallinn. How did that heritage inspire you to pick up the idea of bringing performative component of your family house to New York Estonian House?

Flo Kasearu: Both of my great great grandparents built the house. (I just have a photo of my great grandmother, so I mentioned her in the tour).

While living there since 2009, and getting involved with so many domesticity issues and problems of living in an over 100-year-old house, many ideas have grown out of the problems. I like to solve my problems through artistic practice, turning them into objective artworks. So I established a Flo Kasearu House Museum in the house, which is open by appointment only. I do guided tours to visitors through the house and its garden. Otherwise it would be difficult to find artworks from the middle of my everyday things.

The house tour is a sight-specific art project, and as such it’s difficult to transport it elsewhere. I can partly exhibit the tour, or works from it somewhere else.

Flo Kasearu_installation view at the Estonian House.
Flo Kasearu, Installation view at the Estonian House, staged in the social room ‘potatoes as billiards’, Performa 17.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How long ago was it when your family built the house, and how did Tallinn preserve its old buildings during the times of the Soviet Union?

FK: The house was built in 1911 and my museum and the tours started in 2013.

During the Soviet era, most of the private property was nationalised and belonged to the state. After 1991, 20 year-long restitution started taking place, during which the property was given back to successors of original lawful owners. Houses that belonged to the city were taken care by the renters. City of Tallinn, for example, did not put any money into renovating them. During the restitution process houses were in a legal loophole in terms of their ownership, and thus were not dealt with by the renters, as they thought that any original lawful owners could come back and take the houses over.

Flo Kasearu Performa-project at Estonian House.
Performer doing kissing sound experiments at the Flo Kasearu tour in the New York Estonian House.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How did you end up doing a similar kind of tour in New York at the Estonia house as part of Performa 17?

FK: Just the method of being a tour guide is the same anywhere, and talking about the history of my museum house is also the same. But otherwise it is a very different project.

‘The Members Only tour’ (Performa 2017 project), is a sight-specific work for New York Estonian House and its community. As I am not a big performer, I did not want to perform it on stage. So doing the guided tour seemed a logical method. The work also included the community members participating in the performance. Guiding people to go through the house, and then becoming like a tour guide in a museum which New York Estonian House is in a way. Everything in the house looks so authentic to its original times and everything is based on old traditions and rituals.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you feel that NYC local community members joined your project easily? From an audience member viewpoint everything seemed going smoothly and appeared well rehearsed.

FK: I took the time to talk with them, listen their stories, so then it was not too difficult to convince them to join. I got recommendations from one member to talk to another member, and then it developed on until I had enough members to invite. I had two ladies cancelling in a last-minute, for example an older lady’s husband got so sick that she had to take care of him and she could not join in the end. But luckily I had also backup members in mind.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You’re a multidisciplinary artist in the true sense. Did performance enter into your working methodology from the very start of your practice?

FK: I started doing video-performances while I was an exchange student in UDK, Berlin. I was in Rebecca Horn studio, a performance and installation artist, and she told me that there is no point for me to paint for her, as she doesn’t know much to comment on painting. I started doing video-performances, relating myself and my Eastern European identity with this new city and new space. So from that time I have been doing performances once in a while.

Flo Kasearu_drawing, 2014.
Flo Kasearu, drawing, 2014. Estonian House staircase presented drawings of the artist. Her fears of what could possibly happen to the house.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: In New York City, the visual components in ‘The Members Only’ tour were really stretching the context of the Estonian House in a unique way. How did the imagination for the ‘sets’ evolve?

FK: They are a combination of ideas that evolve from speaking with people and wanting to bring them and their stories to this very abstract and minimal level. And mixing them with some of my older haunting ideas. It is very sight-specific. And I wanted to bring also humour and irony level in, as I felt this is really lacking in this house.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Now thinking also how the music room was evolving, with the grand piano in it. In your tour, you mentioned that behind the doors there is a choir practice going on, but the scene was so surprising?

FK: My point was not to repeat the same things that are happening in the house otherwise regularly. I went to see the choir rehearsal happening there, and I noticed the choir teacher who is such a strong character putting also chairs. So I wanted to highlight the choir teacher and show her alone. I have had this kissing-ticking sound long time haunting in my head and I thought to display this in the room as it is kind of abstraction from the emotions that I felt in the choir rehearsal.

For example, in the choir singing room, instead of singing patriotic songs, the notes are made of this kissing-ticking, which has similar emotion and a character being nostalgic, but abstracted. And then the humor comes in, with over-reacting with this kissing note, and this way it’s also more open to interpretation.

Flo Kasearu_the music room at the Estonian House.
Flo Kasearu, The choir room transformed into an installation with kissing-ticking sounds at the Estonian House, Performa 17.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Going back to Estonia. How would you describe the Estonian contemporary art scene today?

FK: Its tiny but rather interesting. Some years ago art used to be dealing more with the social and political problems, now it is much more in its comfort zone. Although the fees in Estonian art are still quite minimal. The younger generation is more similar to Western formalistic approach, seems to me.

 

Guided Tour of Flo Kasearu House Museum (compilation of excerpts) from Flo Kasearu on Vimeo.

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Artist website: http://www.flokasearu.eu/

 

Tamara Piilola: Painter from Finland

Tamara Piilola is a young generation Finnish painter with almost enigmatic ability to capture natural processes on the canvas. Or more than a process, her images offer views with a hint of gold in them. As a painter her perception seems thoroughly personal, and therefore can touch many. Piilola started the arts as a musician, and perhaps its possible to hear music when looking in to the painter’s landscapes.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Where in Finland did you grow up and study art?

TP: I grew up in the small city in the west coast of Finland. I studied in the south, in Turku and in Helsinki in the Academy of Fine Arts. I was an exchange student for one year in Leipzig in Hochshule für Grafik Und Buchkunst and spend months in Reykjavik during my studies.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What is your story of becoming an artist? 

TP: I’m the only child, and I started to think about art first through music. I studied in a conservatory for ten years, but in classical music you don’t have the freedom to play how you like it, or if you do, people think you’re wrong. It’s much longer process, with a lot more technique involved.

I went through every book that we had in the house. As a child, I remember I was deeply interested about the Old Masters and portraiture by Rembrandt, Holbein and Gainsborough. I was mesmerized by the use of light and the extraordinary talent itself. I wanted to do something similar.

I got my first camera and Marie’s oil paints as a ten-year old. Around the same time I enlisted myself to a painting course with some grannies (they’re organized everywhere even in the countryside in Finland). As I got a bit older it was certain I wanted to go to art school and quit classical music.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How did you choose oils and painting as your medium?

TP: I did some photographs as well but in the end paintings have turned out to be the most flexible media for me. The texture is very important for me. Although I did photos in which I used for example liquid chocolate and velvet, the outcome was too cold and the end product had an industrial feel to it. In black and white pictures, you have the softness, but then you lose the colors. I have learned to use only the best materials in my paintings and usually paint just one layer to keep the colors pure and bright. Oils can become dull and lifeless when applied thick. Oil paint is so flexible that I can adjust what I’m doing, and because of the way the pigment is held in the oil, it is beautifully luminescent.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What defines a good painting to you?

TP: Color, light, composition – all these things make the painting interesting to look at. The eye has to wonder. I love if you are able to grab something, it has some kind of energy, or you can relate to something. Paintings have the ability to embody a series of thoughts and feeling processes, and good paintings are very personal. It’s all there on the canvas as a record.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What is there in the landscape painting that fascinates you, maybe the history of it too. How about the influences?

The heavy load that comes with the term landscape was at first turnoff for me. When I got in terms with the subject (which I felt I had to do), the whole world opened up to me. It was like a flower that was opening in front of my eyes. I felt I was completely free to do whatever I felt like with this subject. It felt like it was mine, all mine to explore, and that was beautiful. My large canvases of imaginary landscapes present viewers with startling experiences of nature. These detailed views, full of mystery and light, colour and verdancy, draw viewers to their essence and idea.

 

TP: These are not recognisable landscapes but the creations of countless memories stored over time as photographs and sketches. Thin layers of paint, bold fluent brushstrokes and the use of pure pigments combined flood the paintings with light. Landscapes do not always have to be beautiful. I paint wastelands, timber stacks and dunghill, emphasising their decorativeness. I depict decaying beauty and allow natural forms to blend into almost abstract surfaces. I’m soaked with art history because I have been interested in art all my life. My favourite painter is Lucian Freud, the master of seductive and complex psychological portraits. My favourite movie directors are Kubrick and Lynch. In music it’s much harder to point out the most influential ones, I listen to music in my studio all the time from almost all genres. In literature there are many great minds that speak to me, Hesse, Nabokov, Murakami, Knausgård, Hustved, Woolf, Wilde. I don’t have a specific landscape painter that has influenced me.

Tamara Piilola, installation view at Gallery Heino.
Tamara Piilola, installation view at Gallery Heino.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Is being a figurative painter these days a rare thing. How do you feel the genre is approached in the contemporary art world?

TP: With suspicion – no just kidding. I think now it’s much more acceptable to be a painter. I think there is the audience and professionals who recognizes the talent and accepts it as it is: A viable art form. As an artist, you always have to be interested of what other artists do. I think there is a lot of theoretical confusion about art. Everybody thinks they have to make theoretical work and be able to explain what they do. I think if you hear this long enough, this kind of stuff gets in your way when you’re coming up with ideas, because you start thinking through a filter.

Tamara Piilola's oil on canvas in Galleria Heino, August 2017, installation view.
Tamara Piilola’s oil on canvas in Galleria Heino, August 2017, installation view.

TP: I always thought that art could move more on the emotional level. You should work with your feelings, because if you’re using language to put things to action, you limit yourself. Many times things in art don’t make sense.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: There is almost a photographic precision to your works. Do you layer the works, plan the works with meticulous detail, and come up with the entire idea before starting to paint?

I have photographic memory and I often work with images that have a lot of details. I start sketching by doing a collage with a computer (I used to work with paper and scissors before). At the end, there is a sketch that gives me a solid structure, the composition to work on top of. This is extremely important stage. After that I can start painting and I have quite a lot of freedom to choose which colors to use, how the brushstrokes will look, and overall how the end result will look. This structure gives me freedom to improvise. The motives have to be challenging, full of details and light to keep the painting process interesting. I love to see a big painting almost ready, I get excited about my own work.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How would you describe your method or process of working?

TP: I’m a deadline worker and I do exhibitions, not just one painting at a time. I work with about eight paintings at the same time. If I get an idea or a feeling that something should be done it usually takes years to pass through. I have a solid confidence in what I do, but that doesn’t mean I’m satisfied with everything I do. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to question your work. On the contrary – the best thing is to view the work from every angle and to be very skeptical at first if you get a “good idea”. I’m very patient to give my ideas the time they need to develop. I need to build a relationship with the motives: I want them to be familiar. When I know I can start, I go through my picture bank to fill the missing pieces in the collage. I focus on the composition and not so much on the colors.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you have an artist motto?

TP: Yeah, trust your intuition.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Are you in love with nature as it is your playground in a way, how about the trees that come out so vividly in your works?

TP: I think it’s not about loving though I love nature, it’s about respect. I recognize certain similarities in Finnish and Japanese cultures. We have both had our animistic past. The recognition of energy in things was very natural for me as I  was raised up by the sea, and the wilderness started right behind the fence. I think materials can be very sensual to look at and touch. In our times, it’s a luxury to have the time to look at things in peace. That’s what I do, I look and appreciate things.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle:  Did you ever think of becoming an environmental artist?

TP: No. I’m afraid to destroy things in the nature and I have no interest to mess with wild things. I think there is such perfection in natural order, and to show “art” in that context feels utterly fake.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: When looking back at your career, how have your paintings developed through the years?

TP: I went here and there in the beginning. About ten years ago I accepted the fact that it’s OK to do what I do best: Big paintings with a lot of details.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle:  Is there anything particularly special to you about being a ‘woman’ artist?

TP: I don’t consider myself a woman artist, I am simply an artist. My works can be labeled feminine because they can be quite decorative. But I think it’s a drag to label things. I don’t think artist’s gender makes the work interesting unless the gender is the concept of the work. What is feminine and masculine? I’d like to go around those labels, because everyone and everything can be both depending on the culture.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle:  You recently attended a group show in Galleria Heino in Helsinki. Have you collaborated with the gallery before?

TP: This was the first show I did with Heino. I love to work with them because they have the courage to show artistically ambitious shows, with basically no art market to sell them in Finland. Rauli Heino is a true art lover and I consider myself to be very lucky to be in their team.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle:  Do you work with curators or more directly with museum and gallery directors? What is your experience on building a show? 

TP: I work with all of them, it depends on the project. I listen very carefully what people are after and it’s always a pleasure to work with professional people. The structure of the new show is in my hands and it has to be, otherwise it’s not my show. I will do the best I can to make things work. To have the atmosphere of support and trust is very rewarding. To have fun, to discover and do wonderful things together, isn’t that what life’s about?

Firstindigo&Lifestyle:  Do you think that you have had many successful shows?

TP: Yes, I think so. Success for me means that I am able to do the things the way I intend to. To do a good show means you must have the time to do it. It helps a lot when you learn to say no to projects that are not that beneficial to you.

Tamara Piilola, Kruunu, oil on canvas.
Tamara Piilola, Kruunu, oil on canvas.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle:  How about such labels as ‘Finnish’ painter? If you consider to be one, what do you think about an international career?

TP: The world is definitely smaller than let’s say in the beginning of the nineties. Long stays abroad, mainly in France and Germany have influenced my work. I live and work in Helsinki, and I guess nowadays the place you live defines you. It’s an interesting question. I certainly recognize my subject matter to be very Finnish, and that’s fine. Does that make me a Finnish artist?

To be able to build an international career I need contacts to good international galleries. I would love to show my work especially in the Nordic countries, in the U.S. and in Canada. I think my work could meet some interest in these places since we have similar cultural values.