On 29.05, the winner of Köler Prize 2015 — an art prize instituted by the Estonian Contemporary Art Museum in 2011 — was announced. The winner, without much surprise to anybody having at least some understanding of the local art world, was Anu Vahtra. The sympathy prize of the audience went — which was even less surprising — to Edith Karlson. This is not to say that the jury or audience were corrupt or biased, quite the opposite. The winner was selected by an international jury of professionals that made a professional decision, whereas the organisers did their best in order to supply the jury with all the necessary information. The prize exhibition was accompanied by a catalog with an exhaustive overview of the creative biographies of the five nominees, the sole purpose of which was to introduce the artists to the jury and to function as a certain “memorabilia” for the artists themselves who received a number of copies of the sections written about them — those were to be used as a kind of miniature self introduction portfolios. Such presentation format refers to the fact that one of the programmatic standpoints of the ECAM board responsible for choosing the nominees, is to “push” rather young and not-yet-established artists.
As art critic Hanno Soans, who wrote the texts for the catalog in 2013, pointed out, it is rather rare that the career of a young author gets overviewed and conceptualised extensively as a whole, and, in his opinion, this has stimulated many artists to create speciffically for the Köler Prize exhibition by submitting artworks that turn their backs to the previous creations or at least try to summarise them and look for the new creative solutions. Even though I don’t necessarily agree with Soans on this — there have been far too few revolutions/ revelations — his comment makes it even more clear that all the expectations of the Prize exhibition rely on the artists themselves. They are asked to participate in the exhibition with one old work and the one that is newly created, or the one that has not been exhibited in Estonia. The decision of the international jury is based mostly on the exhibited works, so it all comes down to how well you manage to perform at a given moment. Of course, this format becomes a rather difficult one for the artists like this year’s winner Anu Vahtra whose biography features excellent works as well as total disasters (e.g., the installation at CAC in Vilnius at the exhibition “MEEL. VAHTRA. FARKAS_ idealist function” at the benning of this year). I would even go as far as to claim, that in 2015 it was the first time when the prize was won for an excellent remake of the old work — Anu Vahtras’ site-specific installation “Illusion, Distorted Perspective, Lack of Balance” was well executed, failed to make an impact.
Despite the jury’s decision being predictable — it’s like the photo finish at a horse race: you know who won, but you still wait for the official confirmation — the Köler Prize exhibitions should to be praised from the visitor’s point of view as they force the artists to work for the exhibitions; there is actually something at stake (the prize is 7000 EUR) and everything depends on the creative level of work, so there is always a chance to see some high quality work at the exhibitions. At the same time they provide the conditions for an exhibition format that is rather inferior to the contemporary mainstream scene: it’s a group show without a concept that binds the works together. You actually are presented with a selection of independent works of art, and you are asked to choose the best one without thinking how they work within the overall concept of the exhibition. At the Köler Prize exhibitions the artists and their art have a decisive role.
With all that said, the exhibitions have become rather boring from the point of view of art criticism because, thanks to a fixed format of the event, everything that we could write about has already been written in the reviews of the previous shows. We could criticise things such as the selection of the nominees, who makes the choices, how the jury is put together and so on. The discussion is open, but so are the principles — they were settled upon and made public by the creators of the prize and during the period of five years all the facets have already been discussed and, because they remained unchanged, there is not much to discuss anymore. We could compare the Köler Prize shows to other international and local prize events that have already took place a dozen of times. The metaphor of a horse race I used earlier is also nothing new as the parallels with various sports events (whatever pops up in the head of the critic — from a horse chariot race to shooting) have been used throughout the years. As a critic who likes to write about art books, I could make a review of the catalog or catalogs, discussing how they have been written by different authors. As I was reading them all I noticed that I could not help to notice that they were confusingly similar. I guess I could write about that, or, perhaps, I am already doing it right now! But — sorry dear readers — there is nothing new here. As a matter of fact it’s already the third time I am talking/ writing about this issue. The first time I spoke on a radio show during which I made an interview with Hanno Soans, whom I have already mentioned as one of the former authors of the nominee catalog. The latter is also a critic who has written about all (sic) of the Köler Prize exhibitions in various magazines and newspapers. A transcript of this radio interview will also be published in the magazine Kunst.ee (due to be published in June), and it seems to me that it will happen because the editor of the Kunst.ee couldn’t find anyone to write about the topic as he (btw, having himself been the catalog author in 2014) could not think of any new approach or angle that would not just repeat what has already been written, be it this year, or during the past several years. We can implement some random methodological experiments such as Markus Toompere’s culinary criticism, where he compared the 2014 prize exhibition to a restaurant hamburger — a very well made hamburger which is essentially a fast food nonetheless. Last but not least we could write about the authors themselves, but it does not make any sense because of the presence of a well written and exhaustive catalog. There is simply not much that could be added on the limited lines of a newspaper page. Paradoxically, from from the point of view of art criticism , this has turned Estonia’s most prestigious and most talked about art prize into a literally boring event.
The Köler Prize nominee exhibition at Estonian Contemporary Art Museum featuring works by Kristiina Hansen, Edith Karlson, Tanel Rander, Anu Vahtra and Ivar Veermäe will be open until 14th June. For a virtual tour see the photo reportage.
“Screen Tests for Köler Prize 2015” containing interviews with all the artists can be previewed online.