Flo Kasearu is a very distinctive artist. Namely, when she was 28 years old, she created a house museum named after her. Through this museum she has critically investigated the position of the artist in today’s contemporary society. The museum’s permanent exhibition shows a diverse selection of Flo’s works and focuses on themes like home or being a houseowner and an artist. The highlight of the visit, however, has been in meeting the artist herself.
Flo is incredibly energetic, spontaneous and direct by nature, which seems to transfer into her artistic production. She implements very different mediums in her work, from drawings to video projects and interventions in the public space. Projects precisely dealing with public space have well characterised Flo’s spontaneous and experimental approach to artistic production as such. Her wide circle of topics include issues of nationality, freedom, migration, power structures, social sense of duty, as well as the concerns of being an artist, a houseowner and a mother. Her socially and politically engaged projects are always strongly present in the ‘here and now’ in relation to developments of the socio-political context surrounding her. In a sense, Flo’s practice is very pragmatic and down to earth. In spite of this, she still flirts with the categories of real and fictional, combining a documentary style with fiction in a very unique way. Besides her multi-layered humour and poetical aesthetics, a certain unusual shift or paradox often occurs in her work which draws the viewer’s attention, and it seems to be this aspect that makes her works distinguishable.
Brigita Reinert: To begin with, I would like to ask you how you get inspired. For example, you often react very quickly to political and social situations, hence why the media is also one of your primary sources. What is your starting point?
Flo Kasearu: My creative process starts rather spontaneously, and it is often based on a particular situation. I don’t have a studio where I generate ideas. Usually there are already more concrete findings, themes, or some group of people with whom to deal with. Often, a certain starting material or context already exists. For example, the roof of my house was leaking and needed to be changed and so I thought that this could be integrated into an art project before I simply replaced it. That’s how Uprising (2015) began.
I think I react quickly to my surroundings because I am interested in what is happening. I have this kind of love-hate relationship with media. On the one hand, I don’t really tolerate the media because it often distorts and provokes, making the news seem bigger and more frightening than it really is. On the other hand, I take a lot of material from the media, because it enables my work to relate to something important in the present moment.
Uprising was also precisely linked to specific events in media. Could you tell us about its background?
Uprising began when Russian military planes repeatedly entered Estonian airspace which was featured all over the Estonian media. The work is one version of how, as an individual on a grassroots level, I took control into my own hands. Naturally, as the media started to escalate fear about how Russia could attack Estonia at any moment, Estonian people began to become increasingly worried. Somewhat ironically, I created a military base on the roof of my house as a response, just to show my readiness and independence.
The work interrogates the future and the security of the state and the individual also on a broader level. It visualises how 2% of the GDP goes towards Estonian national security. These planes are this 2% exactly. In this way I directly gave this part away, that would go towards military equipment, and as a result of fulfilling my duty to the state, my roof began leaking heavily.
Uprising could also be tied to the topic of migration and leaving one’s home. The idea of leaving a place is also embodied here. I have also thought about how Estonia is still on the periphery and how it would be nice to migrate elsewhere, perhaps somewhere more warm and central.
Which topics are you investigating at the moment?
For a long time, I have been engaged in a women’s shelter project. In fact, my mother has managed a women’s shelter in Pärnu for seven years, and I’ve been researching the stories of these women. I’ve met with their support group every month this year, and together we have been participating in a variety of artistic activities which have become a form of art therapy. I developed an art project from this experience called Illustrating the request for privacy (2016), which was recently part of the Artishok Biennale, in NO99 Theatre.
In March, I got an invitation to participate and decided to bring these women in to perform on the stage for one night. The project was dealing with domestic violence targeted at women. Later, a strange coincidence happened in June when a case linked to domestic violence involving the former head of the NO99 Theatre, Tiit Ojasoo, became public news. Because he was an important public figure and a well-known person, the scandal became widely discussed. Hence, my goal was to bring so-called ordinary people to the stage, whose stories were not necessarily considered as important by the media as Tiit Ojasoo’s scandal. I wanted to inform people about the stories of these women too, because the statistics show that every one-in-four women in Estonia are the victims of domestic violence or abuse.
These women, who had been victims, all had very time-consuming court cases. During the performance, they read out their court documents without giving the verdict at the end. In a way, they were amateur actors who came to the stage with their whole identity, including their names and faces. The actor Meelis Sarv gave them voice training and read their notices of appeal. The ‘actresses’ were sitting in the crowd enabling the whole performance to take on the form of a support-centre meeting. I wanted the audience to support them by listening to their stories. Out of my entire oeuvre, this project has probably been the most socially engaging, as I actually brought these people onto the stage. Normally, I don’t involve people so directly.
The problem is acute and this project really has a strong social focal point. Where does a social practice end and an art project start for you?
I do not know where the line ends exactly. Through the shelter project, I wanted to do something which would be helpful for the women involved and also meaningful in the contemporary art scene. For them, it was a social project, while for me it was still an art project as it eventually became a performance which took place on stage.
In addition to this project, I have previously made a photo series called Grown Out (2013), which depicted homeless people wearing house-shaped wigs. I gave them money for their cooperation, though I could not help them in any other way. The idea of making a house-shaped wig came to me when I was working with the theme of home. Hence, I wanted to connect the topics of home and homelessness. After looking for participants from the soup kitchens, we then went by car to the places where they would have liked to have their home. In the photos, they wore house-shaped wigs, symbolising the fact that their home was wherever they happened to be. They also had something which, as a houseowner, I have never had – freedom. In a way, I also feel that I am somehow caged into my house, because I need to be responsible for different things. However, homeless people do not have to be responsible for almost anything. In this sense, they are sort of freedom models.
The subject of freedom exists in a number of your other works, including Freedom Poster (2008), which took place in public space and became part of the debate over the memorial of the Estonian War of Independence. What were the intentions behind this project?
Freedom Poster (2008) was born, because my friends and I were against the War of Independence Victory Column which was planned to be built in Tallinn Freedom Square. We wanted to express our disagreement on a grassroots level and make something in which other people could also participate. That is why we created posters which were left empty. The text “FREEDOM” was written at the top of the poster and at the bottom was written: “We will announce a competition to find the best solution”. This gave people a chance to draw or write something of their own, to show what freedom meant for them.
Choosing an appropriate design for the monument had created a huge amount of conflict among Estonian society. Some were conservatively in support of it, while others could not understand the adequacy of the monument’s design concept that had been selected. For us included, it was not synonymous with freedom; it reminded us of a fascist symbol instead. The question thus arose: what could be a corresponding visual for freedom as such. The project quickly reached the media, and the police even launched a criminal case. Nobody thought that artists could be behind this. Instead, a certain political group was assumed. Following this, the posters were taken down pretty quickly.
You have done many collaborative projects dealing with the public cityscape. Where does this interest come from and what are the main differences between working with the public space and creating a work to internal or institutional space and context?
I am interested in working with people from other disciplines, through which I can expand my boundaries. I have done urban projects with architects and urbanists who know the cityscape well, and it’s interesting to work with them.
The gallery is often a very clinical and safe area. The artist brings his/her work there where it can attribute a sort of ‘art aura’; and generally the audience knows how to relate with the work. However, if it’s a project in the public space, this attitude is much more dynamic and open; there are more unexplored and unexpected aspects.
Dealing with public space is usually much more experimental because you never know what will happen exactly; there are always people intervening who become part of the project. For me, this is certainly more immediate and spontaneous, therefore also more interesting. Place and context-specificity are very important for me.
Your house museum is a very unique project. In addition to the pragmatic needs, why did you create it? What is the creative philosophy behind it?
It is an art-project museum, which deals mainly with the themes of home and being a houseowner, an artist and a mother. With this project, I finished my master’s degree. The main issue was whether young freelance artists could cope independently in today’s contemporary society after having finished an art university. Artists must therefore become responsible for everything and know how to sell themselves. Through this museum, I have been able to create new symbolic capital by myself. As an independent artist, I can work like the museums should work. I have all the different departments, except I am the manager and employee of every department: I work as a technical director, a communications manager, a cleaner etc.
Also, when I established the museum, I found the gallery system in Tallinn to be ridiculous. If the artist wanted to do an exhibition, they had to pay the gallery. I never did an exhibition this way because it was nonsense for me. Now, fortunately this system has changed.
Besides the museum, you have dealt with the position of the artist in other works as well. A good example would be your Monument of the Living Artist (2013), a self-portrait bust made of plaster filled with plant seeds. How do you approach this theme in your work?
When it came to Monument of the Living Artist, the position of the artist and the relationship between the eternal and the temporary were important topics for me. In the case of this work, seeds in soil balls were mixed with moist plaster so that they could start germinating over time, which at some point will cause the plaster to crack. Its name is indeed a monument, but eventually it will disappear as the seeds take it over.
The Untitled Painting Project (2009) was also about the artist’s position and about being a painter. It also brought in the issues of the Estonian Academy of Art’s painting department and questions about the nature of academic painting. During the project, I asked three painting professors of the EAA, Tõnis Saadoja, Kaido Ole and Lauri Sillak, to paint an object that looked like a pink detonator.
In your opinion, what is the current situation for artists living in Estonia?
Freelance artists cannot be guaranteed a stable income. In a sense, I like the fact that artists are not overestimated or in the centre of attention. This seems useful, otherwise we might become too comfortable.
I think Estonia is more of a ‘theatre land’ in which the state supports much more theatre making it increasingly more difficult for visual artists to compete with this sector in general. Estonians love theatre and travel around in summer visiting seasonal productions. This topic is also examined in my work House Music (2015), which for me is an ironic summer theatre production.
The documentation video of House Music has a very poetic effect. It is exciting to see how ‘real-life’ scenes and fictive elements intermingled with each other during the performance. How do you go about combining documented footage and fictional material in your work?
With the house museum, for example, I brought the public space into my own private space and in this way it became performative. Through that project, I mixed different layers and created a certain shift. With the performance of House Music though, there was this idea that it should happen in the whole street, so that nothing would be blocked. Anything that occurred could then become part of the piece itself. The goal was to bring the ‘real life’ to the audience, and to mix multiple fictive scenes into it, in order to show the different rhythms of life. Many people commented that they couldn’t tell what was staged from what was not. The other main aspect was that the whole story was based on Facebook as a prodigy for documentation. I used the Facebook page of Pelgulinn district where my museum was located and where the performance took place as a data source. There, people posted information about the historical facts, as well as about thieves and rental ads. I then edited these texts into poems together with Riina Maidre, which were executed by a male voice during the performance.
One of my favourite movies is The Idiots (1998). The first time I watched it, I wondered if it was real or staged. I could not understand it at all, and I really liked that feeling. Maybe it was the mysterious feeling it created, a certain sort of strange grey area which still haunts me. I think that I am interested in finding certain kinds of shifts (laughs). And if I can create them myself, I mostly do it through humour or critical irony.
“Shift” certainly seems to be one of the keywords for me. You also often alter or create shifts in the meaning of the traditional monument, for example, in the case of O (2011), Estonian Sculpture (2005) or Monument of the Living Artist which was mentioned earlier. What is it that you want to achieve through this?
I think that the topic of monuments is important to Estonia, and we really like to erect them. For example, the Gwanju Biennale was founded in memory of spirits of civil uprising of the 1980 repression of the ‘Gwangju Democratization Movement’. For me this is much more valuable than erecting some permanent object into the cityscape. It is difficult to achieve public satisfaction with monuments; they rather develop some sort of opposition. Estonia is a young country looking for some reassurance. It thinks that if it creates something large and steady, it will have gained something, but this is artificial.
The aim of O, was to be dynamic, emerging and disappearing. It was conducted in collaboration with Andra Aaloe, Aet Ader, Grete Soosalu and Kaarel Künnap. We played through different scenarios of what could happen, and introduced people to situations where something new could suddenly appear. In different locations O had a different character. In one place it was entertaining, but in another place it became provocative. It could also point to a particular place in the city, or measure the cityscape. In general, O was as abstract and anti-specific as it could possibly be. It was not a monument, but rather specifically countered the sculpture or monument as such, and in that way critiqued a lot of other ‘real’ monuments in the cityscape. Also, considering the other examples of my work you brought up, I guess my ‘monument’ is always changing, it is impermanent.
If this can be read as a critical note towards Estonians’ habit of erecting monuments, then you’ve previously done a work Creative Estonia (2012), which reflected Estonian society’s superfluity and overproduction at the time, specifically the case where more emphasis was put into appearance, rather than into the quality of the content which was lacking. If you were to make a similar comment now, what would it be like?
It was just after the economic crisis and there were many start-ups. People were producing lots of meaningless things just to try and do something. However, four years have passed and not so much has changed at first sight. I wouldn’t want to do this project again, but if I had to, then this time the jar would be covered in blue, black and white or national costume patterns, just to show that Estonia is not a very open country to migrants and war refugees. And yet, given our history one would think it should be the other way around because we, ourselves, were once in a similar situation.
Your work International Fun (2016) refers directly to very famous and thematically related motif, the European Union, and its associated political and topical issues. What was your initial idea?
My work derived from the title of Temnikova & Kasela gallery’s group exhibition, which carried the same name. The motif refers directly to the topic of Brexit and the European Union, and how, in a sense, it’s collapsing. It examines the EU and its future, which seems ‘slippery’ and suspicious. There are many reasons for this, but certainly the flow of immigrants has strongly influenced everything. I also created a video of the installation which shows how people walk on this symbol, resulting in the dislocation of the borderlines. In Art Fair Brussels, it received lots of attention from visitors, partially because it was visually attractive, but also for its direct reference to quite an important subject matter.
You’ve just finished a Korean-style garden in your museum’s backyard. Could you talk a bit more about the story behind this?
The garden project emerged after Maria Lind, the artistic director of Gwangju Biennale 2016, visited my museum and saw a video in which a Polish guard had patrolled a hole in the fence of my museum. She thought we could do something in a similar style and invited me to participate in the Biennale. Thus, I invited a professional gardener from Korea, Hong Kwang-Pyo to Estonia, in order to create a more interesting relationship between our two countries, cultures and people. I have a large backyard and gardening is a very important field in Korea.
In the initial phase of the project, we created a live video stream on the museum’s website, but in broader terms it was a happening. Now visitors can come to the museum and admire it. The gardener came with two assistants, and I gave them freedom. The only thing I wanted was the hills, because in Estonia the landscape is a bit flat and dull. I wondered why I should always travel to see mountains if I could bring hills to my backyard. I have been thinking of starting to collect a variety of landscape forms and natural phenomena; I already have mountains, a tsunami, a flower-pond and a small cabin from which you can view the pond, as is customary in Korea. I love the contrast between the bleak uncoloured facade of the house and its so-called ‘President’ garden. It is like a secret garden.
In a sense, you’re a very pragmatic artist. You’ll notice that the roof needs replacing and look for ways of tying this aspect into an artistic project; through an invitation to the Gwanju Biennale, you create a Korean garden in your backyard; and later you add the rest of your works to Flo Kasearu’s House Museum collection. On the basis of such a viewpoint, what are your plans for the future?
Yes, ‘pragmatic’ or ‘practical’ seem to be the right words in this case. Once, I had the choice of whether to go and study art or economics, and economics is, after all, a very practical profession. Even the Korean gardening project has some sustainability. In a sense, through this project, I am fighting against the practice of simply making a temporary exhibition. The house museum also seemed like the right choice for me, because I already have a house which exists in the form of a context. It has a certain history, topics and issues. I find it more interesting, than going to the white cube where I’d start creating something artificially. Ideally, the museum could grow over my whole lifetime so that in the end, I will have to give five-hour guided tours (laughs). Sustainability is an important aspect. The collection of the museum is a place where I can put all the remaining works, and so they are, at least in terms of an idea, in a valuable place.
With regards to the future, I thought that I’d like to do more projects like the Korean garden project and invite another representative of some other profession to do something else in my museum. The question is how to provide this experience to others so that it will not remain a purely personal experience. Hence, I am thinking of developing the garden project even further, engaging with various forms of landscapes. At the moment the garden project can’t be transported, but my desire would be to turn it into a mobile or transportable installation that would be inspired by the interchange of landscape phenomena. This is something I would like to explore further.
Finally, I would like to ask you a “what-is-love” type of question: what is a great artwork for you?
Two grams of irony, three grams of topicality and five grams of criticism. Something like that.
I think there exists a good artwork and a great artwork. It can be a good artwork when it has very good aesthetics. However, if it is to be a great artwork, then it also has to have certain additional layers. The best case is when there is some sort of ironic humour present, as well as some important social aspect or political context that is highlighted. As such, the work seems justified, and interacts with the various phenomena, both on a political and social level. This way, the viewers can experience more meanings based on their backgrounds and political relationships.
Flo Kasearu (b. 1985) is an Estonian artist based in Tallinn. She studied painting (2004-2008) and photography (2008-2011) at the Estonian Academy of Arts. She has also finished an exchange studies in the studio of Rebecca Horn, at Universität der Künste in Berlin, where she discovered video and performance art. In 2012, she was awarded with the prestigious Köler Prize and in addition, won the audience prize for the same exhibition. She is currently represented by Temnikova & Kasela gallery.
 NO99 theater director Tiit Ojasoo resignation was preceded by the criminal case which involved hitting an actress.
The topic was widely covered in the Estonian media. However, such strange coincidences have been taking place also in the past in Flo’s career. For example, with ESC, she created an image of a horse as a moving graffiti, which became a sort of symbol of freedom. That same night, somebody freed the horses from the local racetrack stables. The event was also discussed in the media. Flo’s assumption was that one evening before the actual shoot when she had gone to do some work prior to the video recording, some patient from the nearby bedlam might have seen her rehearsal. Seeing Flo’s white horse running in total freedom, the patient may have decided to release the other horses, letting them enjoy their freedom too.
 Conducted in collaboration with the photographer Diana Tamane.
 Creative Estonia (2012) was a commentary for Jaan Toomik’s infamous work 16. May–31. May 1992 (1992), which included excrement in sealed glass jars accompanied by paper sheets with descriptions of food the artist had previously eaten. Flo’s jar was colourful and filled with emptiness.
 Zachęta National Gallery of Art (Poland) called Flo to execute an exhibition project. During her research, she randomly met the Zacheta’s security guard where the idea arose that the guard should come to Estonia for three days to safeguard her museum. Later Flo, the security guard and the bus driver travelled to Poland to take the works to the exhibition; they were wandering on a trajectory through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in a bus with a large logo saying, “We Are On the Way,” which was also the title of her exhibition.
 Flo is referring to her Landscape Painting (2013), which is presented in the courtyard of her House Museum. The purpose of the size and placement of the painting is to purify the view from the museum’s windows, because the neighbours’ house does not stylistically fit into the atmosphere of the Pelgulinn district in Tallinn.