The urban installation festival, LIFT 11, has been taking place in Tallinn since the beginning of May and will go on until September 12; it is part of the program celebrating Tallinn as the European Capital of Culture for the year 2011. Ten installations are being gradually erected during the summer; they will all be finished by august and will be available for viewing until the end of the festival.

LIFT 11 is being organized by four curators: two architects – Margit Aule and Margit Argus from the architect association KAOS, and two art curators – Maarin Mürk, who is the founder of the art critique website artishok.blogspot.com, and is currently working on her doctoral dissertation; and Ingrid Ruudi, who curates architectural exhibitions, such as Estonia’s pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008, when a large, yellow gas pipeline was stretched across the Giardini. Ingrid Ruudi has also worked with the “Straw Theater” project, which is on display in Tallinn until the autumn; it is definitely something to go see this summer. (Read our article on the “Straw Theater” in the Arterritory.com archives).

The LIFT 11 projects were chosen through a competitive process; out of a total of 129 candidates, twelve came out on top. Only ten will be displayed, however, because City Hall later decided against two of the projects. The contest was open to those for whom Estonia has been a long-term place of residence. Most of the winners are artists and architects of Estonian heritage, but one of the installations was created by a Japanese architect, who has lived and worked in Tallinn for many years.

The curators were inspired to make a festival of the likes that Tallinn had never seen before, but were faced daily with the question: “Is Tallinn ready for something like this?” They realized that if they hadn’t been taken under the wing of Tallinn as European Capital of Culture for 2011, such a festival would hardly see the light of day. Moreover, being a part of the Capital of Culture program added additional (though healthy) pressure and responsibility. It was a double-edged sword. But nevertheless, it was truly fortuitous, because the chosen works have turned out convincing.

Quite possibly, large thanks should be given to the close cooperation between the curators and the participants; together they analyzed and improved upon the chosen projects. All four curators note that none of the projects were perfect when first submitted. The architects were lacking in creative flight, but the artists characteristically failed to realize the scope of the urban environment, their works would virtually get lost within it.

Urban Sore

In the last several decades, the garden community of Soodevahe developed alongside Tallinn’s airport. It has, however, long since gained the status of being illegal; since the fall of the Soviet Union, the land upon which the seasonal cottages have been built now belongs to the airport. But people, mostly Russian-speaking and of the older generation, continue to tend the gardens and spend their summers there. The division of garden plots has been done according to the principle of “the early bird gets the worm”, and is actually best described as squatting done by the elderly.

In May of this year, the airport authorities publicized plans to level a large part of the territory so as to increase the size of the runways. As the curators emotionally retell it – the locals will have just enough time to gather in the autumn harvest before the bulldozers come barreling in.

From one point of view, it is clear that the habitation of the area these last few years has been illegal, and the owner of the land has the right to do as he or she wishes. Soodevahe is like a suburban sore that occasionally oozes with sporadic violence. But it is also clear that the capital city is not only a tissue-wrapped top layer; there also exists a teeming world behind the scenes, naturally formed and interbred with the lives of those involved.

In such an apparently indisputable situation, when the village “inhabitants” don’t have even a smidgin of legal rights to say a word in protest, the artist can be like a transistor that strengthens the signal and shows that this city neighborhood has existed, that it has meant something to a part of the population of Tallinn and that it is not just a dump with a bad reputation that will finally be paved over. The job of the artist is not to shout slogans and wave placards, but to show and document, through a subjective prism, that, which will soon be no more.

This struggle between the law and emotions can be well seen in the fact that the airport authorities are having a hard time finding workers willing, come autumn, to pull down the cottages and clear the land with their own hands.

The artist and programmer Timo Toots, who was nominated for the Estonian Contemporary Art Museum’s Köler Prize 2011, and whose largest project to date is now visible in the KUMU Museum’s electronic group exhibit “Gateways”, has “taken over” some of the abandoned village cottages. He has repainted them and done some minimal renovations and now, Soodevahe, for a while at least, has its own museum, bar, hotel and theater.

These institutions are mere decorations, of course. The idea is to show that this village has existed as a valuable neighborhood of the city, with its own infrastructure and local traditions. Timo Toots’ establishments serve also as an information center not only to visitors, but also to the local inhabitants, allowing them to experience the unified oneness of the village.

Visiting Soodehave Village in the company of the curator Maarin Mürk, one gets a peculiar feeling. Unlike viewing art in museums and galleries, this place is more intense itself than the festival project that has been put therein.

On the way to our destinations, we don’t see a single living soul; planes fly low and constantly, brambles alternate with erected cottages, which vary from “surrounded with brightly planted gardens” to “burned ruins”. Although Maarin has been here recently, her eyes give away a relentless curiosity to see what will await us around the next corner. Here there is a heavy, collapsed metal fence; elsewhere there are flowers growing where before there were none.

We carefully check the LIFT 11 objects to see what has been taken and what has been left. She says that during one visit, there were indications that someone had started to move into the “bar”. The village creates the impression that it is a living organism that ceaselessly, and rather uncontrollably, changes; the inhabitants naturally live with it, and the artist’s installations give in to it. Wandering among the LIFT 11 cottages, Maarin texts Timo Toots a reminder that the area needs a bit of mowing.

The Cotton Theater leaves a special impression – a cottage where the only change the artist implemented is its name, which is written upon its facade. Everything else was left unchanged. It is this “feral” factor that gives extra power to the aesthetic enjoyment of it.

It is not without reason that the theater is named so – the crooked building without walls or windows is full of stuffing. It hangs in strands from the ceiling, covers the floor in wads, and in the middle, there are a yet-untaken sofa and table. But the soft, white material is absolutely everywhere, making what has happened here utterly perplexing.

Maarin Mürk’s call for a taxi to take us back to the city center adds another layer of atmosphere to Soodevahe Village. The first dispatcher she reaches replies that there is no such place.

[…]