Hunter Braithwaite interviews Art:I:Curate artist Katrin Koskaru. AIC Journal
Miami-based writer Hunter Braithwaite interviews art:i:curate emerging artist Katrin Koskaru, discussing the development of work and subject matter, the “death” of painting, and the roles architecture and installation play in her work.
HB: Can you tell me how you have arrived at this point? How did your paintings look in the past? You mention that you gather source material from newspapers. Have you worked with collage, found images, or other types of appropriation?
KK: My work has previously been figurative. I had a great interest in getting to know painting in its classical sense. I truly enjoyed painting as a craft and the science behind it all. I still do but it kept me all excited to that point where the representation became harder. How would painting fit into contemporary art? Painting has died many times in the last century, so how do you go on from there? Well, I don’t have answers. But it’s interesting enough for me to confront those questions. Flexibility and diversity is very appealing to me. It’s more suitable to regard a painting as a part of mark-making in its very broad sense, but it’s fascinating for me if painting retains its conventionality.
HB: How do you think you confront the questions surrounding paintings alleged death?
KK: I think it’s interesting to deal with the information and references rather then being concerned with my own individual style.
HB: You paint industrial or military structures that are relics of the twentieth century. How does painting them complicate or define our relationship to them, especially as opposed to photography—say Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archeology or the Bechers’ documentation of industrial ruins?
KK: Those military structures I’m interested in are not only relics of last century. Military power is stronger and bigger then ever. There are significant quantities of military training sites built around the world—high-tech sites. Their aim is to offer good and adequate military training. There are architectural features as complicated and challenging as real life urban environment with its entire infrastructure. Many of those training sites employ actors to play ‘the enemy’, so that the experience would be even more real.
Those sites are usually very well managed, hidden away and highly secured, so it is hard to get anywhere near the area. But there is a constant preparation for war on one side and a continuing reproduction of fear on the other side. As an artist I find it engaging how to respond to this information. I try to take my material apart and see if there is a possibility to enter the subject from different sites. And then by adding or taking some of it away, something different might occur.
HB: But do you think painting these sites places them in history, as opposed to other ways that artists could respond to them? I’m thinking of Trevor Paglen’s photos—which use super high tech lenses and attachments—of secret military sites. How does the form match the subject matter?
KK: I don’t think this is what painting has to do. At least I don’t try to do that. Rather, I like to see painting as a tool to connect different spaces. I am trying to look for diverse relations between things.
HB: I enjoy how your pieces are displayed. For example, your painting of the Krenholm Factory from your RCA show last year was propped up on cabinets. Can you speak about how you want the viewer to confront your paintings?
KK: I try to see the exhibition space as a part of my work. I consider what is already there and how it accommodates my work. This particular space was kind of ‘inherited.’ It was a space built and used by a previous person as a viewing-projection room for showing his video work. It was a nice asymmetrical room with carpets on the floor and sitting area. When that exhibition was on I decided that I would like to exhibit my work there. But on the day I arrived with my paintings something obvious had happened. All the carpets were torn out and the nice dimmed light that came from video projector was gone. Also, the wires that fed the projector were torn out. You could just follow the white mark that had been left behind on the dark grey wall. The floors were full of nails and used black tape. The room looked destroyed.
Everything I liked in that particular room was now removed. But since I was interested in contemporary ruins it made sense to me to show my work there, in this room, the way it was left. I got carried away with the atmosphere and added those cabinets and my paintings. I must say that I later tried to construct the same room or similar atmosphere myself in a different building and I failed. So I learned my lesson. Each space needs to be approached differently.
HB: If in a group show, or showing in a white cube space, do you experiment with how the paintings are displayed? Leaned up against the wall, propped up, on the floor, etc.
KK: Probably in the white cube space it would mostly depend on the work how it would be displayed. I would not lean my work against the wall just in order to make it look more interesting.
HB: Can you tell me about how the architecture of your youth in the USSR compares to your present location in London? One need only to read Ballard’s brutalist triptych from the mid-‘70s (Crash, Concrete Island, High Rise) to see that inhuman architecture knows no political boundaries.
KK: London is very interesting city to live in. I have resided in various parts in London.
At the moment I live in Hackney. It is a borough of London that has a lot of housing estates. The neighborhood where I grew up in Soviet Estonia was a part of a big urban design development. It consisted mostly of five and nine story buildings. They all looked alike and were planned to cover huge areas. It became quite hard to navigate in there. Till now I get lost there in my dreams.
HB: That is fascinating. Can you tell me more about this place?
KK: Due the growing population in the ‘60s and ‘70s, official city architects came up with bigger projects to expand Tallinn and Tartu. Architects started to develop larger areas of the city, which were called micro districts. I was born in Tartu, which is the second biggest city in Estonia. There were four districts planned in Tartu, but only two were finished. The main idea was to accommodate lots of people but also to have all the facilities on hand: schools, kindergartens, clinics and supermarkets. So each district was divided into smaller areas. It was very much like the High Rise scenario, but in a bit more horizontal. I think the idea was not that bad, but there were huge compromises made concerning the choice of materials and also the generic design of the houses. The houses were made of concrete panels. This repetition of identical looking housing blocks next to each other and the fact that all the streets in certain radius had the same name created quite a bizarre understanding of the space.
Another interesting and distinctive thing about Tartu was that the city was closed to tourists due to its close proximity to a Soviet Air Base. The military was very present, constantly creating an additional layer of atmosphere. On certain nights of the month, the army flew their planes over city, making horrible noise. I think I was awake each of those nights. But nevertheless my childhood was happy.
HB: And London, how does your work relate to that architecture?
KK: I can’t help but feel quite nostalgic and sympathetic towards those housing estates in Hackney, although they are very grim looking. But there is another newly developed area in London, which represents contemporary urban planning with all the security measurements taken into account. It’s a big banking and business area called Canary Wharf. If you go for a walk around there in the normal working day the experience can become quite intimidating. Already the fact that you are not wearing a suit makes you feel out of place. It’s not really a place you can hang around. It’s almost like you become a piece from a little architectural model and you’ve been directed safely through ‘the zone’ without you making any unnecessary or spontaneous moves. You could can feel a security guard’s look on your neck all the time.
HB: Speaking of the Zone, Tarkovsky does stalk some of your paintings. Can you speak about that influence, or perhaps other cinematic realities which you are drawn toward?
KK: I like the sound in Bela Tarr movies—the sound that accompanies those long takes. It is often minimal but at the same time as expressive as the visual elements. His films are very atmospheric. Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and La Jetée are also striking.
HB: Can we speak about how you reduce architecture to certain formal elements in your paintings? Similarly, your paintings move from more traditional landscape to showing abstracted and decontextualized elements of the same landscape. How do you see this move from representation to obliteration of the traditional view?
KK: At the moment I find abstraction is the most interesting for me. But the starting point is not abstraction itself. The paintings always seems to start with architecture and finding information about how military power reflects in the urban environment or in the landscape. I’ll then develop collected information into a specific work. I don’t have exact prescription about how the final work should look; I try to keep an opened mind regarding mediums and representation.
HB: “Duga-3” depicts a part of a Soviet-era radio tower near Chernobyl, a site today synonymous with radioactive contamination. While researching the tower, I found that its radio signal was capable of interrupting Western radio and television broadcasts, and this interference led to its nickname “The Russian Woodpecker.” Could you speak about contamination, distortion, and interference in your paintings?
KK: It is a project I’m still working on. But this radio tower is absolutely fantastic! Like subtle lace stretching from the ground towards the sky, it suggests so much drama and melancholy. The tower was not activee not for very long. Not only because of the contamination in the area but because technology changed and satellites came along and were much better at detecting the enemy. It’s a great monument from the not-so-distant past to show Soviet military equipment. This contaminated area with this ‘woodpecker’ and all the other deceased buildings looks very apocalyptic. I can’t help but to think that maybe this is the rare view of the future landscape.
Before radar came along, here, in the UK, they built sound mirrors along the southeast coastline for the same purpose. I find those concrete structures to be equally impressive. They also didn’t last long because of a rapid development of technology.
HB: Are you painting more paintings of DUGA-3, or of other radar systems?
KK: I don’t think I would paint another work of Duga-3. What interests me also is the background and surroundings where it is placed. It’s fascinating how quickly tragedy disappears from view. When nature takes over it kind of extricates the space from viciousness. Lots of old military training sites in the UK have been turned by the state into become some kind of nature preserves areas—bird watching areas, for example. With a state help of course. Sadly, when the Soviet army left Estonia then they weren’t really keen to preserve the nature or take care of the damages they had done to the landscape. They just poured concrete in to underground bunkers just to cover their activity.
Hunter Braithwaite is a freelance writer based in Miami and is Editor in Chief of the Miami Rail.