Tamara Luuk

Curator's foreword

In life and in vanity, sincerely yours …

Ever since Valge Kuup began installing the exhibitions at Tallinn Art Hall, Neeme Külm has been active here as an artist, designer and exhibition builder. He knows our galleries, which architecturally represent the 1930s and 50s, like the back of his own hand. Among other things, Külm has orchestrated modifications to the gallery space, extensions and reductions, taking down ceilings, making holes in the walls, shortening one room and lengthening another, and closing up a third one! Neeme the artist, Neeme the designer, Neeme the exhibition installer considers a work of art as important as the way it is displayed: both have a little of the other in them. Being the one expanding the possibilities for exhibiting, Neeme transforms into a wizard for a short dazzling period of time during the exhibition, a demiurge whose enthusiasm is contagious to his fellow citizens, artists, architects and institutions. It is only for a brief brilliant period of time, because it is clear from the very beginning that encoded in each of Neeme’s spatial interventions is the restoration of the original situation. Probably this is why time and space are quite indifferent to each other in his works: Neeme’s spaces (or spatial installations) refuse to perpetuate time, and vice versa.

On a personal level, this seems to suit Neeme well, which further confirms the contradictory unity of his activities: “I like the idea of an exhibition being like a rock concert: you go somewhere, there is emotion, there is intensity and the next day they take down the stage and only emptiness is left behind.”[1] Even his urban objects point to chance, perishability and the inevitability of the apparent rather than a lasting existence. And so he says about the three-ton object, The Cone, he built for the façade of a parking house in Hämeenlinna last autumn: “I am fascinated by the idea that The Cone is like a found object in urban space. The way it looks, reminiscent of a traffic cone, or a shirt hanging from a tree branch. Such a mode of displaying intensifies the impression of temporariness. It’s relieving to think that art is not eternal and to forget about its durable material.”[2]

Temporariness belongs to the “real” existence of Neeme Külm’s art. Neeme, who is anything but ordinary in his way of thinking and acting, has said that his exhibition ideas often arise from “perplexity”[3] or the feeling of “having hit and hurt your foot”.[4] What counts is the moment of recognition, the moment that includes the possibility of all possibilities, where there is everything and yet nothing. Taavi Talve described this excellently when reviewing Neeme Külm and Krista Mölder’s joint exhibition, Being Present: “Paradoxically, the delivery of this “almost nothing” demands a considerable amount of physical work on that very same space as well as the institutional walls to ensure the laboratory conditions for the experiment. It demands all that is agreed upon as “invisible” for the observer, forming a culturally conventional dark spot in order to transfer the experience of “almost nothing” with the least possible losses. /…/ It is because the viewer has nothing to do here, s/he must in some sense become lost in order to enter at the “wrong” moment in order to be able to see the space, to “deceive” him- or herself and the space, to perceive the space without his or her own presence. It is as if no one were looking at the space or its bustle or directing his or her interpretative intentions upon it or waiting for an experience. It is the moment when the space pretends that the viewer is not there, that it has not been infected by anyone – the space in its own solitude.”[5]

Writing about the same exhibition, Ingrid Ruudi introduces the dimension of time: “Spaces that constantly slip away from your reach, where perception oscillates between the gallery and the image space, begin to reproduce themselves, pushing the entire whole into motion – to the point of dizziness. Until it begins to seem that the focus is not on a specific place or space, but rather on time. In the rhythm of the ventilation fans, alternately accelerating and slowing down to absurdity, time has coiled itself into a looping swirl.”[6]

Neeme himself presents a third point of view that grounds the previous interpretations by instead describing the work process of an artist. In an interview with Ingrid Ruudi, he calmly and persuasively admits: “I am definitely a man of first idea … Indeed, I have tried to consciously prolong the process, go to the library, analyse and invent. But it doesn’t work for me, I can’t see the next step from there. When I get excited about something, I subconsciously cling to it. The same goes for the most intense experiences, which cannot be repeated or re-examined the next day. /…/ The key is to remain convinced that what I’m doing is indeed important, the real thing … But I often take too many risks. I know that not every exhibition may be a success. And in a way, I can’t be criticised because I don’t understand it.”[7] – “I start from scratch every time … I move in circles; this is why I like stories. Especially those that start at the ending and move backwards towards the beginning.”[8]

Stories? As the evoker of unexpected, scarce and powerful exhibition images, Neeme has mostly avoided time-consuming storytelling, either because of his gapped memory, his non-linear, contradictory, uniquely personal thought process that encompasses everything and nothing at the same time, or who knows what else. “What is there to say about works that exclude text and are constructed as a staging of perception, physical space and some emotion? I’m trying to make works that look like a frame from a film; I’m looking for an interesting angle. The question of what one thing or another means feels somehow unfair in this kind of art.”[9] And later, praising the benefits of film-making, he mentions the time factor, among other things: “The camera controls everything, but you can’t see what’s behind it. Time is very important in film.”[10]

Neeme has repeatedly tried to get rid of the static nature of his spatial installations and their ideal viewability from only one certain angle, incorporating time-dependent sounds, movements and vibrations. Fascination that is subconsciously stuck in our mind will not simply disappear; it is stored away like everything else that is deposited in our subconscious. There is reason to believe that in Neeme’s comprehensive exhibitions, time too has been stored as an indirect particle in the infinite possibilities of space.

As for the stories, In Vanity Alone presents them in abundance. The time required to narrate and listen to these stories is an indisputable part and precondition of this exhibition. These stories are heavy and light at the same time, fixed to the ceiling, floor or wall and detached from there, wakeful and tired. They seem old and true, having withstood the test of time, bringing together the distant past into the present moment. Embodied in materials, some of which are solid and durable, while others are about to fall apart, these stories fill the gallery space with warm and slightly ragged cosiness.

Here stands a slightly crooked confessional with its walls fixed with wooden joints and a shrapnel hole in its side. It is equipped with slots for looking inside and out, and useless thills and wheels. Attached to the wall is a cornucopia resembling a funnel or a trumpet and a rose-like flower licking its burnt wounds. Paintings in the gallery corners that depict refined everyday patterns keep the verbosity of the space in check. Leaning on a support reminiscent of a set of hangers, the walls peel off, sweating out the memory of earlier exhibitions like a wave. A strange canopy sewn directly onto the ceiling invites you to fill the void beneath it, and the ticking time is sealed in a mound of wax bulging from the floor.

“I like to describe the exhibition from the position of the material. Talking about the content makes me uncomfortable; it’s too personal,”[11] Neeme has said. “Material is a recurrent motif … Material is very important, as it has its own dignity and breath; depending on the weather, a 1.3 metre board can “breathe” as much as 2 cm … It is a matter of vanity whether I make this confessional from Estonian oak or American walnut … In addition, the space needs a different kind of geometry: a cylinder, some kind of fluidity, not a cube. I would like to hang a so-called “canopy” in the front room – I am fascinated by both hiding and transparency; I would like softness and tenderness next to the other work. This object doesn’t need to be feminine; it might as well be masculine. /…/ When the leaves fall from the tree, the tree will not curate it.”[12] Uttered out loud, Neeme’s thoughts create an intriguing mosaic, but they do not follow any unambiguous logic.

Opening themselves through hints and metaphors, Neeme’s works in solid, mostly high-quality materials have been thoroughly and sensitively analysed. His work has been a mandatory exercise for critics, because both his art and his statements include claims and objections at the same time. There is evasiveness encoded in them.[13]

Enthusiasm that spurs Neeme’s creative process arises in an instant, but we cannot preclude his long and thorough, winding trail of thoughts before and after the exhibition, or the inclusion of earlier exhibition experiences in his new work. It is not starting from scratch, but rather, constant attempts to break out of the hamster wheel. Compared to Neeme’s previous exhibitions, In Vanity Alone displays a relatively large number of objects. What they speak about does not allow it to be read in a single carefully controlled whole, using scarce and powerful metaphors.

The current almost cacophonous ensemble also squares accounts with his previous works and exhibitions, especially those that have focused on time and narratives. For example, the story of Grand Duke Vytautas, which he told with Dénes Farkas at the exhibition If It’s Part Broke, Half Fix It at the Contemporary Art Centre Vilnius (2011), or at his solo exhibition Tomorrow Comes Today at Draakoni Gallery (2010). The latter was described as a confession in the form of a self-portrait, where “the artist peels off his layers like an onion”,[14] which unfortunately the majority of the audience could not grasp.

In Vanity Alone is another attempt in bringing the pulsating blood circulation under your skin from a personal emotion to a more universal language and storytelling. The objects in the exhibition, like the lines in a poem, look for equivalents to feelings without obliging the mind to convey them. Creating an analogy to the polyphony of words in the exhibition hall is something new for Neeme. Like an iconoclast, he once provoked the memory of the locals in the hometown of the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas by closing in the poet’s memorial.[15] However, it wasn’t before only quite recently that he delved into Thomas’ poetry. I do not believe that Neeme has deliberately created such a parallel, but to me, the skin-shedding bulbs of memory at the City Gallery resonate with the gentle irrational pathos in Thomas’ poetry. It is like an encounter of life, sleep and death under the Milk Wood.[16]


Free air and the relaxed pose of shyness, messages spread under the veil.

An ability, an imagination, without truly seeing what flashes by.

A thought pushing out, this sequence of events withering in the moment it descends to the circle of light.

What shines and overheats will transform and expand, the face of the future.

Darkness of mind, knowing you will never know the ultimate.

A wave of the ocean of eyes flowing over eyelids.

The knowledge of the one-eyed, order is subordinated to order.

The smell and sparkle of rose petals, this sweet life.

A feeling hatching from the ordinary.


This is the accompanying text Neeme Külm wrote for In Vanity Alone. Overcoming the initial surprise, we can say this free verse includes both ambiguity and a variety of interpretations, typical of Neeme. What is not there is contradiction, because normal logic does not apply to poetry. What applies instead is the accuracy of the expression, which would not have been possible otherwise. Each line is true because it speaks of the inevitability of coping with intense existence, and downright calls for a council of psychoanalysts.[17]

The same goes for the exhibition. Only the title causes confusion, because it suggests that Neeme takes sole responsibility for his vanity. But he doesn’t. Because in this exhibition it seems that more important than the choice of materials and balance between objects, more important than the volume of work that contains the uniqueness of the handmade and the total unity of the whole is that Neeme gives up control and identifies himself with the exhibition. I believe I’m not mistaken in saying that this has never happened before.

The strange self-constructed objects displayed at the City Gallery look like they have stepped out of Old Barny, the book by Andrus Kivirähk. They remind us of the kratt-snowman bargained from the Devil by Hans the Taskmaster, whose stories Neeme, like Hans, is listening to with his mouth open, never doubting their “authenticity”. Is he talking nonsense or telling the truth? It doesn’t even matter. Who needs psychoanalysis here? Surely not Neeme acting as a medium it is rather the era that his keen and innocent openness has captured in its hybridity, entangled contexts, apparent arrogance of being “deep” and forgiveness of profound ignorance from the outset. Like the transition of individualism and personality into eternal plurality, a multitude of others. As a soft, genderless exhibition refusing to take sole responsibility, In Vanity Alone is like a metaphor for our time. For Neeme who has taken on the role of an echo machine and a bard amplifying the stories of space, the prevailing metaphysical mash-up and hints of the future derived from the past present an unprecedented challenge. If he is successful in this challenge, his success goes against reason.

While the echo machine plays the stories “backwards towards the beginning”, the attentive viewer notices that there is nothing else there but Alice waiting for us. When Neeme gives up control of the space and the objects in it, the stories threaten to spill out of the gallery, through the walls onto the street and … And this is where Alice Kask intervenes. Selectively and with ease, she works on the gallery corners, patches them up and seals them through her painting.

Neither Neeme nor Alice have held many solo shows. However, they are both highly visible in the art scene, Alice with her paintings and drawings which offer a comforting joy of recognition to the audience. From these, we can already delve deeper into her delightful imagery with gratefulness and relief. Alice herself does not particularly like the practical aspect of her pictures, which are a little provocative and distorted, but realised with unquestionably fascinating craftsmanship. She sometimes even despises it: “My drawings have always been received recognition. Praise the fool and the fool will get inspired! And so, I kept drawing and drawing.”[18]

Neeme also prefers the realisation of his works to be imperceptible, but he does not underestimate it.[19] He is much more inconsistent than Alice – which is more evident to his fans than to himself. Every single turf is needed for him to get out of the swamp, although it has been long since he last dared to dream about solid ground under his feet. He has accepted all the conventions, social agreements and codes of conduct, but in trying to follow them, he always ends up in the wrong place: “My sailing style is similar: I rush forward, but I often arrive at the wrong mark!”[20]

Alice, on the other hand, always questions any agreement. And although she too backs away from “the personal” in her art like Neeme, she questions everything before acting, based on the specifics of her personal point of view. The latter has to be taken as seriously as Neeme’s generalisations and broad reach. Neeme and Alice both deal with illusion: one as a sentimental romantic striving for the “real”, the other as a pragmatist hesitant about everything, aware of the inevitability of being “almost like the real thing”. But neither of them jokes with art. Figures ripped out of everyday life: shoe soles lying in the corner and a large table – these are the fragments of Alice’s painting that do not narrate or comment on anything, but instead have a sealing effect.

“I make sure I’m in the middle, like a harlequin and a gamer. There is radicalisation taking place at the edges,[21] Neeme says, standing in the middle of the chattering objects and watching Alice work in the corners, selectively and calmly like a true boss. Alice gives a form and pays homage to the corners, which the gallery itself has never done. And so they – Alice Kask and Neeme Külm – match their perceptions of life and sleep and death. What they talk about amongst each other remains a secret, because “what is said under the rose stays under the rose.”[22]

[1] Kunst on päris. Intervjuu Neeme Külmaga. http://ingridruudi.ee/kriitika-ja-esseed/kunst-on-paris-intervjuu-neeme-kulmaga
[2] Valge Kuup. 2 November 2021. https://www.facebook.com/valgekuup/posts/190011186020656
[3] I don’t want anyone to feel bad, but I want to provoke discomfort. Discomfort is something I recognise right away, both in myself and in others. And I’m not afraid to use the means for this discomfort. – Kunst on päris. Intervjuu Neeme Külmaga. http://ingridruudi.ee/kriitika-ja-esseed/kunst-on-paris-intervjuu-neeme-kulmaga
[4] Külm told me in one of his interviews that his creative process, at least its starting point, is like “suddenly hitting and hurting one’s leg”. This is followed by rationalisation, purification and considering the technical solutions. – Hanno Soans. On Neeme Külm’s Main Obsession (9.8 m/s²), or in the Grip of the Deceptiveness of Gravity. Kunst.ee 4/2017.
[5] Taavi Talve. Solitude of Space. Kunst.ee 1/2013.
[6] Ingrid Ruudi. Jalutuskäik galeriides: Libisev ruum. Sirp 20.12.2012.
[7] Kunst on päris. Intervjuu Neeme Külmaga. http://ingridruudi.ee/kriitika-ja-esseed/kunst-on-paris-intervjuu-neeme-kulmaga
[8] From Tamara Luuk’s conversation with Neeme Külm before the installation of the exhibition.
[9] Kunst on päris. Intervjuu Neeme Külmaga. http://ingridruudi.ee/kriitika-ja-esseed/kunst-on-paris-intervjuu-neeme-kulmaga
[10] From Tamara Luuk’s conversation with Neeme Külm before the installation of the exhibition.
[11] Kunst on päris. Intervjuu Neeme Külmaga. http://ingridruudi.ee/kriitika-ja-esseed/kunst-on-paris-intervjuu-neeme-kulmaga
[12] From Tamara Luuk’s conversation with Neeme Külm before the installation of the exhibition.
[13] Johannes Saar gives a brilliant overview of Neeme Külm’s work until 2011. https://vana.cca.ee/webarchive/kylm/bio.htm.
[14] See exhibitions of 2010: http://galerii.eaa.ee/draakon/eindex.htm
[15] Johannes Saar describes Neeme Külm’s action that took place on Swansea Town Square. https://vana.cca.ee/webarchive/kylm/bio.htm
[16] In 1970, publishing house Perioodika published Dylan Thomas’ play for voices, Under the Milk Wood, as part of the book series Loomingu Raamatukogu, translated into Estonian by Paul-Eerik Rummo. Neeme Külm is not the only Estonian artist who has been influenced by Thomas’ texts. Inspired by Dylan Thomas’ poetry, Jüri Kaarma completed an impressive series of charcoal drawings, Deaths and Entrances in 1979 (see Märt Väljataga’s article in Vikerkaar 3/2011). The series was also displayed at the exhibition dedicated to Kaarma in Kumu in 2012, The Black Horse and Other Drawings.
[17] Writing about Shimmer On the Surface, probably the most enigmatic of Neeme Külm’s exhibitions, both Ingrid Ruudi and Hanno Soans have discussed the possibility of psychoanalysis. Ingrid Ruudi: “There are still so many meanings to be read into this exhibition. There is a kind of redundancy, an abundance of symbolic interpretations here too. The basement symbolises subconscious anyway; according to Jung’s concept, water too is a symbol of the subconscious. Your reflection on the water surface means becoming yourself. When your reflection is made impossible, is it impossible for you to face yourself? However, if I had to say a single word, it would be “beguiling” – come, come …” – See: Kunst on päris. Intervjuu Neeme Külmaga. http://ingridruudi.ee/kriitika-ja-esseed/kunst-on-paris-intervjuu-neeme-kulmaga; and Hanno Soans: “The pinnacle of the strength of Neeme Külm’s creative work is achieved when the artist has successfully synthesised the tragic note that is inherent to him with the technical skill of allowing the viewer to participate in it physically. Here is the crossing point of psychoanalytical discourse and the spatial shifting – creative strategies that are normally located a million miles from each other.” – Hanno Soans. On Neeme Külm’s Main Obsession (9.8 m/s²), or in the Grip of the Deceptiveness of Gravity. Kunst.ee 4/2017.
[18] From Tamara Luuk’s conversation with Alice Kask. November 2021.
[19] Ida. Seinast seina tapeediks. Vitamiin K. Külas Madli Ehasalu ja Neeme Külm. 28.10.2019 https://idaidaida.net/et/saated/vitamiink
[20] From Tamara Luuk’s conversation with Neeme Külm before the installation of the exhibition.
[21] Ibid.
[22] See rose as a symbol of discretion and silence in early Christianity. Sub rosa (Latin for “under the rose”) denotes secrecy or confidentiality, meaning that conversations “under the rose” are meant to be secret or confidential.