A tale of two capitals of culture: Tallinn and Turku

| December 2, 2010 | 0 Comments
Old Tallinn in its entirety was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1997.

Old Tallinn in its entirety was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1997.

“What role can singing play when a nation is faced with annihilation by its neighbours? Can culture hold a people together?”
So asks The Singing Revolution, a documentary film made in 2006 by James and Maureen Trusty about how the tiny nation of Estonia ultimately sang itself free. To get to the essence of Estonia, a traveller is continually told, you must understand the importance of the song festival.
The tradition dates back to 1869 and today, with crowds of more than 150,000 (that’s more than a 10th of the country’s entire population) in attendance, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage tradition. The song festival had what was perhaps its most auspicious moments in 1988 when a mass night-singing demonstration of some 300,000 people, many waving Estonia’s then-forbidden black, blue and white flag, took place at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds. It was one of the first manifestations of Estonia’s eventual independence from the Soviet Union.
These festivals had been allowed to continue after the Soviet occupation began in 1940, albeit with prescribed song lists. But in 1969, after the official program was over, the 25,000 assembled singers started singing the outlawed unofficial Estonian anthem My Native Land Is My Love. They cried out for a conductor while the song’s composer, Gustav Ernesaks, sat and waited, not daring to go. Eventually though, the crowd got to him and he succumbed.
“Everyone was crying when he went up to conduct,” says Kaie Tanner, secretary of the Estonian Choral Association, which organizes the festivals. “Now, everyone just instinctively stands when this song is sung.”
Estonians — whose tiny nation has only 1.4 million inhabitants — have always embraced culture, partly as a matter of survival. “We have such a small number of people that we really feel we have to keep the culture,” Tanner explains. “One of our most popular folk dances is called ‘kaera-jaan.’ We know if we don’t dance flamenco, nothing happens; but if we don’t dance kaera-jaan, the dance just disappears from the world.”
So Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, was a natural choice for Europe’s 2011 “Capital of Culture” designation, a distinction it shares with Finland’s city of Turku. Though the Soviets outlawed Estonian and didn’t teach it in schools, and Russian was a major second language in the country, Estonians managed to keep their language alive, speaking it only at home, on the sly.
But the cultural embrace is not merely about language. The country has 224 museums, which together report two million visits per year and 566 public libraries, with six million visits. Its 26 theatres attract 983,000 visitors per year for live drama, an enthusiasm second only to Iceland’s on a worldwide scale.

The KUMU art gallery, named best museum in Europe in 2008 by the Europe Museum Forum.

The KUMU art gallery, named best museum in Europe in 2008 by the Europe Museum Forum.

Tallinn is home to the KUMU, an ultra-modern building that houses the country’s visual art treasures and was named “best museum in Europe” by the European Museum Forum in 2008.
But, in fact, the whole city centre is a museum. Upper town, which stands majestically atop a limestone cliff, is the crown jewel of Old Tallinn, all of which was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. Upper Town was Estonia’s ancient stronghold before it became the home of aristocrats, lording over the Lower Town ring below. Also sitting atop this hill, across from the seat of Parliament where many of the non-violent protests took place in the 1980s, is a Russian Orthodox church, one of many structures — some more striking than others — that serve as reminders of the Soviet occupation.
Buildings in both the upper and lower towns provide a history lesson in architecture, with examples of Renaissance, Baroque, and Medieval architecture standing side by side on one street.
“In a stretch less than 100 metres long, you can see all the main styles of architecture in Europe,” Tallinn tour guide Rita Moll says with the pride all Estonians show when they talk about their country and their culture.

The town square in Old Tallinn has been a gathering place for centuries.

The town square in Old Tallinn has been a gathering place for centuries.

And that culture is everywhere. During one week in November, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir performed at a 13th-Century church, jazz singer Helin-Mari Arder sang with a trio at the Estonia National Opera’s cabaret lounge and Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus was performed at the National Opera. The same week, audiences could choose from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Verdi’s La Traviata or Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte in the same venue.
The contemporary art scene — both visual and performance — is no less vibrant and that’s what will be showcased during Tallinn 2011, a feast of art and culture in all forms, packaged under a “Stories from the Seaside” theme. Program director Jaanus Rohumaa intends to transform the waterfront of the city, which opens up into the Baltic Sea’s Gulf of Finland, on the northwest tip of the country. During Soviet times, it was completely closed and the waterfront remained largely undeveloped, with the lone exception of the terminal of the Helsinki-Tallinn ferry, until this year when Tallinn 2011 decided to develop it.
Tallinn 2011 is a year-long celebration, with a program that came together only after extensive polls of Estonia’s citizens who proposed grassroots projects such as building birdhouses to install all over the city. It will also feature plenty of independent artists.
“During Soviet times, all art was institutional,” explains Mr. Rohumaa. “It was impossible to make something free.” While there were underground movements, including a thriving punk scene in the ’80s, there was little exposure for independently created art, and now the city is bursting with it. Mr. Rohumaa compares it to the art explosions of the ’60s in London’s Soho and New York’s Greenwich Village.
Iiris Vesik, a 19-year-old pop sensation who’s been likened to Britain’s Kate Bush, is on the leading edge of the explosion. She’ll perform as part of the event’s Tallinn Music Week which takes place the last week in March (for three days only in spite of the name) and will feature some 65 Estonian bands, performing all over the old town.
“Our goal is that in five years’ time, if I’m talking to someone in the U.K., U.S. or Canada, they would be able to name a couple of Estonian acts,” says music week director Helen Sildna.
For her part, Iiris has been performing her music — described as a “secret dimension where pop, rock, innovation synthesizers, classical piano, electronic soundscapes, catchy melodies, random madness, senseless beauty, zombies, cats and unicorns all become one” — all over Europe, as an ambassador for Tallinn 2011.

Sweden’s King Eric XIV, who was declared mad by his brother, was imprisoned in Turku Castle the late 16th Century.

Sweden’s King Eric XIV, who was declared mad by his brother, was imprisoned in Turku Castle the late 16th Century.

Meanwhile, a contemporary theatre company, which once staged a stunt that drew 7,000 people to hear the views of a new, and unbeknownst to them, fictional political party, is building a straw-bale stage — part art installation, part performance space. It will house shows in the city centre from May until September and then be taken apart.
“We are interested in art that is contemporary,” says Tiit Ojasoo, artistic director of NO99 Theatre, who will be building the straw bale stage with his colleagues. “Things that speak about today, have a message, or are interesting to look at.”
Other highlights include Eksperimenta, a huge art project where students from all over the world — from Canada to Russia, the United States to Brazil — are invited to contribute works. It takes place at the Song Festival grounds from April 26 through June 14.
While Tallinn is the toast of Europe in terms of culture this year, there’s little doubt the country’s longstanding embrace of the arts was the foundation for Tallinn 2011, and even less doubt that it will flourish long after the EU’s designation moves on to the next city.

On the streets of Turku
Across the strait — an easy ferry ride from Tallinn to Helsinki and a pleasant three-hour train ride — culture seekers will find Turku, Finland’s oldest city.
Turku has a distinctly European feel, but with something slightly different about it. It takes some time to pin down exactly what. But then you find out there was a great fire in 1827. Within eight hours, 2,500 buildings were destroyed and, most of its 13,000 inhabitants were left homeless. Turku’s beloved “dome cathedral,” built in 1300 on a hill near the bend in the Aura River that divides the city, was damaged. Iron gates melted, though its brick and stone walls stayed intact.
After the fire, the city was rebuilt, this time with considerably wider streets than most of its European counterparts. And that is the difference.
But if narrow cobblestone streets are absent, culture most definitely is not. There’s public art on what seems like every corner. Look down as you cross a relatively new footbridge and you’ll see an ornate design carved into the cement by Jan-Erik Andersson. The public library is so replete with art you’re almost tripping over it (the children’s area has whimsical installations built into the floor and sealed with Plexiglass). The chimney stack of a local factory has a line of neon, red numbers. It’s a mathematical puzzle (two numbers add up to the next in every case) and it was created by artist Mario Merz, ostensibly to guide ships to the port.
The Aura River, the Baltic Sea next to which Turku sits, and the neighbouring archipelago of 20,000 islands, clearly inspire the locals. The many foreign artists who come to visit succumb to Turku’s charms, and stay on.
Likewise, Turku 2011 will attract thousands of tourists from all over Europe, and, indeed, the world. When Helsinki had the title in 2000, its tourism numbers jumped by 20 per cent. Turku modestly projects a rise of 15 percent which would mean 100,000 new hotel stays and a million visitors over the course of the year. It’s a heady prospect for a city of fewer than 200,000 people.
Among those people, characters abound. Perhaps most notable for his charm, brilliance and utter kookiness, is architectural artist Jan-Erik Andersson, whose home is one big art project — and his PhD thesis. Entitled Life on a Leaf, its footprint is shaped like a leaf. The three-storey structure, painted French’s-mustard yellow, has a ribbon of shapes around its upper half — evergreen trees, blue shovels and red hearts — while the windows are formed to look like lips, diamonds and teardrops. His idea was to explore the relationship between art and architecture. Can one live in a sculpture, he asks?
Indeed one can. Inside, the floor plan is designed to evoke a meandering walk through the woods. Right angles are almost completely absent and every room has contributions from Andersson’s international friends. Karin Andersen created a PhotoShopped design on the kitchen counter, with images of her as a mad chef, with pig’s ears and a pig’s tail. She’s wielding tubes of mustard. Eggs, some whole, some cracked, are all over the counter, which Andersson says can be disconcerting when you’re trying to cook breakfast.
The living room features some 20 ceiling lamps he’s collected around the world. Its heart-shaped window faces across the water to Turku Castle. Sweden’s King Eric XIV, who was declared mad by his brother, was imprisoned in a south-facing room there in the late 16th Century, and was said to look out the window toward the land where the yellow house now stands, because his wife Catherine was living there at the time. The heart symbolizes their painful separation.
The bathroom is a mosaic of tiles with contributions from his son (a boy with a water gun), himself (a ship like the one on which his father sailed) and his wife, the minimalist (stylized birch trees). On the third storey, which is Andersson’s “blue bell” work space, New York artist Pierre St. Jacques has installed, in the floor, a video of people hurrying around Grand Central Station like ants. His longtime collaborator Shawn Decker, a Chicago professor and audio artist, created an installation near a bridge that leads to the master bedroom. His sounds mimic the sounds of nature and change according to outside temperatures.
The house, which will be tour-able during some period of Turku 2011, has a garlic-shaped structure on the lawn outside. Entitled SaunaLab, this is an Andersson-Decker contribution to the event. It will be placed somewhere downtown along with four other artist-created saunas, and will be open to the public. This one, made of bright yellow fiberglass, will feature the sounds of Mr. Decker. As the sauna heats up, the sounds become more intense. The sauna is, of course, one of Finland’s greatest exports.
But that’s not all Turku has in store for visitors. Indeed a 154-page book describes everything — and be prepared for variety — on offer. For the opening ceremonies, the former rail yard is being remade into a cultural centre. It will include a café, designed by artist Tobias Rehberger; a year-long soccer exhibit; a major exhibtion on the 1827 fire; an up-scale restaurant and a 3,000-seat theatre.
A project called Turku 365 will see performance art happen every day of the year. It might be a flash mob singing Hallelujah choruses in Turku’s market square, a pensioner’s knitted graffiti taking over the suburbs, a ballet performed by street-sweeping machines, or a lullaby by a choir on a late-night train.
Huts erected around the city will allow people to get warm by a fire and enjoy a bit of silent reflection. There will be night-time outdoor theatre and animation to light up the main library’s courtyard walls. When spring comes, two environmental artists will spell out encouraging messages in city parks using flowering bulbs. Cirque du Soleil performers will join international colleagues under a tent for Cirque Dracula in a city park from June to August.
The quirkiest item in this feast of culture? Accordion wrestling, at once a tribute to Finland’s most successful Olympic sport, and a tongue-in-cheek theatre performance. Well-known contemporary accordion player Kimmo Pohjonen has composed music as accompaniment for Finland’s finest wrestlers doing their thing.
There’s lots more than we could cover at www.tallinn2011.ee and www.turku2011.fi.

Jennifer Campbell is Diplomat’s editor.

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