Kadri Mälk and her inevitable imperative

Article  /  BehindTheScenes   Artists   KadriMälk
Published: 28.01.2010
Kadri Mälk and her inevitable imperative.
Peeter Laurits
Edited by:
Eesti Ekspress Areen
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(...) I have never understood why conceptualism is so often confused with communal propaganda in Estonian art. In Just Must, the conceptualization has been put in place very exactingly, and is zestfully well-tempered, it doesn’t do anything ostentatious but it certainly is dramatic. (...)
Almost nothing happens in the Joris-Karl Huysmans novel À rebours (Against Nature). Instead of a plot, there are shaggy-dog discussions about taste, ideas, the shades of black and a garden of poisonous flowers. The entire novel is like the catalogue of the inner world of Des Esseintes, the embodiment of decadence, eclecticism and escapism, and it is never boring in his company. Oscar Wilde claimed that À Rebours was the book that graced all of Dorian Gray’s bookshelves, bound in different colours of leather. For his birthday party, Des Esseintes arranged for the ponds in his park to be filled with India ink, for the footpaths to be paved with coal dust, and for naked Africans to serve black foods and beverages.

Kadri Mälk, the First Lady of Estonian jewellery, has managed to outdo Des Esseintes at her own grande fête. By the sheer global scale of her reach, to say nothing of the level of refinement and flourishes. The exhibition JUST MUST was opened at the History Museum located in the Great Guild House on Pikk tänav in the Old Town of Tallinn. It is a discerning selection of black jewellery – black in colour or in dark in some other manner – by the world’s top names in jewellery art, all served up with brazen graciousness. Des Esseintes would go grey with envy. As fond of sports metaphors as our culture is, let’s say that Estonia is currently hosting the Olympics of jewellery art.
Exhibition designer Taso Mähar has created a very compelling visual spread. About 90 works by 59 artists from 18 countries are positioned in a space so that each one of them can have a private audience with its beholder, very intimately: at the same time everything seems immensely grand. The subtle intellect of curator Kadri Mälk can be sensed everywhere. I have never understood why conceptualism is so often confused with communal propaganda in Estonian art. In Just Must, the conceptualization has been put in place very exactingly, and is zestfully well-tempered, it doesn’t do anything ostentatious but it certainly is dramatic. The Mälk school of jewellery has always been very theatrical, containing stories, gestures and masks. She has created a strong tradition, fully one-quarter of the exhibitors are her ex-students and most are in no way fall short of the artists from abroad. It does not often happen that a small country can hold its own so well with so many works in such major-league company. Estonian jewellery art is of a very high class, just as is a large part of our culture – the culture that is so ruthlessly buffeted around by current policy.

The Aadam Kaarma-designed JUST MUST book is a sight unto itself, and interlocks perfectly with the spirit of the exhibition. Covering the pages with black iron filings or stardust is enrapturing, although I would have liked to have seen shades and gradations in the dross instead of solid black. Invitations printed in raised lettering on black paper, black embroidered handkerchief – everything is in its right place.

JUST MUST plays on the razor’s edge between hope and desperation, and it does so with flash and filigree. It also has gravitas and a sense of pride. A number of works were produced by top artists specially for this exhibition, and the event was planned and refined for years. Truth be told, this was already in the air seven years ago, during Nocturnus, an exhibition held in 2001. For three days – or rather, nights – a critical mass of dedicated artists arrived at Pädaste manor from around the world, there was electricity in the air and the action only happened at night. The theme on the first night was “fragile”, “rough” was the second and the third, “balcony”; and all of the exhibitions, conversation circles, concerts and banquets diverged from these three symbols. This was the most inspirational colloquium I have had the fortune to attend and I think it was there that Just Must started germinating.

Kadri Mälk is, in one breath, incredibly fragile and stronger than steel, just like a small Björk or a Big My, if the Moomintroll character had a larger relation. It is astonishing how she finds energy and the indefatigable will for her large-scale endeavours while remaining light and witty, almost as if she were skating. Naturally there is some brilliant teamwork behind it all as well. Tanel Veenre, Piret Hirv, Taso Mähar, Aadam Kaarma and many other participants are undisputed masters, each with his or her own distinctive flair and a compelling persona, yet all are able to bend in the name of a common idea and selfless cooperation.

An intimation of this cooperation and devotion can be found in the title of the exhibition. “JUST MUST” can be read in both Estonian and English – in Estonian it’s “black and none other” but in English, the sense is that “it will happen”, serving exhibition-goers an important imperative. An inevitable imperative, not a categorical one, and this appears to be a veritable birthright for Kadri and her kindred spirits. Noblesse oblige.

Photo by Leelo Laurits
Translated by Kristopher Rikken

Peeter Laurits (1962), freelance artist and essayist, over the last couple of years he has repeatedly exhibited photographic projects dealing with the relations between human civilisation and nature.