Text: Kaarin Kivirähk

The artist Erki Kasemets does just that by using old milk- and juice cartons, buttons, matchboxes and beer cans – in other words, everything someone else might consider rubbish.

Erki Kasemets is a modest person who seems to like tinkering about and whose thoughts often follow unexpected paths and contain a good amount of absurd humour. He says he became an artist because he failed the high school exams of his maths and physics-biased class. He therefore tried to get into art class, which worked out thanks to a teacher who knew him. ‘My still life definitely ranked last,’ he says regretfully. Yet Kasemets was no ordinary school pupil. As early as the seventh grade, he developed the board game “Trip to the Animal Kingdom”, which was marketed in stores all over Estonia in the 1980s. One can only imagine the thoroughness with which he created the game.

Born in 1969, Erki Kasemets belongs to the generation that spent one part of their life in the Soviet society and the other in independent Estonia. The transition era of the 1990s brought huge changes and the arrival of consumerism. Hence Kasemets, who graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA) is an Estonian higher education institution. in 1996, made the decision to start preserving temporal and cultural changes via different packaging. For example, he began collecting material for his work “Life File”, which consists of a thousand Tetra Paks (mostly milk cartons), about thirty years ago. There are diary entries on some of the cartons, dates on others. That is how this recollection of the past materialised.

Installations of milk cartons have become the artistic brand of Kasemets just like the Campbell soup cans of Andy Warhol or balloon animals of Jeff Koons. The Estonian arts- and theatre critic Meelis Oidsalu has said that the milk carton monuments by Kasemets capture you with their

simultaneously epic and temporal quality. They are monumental and commonplace at the same time. After all, a milk carton is something we all have in our fridges. But how many people recall their daily coffees, not to mention the milk cartons they have used? Seeing thousands and thousands of empty cartons at the exhibition may feel quite existential. As everyday items, they sketch a person’s life story.

The last big personal exhibition of Kasemets, entitled “Crazy Days”, took place in 2013 and referred to the sales campaign of the Stockmann department store in Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). . But the exhibition itself was in no way “marked down”. The artist comments that it reflected the craziness of his art. ‘The exhibition is made up of tens of thousands of parts,’ said Kasemets. The first milk carton, which he repainted ages ago, became an insignificant dot in a giant installation. ‘Many small and simple normal things can create a totally crazy feeling together,’ said the artist.

In his work “American Blend“, Kasemets has built a map of the USA from old cigarette packages where towns are represented by cigarette brands of the same name. He has used empty cigarette packages in other compositions as well. Often the artist uses old packaging as modules with which one could limitlessly build new and endless systems. At the same time, such systems come to resemble a portrait of an era. Societal agreements influence our daily lives, but often we cannot pinpoint them. Used cigarette packages seem to symbolise such invisible rules. Back in the day, a cigarette package was a glamorous status symbol; people used to smoke in offices and on airplanes. Today, cigarette packages carry scary warning signs about the dangers of smoking; in twenty years a cigarette package could become tangible history.

Having studied scenography and later taught the subject at the Estonian Academy of Arts Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA) is an Estonian higher education institution. , theatre plays an important role in Kasemets’ work. Isn’t theatre, too, a disappearing art form that still captures a specific moment in our lives? Under the project name Polygon Theatre, Kasemets organised various grand theatre performances in which the audience becomes a participant at the all-encompassing environment. The artist’s friend, author Valdur Mikita, has said that there are not many contemporary artists like Kasemets in Estonia who have been blessed with such great directing talent. Mikita claims that Kasemets’ theatre performances bring contemporary art closer to people, making it more accessible as they literally come to the people on the street.

In fact, milk cartons are not the only things Kasemets has collected and turned into art during his life. As early as 1989, Kasemets began to sew buttons onto a costume: today it holds more than 20,000 of them. By now the jacket and trousers are so heavy that it is not difficult to imagine all those past years, the weight of which makes the clothes sigh. People often recall important events (like school graduations or weddings) by the clothes they wore. With his work “Button Costume”, Kasemets has created a collection of memories wherein each button resembles a past day in his life. All buttons have been registered in written form making it possible to check which button has been sewn where. The artist only wears the amazing costume on very special days.

These days, Kasemets’ thorough and long-lasting art projects could be linked to recycling and “slow” art. What is the artist’s take on that? As Kasemets started out in late 1980s, people were not so aware of their ecological footprints and the need to recycle. But recycling and climate problems have become increasingly important for the artist throughout the years, and though he does not see them as the main focus of his art, giving new life to rubbish is an important statement in his work. He does ask, however, whether his activities could be damaging from the point of view of recycling as he takes the jars and cartons meant for recycling into his own use.

Arts critic Andreas Trossek has characterised Erki Kasemets as a collector who collects time and information and creates unique systems out of them. But how can one collect and touch time? When Kasemets takes a milk carton and starts to repaint it, he has proof of a time and space that existed some time ago and this proof will also exist twenty years later. Trossek likes the idea of Kasemets as an artist who will one day create a large house museum where he will present all his systems, milk cartons, bread bag holders, clothes with buttons. Whilst we are waiting the opening of such a museum, Kasemets is preparing for his next exhibition which will take place next year in Gallery Draakon, in the Old Town of Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). . If you have time, be sure to stop by!

The article was published first in Life in Estonia.

Edited for web by eesti.life.