Kaarel Kurismaa (1939) is one of the founders of Estonian sound and kinetic art. In his artworks Kurismaa brings together movement, light, sound and form, both in monumental and smaller objects.
His original approach and artistic expression were recognised early in his career – he was involved in two pioneering avant-garde group exhibitions in Estonia, “SOUP ’69” and “Harku ’75”. Kurismaa’s early art machines reused examples of Soviet industrial design by factories such as Salvo, Estoplast and Norma. One of his best known works, the three giant megaphone sculpture titled “Dripping Sounds” (1975, Art Museum of Estonia) is inspired by the round forms of industrial design of the 1960s and images of mass culture, which can be seen as a reference to pop culture. Kurismaa uses seemingly simple imagery, constructing streamlined pulsating and sound-emitting kinetic devices from found objects. His bright-coloured works often feature mythological creatures, like “Leprechaun” (1974), “Dwarf Altar” (1973) and “Amor Column” (1973).
Since it was not easy to participate in official art exhibitions in the Soviet Union, Kurismaa looked for an alternative creative outlet and joined the prog-rock group Mess, performing in 1975 and 1976 at the assembly hall of the Tallinn Polytechnic Institute.
After the 1970s wave of avant-garde receded, Kurismaa worked as a film director at studios Eesti Joonisfilm and Nukufilm, painted, and created notable public sculptures. Of the latter, “Kinetic Object” for restaurant Gloria (1987), the stained glass series “Rhythm of Light” for Paide Cultural Centre and “Tallinn Tram Object” (1993) have survived to this day. However, many of his well-known works have perished, among them “Kinetic Object” (1980, with Härmo Härm and Rait Prääts, dismantled 2002) at the Tallinn Post Office, “Object” (1981, removed 2000) for the electrical company Põhja Kõrgepingevõrgud, “Column of Light” (1986) near the entrance of Tabasalu Secondary School.
In the 1990s Kurismaa’s work went through a transformation – his interest pivoted from bright coloured Pop Art objects to more technical sound installations. Examples of his use of a contemporary artistic language include the 1997 installations “Intermezzo” (Art Museum of Estonia), “Drizzle” and “Alma’s Railway/Underground Railway” that were presented at the NYYD Festival the same year (artistic director Erkki-Sven Tüür). The works of this era create significant spatial interventions and combine several sources of sound into a whole.
In the beginning of the 2000s Kurismaa found new inspiration within the experimental project “metabor” together with Kiwa, Martiini, Andres Lõo and other artists, focusing on creating adventurous soundscapes in post-industrial environments. Members of “metabor” and their ideas have been captured in the short documentary “Boreaalsolaarium” (2005, director Priit Pääsuke).
To celebrate Kurismaa’s 80th birthday an extensive retrospective “Yellow Light Orchestra” took place at Kumu Art Museum and a solo show “The Old Man and the Musical Score” at the Temnikova & Kasela gallery (both 2019), the latter exhibiting Kurismaa’s less-known collages and paintings. The same year Kurismaa’s kinetic sculpture “Steam Express and Halts” (1993/2010) was shown at Art Basel by the Temnikova & Kasela gallery.
Kaarel Kurismaa studied painting (1966–1971) at the Estonian State Art Institute. Kurismaa has received the Kristjan Raud Prize (1996), the Annual Award of Cultural Endowment of Estonia for visual and applied arts (1995, 1997) and the Lifetime Achievement Award of Cultural Endowment of Estonia (2019). His works belong to the collections of Tartu Art Museum, the Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn Art Hall, Zimmerli Art Museum as well as private collections.