Ene-Liis Semper – clearly, it is too early to write summaries about her body of work. Especially at a time when Semper, having until now concurrently worked as a video artist, as well as a performance and theatre artist, seems to have more opportunities and desire than ever before to unite those different extremes (1). But perhaps there is good reason to examine some of the strategies through which Semper’s work, especially her videos, have gained a rather uncommon position in Estonian art in a relatively short period, and even attracted international attention. In the Estonian context, this means almost unanimous acknowledgement, drawing together audiences from rather different backgrounds. The international attention indicates a comprehension, or at least an appeal, that does not require much knowledge of the context.
Undoubtedly, there is a certain universal quality to Semper’s works. She deals with issues that in one way or another concern us all, and usually we do not have to make much effort to achieve that initial contact and find the common elements. Her central images and narratives offer us the joy of recognition (like in that movie, in a memory, a fantasy, or a dream), expectation (what's next? who's behind that door?), shock (how painful! how horrible!) or just pure visual pleasure (beautiful landscapes, pretty girls). But when we take a step further, after that initial recognition, our interpretations and emotions probably move in very different directions. Semper’s works have an allure and generate an impulse, and then they mostly leave the audience behind. Having fallen into the trap of shallow seduction through pictures and narratives, the viewer finds him or herself in a situation where what is somehow promised, does not materialize. None of the stories end as we expect judging from the first scenes. In fact, these stories often do not end at all. The romantic heroine fails to commit suicide. There is no sign of the new home one is headed towards. The sleeping man does not wake up. The door closes before we can see who is behind it. The tension remains and it seems that the attractiveness of Semper’s works is partly based on that contradiction with the initial (and most convenient) expectation. The viewer must tune in, adjust his or her expectations and presumptions, or accept some discomfort and disturbance. What happened? How was it again?
Semper’s works nearly always contain some kind of two-sidedness, an ambiguity. Viewing them, you might laugh or cry; they could be viewed as nightmare scenarios or parodies. And though you can never be sure which way of looking at them is correct, you cannot fully exclude one or the other. When interpreting the motifs and themes in her work, you can become completely lost in the jungle of possible meanings and intertwining threads. Still, it seems that weighing Semper’s work down with ambitious and melancholic interpretations only disrupts its considerable lightness. On the other hand, of course, we can enjoy the spectacle, the performative effect, but over-emphasizing them tends to downplay the idea and essence for which these spectacles were put together in the first place, and what they conceal. Certainly, Semper does not deal (at least not essentially) with contrasting surface with depth, or with shattering illusions, although she sometimes does employ the language of visual ‘fast food’. Rather, it seems that she is trying to find the authentic, the actual and the real. In addition to the most primary conditions, pressures and anxieties of conflict, the ‘real’ also inevitably contains an awareness of all the clichés that have been used over time to express those pressures, as well as an awareness of yourself trying to do it once again. But playing with this potential, or even probable failure never goes too far. It never becomes resignation from the beginning. Another important element in Semper’s work is the meticulously measured perceptual balance between the serious and the side-glance. It provides the viewer a tempting, though perhaps painful, opportunity of identifying with the seen, and it simultaneously satisfies his or her wish to maintain a safe distance or control over the situation.
Although Semper’s works often deal with the deeper levels of an experience, or its archetypical conditions, they are still stagings. Their effect does not result from the emotional experiences of the video’s (or performance’s) leading character (mostly the artist herself) in front of the audience, nor from opening herself up, so that the viewer could sympathize with her. Rather, it results from finding or indicating a perfect visual equivalent for some conditions, and from giving a believable performance of some action or gesture. In spite of the artist’s constant presence, her person and self are reduced, covered and generalized. Repeating the same activity, forwarding and rewinding it, in addition to the multiplicity of images, among which we cannot distinguish original from copy, further amplifies the sense of theatricality. (When a theatre show is performed several times, none of the performances is more ‘original’ than the others.) The motif of repetition appears most powerfully in the breakthrough-piece, FF/REW (1998), where it is also considered most meaningful. Against the music of Beethoven, a girl in white, personified by the artist herself, shoots herself dead. Then the tape is rewound and the girl hangs herself. The tape is rewind again and everything repeats tens of times. Presenting that one single motif over and over again intensifies it; as if she is trying to squeeze all the meanings out of it and make you notice even the tiniest nuances. On the other hand, watching the event repeatedly and sympathizing with it robs each gunshot and jerk on the rope its seriousness, its status as real. The video piece Seven (2002) shows seven identical and slightly embarrassed Ene-Liises. They do nothing except one after another step forward before the viewer, stand there for a moment and then leave. No event or message follows indicating why they even appeared on stage. What is left is a kind of performance in itself, without any obvious program.
A dissection of the performer and its role, an alienation, is also manifested in the video piece Fundamental (1997), where the drunken artist reads out key texts from the history of world culture: the Bible, Bhagavadgītā and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The relationship between the words and their speaker is somewhat similar to that between the action and its performer in several of her other works: both are present—the speaker as well as the text, and the actress as well as the role—but they are torn apart. Using her own body as a subject is seen as a quest for some kind of actuality, where the combination of immediacy and theatricality is what makes ‘the presence of reality’ more complex and powerful (2). A couple of works where animals have been used introduce another interesting facet to the issue of presence. In the video installation Natural Law (1998), we see the artist on one screen with some puppies ‘stolen’ from their mother, and on a second screen, the crying mother dog; in the video piece Endspiel (1998), an eel is wriggling in the agony of death. Next to Semper’s ‘frozen psychodramas’ (3), the presence of an animal that has been pushed to the edge physically or emotionally—utterly in the moment and driven by a single instinct—has an especially intensive effect (and seems equally hard to attain) for a person who is obsessed with self-consciousness, memory and culture.
Expressly staged and excessively symbolic works also form a part of Semper’s repertoire––in addition to the video piece FF/REW, there is Come! (1998; the artist in flowing white robes runs in a dimly lit tunnel inviting the viewer towards the unknown), Untitled (2000; an emotional story about passing to the beyond, expressed using the negative) and others. The video Beautiful (2006), which shows the artist dressed in a white costume being shot at after having meticulously tried out different poses and positions, seems like a kind of obituary to the earlier tormented protagonists; or to put it more eloquently, a liberation. A different kind of alternative to these staged works is created by pieces dealing with the same issue of presence and authenticity, but in a different way––the artist’s body is placed in uncomfortable and sometimes even almost extreme situations, as if to make it seek unity with the psyche (4). Danger, or a state of alarm, threatens to mobilize, to converge on a single spot in time and space, or to become a whole. But even these ‘experiments with the self’ seem to be accompanied by a certain arrogant carelessness––the familiar feeling from the hanging and shooting scene that whatever happens, the tape can always be rewound. In the video piece Red Line (2002), the artist, hung up by her feet, dangles like a pendulum from one side of the red line to the other. In Holy Union (1999), a performance commissioned by the Bank of Estonia, reflecting ties between the euro and the Estonian kroon, Semper and the artist Kiwa, also hung up by their feet, were dipped into a container of paint and then into shredded money. In such works, performed in real life and including real danger, the viewer can still never be absolutely certain that s/he is the one controlling the situation, and whether s/he can sympathize with the artist who is in a forced state. Similarly, the artist plays with the audience’s reactions (oh my God, maybe she’ll fall!)––shock, a little excitement and humour. In these works too, the real borderline situation and the oppression, combined with its intentional sense of exposure, serves as a challenge to the audience––this was what you expected, wasn’t it?
Going feet first up stairs on your back is also physically uncomfortable, as in the video piece Stairs (2000). But, it matches scenes played backwards or in negative in several other works. Besides corporeality, it is the space here that becomes expressive as another important category for dealing with presence. That category is equally important in Semper’s work. The influence of Stairs arises from the conflict of body and space. Their disturbed relationship is what causes discomfort, like the space that is misplaced, or the body acting against accepted norms. If we look at Semper’s works in chronological order, space in a sense seems to become larger and more clearly defined, but at the same time more comprehensive and significant. In an early video, Untitled (1996), the artist is compressed into a narrow fish tank; in Into New Home (2000), the main character (with a small rat in her hands) is driving with an extensive landscape in the background. In the site-specific video installation Large Hall (2002), Semper confines herself to one of the most prestigious spaces in the Estonian art world, the main room at the Tallinn Art Hall. In parallel with the expansion of space and the growth of its significance, Semper’s work becomes more peaceful and meditative. Nevertheless, space is never alone or empty or perfect by itself. Rather, it becomes significant through accentuating or hiding something, as a place to exist or do something. In the video installation Licked Room (2000), the artist is cleaning a room, that the viewer can enter, and which is covered with white panels, with her tongue. On the one hand, licking (thinking of animals, for example) seems to be a patronizing action that emphasizes the owner’s right. On the other hand, it seems a rather humiliating action, like a ritual celebration of the audience’s expectations. Here we can clearly see the problematic relationship between body and space that is often based on conflict in Semper’s works. At the same time, we can see the polarity of artist and viewer, generated by her works. In exposing, humiliating, and endangering herself, the artist mostly keeps a cool distance, and the audience can never really understand whether she is a heroine, a victim or a skilful player. That moment of confusion is what alerts and attracts attention.
The different poles in Ene-Liis Semper’s works are what have been emphasized and seen as central: violence and theatricality, corporeality and searching for the real, touching the borders of the psychological as well as the physical space. The level of concentration in her works makes it possible to view almost every one of these elements as a key element, as something most important that provides an additional dimension and creates a background for the other elements. In addition to the works mentioned above, we could also see other works as showing a similar convergence; for example, the video installation Oasis (1999, in cooperation with Kiwa), where a flower is planted in the artist’s mouth; the video Untitled (2002/1983), where we can see an episode from a children’s play from Estonian Television, performed by Ene-Liis as a teenager, projected on a large screen. So, depending on the viewpoint, the channel through which we get in touch with the work can shift, and the relationship between immediate experience and reflection in the works can change, but both of them are always present. To the viewer, one of the greatest challenges is to keep track of Semper’s going around, giving and taking.
The narrative of these works, whether it flows on the surface or somewhere deeper, is built up so that at some point it starts to annul itself. For example, in FF/REW, the failed suicide causes annoyance, which then takes over from the dramatic reality, and the traumatic ceases to make sense or create meaning (5). With the help of technique, dreadful continuity, slight disturbance, distension or added comical nuance, the starting point often turns into the opposite of itself and then back again. Nevertheless, going along with the changing registers, acknowledging their differences and simultaneousness, is eventually the only way and the only valuable way (in between affirmation and negation, or above or behind them) to cut to the core of the work, or at least sense the ‘real’ that has been searched for. It is very likely that it is precisely this game that integrates reality (and maybe even alleviates it), and the cognition of reality, making it possible to turn it into a game, is at least one of those more important experiences the viewer can recognise in Ene Liis Semper's work.
*This essay is an excerpt from a collection “Artists of Estonia 3” (Tallinn: Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia, 2007).
(1) Ene-Liis Semper is one of the creators, an artist and often the director of the theater group NO99 that was established in 2004 and that has enjoyed quite remarkable success.
(2) Igor Zabel, Ene-Liis Semper. – Cream 3: Contemporary Art in Culture. 10 Curators, 100 Contemporary Artists, 10 Source Artists. London & New York: Phaidon Press, 2003, p. 352.
(3) Hanno Soans, Komero vailla avaimia: Ene-Liis Semperin psykosomaattinen teatteri / No Keys to Her Closet: Psychosomatic Theatre by Ene-Liis Semper – Historiaa nopeammin / Faster than History. Catalogue. Helsinki: Kiasma, 2004, p. 197.
(4) Ibid, p. 199.
(5) Katarzyna Kosmala, Dystopic femininity in Ene-Liis Semper’s practice – SEKCJA, magazyn artystyczny, 2005 (http://www.sekcja.org/english.php?id_artykulu=12).