CRITIQUE - Aare Pilv. Mediation – Threshold. KUNST.EE 2012, 2, 33-39

Aare Pilv analyses the latest video works by Ene-Liis Semper through the lens of theatre.

I have been following the work of Ene-Liis Semper more intently since she and Tiit Ojasoo co-founded the NO99 the- atre. During that time, Semper also had a solo show at the Tallinn Art Hall in 2006; the exhibition was complemented by visual motifs from "Kuningas Ubu" (King Ubu), a play that premiered the same year. I would like to make it clear that I have no systematic overview of Semper’s earlier work from the 1990s—I have seen most of her videos either presented as excerpts on TV, or as stills in magazines. I do have a general understanding of the videos, of course, but when it comes to their reception and interpretation, I do not know much more than a few keywords, and as it turns out (from a seminar at Kumu Art Museum 18.XII.2012 – ed.), most of these came from Hanno Soans.1

A description of the exhibition

The solo exhibition, presented in late 2011 on the 5th floor of Kumu Art Museum, was spatially divided into roughly seven parts. Located at the beginning, that is, in the centre of the space, there was a light green plywood labyrinth, and its passageways and niches contained six works. The labyrinth was reminiscent of the set for "Kolme kuningriigi" (Three Kingdoms), which premiered some time before the opening of the exhibition—Semper had used similar themes resembling a hospital environment for other plays as well; for example, for the set for "Padjamehe" (The Pillowman) in 2005. Even though the exhibition had no title, we should remember that an installation called "Labürint" (Labyrinth) was to be shown in the Straw Theatre in August 2011, but was eventually cancelled. The first video in the labyrinth at Kumu was "Tule!" (Come!) (1998). A woman in a white dress moves in and out of an aeroplane hangar in slow motion, beckoning the spectator to come with her (the association with the piece "Ubu", performed at the aeroplane hangars in Haapsalu in 2006 is most likely purely formal). The second video was "Päike" (The Sun) (2011). Two children, shouting joyfully, run around a room; the camera is directed towards the sun shining in from the window; the children run across the screen and, every time the sun flashes between the running figures, a sound echoes — something between the sound of a saw and a gentle chime (the piece is one of my personal favourites from the exhibition). The third work, the earlier well-known "Tugevama õigusega" (Natural Law) (1998), shows the artist trying to mother a litter of pups, while on a second screen, a dog—the real mother of the pups—sits looking sad and alone. The fourth video, "Nimeta" (Untitled) (2011), develops the same theme further. The video of a mother licking her child is projected onto the floor with a slightly tilted mirror on the wall behind it reflecting the video as well as the viewer. The fifth video is an older one, "Uude koju" (Into New Home) (2000), where the artist is in bed covered with a blanket and holding a rat; the bed moves through a summery meadow. The sixth video, "Punane joon" (Red Line) (2000), is also an earlier work, showing a faintly quivering red line in the centre of the screen, while a woman, like a pendulum, keeps swinging upside down with a view of the landscape in the background.

From the video with the puppies, the labyrinth opens out into a larger room comprising Semper’s earlier video and an installation. The video, "Fundamental" (1997) shows the artist completely drunk, trying to read the Bible, Wittgenstein, and other fundamental texts (I had not seen the video before and had no idea she was meant to be drunk—to me it seemed as if the artist had made herself up like a prostitute and was trying to recite the texts as blandly as possible, hence the video did not communicate much to me. After having read the reviews and realising that the artist was drunk, I started asso- ciating the work with a NO99 happening from 2005 called "Ulgumerelainetel" (On the Open Sea)). The installation is spread across several places in the room, where doors are constructed into stairs, possibly alluding to two earlier videos— "Uks" (Door) (2002) and "Trepp" (Stairs) (2000). The former shows a door opening into a dark room and casting a ray of light into it while someone is peeking in; in the latter, the artist is trying to mount a set of stairs in a way someone would usually descend them—stepping backwards on the vertical rises of the steps. Located at one end of the gallery is the next room, comprising a split screen mute projection of a scene from the NO99 play "The Rise and Fall of Estonia" (2011). The characters, played by the actors Tambet Tuisk and Eva Klemets, are office workers who get into a heated argument, they are hysterical and aggressive, until the man threatens to hit the woman. At this point the two videos go separate ways. One continues on just as in the play: the man storms out slamming the door, the woman leans against the wall crying, and the door gets slammed several more times. In the second video, the man stays in the room, starts to caress the crying woman until they share a long kiss. The images run synchronized, accompanied by cardiogram-like beeps that double up as the videos start to diverge.

The other side of the labyrinth leads to two dark rooms, each displaying a large projection. The first one is a silent video where the same action is repeated with slight variations–– going through a specific emotion, actor Risto Kübar looks into the camera, then turns around and walks out the door into the light. His face is somewhat different each time. It is happier and friendlier in the beginning and the end, but mostly it remains sad, tragic or angry. Alongside all other possible interpretations, it is purely a magnificent portrait of the actor and an insight into the nature of the actor as such. Another similar room follows, showing a video that combines two dif- ferent plays by NO99. Performing the pornographic scene from "Kolmest kuningriigist" (Three Kingdoms) (2011), Mirtel Pohla and Risto Kübar are wearing the masks they wore in "Onu Tomi onnikeses" (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) (2009) when playing the most innocent, naive and kind-hearted white people (they are the children of uncle Tom’s masters, thus the claim in some exhibition reviews that these are characters from "Kuningas Ubu" (King Ubu) is erroneous). The video has a whole array of possible interpretations (those that stem from the relationship of the plays and scenes, others that consider the relationship between the actors and their different roles, but also ones that reflect the social or existential qualities, or question the nature of art), but I was primarily bothered by the fact that these particular characters from "Onu Tomi onni- keses" (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) were put in such a position.

The next room presents two works. Firstly, there is a swinging room revealing through its windows three pianos crashing into each other with loud bands as the room keeps swinging. Secondly, a short video is displayed successively playing split-second-long clips edited from TV recordings of Ene-Liis Semper; these range from recordings of school plays to theatre awards and interviews.

The room at the other end of the gallery shows a longer, more narrative video called "Mu kodu" (My Home) (2011), where the artist keeps bringing new furniture into a place resemblinganemptystage;theactioninterplayswithatext about someone dreaming of a cosy large home; the same crashing pianos from the previous video also arrive in the scene; finally, the furniture grows into a huge pile that the artist decorates with Christmas lights and lays down in the centre of it all; in the background, an adaptation of a folk song by Veljo Tormis about homesickness can be heard. The heap of furniture triggers a reference to the set for "Kuidas seletada pilte surnud jänesele" (How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare), which was packed up and pulled up to the ceiling—I do not know whether the connection is relevant, but it could be helpful in detaching the video from the obvious theme of homemaking.

Finally, right before the exit, the last video, "Nimeta" (Untitled) (2011), shows Semper’s face on a large screen as she recites the story of Tistou, a boy with green fingers; when Tistou goes up to Heaven, the storyteller begins to cry. 


Of course, we cannot ignore the layered identities revealed in Semper’s work and the exhibition. Margus Tamm has pointed out the opposition between the artist’s earlier and later works ("Fundamental" vs. the Tistou video "Into New Home" vs. the new home video) and, as a critic, he summarizes it rather crudely—"the psychobitch has turned into a housewife". Although some suspicion remains that Tamm might be developing a hyperbolic irony concealing, in fact, a predicament of admiration, it seems nevertheless that this kind of reading of Semper is overly simplistic—Semper is not easily subjected to "vulgar semiotic" binary oppositions, or a socializing paranoia of meanings typical of conceptual art. The two identities are not merely visible in relations between her works but within each one of them. Hanno Soans believes that the main axis of the exhibition is "the notion of home in the productivity of its oppositions, the power axis—in the critical sense of the word—of the homely and unhomely, cosy and ghostly, happy and unhappy, Freud’sheimlich–unheimlich."2This is, of course, a somewhat linguistically induced interpretation (home as a repeating motif in the exhibition easily lends itself to the wordplayheimlich–unheimlich—from the folklore of Continental theory friends), yet I have no argument against this, especially since my own thoughts follow in parallel to this to some extent.

I would like to propose that there is another axis of power that I have thought relevant to Semper’s work before, and that has now found the required proof. It is the issue or problem, topos, of mediation and the lack of mediums. The key to this issue lies, for example, in the last video telling the sentimental story of Tistou. It certainly could be interpreted as an attempt at genuineness or sincerity (a fairytale that has moved the artist since childhood can be connected to the themes of home and children); however, at the same time, the video reveals something that is by no means direct (the fact that it is a recorded video, is significant). The fairytale is recorded with the full knowledge of the storytelling ending in tears, otherwise there would have been no point in documenting it (i.e. it is not captured on video by chance)—the video is carefully composed and also seems to be coloured in some way. In my opinion, as the last piece in the exhibition, it leaves something important unanswered. Here, Semper acts just like the actors in her other videos. She is intentionally going through emotions–– not so much (or only) as the person experiencing the emotions, but (also) as someone mediating them. This is where one of the most important aspects of the exhibition lies. We may imagine art to be inward-looking (the artist is equated with the ideas presented; it is a sort of a performatism of individual singularity, a romantic self-expression) or output-centred (art focused on messages, conceptual art that meaning- fully "announces" something). Still, it may be possible to talk about art that is not centred around input or output, but rather something in between the two... the mediation (of differences) [In the original Estonian version, the author introduces a wordplay "vahe(nd)", the word "vahe" meaning "difference" or "gap", while the word "vahend" translates as "medium" or "tool." Since this cannot be translated into English, we have used the phrase "mediation (of differences)" throughout the essay. —ed.].

Let us see how on several occasions mediation becomes a theme, where it is not so much a question of creating a dis- tance, but eliminating it—to reach the destination, we must overcome the mediation (of differences), cross the thresh- old, since without a threshold there would be nothing but a standstill. Nevertheless, it presents a certain problematic— the threshold connecting us to something else may turn out to be too high. Such cases include the home mediated by furni- ture in what is referred to as "the home video," or the corporeal threshold that the mind is unable to cross in "Fundamental."

Even the opening performance of the exhibition, which I am familiar with only through descriptions, points to the main topos. Seen only through a telescope, Semper greeted the people entering the museum from the tower of St Olaf’s church. Actors, acting and theatre belong to an art of mediation (of dif- ferences)par excellence: theatre is one of the few places where the most intimate feelings can be seen to appear publicly, but they also need to be mediated by actors who have prepared themselves to do so. The actor is like a threshold that, in a psychophysical way, formulates "how feeling works" and defines the borderlines and possible nuances of feeling. I think that it is no coincidence that after each facial expression Risto Kübar disappears through a white door, crossing a threshold. And let us remember Semper’s own earlier and repeated explanation that she views her corporeal presence in her videos not as an autobiographical gesture but as the most convenient medium for expressing her ideas—an aspect that has been characteristic of acting for a long time now. 

Mediation (of differences)

For me, a video that was not shown in this exhibition, but was displayed at the solo show at Tallinn Art Hall in 2006, has acquired paradigmatic meaning. There is a person in a room, the person moves towards the camera so that only a small strip of the wall can be seen; and we assume only due to shadows and sounds that a train is passing by just near the window. As soon as the train has passed, the person moves away from the camera and once again we see the entire room which a train has just passed. It seems to me that the video expresses the nature of the mediation (of differences) in art—not to show the train itself but to be a mediator, a threshold behind which a train passes, to bring mediation into the relationship between the spectator and the train loudly passing; and in that act of mediation the passing of the train is actually amplified, even though it seems as if someone wants to hide it from us.3

This fixation on a position that cannot be definitively fixed is typical of Semper’s videos (in fact, it is also characteristic of the Ojasoo-Semper theatre style, and although in the latest reviews the social aspects seem to overshadow the threshold positioning as a typical component of the NO99 plays—nevertheless, it does exist). It is like a fist before the blow that fol- lows the blow like Achilles follows the tortoise. It could easily be named and covered by an "ambivalence" tag but, as far as I am concerned, it is not the "this-and-that-at-the-same-time"- kind of ambivalence, or the "two-sides-of-the-coin"-ambivalence. It is rather an acknowledgement of the stairs having two sides; between the two sides of every step there is a threshold that, when crossed, leads down, not up, even though the direction remains unchanged. 

Furthermore, I would like to mention the two extreme images that define the borders of this "thresholdness". Firstly, the swinging room with the crashing pianos which, in a way,is the negative side of this "thresholdness". Let us note that the room has no exterior, it is a random construction of walls that remained exactly as it was built, without any trimmings. The room only has an inside. What is even more important, the room has four windows but no doors, no thresholds. Thus, the room itself becomes a kind of a reversed mediation, an implosion of mediation (of differences). In some ways, as a negation, the swinging room points to two earlier videos with neighbouring locations—"Uude koju" (Into New Home), where the room has lost its walls, and the video where a person is hang- ing upside down (in the air), swinging across a red line.

Secondly, the "over-exposure" of "thresholdness" in the video "Tugevama õigusega" (The Natural Law) with its recent addition—the intimacy of the video is almost unbearable; as a spectator, as soon as I realized what was going on, I felt that it would have been inappropriate to just keep watching it, and I had to immediately move on. The video projected onto the floor already embodies the threshold, behind which there is a mirror where the spectator can see themselves watching the video. The viewer is placed in a position where they must feel that the threshold cannot be crossed, that the threshold itself is a destination where the thresholds of the labyrinth have guided them; however, they cannot stop at the threshold, which by nature does not allow that.

Obviously, the metaphorical interpretation I have sketched out does not accommodate everything in the exhibition or all of Semper’s work—it is merely one (albeit, in my opinion, an important ) possible axis of power. Almost involuntarily, my point is directed towards explaining––using mediation (of differences) as a keyword—why Ene-Liis Semper is a video- artist and not a performance artist, as one would expect considering her career in theatre. During a public seminar dedicated to the exhibition, Semper mentioned how Marina Abramovic’, whom she had met at the Venice Biennale, was annoyed by the fact that the process of licking the exhibition hall clean was presented as a video, called "Lakutud ruum" (Licked Room) (2000), not as an immediate act. But that is the whole point.

Besides an obvious autobiographical element evident at first glance, the 2011 video montage comprised of television clips (the work that the reviews considered to be, perhaps, the most simplistic and uninspiring) contains an actualization of the screen itself. Essentially, we are seeing a double screen: the images captured from TV and the artwork as a sheet mediating them, as a cover made of a transparency. It appears as a transparent double membrane, enfolding an invisible resonating space where the mediation (of differences) itself can be heard.

Aare Pilv is a writer and a literary scholar, working as a researcher at the Under and Tuglas Literature Centre.

1See, for example: Hanno Soans, Peegel ja piits. Mina köidikud uuemas eesti kunstis. – Kunstiteaduslikke uurimusi 10. Tallinn: Eesti Kunstiteadlaste Ühing, 2000, pp 309–353; Anu Allas, Ene-Liis Semper – kohaolu piirisi- tuatsioonis. – Eesti kunstnikud 3. Toim. Andreas Trossek. Tallinn: Kaasaegse Kunsti Eesti Keskus, 2007, pp 36–45. – ed.

2Three reviews have been published on the exhibition in Estonian press: Janar Ala, Ene-Liis Semperi rahulikud ruumid. – Postimees 18. X 2011; Margus Tamm, Psychobitchist sirgub koduperenaine. – Eesti Päevaleht 8. XI 2011; Hanno Soans, Ene-Liis Semperi ehedus ja tehtus. – Sirp 10. XI 2011.

3I have also dealt with this video in a feature story on Tambet Tuisk for NO99 Näitleja magazine. By the way, in this exhibition the video with kids and sunlight for some reason associated with the train video – the sun is similarly simmering.