Ene-Liis Semper

Ene-Liis Semper likes to cast herself in the leading role. Whether the Estonian artist is testing out different methods for suicide (as in FF/REW, 1998) or living out hygienic obsessions in a white-tiled space (Licked Room, 2000), her concrete physical presence as an engaged body is the basis for videos that take their measure from reality. All the more confusing, then, the laconic text in her most recent video, Untitled, 2004: “You’ll not see me in this video,” it reads, “because I am inside the rabbit.” What follows is a three-minute-twenty-second excursus on the interdependence of relationships. Semper’s husband and daughter sit at a table playing baby games. The idyllic, generic scene grows gloomy when one learns from a wall text that the Daddy in the striped sweater betrayed Mommy. In light of the tawdriness of the situation, Mommy hides in an XXL rabbit costume. On the stage of a gymnasium, the rabbit starts boxing against an imaginary opponent, sparring against the betrayal itself, and, at the end, lies on her back on the ground and plays dead. An intertitle announces, “I feel like dying,” while the ticking noise on the sound track comes to a stop.

“Usually, I do not make stories about my real life,” the artist says. “Mainly my works are more like mental ‘results’ of my living here and now, not quotes of everyday situations, but I just could not resist the temptation to make a video of the situation I was in a couple of months ago with my very first baby, my beloved partner, and myself. The banality of the situation cut me out of my confiding happiness.” With Untitled, seen in Vienna after its first presentation at Kiasma in Helsinki, Semper puts a situation into images as it could not be in the everyday. When she transforms exhaustion, insecurity, and self-doubt into emotionally forceful, powerfully effective images, a decisive and unflinching mastery is confirmed. Semper, a cult figure of the Estonian art scene, has never shied away from difficult themes of death, pain, and violence and has staged them in provocative performances for video. Trained as a set decorator, she is fluent in the language of theater. With a passionate surrender to the role of sacrificial victim, she offers herself as a projection surface for all varieties of human disturbances.

Also shown here was Semper’s classic Oasis, 1999, seen at the Venice Biennale that year, in which a blossoming flower, together with its soil, is planted in Semper’s mouth—portraying the fusion of nature and the human body. The third work in the exhibition was Stairs, 2000, showing Semper lying on a flight of stairs, feet up, and slowly, laboriously trying to mount them in this uncomfortable manner—an image that seems like some strange dream, and all the more so since it was actually filmed with the artist climbing down the stairs in this odd way, then projected in reverse. From Duchamp to Hitchcock, stairs have been deployed as a multivalent symbol. Even Peter Land, in his cheerful video The Staircase, 1998, rolls down the stairs in an endless loop: different models for grasping irrationalities in the space-time continuum.

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Diana Reese.