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"I have used the comparison of [---] perforated skin, which does not cover, hide or adorn but rather hints at the internal." – Reet Varblane answers Hedi Rosma's questions about Anu Põder, whose works have been included in "The Milk of Dreams", the main exhibition of the ongoing 59th International Venice Art Biennale. "Untold backstories: Anu Põder (1947–2013) and her posthumous rise to international fame" (KUNST.EE 3/2022)

 

Daily life of the mourner. On Urmas Lüüs’ funeral drama in two acts

Johannes Saar (3/2021)

Johannes Saar visited Urmas Lüüs’ solo exhibition "On the Porosity of Certain Boundaries".



20. V–7. VI 2021
Hobusepea Gallery


"After my grandmother left, I started
to empty the apartment for repairs.
83 years of life had accumulated in front of me."1
Urmas Lüüs


On this side of good and evil, we face death – other peoples' and our own. We see the death of others as an omen of our own demise. And so, the obituaries we write also toll the bell for ourselves.

We dissolve in the departed already in our lifetime, we follow the dead being fully alive, we are the descendants of the dead. Life in its utmost quintessence is thus a walk to the grave, a Heideggerian "being towards death". Awareness of this fosters a sense of biblical melancholy – the joy of birth already contains the story of the pain and suffering of impending loss. Most life is conceived by the human desire to be remembered, longed for. This desire is fulfilled in mourning, a specific state of mind and behaviour of those left behind. But it is also fulfilled in the legacy of the deceased, in which a new page is now turned – it will live on "as if someone had died". This is perhaps a way to encapsulate Jacques Derrida's later paradoxes and aphories about the so-called work of mourning that promote grief as a fundamental precondition for living. "I mourn therefore I am," he concludes his reasoning with a Cartesian Knot.2

This spring, Urmas Lüüs embarked on the winding path of grief. He dissected and shattered memorabilia left by his grandmother in Hobusepea Gallery, as well as destroying his self-image and creating a space of trauma therapy, in which he himself dissipated into an implausible otherworldly visitor along with the departed. The title "On the Porosity of Certain Boundaries" already suggests the outpouring and fusion of identities in ritual weeping, where the practice of ripping your shirt and pulling your hair allows one to merge with the deceased for the final time, to be "gone" with them for a while longer. Similarly to the indigenous peoples of Australia, who cover themselves with white ochre at funerals to become one with the bones of their ancestors, Lüüs paints on a pale and ghostly face. There is a yearning for self-loss here. The things left behind from his grandmother are now more than ever a part of his being and his burden. As their sole owner, he must now take the place of his grandmother. He must incorporate the newly unclaimed objects that have now come to lick his face like a dog in his modus vivendi, to fit the deceased into his life and self-narrative, to indeed discuss how the deceased is in some way still "present" in his life.

Unlike Sigmund Freud, Derrida did not believe in so-called successful mourning that results in overcoming loss. It seems that neither does Lüüs. The exhibition conveys the impossibility of successful mourning and living with fundamental loss; a motif that has recurred in Lüüs's works before. The context of the art gallery, of course, strips the motif of loss from gravity, while adding theatricality, dramatic light, artificial pretence, travesty, and a queer awareness of the fragility of the self-image. Only the loss of the self-image remains.

The gallery is engulfed in a game of blind man's buff, with self-portraits suspended from the ceiling in which the grandmother's embroidered doilies become impenetrable masks on the artist's face. Or perhaps not? The artist peeks at me, the viewer, from the crocheted spyholes in the white doilies – like a bank robber in a custom balaclava. The line between the doilies and their wearer is fluid, playful; the doily dictates communication, imposes identity and appearance – the artist slowly becomes a bank robber or an identity thief. Merging into the otherwise cheerful floral ornaments is a devilish grin outlined in black charcoal, a slightly cartoonish sheet ghost, which are already followed by BDSM bridles and chains that entirely change the rules of the game. Yes, the devilish twin is getting the upper hand, not ashamed of his feat – Dorian Gray's portrait is faced with a harrowing alter ego.

Lüüs has based the entire series of portraits on the schizophrenic line between himself and the deceased grandmother; to where it is possible to take on the self-image and demeanour of both Mr Hyde and Dr Jekyll. And that is where he stays – oscillating in the realm of performative identities and mere chance. In a place with no certainty, no roles, no masculinity or femininity or their dictates, and instead with plenty of gothic angst, metamorphoses of good and evil, playful sorrow. One doily portrait stands out, in which the grandmother's love for arabesqued floral ornament is completely displaced by screeching bright embroidery threads. The threads are accompanied by increasingly dominant bead embroidery, which spreads over the simple linen cloth, covering it with cross-stitches of glamour.

And here it comes, the doily of doilies and the juicy-lipped drag queen on its throne. All of a sudden, the quaint embroidery sparks sexual tension! The sleepy evenings of hunkering over bobbin lace are roused by the seductive call of night-time venues, the possibilities of losing oneself in the body and dress of someone else, of going with the flow and waking up in a strange place. Is this the culmination of mourning? Has the mourner become unworried, carefree and blithe? Has he become the player? Could laughing in the face of death be part of the work of mourning? An opportunity to move on with life?

I think so. Lüüs moves on at a point when, in addition to death, he has also ridiculed the work of mourning. Only then is there a distance from the loss; only then will loss line up with the other faded family traumas on the mantlepiece. The understanding of the staged origins of identities, their uncomfortable resemblance to puppets has reached its edge, leading Lüüs to remain hidden behind a mask, to distance himself from seriousness, continuing to do theatre for life's sake, fleeing from the grey dullness of death and taking refuge in dramatic gestures. The loss is not assimilated and reconciled, the wound is continued to be worn externally, outstretched in one hand, as an object with nowhere to settle internally.

In the lower level of the gallery, the eulogical play expands into a house museum, a cemetery of recollections, a memorial, in which the daily movement between the sofa, the TV and the chest of drawers has ceased, frozen into an empty terminal. From here, you can only look back. The exhibits really behave "as if someone had died" – as a trace of former presence. The comb no longer combs, the pearl necklace no longer decorates the neck, the mirror no longer reflects. There are newspapers scattered around and a firm hand has arranged animal sculls, wrought chains, bibles and molten crucifixes.

There is an expectation of a God defying Dracula, a confirmation of the supremacy of hellfire present in all of this. True, the state of pandemonium is decreased by a cheerful quilt covering the sofa, a nesting space that has clearly provided much physical and mental safety over the years. There is also a special programme on the television screen showing Urmas Lüüs carefully painting on his grandmother's face; to no avail, of course. The lipstick does not have the right coverage, the pearls no longer fall neatly into the décolletage, the blush is obviously too heavy. Grandmother and grandson no longer belong together; the impossibility of being one is demonstrated for us – through repeated futile gestures, through the artist's ceaseless discontent, through the repeated covering of his eyes with impenetrable make-up.

Identification fails, the transvestite does not come alive, the spiritualist medium is not activated. Failure fills all time in this house museum of memories. And time... it desperately tries to rewind, but cannot – the key no longer turns. And so, we see a special programme about the futility of make-up looping on the TV – no, it just won't happen...

Grandmother's personal belongings have become exhibits, among which other artefacts have been placed – atmospheric foreign bodies that she herself would never have allowed into the room. They have been put there by Urmas, by grandmother's alter ego, who is now trying to settle into grandmother's personal space. Or, on the contrary, is he trying to make space for it in his soul.

Things have become abjects, fetishes of longing and disgust, which, although promising to fill the gap that has appeared, only end up aggravating the feeling of emptiness. They have become a callous line separating one's self from the other, a line that cannot be painted over, even though Lüüs embraces the possibility of acquiring a sort of hybrid, playful identity somewhere between two people, between life and death. No, it just won't happen...

 

 

 

Photographer Urmas Lüüs
Courtesy of the artist

 

 

 

Derrida argues that death is in any case "an end of a world", there is no continuation in memories and children, the only traces left behind are those that take on "a life of their own", such as Derrida's own lines (which are also strangely present in this text) – the traces of writing towards death, as he so nicely puts. Lüüs is acting towards death in a play of his own writing, tearing off masks and trying them on again, without hoping for joyful recognition. He does this until he is no more than a brief pastiche, a paraphrase of someone else's life, an epitaph on someone else's grave. Self-loss is complete.

 

*

 

However, a more encouraging perspective is also possible. Urmas Lüüs may be simultaneously dead and alive, like Erwin Schrödinger's cat, Donna Haraway's cyborg and Judith Butler's queer – a human device of indeterminate identity that wakes up and dies in its clothes and make-up every day, remaining equally elusive for those who think of it as just human and those who consider it all nothing more than a carnival.

Lüüs confronts external identifiers, authoritarian identity politics, misogynist contempt for doilies and embroidery, fixed gender roles, and the terror of the "traditional" family model. The house museum downstairs is filled with powerful images of violent lobotomies and exorcism. It exudes a raging desire to reach a burning iron and scorch something out of your head, your life, and the entire world as we know it. A crucifix melted in the oven heat, a cross motif burned through the Bible pages, animal skulls perforated with surgical precision, with bundles of drying herbs thrown in the mix – are these really the hallmarks of posthumous meltdown?

Bringing us down to earth, more precisely on Soviet land, is the dull reflection of a Veteran of Labour Medal on the corner of the vanity, a faded newspaper on the couch, dating from the same planet of the past... and an embroidered version of its titles on the wall. The lingering presence of the past, the discomfort of different space-times rubbing together in your personal emotional comfort zone – these are the sentiments circling in the basement, breaking their wings in the thicket of fading memories. And these are memories of a time when the only way for a woman to receive national recognition was to... measure up as a man!

Even thirty years after regaining independence, Estonia continues to be a masculine and male chauvinist country, where needlework, wearing doilies and messing with embroidery threads results in a rapid decline of social status. It is to the bottom strata of society, to the other women drowning in needlework, that Lüüs has been headed from the moment he decided to appear in front of people with a doily on his head. In our society, this choice will have consequences worthy of Saudi Arabia. Exchange your bournous for a hijab and you no longer have any business in the men's side of the mosque. Study jewellery at the Estonian Academy of Arts and no one believes that you have the grit of a true blacksmith. You will be assigned the insignificant degree of carrying so-called soft values, forbidding you from speaking up in the company of "real" men. First chance there is, you will be married off, and only as the last one in line will you be allowed at the dinner table, where you will usually sit with the kids.

 

*

 

With this I would like to emphasise that in addition to an anthropological reading, which observes the modern rituals of mourning, Urmas Lüüs' performance is also open to feminist interpretation. Mourning is still considered women's work and a sign of femininity, as "men don't cry". The notion of the weeping woman – "nutunaine" – is engrained in our language, while that of the weeping man is not.

Any man taking care of the sick and the dead becomes a nurse, a "sister of medicine" ("medõde"); any woman leading the parliament becomes "the chairman". Such occupation-related metaphorical sex change operations are commonplace in Estonia: they are so inconspicuous that hardly anyone pays attention to them these days. In this state of uncertainty, this mishmash of gender change, Urmas Lüüs makes a safe choice. He chooses the unisexual life of the androgyne, the faceless metamorphoses of the chameleon. To keep the mind and body ready to go, in case any important men die. So I guess we'll see.

 

1 From the exhibition press release. – Ed.

2 See Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2001.


Johannes Saar is an art historian, critic and lecturer. He holds a PhD in media and communication from the University of Tartu.

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