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The weird, weird world of Kris Lemsalu

Maija Rudovska (3/2014)

Maija Rudovska.

 


Half-animals half-humans, with or without heads or limbs, furry or clothed – Estonian artist Kris Lemsalu's creatures come to life in all their original fullness and singularity, asking for imagination and appreciation from the viewer. Their Frankenstein-like faces – scared and scary – embody an otherness, something monstrous and alien, resembling corpses or dying things soaked out of life. As such these creatures appear even more desperate for adoption, their incredibly hybrid appearances making them unforgettable. Lemsalu's work seems like a grotesque or tired carnival, a party that has been on for a long time and is now over, the remaining bodies resting from exhaustion.

Lemsalu has obtained art education at the Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn and The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Since 2013 she has been studying sculpture at The Academy of Fine Arts Vienna under the guidance of artist Monica Bonvicini. Since then Vienna has become her home where she has found friends and colleagues, among them the artist group Gelitin whom she collaborates with regularly. So far Lemsalu has implemented solo shows in several galleries, for example "Evian Desert" at Galerie Tanja Wagner in Berlin (2012), and "Top Sinner" at Pro Choice in Vienna (2012), and Temnikova&Kasela gallery in Tallinn which represents her as one of their artists. Lemsalu's work has been shown at various art fairs such as ArtForum in Helsinki (2011) and IHM Fair in Munich (2012). In 2011 she received the BKV Prize, awarded to a young artist in Munich. Although the artist exhibits her work mainly outside Tallinn, she has always kept ties with her hometown. Her practice shares an affinity and visual semblance with Edith Karlson's, another young Estonian artist who also deals with objects and sculptures. Their collaboration was presented as a show "Being Together" (2012) at Temnikova&Kasela.

The aesthetics which Lemsalu uses in her work function as a recognizable handwriting, what's more – the objects that she creates are visually sophisticated despite their seemingly ugly and obnoxious appearance. Porcelain and clay stand out amidst other materials, like fur, plastic, textile, etc., resembling the cast that has been taken from something living which was afterwards carefully crafted and painted (glazed). We see dogs with hands over their faces, their bodies covered in sleeping bags ("Phantom camp", 2012); jaw-resembling parts with hanging tights attached to them ("Aldonza Lorenzo", 2014); a sculpture of a camel whose hunches are composed of ceramic tongues ("When the big trees were kings", 2011); and other quite unusual self-sufficient combinations – all seemingly lacking any particular meaning or function.

The artist's work stresses the importance of the tradition of crafts which for many years has been marginalized in the Western contemporary art world (existing in the shadows of conceptualism and post-conceptualism). Yet in the context of post-soviet space, crafts has always been one of the cornerstones of both university and art practices. Even nowadays, in the Eastern European post-conceptual aesthetics it has never really been forgotten. Lemsalu also considers the role of material application and execution in her practice, as well as the skills that help to implement ideas. Her art involves a non-hierarchical structure of material and how it functions within the work. The ceramics, and/or other craft related constituents, could be mixed with fur, leftovers, fabrics, and other materials, as well as with artist's own body which seems to fit into the mix in the same way as other components. For example, during an opening of the exhibition "Evian Desert" her body merged with the work "Father is in town" (2012). She rolled herself up in a fur which is used in the piece as the body of two entangled dogs who are hugging and licking each other. She hid herself exposing just a part of her legs and lay on the floor in an almost frozen state for 45 minutes. Her body is often a part of the structure of her work. Indeed, there is a thin line between what is seen as an object and/or as performance.

The most visible example among Lemsalu's performances is "The Birth of Venus" (2010): wearing a fat suit and a wig, she positioned herself in the front of the audience while spreading her legs, a white balloon emerging out of her false vagina until it broke. There is definitely something grotesque and ironic in the whole action, starting from her outfit and ending with the way she engages with the procedure. It definitely addresses a criticism of the gender discourse, but it is also a laugh and a parody – not so much a joke about the famous scene from a Renaissance painter Sandro Boticelli's painting of the same title, but a satire on the biological functions associated with a woman's body.

Since teenage years Lemsalu has been dressing up, using carnival-style clothes, preparing her image for the audience, or maybe just building up her identity through this process. We all perform ourselves in a society, some of us do it in more, others in a less sophisticated or exaggerated way. Lemsalu stresses that she has always been putting on this "face", which I believe strongly shapes her artistic identity and defines her work as an extension of her own personality and imagination.1 She also talks about the presence of memories, especially childhood memories that she uses as a source of inspiration in her work, therefore her art also reads as something sweet and childish, as a fantasy world that she seeks to reach out to in the adult life. "The originality of Kris Lemsalu is invented and staged," Brigitte Felderer claims on Lemsalu's website. The dreams of a child, as any of us could recall, contain not only the fairies and the bright and happy moments, but also of monsters and darkness, unexplainable creatures and powers. Lemsalu turns herself into a weirdo, a freak, a comic character. In one of the photos of herself taken by her friends she wears an exotic dress and a palmtree shaped head decoration, a sort of princess of the wilderness with toy tigers at her feet; another time she seems playing with an image of a seductive woman with breasts like big cones and a vagina like a split fruit; she can also be seen dressed in a black latex costume with matchingly painted face wearing glasses and a silly hat. This is something that Lemsalu plays with, which is not only funny and absurd but also balances on the verge of weirdness and even monstrosity. The sexual is a very common aspect that is present in her work. She exaggerates it by the means of dressing up, travestying. Lemsalu's aim is not to frighten or to look ugly though. She works with these boundaries, but much more enjoys creating a fantasy world that has its own life and relationship with itself and with the world around it, and which appears as completely alien and other, not from this world.

According to Lemsalu her art doesn't deal with the gender issues in the first place2, although I would like to state that this discourse plays an important role in her practice, or at least in the perception of her work, as she deals with the notion of feminine and sexual, especially when using her own body and its appearance as part of her art. Also, taking into account the context (I assume there are influences from her tutor Bonvicini and artist Sarah Lucas whom Lemsalu has worked with before), I wonder if it would be possible to relate her work to the notion of "abject" and "abjection"? The term invented by Julia Kristeva discusses an object which is violently cast out of the cultural world, having once been a subject. This notion is also often related to a female body (the image of woman's body, especially of its maternal functions, signify the abject) and disgust that arises from the bodily wastes, blood and the dead body itself. Lemsalu's overall practice keeps asking these questions because her art lies in the in-betweeness and has an ambiguity of beauty and ugliness, life and death, exposed and hidden, natural and supernatural, and so on. A good example of this is the work "The Birth of Venus" which I have already mentioned above. It might seem meaningless yet contains the obvious reference to a woman's body, its functions and the way it is approached. According to Barbara Creed, women are constructed as "biological freaks", the difference of female sexuality "is grounded in monstrousness and [---] invokes castrasition anxiety in the male spectator."3 Particularly in this performance, the entire action of the birth of the balloon indicates the maternal functions of women, yet it resembles something mechanical, a machine – impersonal, neutral, just a body with its reproduction functions, which Lemsalu exposes critically. Even if it might seem like a parody, some seriousness slips in there too.

I believe that Lemsalu cares about the position of feminine and sexual. She has chosen to reveal in its freakishness. Although the artist does it in a very soft way, she seeks to overcome the lines of normalization and expose a different side of female. It is not very provocative or groundbreaking but still manifests the freedom of the body and the limitations that should be dealt with. In my opinion this is the point where Lemsalu's art could grow wider and deeper with all the complexities that it already possesses.

 

1 From the interview with Kris Lemsalu (author’s archive), 28. VII 2014.

2 Ibid.

3 Creed Barbara The Monstrous – Feminine. – London, New York, Routledge, 1993, p 2.

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