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"We Love Opera" *

Maarja Kangro (3/2013)

Maarja Kangro analyses Jaanus Samma's installation "Ooper "Esimees"" (Chairman – The Opera) in light of the artist's earlier work.


27. IV–16. VI 2013
Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM)
Köler Prize 2013


It is not worthwhile predicting the future in hindsight but I will say it anyway: when I witnessed the process of installing Jaanus Samma's "Loo┼ż" (Loge) for the Köler Prize nominees exhibition at Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM), I was convinced that it would not go unnoticed. And behold, the work won both prizes, the Köler Prize awarded by a jury of experts and the People's Choice Award. The fact that it is the second year running that both the jury and the audience have agreed on the winning work – last year both prizes went to Flo Kasearu – is in itself interesting, but in my opinion, due to the impressive image of "Loge" and the inventive idea of using the format of opera, Samma's work stood out so clearly in the show that it is not surprising he won in both categories.


Jaanus Samma

The relatively young artist's CV boasts five solo exhibitions and 14 group shows, including the Köler Prize exhibition. One of the most notable characteristics of Jaanus Samma's work has been a refined playfulness: he likes to manipulate stylised forms of culture that often refer to a certain luxury and reflexive excess rather than survival practices (a baroque garden filled with nettles, lockets with poison and dirt, gay culture in the form of rustic national romanticism). Nevertheless, in transforming these stylised forms and the understandings revealed by those forms, Samma never strays as far as the grotesque or total deconstruction. The artist seems to have sufficient fortune and talent to find spectacular motifs that speak for themselves: one is the nettle, which Samma has repeatedly used – most recently in the exhibition "Kehaline karistus" (Corporal Punishment) curated by Marko Raat at EKKM. Simply by being there, the nettle with all its connotations (an aggressive weed, force of nature, medicinal herb) creates multiple meanings in the mind of the visitor, not to mention the interactive component of the plant – its ability to sting.

During the last three years, gay culture has become Samma's principal social theme, and is the main issue in his minimalist audio installation "Lood" (Stories), where gay people living in the city of Tartu talk about Soviet gay culture (2011), but also in the project "AAFAGC" (an ironic and mysterious acronym that stands for Applied Art for a Gay Club) with Alo Paistik, and the multimedia installation "Chairman – The Opera", this year's Köler Prize winner.

Among Samma's previous work, "AAFAGC" has been the one to cause the most controversy outside the artwork. Inspired by the ambiance videos of Parisian nightclubs, the project comprises sweet idyllic photographs of beautiful topless men in a rustic-romantic environment without pushing the ironic view of beauty too far. At the same time, this erotic gay imagery is presented as mild rather than as a declaration; the collaborator, Paistik, has characterised the stance of the work as "playful activism". However, "AAFAGC" managed to cause a scandal at the Muhu Museum: the only nude photograph in the project was removed from the show and the exhibition guard closed the exhibition hall due to "religious considerations" so that the exhibition was not actually open to the public for most of the museum's opening hours. After comments from the artists, the director of the Muhu Museum explained in her open letter that instead of gay themes, the museum expected photographs of elderly fishermen mending their nets. Thereby, once again, proving that peaceful gay-activism directed toward a general audience is necessary.


Chairman – The Opera

But as we all know, good art should not exhaust its politico-social message. With the installation of the fictitious opera "Chairman – The Opera", Samma has managed to achieve a dimension that encompasses activism but also surpasses it; art embraces life (political message, historic events) without dissolving into life. It should also be noted that besides the ingenious conception, the artist has created an elegant balance between (self) irony, the seriousness of the social context of the theme, or rather the trauma of it.

The installation comprises three parts in which a sense of the presence of the work increases gradually. The work could be divided into three parts: verbal-audio, visual and spatial. The first part is a fictitious précis for an opera based on the life of a legendary gay man in Tartu known as the Chairman, encompassing the years 1960–1980. The synopsis is read in Estonian by Tiina Kuningas and in English by Tui Hirv. The second part comprises nine black and white photographs of scenes from the opera, and the third part is a crimson loge with a view into the darkness, with a piece of music written especially for the installation by Johanna Kivimägi heard from within.

The artist's clever idea of using the opera format in his work facilitates playing with the specific elements, and its distinct Umwelt should be commended. Looking at Samma's work, it seems that this format, which proliferates meaning in so many directions, was just waiting to be used by someone. Opera draws together a whole array of associations, traditions, approaches and stereotypes, and in the context of art that engages with post-production, the genre is a semantic goldmine.

Presenting gay themes in the context of an opera is boldly ironic and addresses an old cliché that connects gay culture with opera and vice versa. Indeed, opera is an environment that profoundly exposes how roles and identities are constructed and performed, and provides an opportunity to experience a different and somewhat freer life without societal expectations. In a sense, it is an excellent way to exemplify performance, in a hyperbolic and dramatic manner.

Many authors have treated musical theatre as a refuge and a positive means of expression for gay culture; maybe one of the most thorough analyses of the kind is the book "The Queen's Throat – Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire" (2001) by the American cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum, where he states: "We turn to opera, because we need to breathe". Koestenbaum focuses his attention on the character of the diva, said to be easy for homosexuals to relate to because she spends her life constantly in character. The Italian musicologist, Davide Daolmi, stresses the need for the gay-centred study of music, and has found that being fascinated with opera is "an antisocial behaviour just like homosexuality".

Lately, themes of homosexuality have become increasingly prominent in opera – as they have in works that originally lacked such motifs. In February, Philip Glass's opera "The Fall of the House of Usher" premiered in Chicago, where the producer Andreas Mitisek turned the two male leads into homosexual lovers; approximately at the same time, Peter Sellars produced Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" in Toronto, where he revealed a homosexual relationship between King Mark and Tristan (there had been speculations about homosexuality in their relationship before). Clearly, gay themes are becoming ever more public in opera; yet, it is more than obvious that the connotations between gay culture and opera that are taken for granted may sometimes enforce burdensome stereotypes.


Life as in opera

Samma has cast his "diva" in the role of the Chairman. By placing the fate of a homosexual man in the context of an opera, he is throwing the cliché back to the audience: there you go, like all clichés demand, here is a gay man whose life is indeed an opera. The episodes based on the life-story are presented in a way characteristic to opera, and which activate several contexts of interpretation; yet, the work skilfully oscillates between irony and seriousness. On the one hand, there is the play with the viewer's stereotypical assumptions such as "opera is a world of gays, drag queens and transsexuals" or "opera is camp and people with that kind of sexual predilection are drawn to camp". The loge with its cherubs and crimson velvet could very well be interpreted in camp terms. At the same time, the artist has avoided the exaggerated use of camp and irony and refrained from creating caricatures, so that we can view the opera as a serious environment that creates new meanings. The separated reality of the opera becomes a reference to the conditional nature and constant separation of a person's identity.

Jaanus Samma's approach to gay themes is refined and delicate: instead of blasting the synopsis of the opera over the entire room, the story of the Chairman's fate can only be heard by those who wish to do so through the headphones hanging on the wall. That also applied to the audio installation "Stories", where homosexual people living in Tartu recalled the Soviet times: you had to approach the stories yourself, they were not imposed on anybody and did not even make themselves particularly well heard. Even though vociferous declarations à la we are here and we are queer are socially more than justified, Samma exhibits those themes in his work with remarkable restraint.

The series of black and white photographs is taken in a former court theatre in Copenhagen and it, too, helps to refrain from descending into the grotesque; although, a certain element of that is visible in the photograph where the Chairman (played by Al Massoni) is sneaking around holding a rubbish bin. The Chairman has no visible "gay attributes"; the mise-en-scene is minimal as well. All the photographs only portray the Chairman; none of the other characters are visible. I find this an excellent move – it does not weigh down the viewer's perception, while adding room for the imagination. It also creates a sense of loneliness, a state of being that, in circumstances where homosexuality was criminalised, was probably a perpetual threat for a homosexual person.

Regardless of the tragic life and injustices the Chairman experienced, he is not portrayed as a heroic figure. The artist has presented him as a type: the "opera" depicts an unheroic person the way he was, considering the particular socio-political conditions and his psychological predispositions. Through such a character, the author manages to avoid descending into the rhetoric of victimisation and distortion that would automatically grant the repressed minority moral virtue and could lead to a fallacy of argumentation ("minorities should be given rights if they are morally impeccable").


Jaanus Samma

Jaanus Samma
Chairman - The Opera (detail)
Installation, pigment photo, libreto
Exhibition view at EKKM
Photo by Johannes Säre
Courtesy of the artist



Returning to the synopsis of the opera, I must admit that it was this particular part that raised the most questions for me. The artist has selected and slightly altered the events of the Chairman's life, written them as the fictitious scenes of an opera and then asked them to be read by Tiina Kuningas, who presents an opera programme on Estonia's classical music radio station Klassikaraadio. However, the assemblage of the events is not believable as a libretto for an opera. The listener does not get the impression of a narrative developed according to the rules of the classical libretto – it does not have repetitive contrasting characters and story lines, no conflicting motives between the characters, no dramatic development of events; even the climax is re-located to the very beginning of the opera, the death scene, true to the style of opera, does not even grow out of any previous story lines. "A real opera" should emphasise the Chairman's character and his struggles more forcefully: a modern opera would leave room for character development in the style of "Wozzeck" by Alban Berg or "Peter Grimes" by Benjamin Britten.

When the only continuous narrative is homosexual love, the objects of which change due to twists of fate, this could be emphasised with the stronger use of repetition. The original material of the story is indeed opera-like – Samma claims he got the idea to frame the story as an opera primarily due to the Chairman's tragic death, but there is the ever-present characteristic of opera, dovere and affetto, within the life story itself – the conflict of duty (Soviet law) and passion. Hence, it is unfortunate that such promising original material remained in its primitive state: the potential for creating an adversarial character for the lead that would represent the oppression of the law is also left unused. I do understand, however, that the artist's intention might have been to present a person's life in its randomness and not to dwell on the causality of Aristotelian poetics. Operas with librettos that do not correspond to the traditional rules of the genre are, of course, written all the time. Yet, as the story of the Chairman's life is already somewhat altered (he was not actually killed the year Estonia regained its independence but the year before) and the installation primarily stresses the specific genre and the plausibility of its setting (the voice of Tiina Kuningas, the realistic setting of the loge, the credibility of the photographs), the verbal part of the work could emphasise the real grandeur of the opera. The synopsis should not necessarily refer to a great libretto, but to a typical libretto. The story, of course, has characteristics (the disrupted timeline) that do coincide with the requirements of a typical libretto.

As previously indicated, the third part of the work, "Loge" with its stunning view of darkness is the most impressive image of the multifaceted exposition. The loge, built into an empty room, offers the opportunity to listen to a 6-minute piece of music by Kivimägi, composed for piano, French horn and contrabass – a piece created in dialogue with the artist that clearly includes specific events and sounds. It is clearly a tonal soundscape that, in its minor tones, communicates a cinematic impression that on first listening comes off as surprisingly accessible and comprehensible. On a second visit to the exhibition, the piece with its melancholic undertones becomes rather suggestive – while staring into the darkness, the audience experiences the sonic events as almost spatial.

I believe that "Loge" would also be impressive as a separate work – I have even been told by quite a few visitors that they have actually viewed it as autonomous. The loge, already a loaded image (encompassing the notions of privilege, hierarchy, vanity, refined struggle for survival), becomes ever more powerful due to the fact that while occupying the seat of privilege in the opera box we see nothing but darkness. That powerful image permits several modes of interpretation and shifts from homosexuality and repression to a more general human level. We can see it as a break in cultural identity in general, facing the darkness of reality: cultural identity is not definitive and relies on performativity, yet, under (or opposite) all arbitrariness, there is nothing more real than nothingness, darkness, uncertainness, inarticulateness. We are always left with the non-definitive and the interpreted, an identity that is constructed through a combination of circumstance and our own choices and confronted with an opaque "reality". I am looking forward to seeing what Jaanus Samma will do next, now that he has placed the audience face to face with darkness.


* The title of a song by the Estonian band Apelsin – Ed.


Maarja Kangro is a writer and translator living and working in Tallinn.


Jaanus Samma, born 1982, is a freelance artist living and working in Tallinn. He graduated from the department of graphic arts at the Estonian Academy of Arts and studied in France (Université Paris VIII Saint-Denis, École Superieure Estienne des Arts et Industries Graphiques), from 2011 he has been continuing his studies in the doctoral programme of art and design at the Estonian Academy of Arts and is researching issues in gay culture.

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