Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia, is proud to present the Estonian Pavilion at the 56th
International Art Exhibition — La Biennale di Venezia, with a new project from emerging Estonian artist Jaanus Samma, Not Suitable For Work. A Chairman’s Tale, curated by eminent Italian curator Eugenio Viola. NSFW. A Chairman’s Tale is a fragmented fictive opera, which follows a Soviet Estonian collective farm chairman, on trial for acts of homosexuality in the 1960s. The exhibition will bring together archive materials from the Soviet Estonia and the elegant aesthetics of opera.
Since 2007, Jaanus Samma has focused his artistic research on collecting the hidden histories of gay lives in Soviet Estonia. Not Suitable for Work. A Chairman’s Tale is based on rumours and the criminal file of war hero and family man kolkhoz chairman Juhan Ojaste (1921–90). Due to his involvement in homosexual acts, Ojaste was expelled from the Communist Party and later sentenced to one and a half years in a labor camp. Following the loss of his social status as well as his dignity, family and job, Ojaste moved towns, where, as an ex-convict, he was offered only low-status jobs. In 1990, just a year before Estonia regained independence and homosexuality was decriminalised, Ojaste was murdered, allegedly by a Russian marine and male prostitute. The baroque-opera-like plot of a simple man, NSFW. A Chairman’s Tale aims to connect the social debate on LGBTI rights, with the broader issue of the violation of fundamental human rights, as common in the past as in present.
The exhibition is accompanied by a two volume publication designed by Brit Pavelson and co-published by Sternberg Press and CCA, Estonia. The catalogue consists of contributions by commissioner Maria Arusoo, curator Eugenio Viola, writer Maarja Kangro, artist and activist Slava Mogutin, scholar Kevin Moss, Rebeka Põldsam and historian Riikka Taavetti, a compilation of the Chairman’s criminal file, and excerpts from personal accounts of the Chairman edited by Martin Rünk and Jaanus Samma.
La Biennale di Venezia is the oldest and largest international art fair. Participating since 1997, this is the tenth time Estonia is exhibiting. Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia, is the official representative of the Estonian exposition at la Biennale di Venezia.
This project is supported by the Estonian Ministry of Culture, Borenius Attorneys at Law, Temnikova&Kasela Gallery, DSV Global Transport and Logistics and produced in collaboration with Fagerhult, Valge Kuup, Signature House, Lahepuu and FORM.
Jaanus Samma (b. 1982, Tallinn) lives and works in Tallinn, Estonia. Since 2011, he has been studying towards a PhD at the Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn. In 2013, he won Estonia’s most prestigious contemporary art award, the Köler Prize grand-prix, as well as the audience award. Recent exhibitions include Hair Sucks! Sweater Shop (Tallinn Art Hall Gallery, 2014), Feeling Queezy?! (EKKM, Tallinn, 2014), Is This The Museum We Wanted? (Tartu Art Museum, 2014) and After-Life of Gardens (Kumu Art Museum, 2013).
Eugenio Viola, PhD (b. 1975, Naples) is an art critic and Curator at Large at MADRE – Contemporary Art Museum of Donnaregina, Naples. He is a scholar of theories and practices related to performance and body art. On this subject he has edited monographs devoted to Hermann Nitsch (Ed. Morra, Naples, 2013), Marina Abramović (Ed. 24 Ore Cultura, Milan, 2012), and Orlan (Ed. Charta, Milan, 2007). Viola has curated a number of catalogues and exhibitions internationally, including Karol Radziszewski—The Prince and Queens. The Body as an Archive (Center of Contemporary Art, Torun, 2014); Francis Alys—Reel-Unreel the Afghan Projects (Madre Museum, Naples, 2014); Mark Raidpere—The Damage (EKKM, Tallinn, 2013); Marina Abramović—The Abramović Method (PAC | Padiglione di Arte Contemporanea, Milan, 2012).
Since 2007, Estonian artist Jaanus Samma has focused his research on collecting stories of gay lives in Soviet Estonia. Sharing the same interest, the project Not Suitable for Work. A Chairman’s Tale draws from the life of Juhan Ojaste (1) (1921–1990), a war hero and “family man”, who was a successful chairman of a kolkhoz, i.e. a collective farm in Soviet Estonia. In 1964, he was arrested and then expelled from the Communist Party due to his involvement in homosexual acts. A degrading trial was followed by a sentence of one and a half year of hard labour. Following the loss of his social status as well as his dignity, family and job, Ojaste was forced to move to a different town, where he could hold only menial positions. In the end, he was murdered by an alleged Russian male prostitute, a year before Estonia regained independence and homosexuality was decriminalised.
From a micro-historical perspective, Jaanus Samma links the public and collective dimension of History with the private and biographical qualities of the chronicle. An archival impulse (Foster) investigates memory and images, documents and their representation, in order to restore a window into a period governed by an authoritarian regime. As a matter of fact “a heightened sense of urgency surrounds the demand to remember and commemorate in societies where social codes of communication have been historically unstable or pre-empted by state repression” (Enwezor).(2)
Despite their different reasons, both the Annales school, from Bloch to Le Goff, along with some Marxist historians like Hobsbawm on one side, and several thinkers, such as Benjamin, Arendt, and Foucault on the other agree on turning the projective thought to the past instead of the future, using, according to Agamben, an archaeological approach to the present. Samma adopts a similar strategy, which is highlighted by the title Not Suitable For Work taken from internet slang (3) and applied to Chairman’s tale in order to emphasise the precarious professional and social position of all individuals subjected to the scrutiny of power. Moreover, the computer terminology refers to the pervading nature of media society, which turns us into passive witnesses of history and its discriminations, discords and contradictions.
The social debate on LGBTI rights intercepts the wider issue of the violation of fundamental human rights, so common in the past and the current day alike. In this sense, the Chairman’s story becomes the tip of the iceberg for a broader denouncement addressed at all kinds of discrimination: cultural, social, political, religious, sexual and racial. Therefore, once again, in order to remind us that art is always for the co-existence of differences.
1. Name changed in accordance with the Estonian Personal Data Protection Act.
2. O. Enwezor, “Homo Sovieticus: Postcommunist Archives”, in Archive Fever. Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, catalogue published in conjunction with the homonymous exhibition, organised by Okwui Enwezor for the International Center of Photography, New York (18 January – 4 May 2008), co-published by the International Center of Photography, New York, and Steidl Publishers, Göttingen, Germany, 2008, p. 37.
3. Usually rendered with the acronym NSFW as a warning of sexually explicit or potentially offensive internet content that might be considered inappropriate in a working environment or in situations of limited privacy