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Ene-Liis Semper, Estonian Contemporary Buddhist, in one of her video works

Ene-Liis Semper, Contemporary Buddhist 1

Interviewed by Anna Iltnere

Ene-Liis Semper (1969) is an Estonian artist who works with contemporary video and performance art. Educated as a stage designer, she has spent most of the last ten years actively working at the local theater group, no99, which she heads together with with her life partner, the director Tiit Ojasoo (1977); their performances have been acclaimed by both local and international audiences. Semper currently has a solo show (since 14 October) at the KUMU art museum in Tallinn. This is quite an event for appreciators of Baltic art, considering that the artist hasn't had a solo showing since the already-distant 2006. The exhibition at KUMU will last until 21 December and demonstrates that the museum's expansive fifth floor can be changed beyond recognition.

After meeting with Ene-Liis Semper, two things become clear. Firstly, the artist's creative works have transformed into a contemporary amalgamation in which the line between stage design and visual art has become blurred. Secondly, one comes to the realization that both existential angst and an unfeigned joy of living can exist very close to each other, for Semper's soul lies on the border between the two. This state can be obviously seen in the no99 theater company's tradition of labeling each show with a numerically decreasing number. Their first project was no99, and on 26 October, they will be opening show no67, “Appi, tulmukad!” One day, it will be zero's turn, much the same as it will eventually happen to all of us. “Being cognizant of the horizon mobilizes people, while disillusionment about an infinite future makes them careless,” says Semper. Quite like a contemporary Buddhist.

From the video “Oasis”. 1999

You work in the theater as an artistic director, as well as pursue a career in contemporary art. Do you see yourself differently in each of these roles, or are there parallels that can be drawn between the two?

In my first period of actively working with video art – at the beginning of this century – my approach was different. At the time, I was working in theater just as a stage designer, but in video art, I could be independent and carry out anything that came to mind. Ever since Tiit Ojasoo and I established the theater, no99, where I could freely experiment, I found that my background in the fine arts helped me with my stage work, and vice versa. For instance, in 2009 we performed the play “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” [it will be performed in English on 3 October at no99, as part of the “Tallinn – European Capital of Culture 2011” program]. We took the name from a famous 1965 performance by Joseph Beuys (Germany, 1921-1986). It's like a commentary about the relationship between the artist and the viewer, also between society and art as a whole. The show was my idea and I was also deeply involved in the direction of it. We improvised more on the stage than we usually do.

We are continually integrating different approaches to the creative process. Our inspiration can be modern dance, contemporary art, music, installations or performances. Several levels are possible in one show. Space and its design are beginning to take on great meaning in my art; in my solo show at KUMU, the viewer is “guided” as through a labyrinth. In my opinion, the melding of both fields is an undeniable benefit.

Do you still use your body as the central character in your video works?

Yes and no. I'm still visible in some of the new videos, but the show also contains three works in which I used actors.

Why so?

To increasingly distance myself. At the moment, I'm specifically interested in emotions; to attain an abstract level in art. To remove the world of emotions from the conventional context. In a theater production or a film, for instance, emotions are part of the narrative; but in art, I try to pull them away and highlight them separately. And the actors are from my theater troupe – I trust them. I knew that it would be easy to work with them. >>