“Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life,” artist Kris Lemsalu quotes Prince at the entrance of the Estonian Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale. Her exhibition, ‘Birth V – Hi and Bye’, was inaugurated by a pseudo-shamanistic ritual, a performance imbued with a ‘campy’ sensibility interposing death and rebirth, cosmology and femininity.
10 May. Nearly 5 pm. The crowd waits impatiently before the closed doors of the Estonian Pavilion, an industrial building situated in the new arts district. They have taken the vaporetto to the island of Giudecca, some perhaps remembering Lemsalu’s performance ‘Whole Alone 2’ (2015) at New York’s Frieze Art Fair – fantastic ceramic beasts, empty egg containers and the endurance of her body under the weight of the heavy tortoise shell in complete fusion with the artwork.
The reverie of the crowd is suddenly interrupted by the sound of a drum, accompanied by isolated notes on a synthesiser announcing the beginning of a ritual. Three straw hats appear to be floating over the heads of the crowd towards the entrance, a trio of shamans perched on a moving chariot. The makeup that exaggerates their facial features works in harmony with their eclectic costumes made of colourful capes and big fluffy sleeves. The solemn melody of the instruments and the curling smoke of a smudge stick create a ceremonious atmosphere, but Lemsalu, in her Harlequin-like costume, doesn’t let formality seize the moment and casually opens the door of the Pavilion, waving at her team who respond with a laugh.
This push-pull tension between theatricality and a failed seriousness is refreshing. Near the entrance of this dark temple, two ten-armed vagina-faced creatures are carrying hundreds of keys, unlocking the padlocks hanging from their dangling teats. Aboard a vessel, the two deities are leaving the space, returning to their planet where vagina goddesses are praised for their mystical powers of birth. Further away, the centre of the temple is inhabited by a central porcelain totem made out of twelve gigantic vulvas with different attributes; an accordion, grapes, a basketball, etc. The installation and accompanying performance recall a ‘campy’ sensibility, ‘art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much’’ (Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on Camp’). The absurdity becomes slowly normalised like we have always belonged here.
Music has traditionally been used in rituals to negotiate relationships among self, society, and the cosmos. It can create a fleeting sense of community. The vocalist seems to have gone into a trance, guided by the hypnotic rhythm. She emits a loud bellow thrumming with an intensity that resonates through your stomach, transpassing the surface of your body and tingling your soul. A shaman turns around the fountain, touching the lumpy and shiny ceramics, which activates the water running from the twelve vulvas. He pours his face into the pool, turning back to ‘the wet depths of our mothers’ (as written in the exhibition guide), diving into water, a symbol of womanhood, sexuality and birth to resurrection. Lemsalu plays with traditions, blurring their origins and removing their dogma. In this perpetual movement, her work evades concrete labeling, simultaneously showing us the absurdity of as well as the effectiveness of rituals. From this collective transformative euphoria emerges a belief in the possibility of human redemption, a hope in the emergence of a new society where vulvic deities are praised for their power of birth, death and love.