It was roughly three years ago when Jaanus Samma moved into his current studio in the Old Town of Tallinn. The entrance to the house – belonging to the Estonian Artists’ Association – is located between two prominent galleries Hobusepea and Hop. The attic studio that Samma is renting is reserved for graphic artists while the rest of the building is occupied by jewellery artists. Our conversation goes full circle, starting and ending with matters of education. Along the way we touch upon topics such as the prevailing need for labelling and the occasionally blurry line between art and design. We also discuss Samma’s recent solo exhibition “Hair Sucks Sweater Shop” and his upcoming Venice Biennial showcase.
You’ve graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts with a BA in Graphic Art and an MA in Fine Arts. What was it that made you specialize in graphic art?
Actually, there is no good answer to this. After high school I just picked one medium and then stuck with it. I think the Department of Fine Arts has a better system nowadays; first year the students do everything from painting to sculpture and then, on the second year, they choose what they want to specialize in. Anyway, I don’t regret the choice that I made. And officially I also did my MA in the Department of Graphic Art, even though my final project was a garden installation!
I assume you are no longer comfortable with being regarded as a graphic artist.
No, I’m not, yet for some reason I’m often referred to in that way. I mean I like the medium, follow the development of the field and remain connected to it in many ways – for example by being on the board of the Tallinn Print Triennial. It’s just that I haven’t made any prints in years.
Is there some other title, i.e. installation artist or queer artist that you would be more comfortable with? Or would you rather see the habit of labelling becoming a thing of the past?
It is one thing to talk medium specific but you also mentioned queer artist, which is thematic. It is true that I’m working more and more in this field but even so I think this label is irrelevant because it generalizes and closes the door for so many other things. Still, I understand we all do it, label things that is; it makes it easier to understand the world around us.
Can you say a little bit about the exhibition “Hair Sucks Sweater Shop” that took place in Tallinn Art Hall Gallery?
The project grew out of my long-term interests in knitted sweaters and obscene graffiti in the city space. At one point I combined these two and started using found images and texts that were dealing with sexuality and queer topics as patterns for sweaters. I chose “Hair sucks” as the title for the project because everybody seemed to have some kind of explanation or connection to this small sentence. And I transformed the gallery space into a shop in which fifty sweaters were shown. For me it was important that people could wear the sweaters, carry the graffiti back into the city space and forge new connections with the places it originated from. I also like the idea of the hidden graffiti becoming public, very personal and intimate for the people who wear it.
How did you find the graffiti?
I went out to look for it. Searching for the graffiti was a very playful way to experience the city. I also did it when I was traveling. In both cases – whether you know the city or not – changing the filter makes you see new things.
What about the knitters?
It was quite difficult to find knitters but not because of the obscene messages, which I thought would be a problem but it never was. Rather, it is a lot of work to make a sweater by hand and the people who knit for money usually prefer making smaller and more profitable things such as mittens and socks. Moreover, I was told that it’s boring to make a sweater with a blank front, without any pattern or texture. It also makes every small mistake become really visible.
Why was it important for you to place the images and texts on the back of the sweaters?
I thought it would be too in-your-face if they were on the front. Besides, in a sense it’s funny that these kinds of rude things are always being said behind people’s backs. Now the sweaters are more discreet but at the same time more problematic. For example, what happens when you’ve talked for an hour with a person and then when she or he leaves you see this obscene message on the back of their sweater? I had a situation like this when having lunch in Paris during the Off Print festival. I was at a restaurant and wearing a sweater that says “je suce” which means: “I suck”. In English it doesn’t sound so oral, but in French it literally means sucking – and it can only mean one thing. So, when I went to the restroom a waitress confronted my friend with her concern that perhaps I had bought something that I didn’t fully understand. She then blushed and left quickly. That was a funny incident!
Do you regard the sweaters as art or design objects?
Even though I don’t wear them that often I consider them to be usable design. I also imagine that most people that bough a sweater from the exhibition did so in order to wear it. Of course there were others, such as the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design, who bought them in order to display them.
It seems to me that your practise often moves between art and design. Not only when it comes to the sweaters, but also on occasions when the exhibition design and catalogue become part of the concept of the artwork.
What I’ve wanted to do, in particular with the “Hair Sucks Sweater Shop”, was to work somewhere in this blurry field between design, fashion, fine arts, architecture, whatever, commercial, non-commercial, because for me it doesn’t make any sense to work just within one field or medium. I really like it when things are not so easy to label.
You’ve previously curated and designed numerous exhibitions, especially in the field of printmaking. Do you differentiate between the principles of exhibition design when displaying your own art and the work of others?
I’ve only done a few curatorial projects and I’m not designing exhibitions that much anymore. In general I think that exhibition design has become more and more conceptual. It is something that curators need to consider as well. The Tallinn Print Triennial for example invested a lot of money into buying something like five hundred aluminium frames. This happened at a time when artists were responding to an open call and sending in their prints. We then got new picture mounts, used the frames that we had and hang the works neatly on the wall. Now, for the last two triennials we have used almost none of these frames because framing and all that has become such an important part of the artwork.
Can you say something about your upcoming project for the Estonian pavilion at the Venice Biennial?
The exhibition space in Palazzo Malipiero will be divided into two parts. One part will be an archive and the second part, which will be more playful and also very theatrical, will be my interpretation of the historical material. The project is inspired by a life story of a man called the Chairman. First, in the 50s and 60s he made a career for himself being the chairman of a kolhoos (a collective farm). Then, in the end of the 60s, he was sentenced to one and half years in prison because of a homosexual relationship. After the prison sentence he stopped caring about people’s opinions and became socially active in the gay scene. Through the story of the Chairman, which in a way narrates the gay history of Estonia during the Soviet period, I can talk about things such as the pressures of society, cruising areas, prostitution etc. Finally the project is not so much about the history of sexual minorities but a story about totalitarian regimes and individual freedom, which is very relevant to talk about in today’s context.
This exhibition has grown out of your PhD project that started in 2011. What are your thoughts on the interrelation between artistic subjectivity and academic research?
The whole PhD in the fine arts thing is something that is very hard for me to generalize about. I think it needs to be taken case by case. I assume this is also the reason why every country and University has a different system for organizing the studies.
Being in a PhD program one has to follow a set plan. Do you like this way of working?
When I was doing the “Hair Sucks Sweater Shop” I worked with sixteen knitters, two photographers, an architect and so forth. We had to have a proper plan in order to make things work. There is also a large team working on the Venice Biennial project, which means everything has to be fixed well in advance. I’m not stressed about this. Actually, I quite like it.
The conversation between Jaanus Samma and Mirja Majevski took place in Tallinn, EST on January 3, 2015.
Text: Mirja Majevski
Photo: Mirja Majevski, Anna-Stina Treumund, Anu Vahtra, Johannes Säre, Jaanus Samma, Alo Paistik
|Born:||1982 in Tallinn, EST|
|Education:||BA 2005 in Graphic Arts and MA in Fine Arts 2009, Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn, EST. Currently a PhD candidate of the Art and Design program at Estonian Academy of Arts.|
|Info:||“Not Suitable for Work. A Chairman’s Tale”, Estonian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennial, curatated by Eugenio Viola.|