Estonian exhibition at Venice Biennale focuses on gay life in Soviet times ({{commentsTotal}})

Thursday saw the opening of the 56th Venice Biennale at the Palazzo Malipieros in Venice, with Estonia's pavilion housing the exhibition "NSFW: From the Abyss of History." This is Estonia's 10th time participating in the international art exhibition, with this year's offering surfacing as a collaboration between the Estonian artist Jaanus Samma and renowned Italian curator Eugenio Viola.

Jaanus Samma's exhibition explores persecution in a totalitarian society, where many aspects of private lives would often lead to facing criminal sanctions. In his investigative art project, Samma takes into focus gay life in the Soviet era, a previously underexplored topic.

At the Biennale, Samma presents a touching tale for those who found that the Soviet era state intervention of intimate spheres of everyday life became a personal matter.

Presented as a fictive opera, the photo and film installation reveals the story of a kolkhoz (Soviet-era collective farm) chairman, who has lost his social standing and fallen subject to humiliation after having been found guilty of homosexuality. Losing everything, including his family and job, the chairman nevertheless finds freedom within an entirely closed society and becomes an outlaw operating in a parallel world. The operatic form of the exhibition creates a sense of distance, allowing the viewer to contextualize events in recent history from a present-day perspective.

Videos for the exhibition were made in collaboration with Estonian film director Marko Raat. Music for the exhibition was composed by budding Estonian composer Johanna Kivimägi, with lyrics by Maarja Kangro. Accompanying print material was designed by graphic designer Brit Pavelson and the two-part exhibition catalog "NSFW. A Chairman’s Tale" published by the Center For Contemporary Arts Estonia (CCA) in collaboration with the publishing house Sternberg Press.

Samma's work at Venice builds upon his much-lauded 2013 exhibition entitled "Chairman. The Opera." "NSFW: From the Abyss of History" was chosen from a total of 11 projects submitted to the competition for the 2015 Estonian pavilion at the Biennale.

The exhibition in Venice will run through November 22, with students from the Estonian Academy of Arts and the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre acting as exhibition guards at the Estonian pavilion.

Jaanus Samma (1982) studied graphic design at the Estonian Academy of Arts and is currently working toward a doctorate at the same school. In 2013, Samma was the recipient of the Köler Prize, Estonia's most significant art award, receiving both the grand prix as well as the audience award. Samma's works are versatile and explore themes of virility. He has taken part in numerous group exhibitions and appeared in solo exhibitions in Estonia and international venues since 2005.

Eugenio Viola (1975) is the curator at large of the Napoli Madre museum in Naples and has previously worked with Estonian artists Mark Raidpere and Reet Varblane. Viola has also worked with world-renowned artists such as Marina Abramović, Teresa Margolles and Tanja Bruguera among others. Alongside his work as curator, Viola works as a lecturer and art researcher, having previously edited monographs on artists like Hermann Nitsch (2013), Marina Abramović (2012) and Orlan (2007).

The Venice Biennale (Biennale di Venezia) has been held since 1895. It is the oldest and largest international art forum in the world. Estonia has held an exhibition pavilion at the Biennale since 1997.

Editor: A. Kaer

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