Jaanus Samma: The artworks have to be visually approachable - Kauno Bienalė

Jaanus Samma: The artworks have to be visually approachable


Jaanus Samma is a visual artist based in Tallinn, Estonia. His interdisciplinary body of work, exploring the representation of male sexuality and queer culture, includes photography, video, installation, as well as knitwork and embroidery.  In 2015, Samma represented Estonia at the 56th Venice Biennale with his project “NSFW. A Chairman’s Tale”, which explores gay history in Estonia during the Soviet era. In the following conversation, Samma discusses his approach to art and upcoming participation at the 14th Kaunas Biennial (Lithuania), the 14th Survival Kit (Latvia), and the 35thLjubljana Biennale of Graphic Arts (Slovenia).

A lot of your work is research-based. I heard you are very self-conscious when it comes to research, as you always avoid being superficial about historical events and social phenomena. What are the main challenges that you face as an artist-researcher?

The artworks have to be visually approachable. So, you have to be superficial to some extent, summarize and simplify things. That is always a struggle. Also, I don’t feel comfortable researching areas I know nothing about. So, I seek to collaborate with people who know more about the topic at hand. For instance, when I was working on “Riga Postcards”, a utopian project that features Soviet Riga as a gay tourist destination, I collaborated with Latvian historian Ineta Lipša.

Riga Postcards, 2020, digital print on silk, metal stands, flower arrangement. Photo Ansis Starks

Your work is known for using folk motives, national patterns, ethnographic artefacts that you often combine with elements of gay culture, such as jockstraps. How did you first become interested in vernacular culture?  

My interest in crafts and various techniques has always been present in my work. When it comes to ethnographic arts here in Estonia, it is often talked about in a very narrow way. I was a bit bored because of how it’s been viewed and how it lacked many perspectives. I think it is a very fruitful soil to do something and it encouraged me to work on it. When I first started, I thought this would be a one-time thing. But things always get more interesting as you go on. So, now it has been quite a few years that I have been working with ethnographic material. However, I try not to be stuck in just one aesthetic.

What I find interesting is that, historically speaking, embroidery, knitting and so on were always considered to be something very female in arts. For a long time, those have been the medias often chosen by artists taking a feminist approach. While your works mostly concern male sexuality. So, there is this interesting switch here.

That is definitely a fair point as I usually don’t make my craft-based works myself. Instead, I collaborate with professional craftspeople. Usually, I try to study the techniques used in my projects, or at least observe how things are being made. It’s interesting that most of the people I collaborate with in the projects that include knitting and embroidery, are, in fact, women.

Personal Mythology, 2021, Vilna

Could you tell about some of your most remarkable, challenging, or fun collaborations?

I think the making of the video “NSFW. A Chairman’s Tale” in collaboration with Marko Raat was probably the most exciting collaboration yet. Filmmaking combines so many different things: camera work, sound, props, actors… The team was so much bigger than my teams usually are. I and Marko were both authors of the video. This experience was exceptional, although I do enjoy all my collaborations. Usually, I collaborate with craftspeople working in mediums such as weaving, embroidering, leather work or even metal work. I highly value handicraft and it’s a great privilege to work with artisans who carry on their respective traditions in a world that increasingly strives towards machine-like perfection.

I wonder how non-art professionals react when you approach them with your artistic ideas.

It’s funny. I still don’t know why, but I have never had a single serious conversation about the topic with the craftspeople I collaborate with. I almost always explain what I do. But when I see that they are only interested in technical things, I don’t bother them with the concept of the work. However, I must admit that when I started, I was afraid that craftspeople – oftentimes older than me – might be more conservative and wouldn’t be interested in working with me. But I was wrong and I have become good friends with many of my collaborators.

Although your work addresses serious and sometimes very sensitive topics, quite often you take a humorous and playful approach in your storytelling. Is that a deliberate choice?

It comes quite naturally. I always think of balancing things. When I show something difficult, I try compensate it with something nice. Of course, there are exceptions. For instance, “NSFW. A Chairman’s Tale” was based on true story and I felt that I have to make it uncomfortable for the viewer to watch. I wanted to show the extreme nature of the protagonist’s experiences.

Rug No. 17, 2022, Wool

What are you working on for the 14th Kaunas Biennial, the 14th Survival Kit and the 35th Ljubljana Biennale of Graphic Arts?

My work has three chapters, each of which will be presented in a different venue. Every venue will showcase three screenprints and a wedding rug, which will be different in Kaunas, Riga and Ljubljana. The project takes inspiration from a traditional Estonian wedding custom that persisted until the early 20th century. According to this custom, the bride would personally weave a rug for her wedding, representing a potent symbol believed to bring marital happiness. The wedding rug typically portrays the couple, along with significant objects like a farm house, a horse, etc., as well as some geometrical folk elements. My rugs will be queer interpretations of these wedding rugs.

The rug I will show in Ljubljana at first looks like an ethnographical object but at a closer look you will recognise some gay paraphernalia and fetish objects like a jockstrap or sport socks, etc.

For Survival Kit in Riga, I have dedicated the rug to Kristjan Jaak Peterson. He was a 19th-century Estonian poet who spent most of his life in Riga, since Latvia and Estonia were both part of Livonia back then and Riga was the capital. He was a very important poet – first to write poems in Estonian – although he died at the age of 21. Somehow it has been ignored that some of his love poems were dedicated to another man named Alo. Some literary scholars claim that this depiction of same-sex attraction present in Peterson’s work is due to his fascination with antique poetry but the majority of articles focusing on Kristjan Jaak Peterson’s work just choose to overlook this aspect. So, this rug is an imaginary wedding rug for Jaak and Alo. As a happy side note, I’d like to point out that starting from the 1st of January 2024 same-sex marriages will be allowed in Estonia. Maybe this will inspire neighbouring countries as well.

And as for the rug I’m preparing for Kaunas Biennial, I will focus on the sauna tradition, which in urban settings sauna has played a key role in gay cruising culture. There is no doubt that going back, in traditional peasant society, social rules were quite rigid and saunas were mostly used for hygiene as well as some medical procedures. But saunas have always been a place where social boundaries are more relaxed. Naked bodies are vulnerable and liberated from hierarchies that are often manifested through clothing.