in Features | 10 SEP 04
Featured in
Issue 85

Killu Sukmit & Mari Laanemets

Identity is something you perform – a performance restrained by norms and expectations

in Features | 10 SEP 04

Still, you have to do what you do in order to become what other people believe you to be. This moment of agency matters because it can generate little pockets of disorder. As people come up with tricks and dodges to meet or bypass established conventions, they gradually redefine the parameters of the social. It is precisely this subliminal spirit of anarchy that distinguishes the work of Killu Sukmit and Mari Laanemets. In their videos they stage symbolic acts and document social realities that testify to the plasticity of the categories that determine personal and cultural identity.

Ravi (The Cure, 1999) deals with the desire for tradition as a substitute for collective identity that Sukmit and Laanemets observed in their native Estonia after the demise of the USSR. The video starts with the two artists practising a folk dance in private. Instead of music, however, what you hear on the sound-track is bird-song and the industrious toc-toc-toc of a woodpecker, a perfect match for the keen dedication with which the two dancers make up for their apparent lack of expertise. The next take shows Sukmit and Laanemets walking over a snow-covered sports ground, clad in national costume. Occasionally they turn round to smile and wave at the camera, located high up. The images of their lonely parade are intercut with short close-ups of the dance exercise, now accompanied by music. In the end they reach a wood, face the camera and do the classic disappearing trick: a jump cut and they are gone. The dancing, waving and smiling routine may be redolent of socialist propaganda or Eurovision Song Contest clips promoting national cultures, but the fairytale innocence of the scenario and the exuberant joy of performing such a dance just for the hell of it take the video far beyond the level of satirical quotation. Sukmit and Laanemets are for real. It is the reality of their surroundings that is ironic.

This anarchic approach to cultural clichés also characterizes Route 66 (2002). The video shows the artists in a vintage car, wearing grey military uniforms and heavily made up. Early MTV and 1980s Soviet chic meet classic Hollywood aesthetics as the two officers on the run are filmed through the front windscreen, with the landscape drifting by on a blue backdrop. From time to time they swap over at the wheel, sip Coke or check their cosmetics. Few words are exchanged, but the ones we hear come with laid-back gravity: ‘What image are we going with?’ ‘If the image is all right, then it is all right to look; if the standard is poor, then there is nothing to be done.’ Each dialogue is an aphorism about cultural difference, including a riff on Pulp Fiction (1994) as the two muse over the fact that at the burger stand in the venerable Tallinn Drama Theatre a Big Mac is called a ‘Bismarck’. Critical discourse is integrated into the theatrical drive of the overall performance as Sukmit and Laanemets fire off references in every direction, happily jumbling up the representational codes of East and West.

Täna klubis/Kun iltana tarinat pyörli (When the Stories Get Around, 2000) documents a historic case of inter-cultural mediation. In the 1980s the citizens of Tallinn avidly followed Dallas on Finnish TV. For their video Sukmit and Laanemets staged an informal chat show in a local café and quizzed their guests about their memories of clandestinely watching the programme. It turns out that often people got together in groups to watch the programme, yet the artists found a wide range of individual recollections. No one was particularly bothered about the disparity between capitalist Dallas and socialist Estonia. Instead, interest chiefly focused on the Ewing family politics, with all its attendant intrigues and alliances. The video stresses the creative ways in which people handle the media, but this is not sociology. The chat-show framework turns participants into actors. They are not victims of history. They perform their past.

The video Laulu söber (Friend of Song, 2004) focuses on the inter-cultural performer par excellence Georg Ots, an Estonian singer, who – owing to the success of his ‘Life, I Love You’, which he recorded in 18 languages – enjoyed cult status in Estonia, Finland and Russia in the late 1950s. In the video, found footage from Estonian cinema of the ’50s and ’60s is overdubbed with pieces of music, and with old as well as newly scripted dialogue. Ots emerges as an ambiguous character: proudly claimed as a national hero and yet regarded with deep suspicion for straddling diverse cultures.

In their approach to the politics of identity Sukmit and Laanemets acknowledge the existence of stereotypes and ideologies, but are not in awe of them. On the contrary, they show that, at the level of social performance, differences turn fuzzy, structures are softened and humorous self-distance can become a persistent anarchic force.