Going Going, 2017. Collaborative performance with Kyp Malone for Performa 17, New York. Photo: Paula Court

Absorbing Stories: A Conversation with Kris Lemsalu

Kris Lemsalu’s work explores the mysteries, wonders, and absurdities of birth, life, and death. Like artists past, she considers these themes (the stuff of art since the beginning of human time) and poses the same existential question: What’s it all about? She may not have more answers than early hunter-gatherers, but her mythic performances revisit primal rituals and quests, investing them with contemporary angst and style. Like a new-millennial sorceress, she plays with fire on a remote Estonian island, harnessing an ancient Japanese form of ceramic firing to shape major elements of her multimedia installations. Tending mesmerizing fires that warm and terrifying blazes that destroy has taught her about life’s delicate balances and fueled her understanding of time as a melting and merging of all living phenomena. This insight accounts for the agelessness of her work, as it dissolves the archaic within the hip, the earthy within the elegant, the ritualistic within the carnivalesque. All of this involves collaborative effort with members of a “family,” as Lemsalu calls her extensive circle, who help her to orchestrate the music, erect the architecture, hone the craft, and sire the soul of her iconic works.

Joyce Beckenstein: You were born in Estonia in 1985, the year that Gorbachev introduced the first glasnost reforms. Did Soviet oppression still affect your everyday life?
Kris Lemsalu:
One’s upbringing is one’s “normal.” Estonia’s political structures were in total upheaval, but I was six years old when the Soviet Union broke down. Nevertheless, the shadow of the past hovers over one’s life . . .

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