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How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare

Ojasoo / Semper

programme | video | technical rider

Brutalisation or Reconciliation?
Madis Kolk

Tiit Ojasoo’s affirmation that the specific person and name of the present Minister of Culture is not particularly important in the stage production of How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare and that the primary emphasis of the play on the whole does not lie in ridiculing cultural officials probably sounds insincere to many. (The Cultural Minister of Estonia is named Laine Jänes, but ’Jänes’ means in Estonian ’Hare’. As there is a character in the production who is female and who is some kind of cultural official, many have concluded, that the production is about Laine Jänes. It is not. - Ed.) With the exception of a couple of strong images, broader subject matter is indeed dealt with on stage. It is actually not only the title of Joseph Beuys’s famous happening that refers to the questions raised by the play – quite honestly, relying solely on name-based puns would be somewhat “uncultured” – rather the associations that come with it are built in to the production in the initial moments of the play already when reference character Beuys himself sits onstage with his face gilded. His inquisitive attitude behind his overshadowed facial expressions is directed straight into the audience, inferring that the one he is about to start explaining art to from the stage is not only a rabbit, and certainly not Minister Jänes, rather the entire audience is his guinea pig.

The emphasis is also not on well-timed topicality, which would be supported by recent vociferous appraisals of the topic of support for theatre people from the Estonian Cultural Endowment or of social guarantees for writers. The age-old disruption of communication brought to the stage actually does not only run between “people of culture” and “the rabble” but all too often also runs between the former group themselves. Consequently, from time to time there is reason to ask if the scepticism and annoyance of people in occupations further removed from art may on that account even be justified at times. The fact that the events of the moment in their synchronicity with the play offer particular support to the production in terms of its reception is about the same kind of “lucky” accident like the riots sparked by the relocation of the Bronze Soldier monument (erected by the Soviets to immortalise its occupation of Estonia after World War II - translator) on the background of NO99 Theatre’s production of GEP. On a more essential level, however, it helps to make the concept and effect of Beuys’s “social sculpture” more expressive, demonstrating that the relationship of the artist with the environment that inspires him as well as with the environment which receives his work cannot function only by way of slogans. Rather, it must incorporate all strata of the communication process in order to achieve actual effectiveness.

In addition to the mere “message”, the stage production also considers questions of theatre phenomenology. The dependence of the realisation of the message on the capability to execute the performance is examined, thus in a sense continuing the theme of NO99’s opening production of Sometimes it Feels Like…. This time, however, the emphasis is on the measurability of the value of the execution. Yet putting the audience to the test through the participation of Beuys himself is not merely a simple decorative citation but rather an introduction to the theme of how the possibilities for appraising the fact of art are already staged into the auditorium a priori. The fact that the production is full of references and citations not only divides the audience into those who understand and those who do not, it also raises the question of the specific perception of theatre art. After all, one of the more widespread bones of contention of columnists writing on culture and commentators from the rabble is the question of the perception of “common sense” in art, the inevitable expansion of which is the frequent claim that art that is essential to society pays for itself and that there is no demand for art that does not do so. What cannot be perceived on the primary level is consequently not necessary. There is naturally no doubt in the absurdity of this kind of attitude on a theoretical level, yet the issue is how this manifests itself in each specific individual case, for instance in the case of theatre art itself, which is not expressed in hermetic symbols that can be preserved for the ages but rather “here and now”, directed primarily to broadening the capacity of the audience for empathy.

Is the viewer, who for instance lacks the professional erudition of Eha Komissarov (which enriches this particular stage production both informatively and performatively), also that so called uncultured segment of the audience from the point of view of theatre art? Is then a person who has contributed to the functioning of this reputed manifestation of high culture both as a taxpayer and as a ticket buyer not even allowed to raise the question at all of since when can theatre be comprehended only through symbols and citations and not through the direct presence of the actor? Since when did theatre art become an elitist and intellectual category of art? Especially considering that the same question can be heard from time to time from representatives of other spheres of art as well, to say nothing of the money counting that accompanies it. Although this may sound harebrained, people have the right to pose such questions, at least as long as the supposed intellectual aristocrat himself does not always behave in a manner worthy of his sphere of responsibility, instead considering it more like belonging self-evidently to some sort of social stratum without taking the trouble to calmly explain to other members of society when necessary how both he and the proletarian contribute to the functioning of society without being better or worse than each other in any way. (By the way, intellectual columnists in general use the concept of the “rabble” and the “proletarian” too frequently as synonyms, forgetting that the rabble that curses artists in internet commentaries works predominantly in offices while the proletarian works by the sweat of his brow and has neither the time nor the surplus energy for such anonymous belittling).

Andres Mähar, for instance, bears the attitude of this corresponding theme in his monologue as a glass artist, speaking in earnest about his preferential status even in paying taxes. On this background, the complaining speech of Gert Raudsepp’s character, who is ignorant of art, also sounds convincing, expressing not only attack, but also self-defence. If one is asked, then one should be able to answer in what way boundary-exploring conceptualism cultivates the entire social cultural stratum. Or in other words, why are shitting into a jar and pissing into a dipper are not one and the same thing. So does the division of the audience automatically mean appraisals of values and provide a basis for labelling? Particularly in light of the convictions of Beuys himself: the intellect did not exactly designate the source of creativity and at least on the level of quests, it counteracted the simplified division of society into a homogenous spiritually enlightened artistic elite, rulers who are hostile to spiritual and intellectual matters, and the spiritually blind rabble. Beuys’s own motto that everyone can be an artist already complicates this kind of simplification that is often encountered. This is perhaps not so much as an appeal for all-embracing folk art as rather for creativity in particular in every sphere of life. As a conceptualist on the one hand whose direct activity is comprehensible to only a few persons concerned, he wanted through this approach to see society precisely as a uniform environment where there is less arrogance and where the artist is connected with reception as well. Why else would he explain pictures to a dead rabbit? At the same time, this confirms the everlasting paradox that art used in the attempt to do away with boundaries delineating both high and low art, as well as boundaries separating life from art in general can seem more elitist (incomprehensible) than high culture in the traditional sense, the artistic attributes of which are less suspicious even in the eyes of persons further removed from art. The questions posed by Beuys, however, ideally should moderate precisely that disruption in communication with its filter of arrogance, emphasising the sense of responsibility of both the creator and his audience simultaneously.

This stage production plays out all these themes in several versions, primarily from the position of the artist, yet as has already been mentioned, even this is not done without self-criticism and, naturally, the main source of conflict, money, is not ignored. To illustrate this assertion of Beuys as well, how money without creativity becomes impotent, intellectuals suffering through a creative crisis, who “would surely do something, but…” and thus drown their sorrows in liquor, as well as sponsors who see the acting profession as merely a side show are brought to the stage.

While we’re on the subject of culture and money, we certainly cannot get by without athletics, and the long pantomime on different branches of athletics actually illustrates the understanding that the majority of society does not question: sports is grand, harmonious, measurable and is subject to rules. It is more difficult to question this position, which is moreover supported by the team sports mentality of the participants, than a vague sphere of activity based on subjective criteria and intangible benefit, the cultivators of which themselves frequently do not find unanimity in their needs. The Minister played by Maarika Vaarik is indisputably comical, yet brings out the inevitability concealed in this official post more so than a direct appeal to smear the minister. Risto Kübar personifies the dog-man Oleg Kulik (the association with the sports scene where he played the exhibitionist team fan in the same costume is probably a chance coincidence, yet it also offers intriguing possibilities for creating associations), who attacks the Minister at the moment when she comes to affirm that she is one with the people of culture in an unmistakably sincere yet nevertheless unconvincing manner. The image is relatively effective visually, both on its one-to-one primary level as well as through associations. Considering the fact that the key figure of the play is Joseph Beuys, one can imagine as background a dialogue between the performances of these two artists: the performance from those days by Beuys “I Like America and America Likes Me” and Kulik’s response from a couple of decades later “I Bite America and America Bites Me”.

Both performances were critical of society and of those in power, yet (at least allegedly) both aspired to examine and overcome the disruptions in communication in contemporary civilisation: Beuys in his ritual and conciliatory way, and Kulik through the phenomenon of brutalisation and emphasis on a sharpened concept of reality. It is better if this dialogue between two artists remains more associative in this play because in developing it further to its extreme points and perhaps even in contrasting American and Eastern European qualities, it would drift too far from the problems of reception of our local artistic community.

We can nevertheless not go without recalling the figurative aspect of the above-mentioned performance by Beuys, where the artist, after spending several days in a closed room with a coyote and attempting to rediscover possibilities for reconciling ancient tradition and ailing civilisation, had the animal urinate on the symbol of monetarism spread out on the floor, the Wall Street Journal, to confirm this attempt at reconciliation, as an amusing association with the scene where the Minister is pissed on. The end of this NO Theatre play can be viewed as a spontaneous joke without any particularly deep meaning, and also as a reference to the populist tendency of the people in power in our country to sometimes show themselves at somewhat carelessly chosen cultural events. Yet on the background of what was said previously, it can also be seen as a symbolic act of reconciliation in its own way between intellectuals, people in power, and the rabble, after which Mrs. Minister valiantly dried herself off and joined in a joint song confirming ritual unity.

Published in the weekly cultural newspaper Sirp on 20 March 2009

Idea by Tiit Ojasoo and Ene-Liis Semper
Directed and scenography by Tiit Ojasoo and Ene-Liis Semper
Dance scene by Mart Kangro

On stage Rasmus Kaljujärv, Risto Kübar, Andres Mähar or Lauri Lagle, Mirtel Pohla, Jaak Prints, Gert Raudsep, Inga Salurand or Eva Klemets, Tambet Tuisk, Marika Vaarik, Sergo Vares

Duration appr. 2.30, no interval

Premiere 10 March 2009

International Participations


November | Théâtre de l'Odéon (Pariis, France)
Jaanuar | Thalia Theater (Hamburg, Germany)


August | Tampereen Teatterikesä (Tampere, Finland)
May | Wiener Festwochen (Wien, Austria)
May | Auawirleben (Bern, Switzerland)


October | Baltiiski Dom (St Petersburg, Russia)
September | Divadelná Nitra (Nitra, Slovakia)
September | Draama 2009 (Tartu, Estonia)
September | Baltic Theatre Autumn (Tartu, Estonia)

Photos: Ene-Liis Semper