Kai Kaljo is an Estonian artist. She tells us so in her 1997 video performance, Loser. It is a piece that she is perhaps best known for, and poignantly combines her skill as a video artist with elements from popular culture to create a clever commentary on post-Soviet Estonian society. In the video, the artist tells us how much she weighs, that she is 37 and still lives with her mother, and that she earns $90 per month as a teacher at the Art Academy. Interspersed between these comments is a laugh track, common in Western sitcoms for decades by that point, but still a novelty in Eastern Europe. For most who grew up with laugh tracks on TV, the sound of canned laughter in the middle of a show usually goes unnoticed. But to those hearing it for the first time, it seems ridiculous that one would need laughter inserted to indicate where and when to laugh. It is this cultural difference that the piece plays on, by using the laughter to designate what might be funny to Western audiences. The idea that a 37-year old woman still lives with her mother is perhaps not laughable, but certainly unusual – at least in the West in the 1990s (due to the economic crisis, nowadays, this is probably more common than not), however in many Eastern European countries it is the norm that several generations would live together in the same home. The idea that she earns a mere $90 per month would also surprise the Western viewer, however at the end of the piece she puts that laughing viewer to shame by informing us that “the most important thing for an artist is freedom,” and that she is happy. The title of the piece is self-deprecating, and although it is quite indicative of the time in which it was made, it still has relevance today, when economic disparity between East and West continues to confine Eastern Europe the the “other” to Western Europe and North America.
Many of Kai’s video pieces are autobiographical, and one that is of particular interest is Domestic Violence (2001), in which she tied up her former partner, also an artist, and asked him a series of questions about their relationship. The piece begins with an idyllic and cheerful scene of the artist talking to her young son. Part II shifts to a bedroom scene, where Kai ties her partner to the bed, and begins asking him a series of questions. She starts by asking him if there is anything nice he will remember about her. His first response is that she is a very talented person, to which she responds by asking if that is a reason to be together and have a child. He then begins to talk about her positive attributes, saying that she is one of the best lovers he has ever had, and that she is sensitive and can be tender, but couches that compliment by adding “when you are in a good mood.” He then goes on to talk about her moodiness, and her lack of empathy, especially with regard to his multiple affairs with other women. The piece is almost painful to watch, as it completely divulges the most intimate aspect of a relationship to the viewer. It also recalls the arguments and discussions of a dysfunctional relationship – those arguments that happen over and over again, and never reach any resolution. Part III of the video returns to a happier domestic scene of Kai’s son playing with his pet rat.
Kai mentioned among her influences the punk rock group Para Trust from the 1980s. The lead singer of the band, Hardi Volmer, who is also a film and theater director, would make comical 8mm films for parties at the Art Academy in the 1980s. These were sometimes Charlie Chaplin-style, and the influence can be seen in Kai’s 1999 video Pathetic, which shows the artist playing Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata, followed by a common scene witnessed from balconies across Eastern Europe – a drunken neighbor walking snake-like across the yard. Accompanying him, the Beethoven music is distorted so that it also sounds drunk.
Kai’s video work balances between sensitive self-reflection and socio-cultural examinations of both her own surroundings, as well as new environments that she finds herself in, for example, America and Germany. She confronts the viewer with brutal honesty, revealing that at least one of her former partner’s comments was right – that she is a sensitive and talent as an artist.