Siim-Tanel Annus

In addition to creating performances and happenings, Siim-Tanel Annus is a graphic artist as well. In some ways, his performance work extends the trajectory of the fantastical creations that appear in his two-dimensional work.

In 1979, Siim started creating happenings and events in the garden of his family house, on the outskirts of Tallinn. He began by hosting exhibitions in his home, an idea that he got from Kabakov and the Moscow Conceptualists, with whom he and many Estonian artists were well-connected. While they began as smaller-scale interventions with the audience, the performances expanded in complexity until his most elaborate performance, which took place in 1989, and was filmed by Finnish TV.

When he first started creating these garden “events,” the artist referred to them as “rituals,” and recalls that the first time he read the word “performance,” it was in a Finnish magazine in 1982. He remembers significant events such as happenings that took place Tallinn, around that time, and was aware of the development of performance art and happenings through a variety of sources. But the main reason he seems to have created these events in his garden was as a way of gaining independence from art institutions and the art establishment. By staging these exhibitions and events in his private home, he had complete control over what occurred. The use of performance and action enabled him to express himself and engage with his audience in a way that he never could in his graphic work, which often consisted of mystical and fantastical architectural creations, for example, his Tower to the Heavens series. In his performances, he was eventually able to build that tower, and use fire, smoke and light to create a more effective and direct spiritual experience. He even stated that he “needed something physical” in order to truly express what he was trying to in ink on paper.

The performances at Annus’s house on Mooni Street always took place in the autumn – at first they were held in October and November, but later they were staged in December, around the winter solstice. The garden itself is significant for the artist – he said that everything he does is connected with the garden. For example, he earned his way by selling vegetables grown there. In the winter, the garden was empty or covered in leaves, and it provided the perfect stage for his large-scale events. The actions, then, are very much connected with pagan rituals that are also connected with nature, and thus fire, smoke and leaves often feature in them.

Siim's garden on Mooni Street

Siim's garden on Mooni Street

In the first performance, in 1980, the artist appeared dressed and colored in blue, announced his presence by the blast of a trumpet, and then proceeded to throw blue-colored leaves at his guests. Around that time, he had around 20-30 visitors, all of whom had been invited personally, either by word of mouth or by post.

In 1981, he elaborated on the performance, creating a costume, complete with golden crown, and introduced fire into the actions, which attracted the attention of his neighbors, who were concerned about the hazard. The authorities were aware of his happenings, and called him in for questioning, but at the time, there really wasn’t too much they could do. He and his family were harassed, and he was prohibited from going abroad, but he was never actually arrested for staging these events. Tower to the Heavens was the title of his 1982 performance, and follows on from the graphic series of the same name. The artist stated that he created the performance in order to “finish” the series. In this performance, he actually builds the aforementioned tower. After smashing a mirror, he walks through to the tower, climbs it, and throws tinsel from the top of it, describing the structure as his own “Babel.” It is a similar theme to that which appears in Kabakov’s work – the only way to escape the Soviet Union is through an upward trajectory – rocketing out through the sky from a tower of one’s own construction. Siim also claimed that although the borders were closed, it is through this tower that one could escape.

The actions also attracted the attention of Estonia’s neighboring Finns, who published an article about his garden happenings in 1984 in the art journal Taide. A representative from Finnish TV managed to get in touch with him in 1987, and inquired about the next performance, which they wanted to film. Siim told them that there would be a performance on December 5th of that year, and that they could try to get permission, but they probably wouldn’t. Surprisingly, however, Moscow agreed. Because the TV told him that they needed at least 30-minutes of footage, he had to extend the performance and make it more elaborate. This time, he had the resources of the TV station at his disposal, and they helped him with lights and a dolly that he used ride through the scene. He also had a special pyro-technician as the use of fire in the performance had become more intricate. The audience had also expanded, and there were about 150 people in his garden that night. For this piece, the artist built a wall and spent the duration of the performance attempting to crash through it. As the artist himself stated, he destroyed his own wall two years before the Germans destroyed theirs. By the end of the performance, the artist succeeds – he crashes through the wall with a loud explosion, at which time the authorities came crashing in themselves. 

Siim was taken to the local police station and questioned, along with the Finnish TV crew. As he sat there, the militia made a number of phone calls, until they finally called the KGB. While the artist doesn’t know what was said on the other side of the line, the officer was probably chewed out for interrupting the filming of a foreign TV crew, which had been approved by the authorities. After the phone call, the artist and his cohort were released, and the KGB later even apologized.

Siim’s performances were not political, but, as the artist reminds us, being apolitical in the Soviet times was a political stance, and for that reason, among others – namely the idiosyncratic nature of his work – the authorities took issue with it. Part of the problem was that it was difficult to categorize, and most likely those who investigated had no idea what to make of these elaborate scenes in his back garden. Aside from the neighbors complaining that he was “disturbing the peace,” he really wasn’t doing anything wrong, and the location of his house – far from the city center on an isolated suburban road – meant that these events shouldn’t really have attracted much attention.

The 1987 event was the artist’s last performance on Mooni Street for a while. He did continue with this theme the following year, however, on the Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn. While the song festivals had a significant role to play in the road to independence throughout the Baltic States, Siim’s photographic performances here were not specifically connected to the national tradition of song festivals and the push for independence. Rather, the artist had himself photographed in his ritualistic garb of robes and a crown that he had also worn for his garden performances, but used the festival grounds as a background due to their significance. He posed as if he were holding a rod in his hand that originated from the earth. Later, he drew that rod on the photos with magic marker. The artist told me that this line was in fact the earth’s axis, and by holding it, he is on the earth’s axis himself. He told me that not everyone can be on the earth’s axis – “you have to grab it.” And grab it, he did.

As an artist who was prohibited from leaving the Soviet Union, Siim planned his own escape thought his tower; unable to cross the border, he crossed his own self-erected wall; and although he was denied independence by the authorities, he made himself his own authority, by crowning himself king.