CharáKris Lemsalu


As happens so often in Kris Lemsalu’s art practice, the story of a work of art begins in the sphere of personal friendship: About ten years ago, a friend of the artist found a reindeer jaw on a walk in the Estonian woods and brought it back to her as a gift from the trip. Playing around with the shape of the jaw first yielded the image of a heart, a vagina, a portal. Kris Lemsalu took a plaster mold of it, cast the jawbones in porcelain, put a pantyhose on them, and from this created a piece entitled Aldonza Lorenza (ill. 4). This is known to be the civil name of Dulcinea, the imagined beloved lady of Don Quixote, who in reality—and reality is what this novel, after all, is about—was sturdy as a horse and had an all-penetrating voice.

Later, Lemsalu happened to come across the mythological figure of Baubo in a book, who in ancient Greek lore tries to cheer up, as a female jester of sorts, the goddess Demeter grieving over the loss of her daughter Persephone. Baubo’s antics, one of which is exposing her vulva, are obscene and absurd. From this narrative, Lemsalu eventually developed the sculpture titled Baubo Dance (ill. 5), in which the reindeer jaws are used once again, though this time more clearly connoted as a vulva. But now she linked the element of the female jester with a ritual dance of witches around a fire and staged the jawbones as a vagina dentata (toothed vagina), as it appears time and again in folklore tales and traditions on all continents. In the Modernist age, the image was interpreted as an expression of castration anxiety by Sigmund Freud; however, Lemsalu refers back to older indigenous readings like an amulet-like warning against rape or illicit sexual advances.

The fact that the reindeer jawbones make a third appearance in Kris Lemsalu’s work has its reason in the original triple reading as heart, vagina, and portal, which is the result of the playful rune-cast-like toying with their shape. Birth and rebirth, renewal and rejuvenation are themes that have informed Lemsalu’s works from its beginnings. The vagina as a portal through which we are born into the world already played a central role in her installation Birth V (ill. 6) for the Estonian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The idea of a portal through which one steps out into a new world, a new state, a new stage of life has become ever more significant in Lemsalu’s oeuvre. The sculpture Doora, marking the boundary between the Nibelungengau and Wachau regions at the river port mole of the town of Melk, thus also represents a portal between regions.

Doora (ill. 7) is Lemsalu’s first work in the public space and, over the course of its creation, led the artist to a new, more extroverted working process. While the museum works are rather withdrawn, introverted and oriented by an inner view, public space for Lemsalu is about asking from an outside perspective what anybody (not just herself) would like to perceive and do. Already in Doora, she also borrows from popular culture and, with the emoji-style wings, virtually encourages snapshots and selfies at the site of the sculpture, which is much frequented by tourists. For the sculpture Chará now presented in the Graben pedestrian zone, Doora therefore is an important point of reference, a first outdoor portal.

The sculpture Chará (ill. 1-3), finally—with its glaring color and naïve heart shape—taps into the shallow waters of popular culture (just think of the “heart” sign formed with the fingers in social media) as well as into the depths of mythology, also conveying a personal story, as Lemsalu’s works always do. The titular name Chará (χαρά) is the ancient Greek word for joy, and this is something that Lemsalu finds to be neglected in society or undermined by technology. Whether a dopamine rush induced by digital likes from unknown users or a raise for a long-tenure employment, it is a far cry from true joy. Lemsalu wants to convey a sense of joie de vivre and cheerfulness as an essential living practice that opens up a path to happiness and unashamed pleasure. Chará is meant to be a portal which to pass through (if only spiritually) is tantamount to a ritual act that is purifying, invigorating, and rejuvenating. For Lemsalu, Chará, that is, joy, also is to be understood as increasing (self-)knowledge by growing older, as a step toward a more mature way of treating oneself, the world, and all other creatures, and as an instance of hope for a new, happier world. (Thomas Brandstätter)


Kunstplatz Graben, Höhe Graben 21, 1010 Wien

Further Information

Kris Lemsalu *1985 in Tallinn (EST), lives in Tallinn


CharáKris Lemsalu

Time Period

August 16 to November 8, 2023

U1 / U3 Stephansplatz

Education - Events


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