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About Anu Põder and the Feminists

Eha Komissarov (1/2017)

Eha Komissarov and Rebeka Põldsam in conversation about the international group exhibition "Anu Põder. Be Fragile! Be Brave!".


17. III–6. VIII 2017
Kumu Art Museum 5th floor Gallery of Contemporary Art
Artists: Anu Põder, Katrin Koskaru, Ursula Mayer, Ana Mendieta, Alina Szapocznikow, Iza Tarasewicz.
Curator: Rebeka Põldsam.

So far our public has only seen the work of Anu Põder (1947–2013) in the context of the Estonian art world, especially among the prestigious sculpture work of the 1980s, where her pieces have an exceptional effect. The Soviet women sculptors were often shown in separate exhibitions, and in the 1990s the reception of her work focused more on the female experience and attempted to frame it as feminist art. From very early on in her career the artist rebutted all categorisation and did not adopt feminism. That does not mean that she was a conformist but to understand her ideology and artist position we end up in a discussion.


Crazy feminisms

Eha Komissarov (E. K.): Let's start by setting the focus on the feminist aspects of Põder's work. The precondition for this is the existence of a critical discourse; in her case we can talk about the criticism of traditional male-centred sculpture and the narcissism of the 1980s art world.

In the 1990s, many artists seemed to start on a clean slate and lose their ability to connect or find predecessors.


Rebeka Põldsam (R. P.): It's quite clear from an interview with Jaan Elken in 2009 that some of Põder's role models came from international magazines and lectures she heard in Tartu (Art Brut, Surrealism), though these sources can't be traced in hindsight. I have looked but haven't found much; I should probably look harder.

The clean slate syndrome is also a good remark. For example, Põder said she was very surprised how similar her work was to Magdalena Abakanowicz but differs from Donald Judd and Carl Andre.

It's difficult to say anything about her work in the 1980s. It's a very odd and uncertain period when a lot of artists were making pro-Soviet art but later were denying it.


E. K.: Another important aspect is Põder's opposition to the discourse of the universal femininity of Soviet women artists. Women in 1970s–1980s Estonian art presented quite a clear phenomenon. This topic should follow Toril Moi's definition of Third-wave feminism, femininity as a set of characteristics constructed by culture.


R. P.: Could you specify?


E. K.: I would be careful defining the feminist style because it tends to distinctively transform randomly received information. Style is needed to express something very unique about oneself. We can say tentatively that the subject of feminism is the description of the symbolic sphere of women. Toril Moi divides feminism as follows: 1) political; 2) femaleness; 3) femininity as qualities that are preconditioned by culture.

According to Julia Kristeva, we need to define the different relationship that men and women have with power, language and meaning. This connects the symbolic sphere with gender and seeks to first characterise women in general and then woman individually.

When we frame Põder's work we can talk about feminism as an expression of femininity.
I have also tried to answer the questions everyone tends to ask when coming across her work. We would all like to know what makes an artist stand out and special, and to be able to describe the reasons Põder was compelled to view or approach art differently. Why was it so necessary during a short period of time in the 1980s? What needs did it help satisfy? What was new about her art and what did it transform into?

The afterlife of Põder's work relies largely on the interpreter's aesthetic and political attitude. The lack of a clearly defined recognition of the art history of her era forces all researchers to improvise and navigate through Põder's various narratives. She herself didn't seem to have an idea which symbols she should assign to her sculptures. In her interviews she directs the listeners' attention to the problems of form and process, and these at the expense of concept.

On the other hand, in 1990s Estonia, she became the only representative of her generation of sculptors who didn't experience a gap in her practice and was able to continue working without disruption.


R. P.: It indeed seems that critics decide the afterlife of Põder's work more than for that of any other artist who have more clearly directed the interpretation of their own work.

But I do not agree that her work continued without disruption. First, with Estonia regaining independence, she clearly articulated her future work to be temporal even though she had started to experiment with alloy casting, which was something she previously had knowingly avoided. Second, if we look at her work after 2000, there's a strong shift from representing so-called personal intuition towards more social themes.

Of course there are many ways to interpret "Kõnepult" (Lectern, 2007) and "Kantud kaunistus" (Used Ornament, 2008); perhaps as weak lecturing on the lost values of public figures? Or does she set the same moral standards on society that she, as a woman, had bravely had to live by and from which she attempts to escape in "Pikk kott" (Long Bag, 1994)? Standing in her burnt "Lectern" we can really experience the burden of responsibility and the internal flame that so often can be impeccably hidden.


E. K.: I would suggest a different interpretation to "Lectern", one which is connected to Anu Põder's dislike of politics: "Lectern" isn't so much a symbol for politicians than it is for politics.

After exhibiting her coat installation "Lõige kui märk" (Incision as a Sign, 1996) at the Soros Center of Contemporary Arts Estonia exhibition "Eesti kui märk" (Estonia as a Sign) she was attributed the status of an artist who thinks politically about nationality and this might have affected her.


R. P.: Indeed, the exhibition "Estonia as a Sign" made all the participating artists into nationalists. We haven't seen that kind of typical nationalism in our contemporary art since.



E. K.: Coming back to the transition period, Põder didn't have a connection with the young feminist art community established in the 1990s, as we don't see her in the group exhibitions where female artists inspired by feminism congregated. The group exhibition "EST.Fem" in 1995 featured a generation of young emerging female artists and was organised by Mare Tralla, who was closest to the collective. And we see it as a generational event. We cannot talk about bridging a gap to the past with this.

I think Põder didn't need ideologies and even refuted the feminism closest to her practice.
I believe that the feminism established in Estonia in the 1990s was generationally and ideologically distant to her. Feminism of the 1990s was interested in political disputes and opposition and she was not taken by feminist politics.

In addition, many well-known Estonian women artists who started out in the Soviet era voiced their opinions against the feminist art movement and didn't see the benefits in polarising men and women. The equality of men and women was one of the basic principles of the Soviet Union and no doubt inspired women to be as good as male artists or equal to, with them etc. The men did not speak out on the topic of women artists and they didn't have to as their position in the art world wasn't under threat.

On that matter I actually share Eve Annuk's opinion, who has described the gender roles of Soviet women in the 1970s–1980s. Work had a central role in the image of a woman, which meant that women were independent, didn't rely on men economically and were establishing themselves outside the home. The identity of a woman derived from her professional role.

Annuk adds that the central position of work defining women's identity relates to Estonian peasant society where the image of women as a worker prevailed. But compared to men, women were seen as weaker and the weaker woman needed a stronger man next to her. The emphasis was on biological differences and on repeating the understanding that the sole role of a woman was giving birth and raising children.

Therefore, I don't know how to connect her to 1990s feminism, but I think that now, after her death, the feminist research should contribute to understanding and defining her practice.


R. P.: As a child of the Singing Revolution it's completely incomprehensible to me where this under-standing that men and women are not equal and women need to prove their vulnerability to men comes from! So those who oppose the 1990s feminism are beyond me.

You use Annuk's analysis of postmodern literature in Soviet Estonia as one of the theoretical bases for the exhibition catalogue essay. The male writers write about problems of a lack of passion, their own inadequacy of being interesting enough for women and these in turn transform into bore-dom and apathy as everyday life advances. Women don't tend to write about this and there seems to be a growing divide between genders connected to the person's relationship to the body and their sexuali-ty. Let's not forget the endless number of beauty and health textbooks aimed at women and which ed-ucated them on the secrets of marriage à la "be pretty and entertain your husband" but the Soviet litera-ture written by women did not oppose this "kindness".

But would it and could it have?


E. K.: Women had a different niche than men in literature, but men were not depicted kindly. It's a shame that a truly male-hating precedent was not set in women's literature, because we'll never know if it could have been published.

As to the women's writing of the time, the post-Soviet observations have thoroughly and closely analysed the magazines aimed at Soviet women as an extension of the power discourse, advising women to be obedient. Of course they provided guiding and educational reading.

But I would add that when faced with the amount of media contemporary women are subjected to, the Soviet women's helpers and educational books with their tiny pictures on poor paper come across as childishly prude and incompetent: the role models you were subjected to came from the beginning of the 20th century or from the pre-war era and many of them would be an embarrassing read today. The Protestant asceticism is replaced by the consumer's attitude to the body, everything else pales in comparison.

For some reason I cannot see Anu Põder reading one or the other.


Home and trauma

R. P.: Annuk writes that the portrayal of the subject of women by women authors is mostly nationally predisposed. To a certain degree there have been attempts to see this in Põder's practice, but I see her work dealing mostly with the home environment. Even when some of her work "leaves the house" then it is only for a bus ride. Of course the situation in society plays a big role in setting home boundaries but to what extent do you think we can call Põder's work patriotic and if so in what context?

I can see her almost entirely not relating to Soviet topics such as collective farms or the lack of jeans or socialist utopias that her contemporaries often liked to talk about. She was representing inner struggles that no doubt are reliant on society but that are not present in her work.

The most Põder comes out of her shell is with her plaster sculpture "Reisija" (Traveller, 1978), where she quite despondently sits with a suitcase in her lap, waiting for life to begin. Or the series "Pasunaga Lasnamäelt" (With Bugle from Lasnamäe, 1988) and "Ühel jalal Lasnamäelt" (On One Foot from Lasnamäe, 1986), which describe the uncomfortable Lasnamäe Channel buses that are full of people, stuffy and smell of diesel, and make the entire environment unbelievably disgusting.

But when Estonia regained its independence Põder started using ready-made more and distanced herself from the intimate inner world. She turned to a broader range where the vulnerable and uncertain form is replaced with a bolder and clearer form that has more freedom than the work she did in the 1980s. But she doesn't expand upon the new political situation in her work and stays in the compounds of her familial knowledge and experience.


E. K.: I don't know how to comment on anyone else's fatherland but for some reason I think for her home was the childhood house in the countryside where she grew up, spent her summers and where her relatives lived.
Anu Põder's work is quite specific, abstract and does not contain social observations or analy-sis. Don't make her into a good Samaritan in hindsight.


R. P.: I don't know if interpreting her work as reparative makes the artist into a Samaritan.

On the other hand, it's interesting that Põder depicts mostly disembodied, disfigured or fragmented bodies; somehow bent, tired or otherwise disturbed. In that sense she is visually quite similar to Louise Bourgeois and her subject matter is close to Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta, Alina Szapocznikow, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Eva Kotátková, Senga Nengudi who are well-known masters of depicting the female experience.

How do you think we can contextualise the powerful visual expression of sincerity outside the feminist discourse?


E. K.: The individuals you mention differ from one another quite substantially. Bourgeois has said that through making her art she meets her cruel father. In the performance where she buried herself in a grave, Mendieta met with her destiny that dragged her away from her homeland and family, and later into a miserable marriage with the first star of minimalism Carl Andre, who until today holds the charge of pushing her wife out the window to her death. Szapocznikow's journey was full of very typical trauma: concentration camps during the war, serious illness etc.

All these women faced the need to open themselves up to vulnerability and make themselves visible. They all found a solution in the deconstructions of the body and using unusual materials that relate to the simplest states and activities (of women) and the land, and by giving new meaning to objects. I think that contextualising that kind of women artists' expression should have a place in feminism.


R. P.: But they also often write about trauma when talking about Põder's work! You have also researched psychoanalytical literature, Julia Kristeva and Sigmund Freud. Trauma is only one word in these theories and signifies an event that has a life changing effect. This does not need to be entirely negative or even very rare. On the contrary, it's something that brings out the humanity in people and helps us better understand one another.

What do you think, does our culture consider trauma to be taboo and that's the reason why Anu Põder is not Estonia's most well-known artist though she is highly engaging and expressive?


E. K.: You and I are looking for new ways to approach Põder's practice and in a way we are influenced by the postmodernist fascination with the wounded culture. We can find critique on the subject.

Those who are looking for reasons behind the amount of tragic biographies by women find that their emergence is mostly due to the storyteller's need for narrative. Building and positioning narrative sets up an interference in subconsciously or consciously forgotten trauma or loss. Their existence in a biography enables the narrative to emerge to a visible place. Concepts and structures that are connected to establishing the trauma discourse of the female artists deal with topics such as divorce, loss and exile. These are central to what the traumatic discourses are based on in the context of art.

Contemporary discussions on trauma refer to the binary that exists between the inner and outer world of the subject. In this way the subject's perception is subjugated to pathology which is the reason the feminine element is surrounded by an entirely different type of symbolism than it used to. Generally, we are familiar with the traumas associated with the developments of history and their presence is accepted. Observations on women's trauma disappear into medical practice and in Estonia we only have a few examples, of which Mari Laanemets' analysis of Põder's work is certainly at the top.


R. P.: In the 1990s, Põder's practice was subjected to wide feminist interpretation of which I also consider Mari Laanemets' treatment to be the best (2000, Centre For Contemporary Arts Estonia). For example, the catalogue "Anu Põder" (2009, Tallinn Art Hall) compiled by Reet Varblane, repeatedly emphasised that Põder's work was not feminist.

I would solve the issue of Põder's feminism with a claim that in Estonia feminism had and has a strong taste of vulgarity and abjection that to this day is controversial to many people. But the broader purpose of feminism is to make space and opportunity for articulating the female experience from which Põder's work is an excellent example with its courage, detail and personality.

Or how would you describe feminist art in Estonia before the year 2000?


E. K.: In the 1990s, Eastern-Europe was taken over by "vile females": they only had to be there because it was they who conducted the transition and thanks to them the art space became free from "classical" women's values, which moved on to lifestyle and women's magazines.

Then they disappeared at least in that form, leaving behind their mark. Art gained space and new assignments.

Art created by women has dynamically developed in Estonia and we have had moments where the women artists dominate the entire field. I immediately think of Ene-Liis Semper and we currently have many exciting painters, photographers, etc.


Love and sexuality

R. P.: In the exhibition catalogue you write of the crisis in depicting love in the 1970s–1980s cultural sphere of Soviet Estonia. A depiction of the end of love or of rather a type of confusion.

Did the discourse on love stay in the words of Anna Karenina, The Master of Kõrboja or the poets of Young Estonia? That is, what might that so-called lover's discourse have been in addition to Janis Joplin songs?


E. K.: I would keep Karenina separate from Joplin, who is symbolic in the sense that she formed a positive way of living in an impossible culture.

Contemporary Estonian literature examines the loss of love as being an adequate reflection of late-soviet society in demise. The topic was remarkably well covered in 1980s literature, unlike the visual arts, which with their women artists stood out with exceptional and convincing romantic artist statements. In my opinion Anu Põder is not part of the movement centred on emphasising sexual differences.


R. P.: I think the Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov's photographic series "Red Series" (1968–1975) depicts the effect of the Soviet regime on sexuality quite well. Also, the source material of Jaanus Samma's Venice Biennale project "NSFW. A Chairman's Tale" (2013–2015) stays in the 1960s–1980s and describes the grotesque elements of a repressive regime. This description during an era of censorship and forced happiness must have needed a strong personality, and an urge to understand and express one's feelings.

E. K.: Of course we cannot underestimate the mechanisms that restricted and hindered self-censoring in a censored culture. But in Samma's case we are dealing with a new interpretation and postmodern reconstruction of the former Soviet events, made in 2015, and differing substantially from authentic reality.

I agree with the notion that sexual behaviour is culturally constructed and I find that it is a sin to assign sexual imagery and behaviour produced by the market economy to the Soviet period. Estonian art in the Soviet era was not a place where sexual fantasies could have thrived, that is, excluding some specific instances that definitely were not demonstrated in public.

If these are what circulate as products of the Soviet culture, then for the unknowing observer it makes no difference whether the photographs appeared in public at the end of or after the Soviet era.



R. P.: You have described Leonhard Lapin's series "Naine-masin" (Woman-Machine, 1973–1979) as a sick fantasy and a way to chop up a fantasy-woman into an art form through the sublimation of frustration. On the one hand you bring out the metaphors of love and on the other the arrival of the visual language of pornography in Estonian art. How are these two aspects connected in Lapin's series?


E. K.: Lapin's mega-series "Woman-Machine" is a rich series with a complex structure that has to be viewed as one of the first examples of emerging postmodernism in Estonia.

His subject-matter is not connected to reality but rather imagery; not an immediate take on reality but in futurism we are dealing with quotations from art history. A psychotic activity unfolds in the background of the futuristic surface that depicts the series: the act of chopping up an imaginary woman that no longer has anything in common with reality. No doubt he has edited in some pornographic elements and features to that imaginary sphere.

You think it's necessary to separate love and pornography? I agree! But why can't we use pornography as one of the means of revenge for damaged love? Lapin takes the woman's body apart and at the level of his metaphors is dealing with violent fantasies. The starting point for my analysis was to pay attention to the situation these individual and rare acts of interference into the integrity of a body stem from. Soviet art and culture knew nothing about the Western concept of the body.




Anu Põder
Space for My Body
textile, 50 x 47 x 14 cm
Photo by Hedi Jaansoo
Courtesy of Tartu Art Museum




Materials and gender roles

E. K.: When talking of Anu Põder's difficult journey of finding herself, we have to mention the strategies and politics of identity that characterised Estonian women artists of the 1970s and 1980s. In the background of Põder's formative years was the then trendsetters, the strong social position of women artists in the ANK group, whose existence created tension but in the end also simplified her personal choices.

When the powerful myth of the Soviet woman was losing its importance and its place was left empty, the young female ANK artists, who distributed new ways of feminine self-portrayal in the 1960s and 1970s, took over the role of creating a new socially accepted image of women. The symbolic allusions to a happy and capable woman faithful to the state position that women were emancipated from social relations with the state – even from the compromised everyday reality, coding references to autobiographical facts in difficult clues and innuendos.

Looking at some of the roles of women in Põder's work we can see she highly values the role of the mother: she has three children but she never depicts it as a positive role. For example, in "Kompositsioon torso ja lapse kätega" (Composition with Torso and Children's Hands, 1986) she presents sexuality and motherhood as opposites.


R. P.: An interesting remark! Because haven't sexuality and motherhood usually been considered as mutually exclusive terms? That typical male chauvinism that guarantees the fetishising of virgins and allows sayings such as "a rolling stone gathers no moss", etc.?

Do you think Põder is commenting on being stuck in the chauvinist mentality where there is nowhere to go, or does her work suggest that mothers do not have sexuality? I actually have found that Põder doesn't create victim positions but depicts situations where we can view the subjectivity and objectivity of all involved.


E. K.: When this work was made in the middle of the 1980s, the biological function of a woman was dominant. Sexuality was only discussed in literature and movies and even there it existed in the form of failed love stories. Happy people were totally asexual in the Soviet culture. Sexuality had nothing to do with success and happiness.

It's possible that Põder is commenting on something with this sculpture but it has a saddening and deeply personal effect.


R. P.: On the other hand, in a video interview by the Art Museum of Estonia, Põder has talked about the 1980s as simply a difficult and elaborate period in her life, where all the work she produced was experimentation with form and material, and less about making important work.

In my mind, the dolls and bindings, textile bags and glue compositions of the 1980s were the most interesting part of her practice to which the turn of a new decade only adds. So we can interpret Põder's compositional works as experiments and should look at her later installations or the general decision to no longer cast in bronze or reflecting on politics and society, as her actual work.


E. K.: The first and most important social resistance in Põder's case can be seen in her switching to soft materials.

Though her journey crossed paths with the ideological existence of a threateningly masculine Soviet Estonian sculpture focused on monuments, which she was far from and which was widely popular, by choosing an unusual material for sculpture she also chose her marginalised status in its entire spectrum. Põder's use of soft sculptural materials in 1970s and 1980s might redefine the possibilities for local sculpture but she herself didn't care about establishing it.

Unfortunately, extensive research into Anu Põder's choices and role as an art pioneer would assume significantly stronger positions in the analyses from society and the institutional situation, and would critically view the preferences of sculpture ideologies and art medias that prevailed in the recent past. I mean, that what we now affectionately call the "iron age" of the 1980s Estonian sculpture, meant an unconcealed masculine discrimination of female artists and the masculine pushing out the feminine position, which in most cases was also successful.


R. P.: Do you mean Juta Kivimägi's argument in "History of Estonian Art" part II of volume 6, where the widespread use of bronze at the end of the Soviet era was explained by its low price and easy accessibility from Russia?

It's practically impossible to sense that trend now as most of the Soviet monuments were taken down at the beginning of the 1990s and they haven't been systematically exhibited in museums. At the same time, I believe that the majority of the art community didn't even notice that Põder opposed the political regime by not participating in the bronze sculpture competitions.

But was it a significant distinction from the norm?


E. K.: And what does it mean to separate from the norm? Abandoning one's body that is stuck between vulnerability and weakness, hate and love. Being outside the norm means to refuse to transform oneself, to liberate oneself from one's personal self-image. The 1990s editions of the journal Vikerkaar described feminism precisely with this passionate pathos.


Eha Komissarov is a curator at Kumu Art Museum.

Rebeka Põldsam is project manager and curator at the Center For Contemporary Arts, Estonia.

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