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"I have used the comparison of [---] perforated skin, which does not cover, hide or adorn but rather hints at the internal." – Reet Varblane answers Hedi Rosma's questions about Anu Põder, whose works have been included in "The Milk of Dreams", the main exhibition of the ongoing 59th International Venice Art Biennale. "Untold backstories: Anu Põder (1947–2013) and her posthumous rise to international fame" (KUNST.EE 3/2022)

 

Untold backstories: Anu Põder (1947–2013) and her posthumous rise to international fame

Hedi Rosma (3/2022)

Reet Varblane answers Hedi Rosma's questions about Anu Põder, whose works have been included in "The Milk of Dreams", the main exhibition of the ongoing 59th International Venice Art Biennale.



20. IV–27. XI 2022
Giardini and Arsenale, Venice
59th International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia
213 artists from 58 countries
Curator: Cecilia Alemani



Hedi Rosma (HR): Anu Põder is the third artist to date whose works have been selected for the main exhibition of the Venice Biennale (2022, curator Cecilia Alemani) from Estonia. The first artist was Ene-Liis Semper (2001, curator Harald Szeemann) and the second was Jaan Toomik (2003, curator Francesco Bonami). In recent years, Anu Põder's work has been exhibited at Kumu Art Museum (2017), the Baltic Triennial 13 in Vilnius (2018), Pori Art Museum (2019), La Galerie Noisy-Le-Sec in Paris (2019), and at the Liverpool Biennial (2021). In 2021, Tate Modern acquired the second original of her work "Tongues (Activated version)" (1998); the first original is in the possession of the Art Museum of Estonia.

Reet, this spring, the weekly paper Sirp published your story "Decision to Acknowledge and Recognise" (Otsus tunnistada ja tunnustada), where you raised several important questions about Anu Põder's current posthumous rise to fame.1 In the past, you have curated Anu Põder's exhibitions as well as compiled and edited the first extensive catalogue of her work.2 May I ask what her work means for you personally? How interested were you in Anu Põder during her lifetime and how does it feel following her international success now?

 

Reet Varblane (RV): I have always admired Anu Põder's ability to bring the deeply personal to a universally relatable, even philosophical, level. I am stuck in the somewhat old-fashioned notion of philosophy as something big and deep, something that could be tied to the systems proposed by Immanuel Kant or Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, but I am willing to use this word when talking about Anu Põder.

On the one hand, Anu Põder's work is free of intellectual-conceptual glass-bead games, it is unassuming and simple. And on the other hand, in a subtle way, these intellectual glass bead games are embedded in her work. Everything is in place – the sensitivity to material and form, etc. It is safe to say we can call her compositions complete. They are always in the process of becoming, even if we look at single works, although she very often worked in series.

I have used the comparison of a grotesque body with an openwork surface when describing her objects, referencing their perforated skin, which does not cover, hide or adorn but rather hints at the internal. Sight is not enough to get a sense of her indistinct bodies – and not only bodies in the strict sense but also fur coats, boots, tongues, plastic bags. You have to rely on sound and smell as well, a blending of all the senses.

When I think back on Anu Põder's work, the first thing that I remember is her 1984 exhibition at what was then called the Tartu State Art Museum. It was actually a group exhibition that featured the works of Tamara Ditman, Anu Põder, Külli Tammik and Ekke Väli, who were all young sculptors back then. I had never seen so many of Anu's works in one room together: she showed a total of 12 works, the oldest dating back to 1979, the most recent from 1984.

The exhibition also gave me the chance to meet Anu Põder herself: the curator of the exhibition, Enriko Talvistu, was also tasked with entertaining the participating artists and invited them all to our place in Annelinn, Tartu. You don't need to have known Anu Põder personally to be able to understand her art, to interpret it in a meaningful way. But Anu's art is inextricably linked with who she was as a person. As she herself said: "The idea and sensibility – that is myself." From then on, I followed her creative journey with keen interest.

We also had several exhibitions together: "Softly in the Light" (Pehmelt valguses) at the Tartu Art Museum in 1994; an exhibition at Intro gallery in Vilnius with Mare Mikof and Aili Vahtrapuu in 2003; and "Super" at Tallinn Art Hall in 2007. Her piece "Knotholes" (Oksaaugud, 2003) was displayed at my curatorial exhibition "Home Grandis Natu" at Tallinn Art Hall in 2005 and at the Museum of the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow in 2006. Her plastic bag series – one of my favourites – was part of the 2008 exhibition "Border State" curated at the Art Museum of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts.

Anu's personality was exactly as suggested by the title of the retrospective exhibition "Be Fragile! Be Brave", held at Kumu Art Museum after her passing3 – fragile and brave. I remember preparing for the exhibition in Vilnius. It was impossible to get hold of the handyman there, let alone to get him to help us. Anu then took this big man by the hand – and he did just as she said. And he even redid the things he had been careless with the first time around.

Anu is more than worthy of international success, but why did it come this late? Why now, when she herself is no longer around?

 

HR: Out of all the artists in Estonia, Cecilia Alemani, the curator of this year's Venice Biennale, chose Anu Põder for her major project, which brings together 213 artists from 58 countries. Why is it now that Põder's works from the 1980s are receiving so much attention?

 

RV: If we think about the international context, then maybe the time has come when it is not just twenty exceptional artists, great geniuses, who receive all the attention; instead, there is an ongoing search – and a lucrative one at that – for art that previously had trouble fitting into the established framework. In fact, this is nothing new: the idea of a search for a new current, coupled with the need to highlight something that not only reflects the times in which the artwork was produced but manages to evoke something decades later, something familiar yet slightly disconcerting – this idea has been around for a long time.

Major international art forums, such as the Venice Biennale, tend to be slow in keeping pace with the expectations of the times. National pavilions are an exception, since each country gets to decide what they are showing. The theme and potential approach proposed by the curator of the main exhibition have no real impact on the national exhibitions. However, they do have an effect on how the curators for the national pavilions are selected in the future.

In the long history of the Venice Biennale, as well as in the history of its curatorial projects, Cecilia Alemani is only the fifth woman to be entrusted with this prestigious task. And in fact, this is only the fourth time that just one woman has curated the main exhibition, because in 2005 the curatorial project was divided into two mutually connected exhibitions, one curated by María de Corral and the other by Rosa Martínez. However, the curator's areas of interest in art are not always connected to their gender.

Alemani's interests revolve around so-called forgotten artists and especially women. Or in other words, artists who have yet to become visible on an international scale. Alemani may be regarded as a feminist curator and art historian. She not only charts the unknown on a horizontal level but also lays the ground for it; in other words, she is also interested in a vertical approach. But this is also a more general approach that illustrates the times we live in: lately, several exhibitions in Estonia have followed a format that not only compares artists from different generations but also incorporates art from earlier periods, with the idea of giving it new meaning in the current context. And sometimes it's the other way around: there are attempts to use something produced much earlier – in a different time, under different conditions – to give value to art that is made now. Anu Põder's soft dolls from the 1980s are therefore a perfect fit for Alemani's vision.

 

HR: So the keyword is feminism?

 

RV: In fact, Anu Põder's soft textile objects had been placed in a feminist framework for the first time in 1994 when they were shown within the Swedish-Estonian "Kood-eks" project in Tallinn. There were two exhibitions with Estonian artists in this joint project: Anu Põder's "Softly in the Light", and Karin Luts's and Epp Maria Kokamägi's "I-figure" (Mina-kujund), which I curated. The other three were with Swedish artists. Anu picked out six works from the early 1990s, and these were put on display at what is known today as Tallinn City Gallery. The figures were rolled up, distressed, covered with bandages, but despite their soft, "feminine" material, they were symbols of a strong, resilient woman, all the while remaining open for interpretation. Much like her earlier figures from the 1980s, these were very personal, and had a fantastic sense of material and form. They were also perfect in sculptural terms, and had something else about them, something that gave rise to a certain sense of unease.

Let's take "Long Bag" (Pikk kott, 1994), for example. It contains references to the classical female figures carved from stone (either marble or some other valuable sculpting material), but the textile it is made of is not just a substitute for another, more valuable substance – instead, it is what it is: textile, along with all its connotations. Anu Põder herself described this choice (and her art in general) as follows: "There was a time when helplessness and incompetence led to a sense of aversion to work. Until I realised that, as a woman, I should take advantage of my weakness. I settled for materials that were convenient for me. [---] The game goes back and forth: sometimes, my mind envisages the material; other times, it is the opposite and the material is seized by an idea. [---] What takes work is discovering the uniqueness of the material and its structure and assembling these possibilities into a consistent whole. The work of finding ways of constructing is a game that always delights me. It's a dance that has no end."4 Even though she did not specifically identify which textiles she used in her work, these were important to her. The material was living matter, it was meaning. In this work and in others that followed.

The idea of including Anu Põder in the "Kood-eks" project came from Ando Keskküla (1950–2008). He initiated the project, while I took on the curating at a later stage. I have to admit that Anu was not my first choice, but I happily agreed to his proposal. However, Anu was not involved in the following projects, including the exhibition "EST.FEM" (1995), even though she was in the catalogue, along with my reference to the "Kood-eks" project. Anu also had no part in the feminist project "Private Views" (1998), a collaboration between Estonia and the United Kingdom.

If we look at the exhibitions in which Anu Põder took part in the 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s – when the art scene was becoming increasingly international, with avant-gardism, exploration and innovation promoted in art – we can clearly see a distinctive feature emerging. In the 1980s, when the discussion about art was field-specific, Anu Põder was included in the latest discourse ("the younger generation", "innovation", etc.). This is true of the group exhibition of young sculptors in Tartu in 1984, as well as Ants Juske's article "Young Estonian Sculpture" (Eesti noorem skulptuur) in the collection "New Generations" (Uued põlvkonnad) published in 1988, which called attention to Anu Põder's material approach: "The texture of the material has been left exposed, often appearing in combination with plastic objects. As monsters seeking to depart from purely decorative art, Põder's works could animate the gray space of our public buildings."5

But at the beginning of the 1990s, Anu Põder was missing from the group exhibition "Structure and Metaphysics" that travelled to Finland, Sweden and Germany (1989–1991), as well as from the Baltic art exhibition "Personal Time" held in Warsaw in 1996 and in St Petersburg in 1997. It was only in the context of Ants Juske's curatorial project "Estonia as a Sign" in 1996 that she first took part in one of the annual exhibitions that the former Soros Center of Contemporary Art, now the Estonian Centre of Contemporary Art (CCA), used to organize. She was also not featured in the article collection "Estonian Artists 1" (1998) compiled by the CCA.

She was, however, covered in its sequel, "Estonian Artists 2" (2000), with an excellent treatment by Mari Laanemets. There was no room for sculptors – and there is no doubt that Anu Põder classified as one – in the first collection anyway, with the exception of Jüri Ojaver because Andrus Kasemaa was featured with his drawings, as were Kaarel Kurismaa and Tea Tammelaan, field-defying phenomena in their own right. Anu Põder had her figures from the 1980s ("Figure Which Was Made to Walk" (Astuma pandud nukk, 1984)) at the exhibition "Gender Check: Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe", held in Vienna in 2009 and in Warsaw in 2010, but the personal catalogue I compiled on her did not receive much attention at the exhibition conference in Vienna. I had ten copies with me, which I left with the other publications, but only three or four were picked up during the conference.

In order to be featured in, say, the curatorial project of the Venice Biennale, you have to be among the "first choices" in our art scene. For a long time, and with only a few exceptions, sculpture was non-existent, especially when it came to women sculptors (and I use this designation intentionally). I do not mean to say that foreign curators at CCA, or at any of our other local art institutions, are unable to adequately understand our art scene. Not at all; but it's not always possible to feature everyone and everything. Anu was not excluded, but she was also not included in the "right" discourse. After the exhibition "Be Fragile! Be Brave!" at Kumu, however, this changed, and Anu Põder's works from the 1980s were placed in the right international context.

There is one more thing that should be noted, even if it is not really all that crucial: in retrospect, it is very easy to make Anu Põder look like a victim who was misunderstood, or, even worse, downright neglected in the 1980s. This kind of discourse is also encouraged nowadays. But when I recently asked Anu's colleague Mare Mikof why Anu started using textiles in her work, Mare's answer was unambiguous: "Bronze was too expensive." And thank God, because Anu Põder knew how to use this disadvantage to her advantage. Just as she told me herself in 1994.

 

 

Anu Põder
Man’s Head with a Flag
1984
textile, plastik
"The Milk of Dreams",
curated by Cecilia Alemani
Art Museum of Estonia, Estonian Centre for Contemporary Art
Photo by Kamilija Teklė Čižaitė

 

 

 

HR: You also wrote in your article that Anu Põder had attempted to participate in the Venice Biennale once before but had been unsuccessful. As we know, it was Marko Mäetamm who was featured in the Estonian pavilion in 2007. Could you tell us, for the sake of art history, what exactly happened? You were the curator of this project, no?

 

RV: Yes. It was a collaborative project between Anu Põder and Mare Mikof. Mare Mikof would have exhibited (up to) five figures from her series of girls with wide fluttering skirts (2004–2005), and Anu Põder an installation with birds.

I found our correspondence from late 2004, where she says it's like a "molten vision of [Alfred] Hitchcock's avalanche of birds. They could be exhibited in a tightly closed can. I would like to build an exact copy of the room inside the pavilion and shut the birds in there. The doors could open automatically when visitors approach. In my subconscious, this theme is connected with the problem of emigration."6 It is also founded in the personal, that is, in a childhood game she used to play, where the players are geese that are called back home. ""Come home, geese!' – this call is associated with childhood, danger, the eternal migration of flocks of birds, anticipation, etc."7

In 2006, the idea of a joint project between these two artists was on the table once more. This time, Anu felt that the birds would make the project too theatrical and proposed a version with tongues: "My part would be less attractive and animated, and more like a contrast with its material and expressive tonality. I propose an exposition of soap tongues. It would be soap casting: an exposition of pink tongues made of luxury soap, but also laundry soap, etc. This theme works on many levels – as native languages in the global era, for example."8

Apparently we submitted the second idea. But I do realise that it probably lacked a strong enough theoretical foundation.

 

HR: As the curator of Anu Põder's 2007 personal exhibition "Super", you wrote that "she does not play on complex discourses, does not reference or quote common classics. She seems completely free of a secondary value system."9 To what extent has her work managed to maintain this freedom?

 

RV: Anu Põder herself managed to maintain this freedom more than 100%. After all, art is a kind of system that is open to any kind of interpretation. This is its strength, and perhaps also its weakness.

The different vocabulary used in the reception of Anu Põder's work, the application of thought processes that are alien to her, the placing of her work in completely foreign contexts: all of this has only proved beneficial – after all, Anu has become an internationally recognised artist. And if we are to take seriously the short presentation by the head of CCA, Maria Arusoo, televised in the news for the opening of the Biennale, then not only will Anu Põder's figures from the 1980s attract attention at this year's curatorial exhibition, but they have already served as a role model for several artists born in the 1980s who have become recognised today. Or even as a mother figure (although this claim might be somewhat extravagant).

Anu herself was a truly tolerant person and had an open mind. I am convinced that she would have absorbed all these secondary value systems with genuine curiosity. But I am also convinced that not under any circumstances would she have wanted to be a victim.

 

HR: You also pointed out that what is special about this year's Venice Biennale is not only the large number of women artists but also the fact that most of them have received little to no international recognition. What does this speak to?

 

RV: As I've already mentioned, the time has come to recognise not only the woman artist as the Other but also the double Other, that is, someone who has had no place in privileged European art. This is terribly necessary, if only to remember that art is not a closed model, with rules that are firmly in place.

One way of communicating is not enough to establish an adequate view of the world. We can only rejoice that this understanding has reached a hierarchical system of bureaucracy like the machinery of the Venice Biennale. Of course, there is always the danger that looking for something different becomes looking for the sake of looking, or that people will try to be different for the sake of being different.

 

HR: You also say in your article that in order for our great but unknown women artists to gain recognition in their lifetime, one should not only speak with the right people but also use the right words. What does this mean?

 

RV: For communication to work, it is not enough to know the language; one should really command it, in order to get the accents and tonality right, and, most importantly, to master the code. If we were to talk about Anu Põder's work in the same way as Ants Juske did in 1988 – the above-mentioned article was written even earlier, in 1985 – this would not work. The fact that Anu's work is not purely decorative is clear enough to everyone; today, there is a need for additional levels of argumentation. In the context of 1988, however, Juske's words were completely adequate.

Secondary value systems can sometimes be very successful. If we consider, for example, Jacques Derrida's interpretation of Vincent van Gogh's painting of a pair of shoes, it was not like he said anything new from an artistic perspective, yet I immediately think of Derrida's interpretation every time I happen to see van Gogh's works somewhere.

 

 

1 Reet Varblane, Otsus tunnistada ja tunnustada. – Sirp 6. V 2022.

2 See: Eds. Reet Varblane, Anu Põder. Tallinn: Tallinn Art Hall Foundation, 2009.

3 "Anu Põder. Be Fragile! Be Brave!", 17. III–6. VIII 2017 at Kumu Art Museum (curator Rebeka Põldsam).

4 Anu Põder's handwritten explanation regarding the "Kood-eks" project in 1994, written at the request of Reet Varblane. Personal archive.

5 Ants Juske, Eesti noorem skulptuur. Comp. by Irina Solomykova, Irina Solomõkova, Uued põlvkonnad. First book: collection of articles. Tallinn: ENSV Teaduste Akadeemia, 1988, p 100. (By the way, Maarja Undusk's article "Men's Art and Women's Art" (Meestekunst ja naistekunst) was also published in this collection.)

6 Anu Põder's email to Reet Varblane, 11. XII 2004. Personal archive.

7 Ibid.

8 From Reet Varblane's curatorial project. Personal archive.

9 Exhibition "Super", press release from Tallinn Art Hall.

 

 

Reet Varblane is an art historian, critic and curator. She is the art editor of the weekly newspaper Sirp and the curator of Vabaduse Gallery.

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