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Ly Lestberg’s Non-Normative Decadence

Martin Rünk (2/2016)

An essay by Martin Rünk on the art of Ly Lestberg.


Ly Lestberg is for me one of the most interesting and idiosyncratic artists in Estonia. She entered the art scene in the early 1990s, when conceptual photography was just starting to gain momentum as a credible medium, and with DeStudio and Peeter Linnap's school, she participated in expanding the boundaries of photography, and put her signature on the whole decade with her bold approach to male sexuality. Ly Lestberg caught the interest of the critics as well as the public with several furore provoking exhibitions (e.g the chrestomathic "Maine taevas" (Earthly Heaven) in 1992 at the Tallinn Town Hall Museum and "Pietà" in 1997 at the Tallinn City Gallery), and remains active as an artist. Lestberg's exhibitions, taking place mostly in smaller galleries and temporary spaces, are always anticipated and highly appreciated. Last year Lestberg celebrated her 50th birthday, which provides even more reason to look back over her career.


Gay art

I admit the impossibility of attaining the goal of this text: to view Lestberg's work from the current moment and herself at the heart of it as an entirety, to see her as she has been as well as the only singular outcome she has now attained. To expect the completeness of the person in time and to avoid all that which is easier to pass by. All this said, I would still like to adopt an essentialist position and talk about a certain cognitive integrity common to Lestberg's work linking all the topics and approaches she has used. For lack of a better term I would call this sensitivity non-normative because everything else would say too much and frame the artist with a position she might not agree to herself.

The most obvious level this non-normative approach manifests itself is in the artist's attitude towards her nude models. In her first notorious series "Maine taevas" she captured the musculature of male nudes with a curiosity so straightforward that it seemed unusual for a female photographer. These photographs exude a sense of a suddenly and temporarily liberated public morality common to the 1990s, which with the new ideas coming from abroad swept the dusty and musty Soviet citizens off their feet until after a short while they managed to right themselves in order to return to their familiar conservative values.



Ly Lestberg "Earthly Heaven"

Ly Lestberg
Earthly Heaven IV
photo, 30x47 cm
Courtesy of the artist and
Art Museum of Estonia



There is no one in the Estonian art scene who could compete with Lestberg in photographing the male physique. Distorted postures, close-ups of hands and cocks – the black and white photographs show the models in positions that aim to bring out their muscular body in the best way. One might ask how these photographs can be positioned in the framework of the genealogy of Estonian art history and what is their broader context. Naturally, the local art scene also has its number of male nudes from previous periods; for example, the mythical depictions of the national hero Kalevipoeg by Kristjan Raud, the swan hunt motif, or the sons of Kalev throwing stones by August Jansen, the male nudes with horses by Paul Burman. Nothing so surprising here in that the male nude can be seen as a classical motif in art. Nonetheless, these examples give us no clues for reading Lestberg's first period dedicated to the male nude.

Belonging to the generation that validated photography in the Estonian cultural scene as an independent artistic medium, Lestberg also went through the historical phases of the medium. She returned to photography's early days in the 19th century and used a similar aesthetic to portray her interests. The history of depicting the male body through photography goes way back. As soon as photography became a more commonly used medium, also erotic and artistic nude photography of both men and women was born. It is clear that depicting nude or half-nude males often concealed the gay gaze and homosexual desires. Another question here though – which still remains unclear to me – is the backdrop to Lestberg photographing her male models. And of course, her own relationship with the subjects.

Free access to information was still limited in the later phases of the Soviet system (though not entirely non-existent). Lestberg admits in an interview with Rebeka Põldsam how strongly affected she was by the sight of Robert Mapplethorpe's exhibition in 1993 at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Mapplethorpe, whose male nudes from the 1970s and 1980s were ground-breaking in the history of photography, was one of the first photographers to manifest gay culture so explicitly in contemporary art. Mapplethorpe was inspired by gay-oriented sports magazines that showed men posing alone or in pairs, often mimicking the poses of antique sculptures. Lestberg's early photographs were marked by similar aesthetic goals – fetishizing the male anatomy, extreme aesthetic elegance and a mostly using black and white techniques.

Lestberg describes how the first meeting with Mapplethorpe's work made her re-evaluate her own art and search for new directions. The purely aesthetic forms became accompanied by a symbolic level (Pietà), and later also by the fragmented postmodernist narrative common to the 1990s. This encounter together with the general developments of the 1990s Estonian art scene and the rapid modernisation of the local cultural milieu led to Lestberg's soul-searching, followed by installative photographic narratives that had moved away from the original focus on nudes. Lestberg moved from the hermetic studio space into the social space. Accompanied with a higher social sensitivity and new aesthetic direction Lestberg turned her lens on the surrounding world. Often, these series were produced during trips (Siberia, Rome, Venice), where the artist's gaze, producing a selectively mediated and even distorted reality, is strongly present.

Without making much of a problem of it so far, I have positioned Lestberg's work with certain evidence in mind in the category of gay art. It is a sensibility that allows me relate to it as a gay man and nothing proposes any resistance to this approach. Nothing except of course the prominent fact that Lestberg is not a gay man. While looking at Lestberg's work it seems natural that her models are pronouncedly masculine or, on the contrary, soft and feminine men, or instead an androgynous woman, as seen for example in the solo exhibition "Insomnia" at Raatuse Gallery in 1999. In any case, the non-normative quality of the sexuality of the models and the artist's interest in that particular aspect are evident. Lestberg's choice of models seems to indicate that human nature is diverse and cannot be reduced to a simple categorization of men and women. The series about the well-known cultural critic Linnar Priimägi and his male partner called "Armastan" (I Love) at Deco Gallery in 1997 was also a special case, noteworthy for the open approach to its subject.

I thereby propose the hypothesis that this non-normative sensitivity can be defined as queer aesthetics and queer sensitivity. This raises, on the one hand, the question of what these aesthetics actually mean, and on the other hand, of course, also what the basis is for submitting anyone in that category. This reminds me of Anna-Stina Treumund's photographic series from 2010 "Naine Mutsu joonistuste nurgas (homaaž Mutsu joonistustele "Üks", "Kaks" ja "Koos")" (Woman in the Corner of Mutsu's Drawings (homage to Mutsu's drawings One, Two and Together)) where the artist interpreted Marju Mutsu's graphic series with a queer twist. It is important that the non-heterosexual approach experienced when looking at Mutsu's work is subjected to Treumund's own subjective gaze, and she does not pretend in this to make assumptions about the artist's sexuality.



Ly Lestberg has had two exhibitions I regret not seeing. The first one, "Eesti" (Estonia), was a compact and punchy exhibition that took place in the exhibition space at the Estonian Parliament in 2006. It showed photographs of young people from the country lifting weights positioned in dialogue with a striking photograph of a luxurious hearse reflecting from its darkened rear window the heads of the prime minister as well as several other ministers and local authorities. The death of the trickster President, the world class politician and intellectual, Lennart Meri, marked the end of an era in Estonian history. He was survived by healthy vigorous Estonian youngsters wearing T-shirts with Estonia or Nike written on them and who have devoted themselves to sport without a worry in the world. These opposites meet in eternity. Tõnu Õnnepalu wrote in his review in from the period that in Lestberg's exhibition "the dirty vigorous rural people are the ones destined for eternity, returning the seal of life and death to the real Estonia."1

The second exhibition "Ei midagi" (Not Anything), which took place at the Haapsalu City Gallery in 1998 marked a breakthrough in Lestberg's body of work. If until then Lestberg's photographs had mostly focused on nudes and on modulations of the human body through photography and graphics, then with this exhibition the artist took a more personal and multi-layered narrative approach. It is the finely intertwined fragments that become the main element for building narrative, as in the case of the solo exhibitions "Kusagil mujal" (Somewhere else) at the Jaani alms-house museum in 2005, "Minatuul" (I Wind) at Vabaduse Gallery in 2009, "Polyreality" at Vaal Gallery in 2009 and the site-specific exhibition "___ ___ _______" in the courtyard at the Tallinn Photography Museum in 2011.

The exhibition "Ei midagi" (Not Anything) presented different shots from family archives which formed the personal story of a little girl and what she had become, combining the joys and pains related to growing up. "On the one hand Lestberg's exhibition is quite tender: the choice of photographs presents the little girl's dreams, her hopeful approach to the adult world. [---] But not only that. Somehow the impression that finally remains is a haunting sadness, caused by the images of a fleeing and fearful little girl, the death of a child, a staged photograph of the crucifixion of Christ."2 One of the visual focal points of the exhibition is a photograph of Lestberg's aunt who had died as a child before the artist was born, and whose image is so beautiful that it makes non-life seem romantic. Not death, but non-life, not the usual presumable life. Lestberg portrays herself in the same way. She is not lying among flowers like her aunt, instead she poses on a green meadow, the sun shining into her eyes. In a metaphorical way this sums up Lestberg's artistic position, which in my opinion has taken a step away from life, looking at life and death from equal distance.

Death is one of the leitmotifs in her work – nonetheless it does not refer to anything horrible or intimidating, it can be seen rather as a carefree perpetuity. In "Kusagil mujal" (Somewhere else) from 2005 Lestberg approached the subject of death in a very direct way. The exhibition in the ruins of the Jaani alms-house presented photographs of spectacular tombstones from the island of the dead near Venice, which showed the deceased in their best and happiest form – these images were accompanied by photographs of equally spectacular tourists walking the streets of Venice or taking a ride in a vaporetto, youngsters resting on the windowsills at airports, and finally the permanent display at the alms-house of images of unearthed skeletons. The philosophical texts accompanying the exhibition spoke of the relativity of time and matter, and the timelessness of information. They also referred to the fact that objects (including photographs) conserve history, and how "then" and "now" are different only because of our point of view.

Lestberg is certainly a romantic, but only in the sense of Romanticism, where one should not expect the novel to have a happy ending, but there is also no reason to be miserable about it. Instead it presents a certain sensitivity, insight. A position from which to contemplate the world around you. A vital morbidity. Seeing people inevitably move towards the grave, becoming part of eternity. I have a feeling that this sensitivity is queer – in an old school sense, before gay marriages and adoptions (taking place abroad), mimicking the normative hetero life. Being outside the cycle of life, and acknowledging the things that remain outside. In the accompanying text for the exhibition "Ei midagi" Lestberg describes herself as "a young woman on her peculiar and lonely path".

Lestberg told me once that in her opinion the entire culture of the West is on the wane, descending. I could not completely agree back then nor can I do so now, but I am starting to realize more and more what she meant by that. This kind of subjective and decadent view of the world is characteristic also of her body of work. Ly Lestberg is witnessing and distantly documenting the decline of our culture.


Martin Rünk is an art historian and PhD candidate at the Estonian Academy of Arts.



1 Tõnu Õnnepalu, Realismi igavikupeegel. – 2006, no 4, pp 11–13.

2 Heie Treier, Väikese tüdruku lugu. – Eesti Ekspress 4. III 1999.

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