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Women with balls

Heie Treier (1-2/2010)

Heie Treier analyses the exhibition Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe in Vienna, and the exhibition The Soviet Woman in Estonian Art in Tallinn
Separated by only a brief period of time, two indirectly related exhibitions opened in Vienna and Tallinn. Although these are not comparable in size, each forms a new round of discussion about the connections between gender, politics and nationalism, and the representation of women in Soviet art. The exhibitions will probably help in rewriting art history in the international as well as local context. Regarding the Vienna exhibition, let us look at its wider background.
The exhibition Gender Check was commissioned by ERSTE Foundation, the owner of the Austria-based Erste Bank – it has become one of the most ambitious institutions in the Central European art scene, in both the intellectual and the financial sense (12th documenta magazine project etc). The extensive project dedicated to analysing so-called socialist Eastern Europe took place simultaneously with another extensive project, the Former West. Hence, conceptually, the two ventures reach back to the time of the Berlin Wall, focusing on the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ respectively. Intellectuals from Vienna, Ljubljana, Moscow and other cities have collaboratively created the theoretical background, and specifically the artists gathered around Irwin (NSK or Neue Slowenische Kunst) have analysed the geopolitics at the macro level, persistently separating the categories ‘East’ and ‘West’. Even during the 1990s, they did not allow themselves to be allured by the popular wishful thinking that was especially characteristic of the emerging generation – as if ‘East’ and ‘West’ had finally merged into one through globalisation and the Internet. For example, when the head curator of Gender Check, Bojana Pejić participated in curating the exhibition After the Wall in 1998 in Moderna Museet, Stockholm, celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I remember the criticism around it, which claimed that the premise of the exhibition was itself outdated because there no longer existed any walls for art in the 1990s. Currently, in the changed political climate, international analyses even refer to the return of the Cold War oppositions themselves.
Curating the Gender Check exhibition, Bojana Pejić collaborated with twenty-four researchers from former Soviet republics and socialist countries, in order to bring out fresh material from the micro level of every country in the light of contemporary gender theory. This revealed some unbelievable finds, especially regarding the social taboos of the time – for example, a life-size painting from the German Democratic Republic, depicting domestic violence and slightly reminiscent of the aesthetics of Ancient Greece, and a painting relating to gay love from 1970s Poland. In the last twenty years, Eastern European countries have seen the rise of a generation of art theorists who have distanced themselves from the Soviet era and look at the art of the period independently from the filters of the time. At the same time, the socialist era remained a part of the personal experience of the art theorists compiling the exhibition, Bojana Pejić among them, and this enabled them to unite the different levels.
For the eyes of the exhibition’s primary audience – the Viennese – the programmatic sexuality and gender-free socialist universalising ideology (in reality male-centred) was packaged and translated into the logic of a capitalist society and it began to function, on the contrary, as something sexy and exotic; for example, the motto “Proletarians of the world, who washes your socks?”
Valerian Loik, The Protest Song, 1963
Then and now
According to the Modernist logic, the Soviet ideology functioned according to the principle of “universalism” – in relation to gender, this was expressed in the word ‘comrade’ – and some female artists living in the socialist system probably did create their art while believing in the principle of ‘universalism’. Art created in this fashion – á la abstractionism or nature poetics – is not of interest to the Gender Check exhibition. Neither is it interested in aesthetic quality, although it was considered, at least in Estonian Soviet art, an absolute transcending gender and individuality.
Despite everything, gender did have an effect in art, although frequently in the form of something ‘self-explanatory’ which could not be doubted – for example, traditional gender roles in the depiction of nudes, or suggestions to female students in Lithuania that they specialize in textile art rather than painting – and, interestingly enough, the discussion of Soviet art in Estonia mainly revolves around male artists, although there were a lot of women active in art at the time.
From the perspective of current art theory, aesthetics is no longer an aspect of interest, it is treated as a skill that is part of being a professional artist. Instead, iconographic meanings and the political and gender aspects of power relations (equality, domination, difference) have come to the fore, so too have conflicts between state ideals (ideology, legislation and propaganda) and real life. Here there lie astonishing concurrencies between the contemporary feminist discourse and the state official discourse of the past – the roots of these mentalities both lie in Marxism. The monopolist ideology of the Soviet period was Marxism-Leninism, and the post-structuralist feminist art theory of today has been influenced by Marxism. I think this fact is what has caused so much confusion regarding the exhibitions in Vienna and Tallinn, specifically in the reception from the older generation,. Interpreting art, they once again detect vulgar-sociological tones á la 1950s, only this time it is coming from the younger generation. In their eyes, what has returned to the exhibition hall now, in the year 2009/2010, is the art which was imposed in the past and is thus a hated official art appearing ‘exonerated’ by contemporary theory.
In any case, the politics of the exhibition Soviet Woman in Kumu is unequivocal: there is not a single exposed female body, and the woman appears as a subject in the foreground, not as an object that is passive, musing and trying to please the man. No doubt this reveals a deliberate choice by the curators Katrin Kivimaa and Kädi Talvoja, the more so, because Kivimaa’s article in the Gender Check catalogue deals with precisely the meanings of depicting a naked body in Soviet art.[1]  
In the context of today’s tabloid media saturation, a clear-headed and sober decision such as this has quite a radical effect. However, were we to project these same paintings into their historical context, we would look at the exhibition in a much more prosaic way, in the eyes of Jaan Klysheiko: “Every work should be provided with a comment together with a historical certificate referring to archive texts and research studies of the time. A simple example: during the period 1940–1956, the shortage of men in Estonia (war losses, exile, concentration camps etc) was in the range 120 000 men compared to women in their fertile age. The situation was even more catastrophic in certain areas in Russia. As there were no men, women were made to become asphalt and concrete layers, builders etc. This theme is also reflected in the propagandistic works among the pictures at Soviet Woman.”[2]
Paradise of women
For the eyes of the equality feminists in the West, the gender issue in the Soviet Union might almost have seemed like paradise. Gender equality was also reflected in the exposition of the Vienna Modern Art Museum MUMOK, where every floor was dedicated to a different era, up to the end of the 20th century. The first floor displayed, as the exhibition’s starting point, post-war Soviet commissioned art – optimistic working class women in socialist realist paintings, enthusiastic women builders at work. The existence of such art, however, is not presented in the context of the entire former socialist front. According to Bojana Pejić, the art history of former Yugoslavia does not have socialist realism in this form at all, for which reason it evokes admiration just for being in that context, not to mention the context of Western Europe. Ironically, it is socialist realist art that has become one of the most successful export articles at Kumu, a winner in the Nordic countries. The reception of Soviet Woman in the Finnish press was also more favourable than in Estonia.
The legislative gender equality in the Soviet Union naturally seems like paradise, were we to project it onto, for example, the case of Lee Lozano (1930–1999) in New York in the 1960s. She was not an exception; she was more likely the rule. Incidentally, she is this spring’s art historic discovery at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet.[3] The ambitious female artist had to have sensed such an impenetrable wall before her in the art metropolis, that it forced her to step out of the New York art scene in 1972, to give up, having so far worked intensively in various art styles and techniques, and having shown her teeth to the male-centred art world.
The particular and the general
At the Gender Check exhibition, the entire former socialist front was treated as a notionally uniform amalgamation, without drawing separations between countries and people, an issue, which had been, at least in the political climate of the 1990s, almost a question of life and death. In this sense, a theoretical “universalistic” treatment was presented about gender issues in the Cold War era and reflected in art, deliberately reducing the differences of the Soviet republics and socialist countries.[4]
However, if we look at how the works were viewed at the exhibition opening by the artists and critics of the so-called former Eastern Europe, then for them, the lines of separation still ran according to the Soviet republics and socialist countries. They found that the art of German Democratic Republic seems in a way especially bleak compared to the works of artists from other countries. There was also a big difference according to whether a young artist starting out in, say, the 1980s, was living in Yugoslavia and s/he had the possibility of travelling all through capitalist Europe and was thus able to take a critical standpoint, or if s/he lived in Soviet Estonia. Hence the exhibition displays works that could not have been created by an artist living in the Soviet Union, for they had fewer opportunities and were confined within a heavily-guarded state border. I am talking about certain earlier works ironical of capitalism and consumerism, especially the 1972 video by the Polish artist Natalia LL – Consumer Art – in which we see the model’s face in close-up, and her mouth (suggestively consuming a sausage etc) is sending very clear signals to the (male) viewer. During the period when people in Tallinn were watching Finnish Television for commercials of beautiful goods as something unattainable and tried naively to imitate these on local television, the advertisement-critical aspect was excluded, and from art too. This is further supported by the exhibition POPart Forever!,[5] which opened in Tallinn shortly after Gender Check. Here, the young artists’ possible relationship to capitalist consumer society was more favourable and positive, and it was carried out through a layer of humour and aesthetics (Campbell’s Soup, the icon of American Pop art, as the symbol of the group SOUP 69). As the young artists of the time were not living in a consumerist society, criticism of consumerism was not a concern of theirs; and especially since American Pop Art, which served as a reference point, remained ambivalent about its relationship with consumer society.
It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall, e.g. in the 1990s, that it really became irrelevant which country the artist was from – as the works displayed on the higher floors at MUMOK also revealed. (Female) artists living in the cruel early-capitalist world, generating irony and sarcasm in their works, and readily presenting porn, which had been a taboo in the Soviet Union.
On reception
If the contemporary art theorist looks at earlier (ideological) art through an ideological layer, then the reception of the exhibition is also based primarily on ideological arguments that cannot be combined in such a way that could meet with universal approval. Perhaps a single example suffices to reveal how different groups of people understood the curator’s choices and took up a critical stance.
The Gender Check exhibition was advertised in Vienna with posters depicting the Moscow artist Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe juggling with identities: the artist dressed as a transvestite imitating Marilyn Monroe. The local journalists in Vienna interpreted the poster at immediate face value and were angry at the press conference over why Eastern European art was presented using a famous Western icon. A group of Eastern European artists, in turn, were furious at the seminar following the opening of the exhibition over why the advertisement of the exhibition encourages a clichéd image of an Eastern European woman as a prostitute – a stance that is popular enough in the West as it is. The curator’s position was that the poster refers to the necessity to make a gender check and, moreover, since ‘check’ (i.e. control) was a key word during the socialist period, it might also be a key word at the art exhibition. However, only a single photograph out of Mamyshev-Monroe’s entire long picture series was displayed at the exhibition – the one where he identifies himself as Monroe. The exhibition did nothing to inform the audience that the artist also made realistic photographic stagings of himself as Jesus, Lenin, Hitler, Napoleon, Jeanne d’Arc etc, and that each one of these photographs ‘seems real’, although no one using their head could ever think that they are. Thus, the mode of representation can produce misunderstandings at every step, and this is just one example among many.                     
The twenty years that have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall are probably enough to allow us to return to the art of the socialist period, to review the contexts then and now, and to organise archaeological excavations of archives and museum collections. As with any other period of art, it is easy to read subjective opinions and interpretations into the socialist period, and it may be more difficult to notice the messages of the time. That said, one should remain vigilant no matter what kind of ideology and interpretation one may be dealing with.
Heie Treier is docent of art history at Tallinn University and member of KUNST.EE editorial board.

[1] Katrin Kivimaa, Private Bodies or Politicised Gestures? Female Nude Imagery in Soviet Art. – Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe. Ed. Bojana Pejić. Wien: Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, 2009, pp. 94–99.
[2] The photographer Jaan Klysheiko is one of the few people who actively try not to let younger artists forget the lies and violence of the Soviet regime at the beginning. His comment on the exhibition was originally posted in the social network Facebook (May 3, 2010 at 3:15 pm), where there was an active informal discussion about the exhibition.
[3] Lee Lozano, Curator of the exhibition – Iris Müller-Westermann. Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Feb 13 – April 25, 2010.
[4] The differentiation of the countries is evident in the catalogue of the exhibition Gender Check.
[5] POPart Forever! Estonian Pop art at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s. Curator of the exhibition – Sirje Helme. Kumu Art Museum, Nov 26, 2009 – April 11, 2010.
Vienna Museum of Modern Art (MUMOK), November 13, 2009 – February 14, 2010
Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe.
Curated by Bojana Pejić, commissioned and financed by ERSTE Foundation.
Participating artists: Marina Abramović, Anita Arakelyan, Emese Benczúr, Veronika Bromová, Anetta Mona Chisa, Alexandra Croitoru, Orshi Drozdik, Zenta Dzividzinska, Wojciech Fangor, F.F.F.F., Alla Gieorgieva, Tomislav Gotovac, Ion Grigorescu, Tibor Hajas, Sanja Iveković, Kaljo Kai, Šejla Kamerić, Katarzyna Kobro, Běla Kolářová, Katarzyna Kozyra, Anna Kovshar, Leonhard Lapin, Ly Lestberg, Vladislav Mamõšev-Monroe, Boris Mihhailov, Ismet Mujezinović, Marju Mutsu, Tanja Ostojić, Tadej Pogačar, Lia Perjovschi, Anu Põder, Mark Raidpere, Eglė Rakauskaitė, Valentina Rusu-Ciobanu, Sirje Runge, Anri Sala, Duba Sambolec, Cornelia Schleime, Fritz Skade, Erzen Shkololli, Evi Tihemets, Jelena Tomašević, Lucia Tkáčová, Mare Tralla, Valie Export Society, Žaneta Vangeli, Sofija Veiveryté, Aija Zariņa, Jana Želibská and others.
Kumu Art Museum, April 7 – September 26, 2010
Soviet Woman in Estonian Art.
Curated by Katrin Kivimaa, Kädi Talvoja.
Participating artists: Valentin Viktorov, Toivo Kulles, Valerian Loik, Aino Bach, Nikolai Kormašov, Adamson-Eric, Elfriide Maran, Priidu Aavik, Lepo Mikko, Alo Hoidre, Asta Vender, Olev Soans, Elmar Kits, Agu Pihelga, Erna Viitol, Ernst Hallop, Eduard Einmann, Martin Saks, Lydia Laas, Leili Muuga, Voldemar Mellik, Lola Liivat, Andrei Jegorov, Ellen Polli, Kaja Kärner, Endel Taniloo, Luulik Kokamägi, Juta Eskel, Ilmar Kimm, Linda Kits-Mägi, Evald Okas.
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