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You, Me and Everyone We Don’t Know

Airi Triisberg (1-2/2010)

Airi Triisberg analyses Anna-Stina Treumund’s debut exhibition, which may be the first exhibition in Estonia to deal with lesbian identity.

In the accompanying text to her exhibition You, Me and Everyone We Don't Know,Anna-Stina Treumund brings the problems of the visibility/invisibility of lesbian bodies, identities and sexualities into focus. For this reason I will begin with a brief theoretical note about the problems and challenges of representational politics.
There is a problem with the assimilationist orientation that characterises the LGBTQI movement in Estonia and elsewhere.[1] During recent years, in addition to catalysing debate about the law governing same-sex partnership, the movement has also brought demands for positive representation and social acknowledgement into the spotlight. Given the prevailing homophobia within Estonian society, it is difficult to criticise the validity of those demands. However, from a more radical position, it is worth considering the extent to which the inclusion of sexual minorities in the public sphere also entails invisibilities and exclusions that are dictated by the logic of that very same liberal public sphere. In other words, just as the law governing same-sex partnership may be accused of assimilating such partnerships into the heterosexual institutional norms of marriage, the representational political ambitions of sexual minorities risk modelling their visibility in the public sphere according to mechanisms characteristic of liberal publicity – for example: positioning oneself as a minority and adopting the dichotomy of public and private. Consequently, several aspects that constitute the lesbian experience would remain invisible – even after coming out of the closet.  
Contrary to the aim of ‘creating an adequate image of ourselves’ (i.e. lesbians) as stated in her exhibition text, Treumund actually depicts ‘life on the rainbow’ with considerable ambivalence about the possibility of such an image. Instead of providing a systematic and representative insight into the social, cultural and political life of lesbians, Treumund’s exhibition proves that sexual identity cannot be represented visually. At the same time, she poses a question as to whether female homosexuality could be defined in terms of appearance, identity or sexual behaviour.
In the light of that question, it becomes clear why issues concerning the body hold a central position at the exhibition. Although female homosexuality cannot be reduced to mere physicality, bodies undoubtedly play a central role in the subcultural coding process and construction of gender identities, as well as in sexual practices. At the risk of accepting the hegemonic position entailed by the classical feminist apparatus of analysis, I must confess that I am having trouble finding conceptual means to describe the lesbian gaze and suggesting appropriate strategies. On the other hand, I would argue that Treumund’s exhibition focuses equally on both deconstructing the gender identities that exist in heterosexually prejudiced society and on constructing queer identity/identities.
In spatial terms, the exhibition is framed by Eli on the left and Drag on the right, with Pickaback and/or We Are Having a Baby and Princess Diaries in the centre, which – at least in my opinion – also form the most significant part of the display. These works may also be viewed in approximately that same order by following Steffen Kitty Herrmann’s description distinguishing different ways that bodily practices may structured in terms of gender. On such an interpretation, and at the cost of some generalisation, Eli thus stands for the physiotechnical practices of body genderization. Such practices usually involve direct modification of the biological body bringing it into conformity with the dominant norms of gender, but in this case they present resistance to the dichotomy of male and female by modifying the feminine body according to masculine role models. Drag, in contrast, does not suggest dismantling biological stereotypes through training one’s biceps and triceps – i.e. intervening with the cellular structure of the body, but instead points to territorializing practices that are primarily exposed at the surface of the body by mixing together the stereotypical feminine and masculine identifiers such as make-up, wigs, tightly contained breasts, men’s underwear and, last but not least, with a naked body that has lost its sexualized signifiers. Pickaback and We Are Having a Baby refer to social games that ignore gendered modes of behaviour, while simultaneously depicting lesbians as objects of sexual desire and as agents whose behavioural patterns employ both practices considered feminine and those considered masculine. Implicitly, these four works also reveal the cultural techniques of body genderization, pointing to the instability of the concepts of man and woman and demonstrating how genderized behavioural patterns, cognitive structures and identifications stem from the materiality of bodies (and goods).[2] Princess Diaries, in turn, highlights social and bio-political imperatives (‘I must not cry too much’, ‘I must give birth to at least one child’, etc.) that define the social dimension of the shaping of gender identity/identities.
Overall, the exhibition enacts both deconstruction and construction of gender identities, drawing attention to the fact that emancipatory queer-politics is not solely about making social and political demands, but is also about the ways in which people actually live with their own bodies. Leaving aside the question raised by the accompanying text about the conspicuousness of a lesbian body, Treumund creates images that operate at the borders of doubt and confession, of encoding and projection, and thus hints at those aspects of female homosexuality whose contours do not necessarily become more visible after coming out. In this respect, Treumund steps beyond her initial task of exploring the possibility of depicting female homosexuality through visible identifiers and also shows things that are difficult to articulate.
Airi Triisberg is a freelance critic.

[1] An Acronym from the words Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex. – Ed.
[2] Steffen Kitty Herrmann, Queer(e) Gestalten. Praktiken der Derealisireung von Geschlecht. – Quer durch die Geisteswissenschaften. Perspektiven der Queer Theory. Ed. Elahe Haschemi Yekani, Beatrice Michaelis. Berlin: Querverlag GmBH, 2005, pp. 53–72.



Tallinn Art Hall Gallery
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