Just an Arm’s-Reach Away

Anna Iltnere


Tallinn-based artist Liina Siib (1963) will represent Estonia at the 54th Venice Biennale with the art project A Woman Takes Little Space. The project is comprised of a series of photographs, featuring woman in spatially and financially limited work conditions, where the discernible despondency is overshadowed by a greatness of soul. In the exposition there will be also videos, and a piece showing women in a new suburbian home conditions.

Liina Siib studied graphic art and photography at the Estonian Academy of Arts, where she earned a master’s degree in photography in 2003. Siib has had thirty solo exhibitions in Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Germany, Belgium, and France. Her work has been included in several museum collections, including the Estonian Art Museum, the Tartu Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm and Neues Museum für Kunst und Design in Nürnberg. Siib is also co-editor of the periodical Estonian Art and vice rector of the Estonian Academy of Arts. Following a competition between fifteen works, Siib was chosen to represent Estonia at the 54th Venice Biennale with the project A Woman Takes Little Space (Naine võtab vähe ruumi, in Estonian). On the first floor of the Palazzo Malipiero, home to the Estonian exposition every year since 2003, the artist will set up an apartment featuring six conceptually linked room installations with photographs and video works. I met Siib early one morning in Tallinn in a large, empty café.

Which factor is more important in your art project: gender or space?

Hard to say—both are closely linked. I’ve noticed that in pictures where a woman is the author, space is almost always present. Perhaps a woman is historically linked to it? If I didn’t pay attention to this before, now I observe it with interest.

When and where did you begin this photo series?

A few years ago I read in the paper that there are significantly less older men in Estonia than older women. Many men die even before reaching retirement age. There was a strange turn in the article, which was also captured in the heading: “Does poverty lengthen your lifespan?” Which points to the fact that women in Estonia are paid less salary than men. That was in 2007. The topic of a woman’s working conditions began to gnaw at my brain.

I picked up my camera and went to visit workplaces. I didn’t go and arrange visits, or ask to come later back to take photographs. I simply walked around, searched, and, if given permission, took pictures. I did not stage theses pictures. My precondition was to find real situations that conformed to the idea in my mind—about women in restricted working conditions, where they practically blend into the environment. Many men work in minimal spaces, too—guards, shoemakers, horologists. Yet the photo series focuses in depicting women in their conditions.

Did the women you met comment on their working conditions?

Yes, we discussed it. Actually, I’ve been making this series for four years now, and have gotten to known several of these women much better; I know how their lives have progressed over these years. I began in 2007, which was an economically stable time; but soon after that, many people began to lose their jobs. One of the women whom I photographed worked at the Building Design & Project Management Company, where she was almost the only woman. The recession led to the need for job cuts, and she was the one asked to leave. She became pregnant – the mothers in Estonia are financially supported for a year and a half after giving birth. Of course it’s great to have a child, yet it happened so and perhaps wasn’t entirely her free choice.

Is this gender inequality a noticeable problem in Estonia?

A couple years ago it wasn’t so noticeable and spoken. Yet more and more people are beginning to talk about it as a problem. Solutions have been sought, yet action should be taken on a state level. For now the government is just talking, conducting studies. Of course, there are also women who work in high-level positions, such as museum or hospital directors. I don’t know about the salary, it ought to be the same salary as men. Unequal pay can be seen precisely in menial labor positions—cashiers, vendors at the market, nurses, the jobs men don’t accept because of the small salary. 

What do you think when your art is described as feminist?

Many people ask me whether my art is feminist. If you make a work about a woman, someone will definitely ask you that. That’s discrimination too, isn’t it? I’ve photographed women from the very beginning, but I’ve never perceived it as such. I’m a woman. Perhaps it’s easier for me to empathise with them? Discrimination can have several levels, beginning with “Ah, she’s a feminist artist. She photographs woman. Now everything is clear.” I rather perceive my art as social. Of course, feminist issues are included there too—it’s hard to ignore them, if the work is about the welfare of women. 

Today, as a result of overpopulation, space has become a luxury item. Are you interested in the question of a shrinking living space as such?

I’m sooner interested in what a person can do with a space. How a space is formed. When I began to photograph work places, I concluded that we spend eight hours or more a day in poorly designed places with insufficient lighting, boring furniture, and impersonal “euro-style” renovations. Work places most often look awful. But we spend almost half of our lives there. 

How big is the space where you live and work?

I lived in a very narrow space for several years—a ten-square-meter studio in the Tallinn Art Hall (Kunstihoone) from 1997 through 2004. I lived in the former kitchen and worked right next to it. I got used to making due in such a small space, where everything was just an arm’s-reach away. A person adjust herself and get used to things, and no longer pays it much attention. It is how it is. Most of the women whom I photographed have a very good sense of humor. In the confines of a narrow space, they seem to have found another way to stretch out. They speak much more sincerely with their colleagues, joke around. And that’s an aspect that I really want to emphasize in my art—that in difficult conditions people know how to find the ray of sunlight. My aim is not to show anybody as a victim.

How much space will you occupy at the Venice Biennale?

Six rooms on the first floor of the Palazzo Malipiero. The walls of the first room will be covered with forty photographs from the series A Woman Takes Little Space). For a change of rhythm, I’ll also include photos where you can see a space with just a reference to its employee, without the presence of the person in the frame. Initially I wanted to put all forty photographs in one large frame, yet this turned out to be technically almost impossible, taking into account the matter of transportation. There will be a few pieces of furniture, too. The next space will be formed as a living room with a large, LCD screen television and some living room furniture. The space and photographs will reference the living model in new villages of private homes outside of Tallinn, where a woman has a house, a family, and also the burden of debt. What is more, she barely has any private space there, the title of the series is A Room of One’s Own.  This will be followed by a room with two large photographs and two beds. These will be portraits of a woman in her private atmosphere, called Apartness. The fourth room will have two screens; one of them will show a projected video of fresh bread rolls being baked, and the other will show how the bread rolls are sold at a kiosk. Then both screens will show women eating the rolls. Here, too, nothing is staged; I wouldn’t call it a documentary video but, rather, a capturing of life.

What is more, the kneading and baking of dough, with its hypnotic allure and sensuousness, reminds me of creating and forming a work of art. The second-to-last room will feature the 2007 video Averse Body, where I interviewed eleven prostitutes in Tallinn, asking them what they think about their body, whether or not they like it, how much attention they pay to it, how much they take care of it.

For this work, I was inspired by a quotation from the Polish playwright Jerzy Grotowski who said that prostitutes supposedly don’t like their bodies and disassociate themselves from it. That’s why I went out to ask them myself. A few admitted that they hate their body, but others like it very much. It’s not black and white; there is diversity. Just like with any other women. With this exhibit I tried to show that there is nothing unequivocal in reality. We can read or hear general opinions, but, when arriving at the site of the event, we must conclude that reality is more diverse.

In the video the interviews are anonymous; you can only hear the subjects talking, and one voice has even been altered upon request. The visual section will consist of material filmed over the course of two nights while driving in a taxi through the streets of Tallinn on a route of erotic services—bordellos and private apartments whose addresses were posted on the internet. The cab driver already knew the main locations. While we drove and filmed the streets, it was snowing. There will be eleven drawings along the walls of this room, where each of the interviewed prostitutes drew her favorite flower. Between the two video rooms there is a small bathroom – here one can hear a man singing in the shower. It is performed and recorded by Estonian philosopher and musician Roomet Jakapi. 

What does participation in the Venice Biennale mean to you? The fulfillment of an artist’s dream?

Yes, that could definitely be an artist’s dream. But as for myself—I had never thought before about participating or submitting works. This was the first time. I was working on the photo project about women (in Venice I’ll show just an individual series; the overall project is much more extensive) and had already begun several themes.

Then I thought that it would be good to go to Venice, because then I’d have to work more intensively and think about how to present the project. And I made it. I am incredibly happy that I was chosen. Now I feel that people are discussing my art work, and it’s much easier to work in these conditions than alone. There is communication, feedback, and precisely this makes me very, very happy.

Does art have a nationality?

Not any more. Two years ago, Germany was represented at the Venice Biennale by British artist Liam Gillick. To my mind, this is great. I hope that someday Estonia, too, will be represented by an artist of a different nationality. The most important thing is not to present a country’s nationality but, rather, the issues that are important to this country. But the national pavilions are a wonderful asset, which adds a piquancy to the biennale. All a country has to do is decide what to show.

After our meeting I went to the station by the market, where Lilia, immortalized by Liina, works at a kiosk. I went past and there she was. Just an arm’s-reach away. Selling fresh bread rolls. 

Liina Siib. From series: A Woman Takes Little Space. 2008-2011