“Two steps forward, one step back”

Agnese Pundiņa

Review: “Anu Põder: Be Fragile! Be Brave!” at KUMU’s Gallery of Contemporary Art, in Tallinn


Recently, the exhibition “Anu Põder: Be Fragile! Be Brave!” opened at KUMU’s Gallery of Contemporary Art (through August 6, 2017). Even though the title suggests a solo exhibition, the works of Anu Põder are exhibited alongside those by Ana Mendieta, Alina Szapocznikow, Iza Tarasewicz, Ursula Mayer, and Katrin Koskaru, creating a dialog among artists who might not have known about each other.

Anu Põder is an Estonian sculptor whose career began in the 1970s. Her work mostly deals with family life, internal struggles, and the emotional realm, all framed by the constraining norms and taboos of Soviet society. It seems that this exhibition means to place Anu Põder’s work not only in the context of Estonian art, but to also show her sculptures in the context of Western art in the 20th and 21st centuries. Thus, the conceptual approach of the exhibition is quite bold. It brings together artists with different backgrounds and artistic approaches, exhibiting only one work from each artist (except Põder). Which is why, already from the beginning, it seems puzzling as to why it was decided to show these specific works next to Anu Põder’s works. It looks like the criteria were: 1. They are women; 2. They all work with the struggles of the female body; 3. These works look similar to Anu Põder’s work.

Anu Põder. Lickers, 2007. Private collection

The exhibition is like a labyrinth in which one is sometimes confused, sometimes impressed, sometimes just lost, and eventually, happy that it is over. The common thread among the works is a woman’s experience as an artist, as a mother, as part of society, dealing with everyday struggles and the results of political change. Therefore, this exhibition is rather saturated with quite personal sufferings, anxieties and struggles, all of which are not easy to bear.

The exhibition has a certain complexity about it, which could partly be connected to the specific shape of the gallery. That said, Anu Põder’s works are dominant and recur throughout the exhibition. For example, before entering the space, one is welcomed by the work “Lectern” (2007) – a lectern that has been burnt from the inside. Even though it looks good in that spot, there is no explanation as to why it is there. Also, just as you enter and/or exit, the first two little rooms welcome you with the work “Screen” (2007); from one side it is flanked by the work “Lickers” (2007), and on the other, by “Tested profit. Rubber dolls” (1999). It starts and ends similarly, by presenting Anu Põder’s works from the 2000s. The work “Screen” consists of metal beams and chocolate eggs stuffed into the free spaces. From one point of view, this work separates the viewer from getting closer to the other works; from another, it frames it in a certain way. The chocolate eggs make it look ironic because it gives the impression that either we are being kept away from the distorted sculptures, or the sculptures are being kept away from us. In any case, the chocolate eggs can be consumed, thereby distracting us from the reality of the situation.

Anu Põder. Very Old Memories, 1985. Art Museum of Estonia

The first larger exhibition space presents Anu Põder’s sculptures created from the end of the 1970s up to 1994. The decision to exhibit these sculptures together, in the middle of the room on a little platform, seems to be based upon formal aesthetics. From one point of view, it shows the style, methods and materials that the artist has worked with during this specific period, but at the same time, there is no logic in the layout and the positioning of the sculptures. All of the works are presented more as a series than separate artworks, and therefore, it is quite hard to relate to the individual works.

Consequently, the first impression coming off of these works is anxiety. Anu Põder’s sculptures are twisted and turned, and the limbs are tangled and protruded. It is the anxiety that I believe most people feel: you are taken over by it and just don’t know what to do, but whatever you do, you can’t show it – you need to be on your best behaviour. As you can’t really experience each work separately, it takes time. It felt like an anxious struggle just trying to perceive each work, in addition to the anxiety that was emanating from the works themselves. 

Anu Põder. Man’s Head with a Flag, 1984. Art Museum of Estonia

In the next room is the installation “The Means. The Milieu” (2014), by Iza Tarasewicz. Even though the artist mostly does site specific installations, and this particular work was first exhibited at Objectif Exhibitions Gallery in Antwerp, it fits in quite well with the oddly-shaped space at Kumu’s Gallery of Contemporary Art. The room is filled with bent metal rods hanging from the ceiling, all connected to each other. The metallic structures are supplemented with a number of growing eukaryotic organisms, rubber strings, hemp rope covered with ochre, rubber covered in soot, and fibre. The work somehow seems as if it was meant to be there, and therefore, even from a formal point of view, it fits in quite well with Anu Põder’s work. The accompanying text doesn’t suggest the artist’s wish to analyse “struggle” per se, but it does feel as if the work depicts the difficulties of life – the complexity of things and relations, and the anxiety which sometimes makes it impossible to untie the thought processes going on in our brains.

The exhibition continues with smaller rooms. The next three spaces are dedicated to Anu Põder’s works. The layout of the following rooms is quite compelling because they sort of look like co-joined twins – created similarly, but with a minor difference, and joined by a wall. The first twin holds the work “Clodhopper. Stride of a Man of the 20th Century” (1999), whilst the second one features “Tongues” (1998). Placed on little stages, both works are quite realistic representations of human body parts cast in soap. The difference between these rooms is that, behind a little corner, the first has four works hanging in a line, which makes it look like it is one installation rather than actually three different works: “Space for my Body” (1995), “Ancient Light” (1995) and “Pattern as Sign. Fur Coats” (1996). These works are clothes (hanging on coat hangers) that have been ruined or changed, and have therefore lost their meaning, but it is still possible to feel the body of the person who wore them. In the second room, in front of the work “Tongues”, the work “Tested Profit. Rubber Bags” (1999) has been placed. Four rectangular rubber bags hung on the wall also depict human shapes. Both spaces exhibit the works separately, highlighting both their formal qualities and their contemporariness. These works could be compared to those of the German artist Joseph Beuys and his formalistic execution of ideas.

Anu Põder. Composition with Hanging Head, 1994. Art Museum of Estonia

The next room also exhibits a work upon a stage, “Tumours Personified” (1971), but it is by the Polish-Jewish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973). Her works are mostly made of perishable materials, and focus on the relationship between the body and time. The work is unique, personal, and painful. It still has that feeling about it that makes one feel the pain of the artist. The distorted faces of one person speak about the many who are diagnosed with cancer. The experience with this work is a bit confusing because of the exhibition text: “Tumours Personified, made out of polyester resin, is a composition with moulds that reflect the artist’s facial expressions after she received a cancer diagnosis. [..] One can also find a fair share of irony in this piece – the faces of the deceased disappear; they wear away in our minds like wax masks, not unlike how the victims of the Holocaust, anonymous in a crowd, are forgotten.” The problem with the text on the wall accompanying the art work is that it takes attention away from the work and makes one think: “What?…What do you mean by this?” Either it is the English translation that has gone wrong, which would mean that in Estonian, these sentences sound better, or it is an ignorance towards the meaning of the artwork or the pain of others; in any case, there is no logic between these two sentences. Is it meant that we forget the dead no matter what, whether they have died from illness, old age or genocide? Or does the last sentence refer to her having being in a concentration camp? As there are no references to other sources, nor is there anything in the exhibition catalogue or in the artist’s statement, it seems that the text has either been taken out of context, or it has been written by someone who is ignorant towards what it is like to be sick with cancer, to watch someone dying from it, or to lose someone close to you through genocide. For those who have lost loved ones, they will never be anonymous, and they will never be forgotten. We only see the “anonymous” if we haven’t lost anyone in events like these.

Anu Põder. Composition with a Torso and Child’s Hands, 1986. Art Museum of Estonia

Also, next to Alina Szapocznikow’s work are two works by Ana Mendieta. Even though they are separated from Alina Szapocznikow’s works, they continue the discourse of the personal in some way. Thus, it is brought back to the context of her personal life and death. The accompanying text mentions the circumstances of the artist’s death, even though it is in no way related to the works that are exhibited. One can always speculate, but it takes away the possibility to perceive the art the way it was meant to be perceived because it makes one think more about personal affairs rather than Ana Mendieta’s legacy in art history.

The subsequent rooms are dedicated to Ursula Mayer’s space installation and Katrin Koskaru’s paintings. Although it seems like both artists work on similar subjects, their technical approaches and choice of medium are quite different. They represent the contemporary approach to this subject. 

During my visit of the exhibition, this feeling of inconsistency never went away. Added to this, the exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue that consists of three essays about Anu Põder’s work, but it doesn’t mention the other artists. Also, it seems that with this exhibition, there has been an attempt to canonise Anu Põder’s work since, as it is mentioned in the catalogue, some of her “male” contemporaries have been canonised in Estonian art history, but her work hasn’t been recognized as such. That said, this exhibition is not only about Anu Põder – it is about the other artists, too. But in terms of the catalogue, they have been left out.

It seems as if there are insecurities concerning how to identify Anu Põder as an important Estonian artist. Accordingly, some “female” context is needed. For this reason, the exhibition feels like two steps forward and one step back; it sort of makes a stand, and a very important one at that, but at the same time, it simplifies it as existing in a “women’s” context.

In summation, this exhibition has been a confusing experience: the viewer is confronted by very personal art whilst, at the same time, it seems that there still is anxiety in naming the discourse of the artworks – which in this case, is feminism. Also, it is quite interesting that at no point in the exhibition do the texts in the gallery mention feminism or gender studies. It has been sort of touched upon, but never stated outright, as if the organisers were afraid of what others might say. Notwithstanding that in both this catalogue, and the catalogue from the exhibition in 2009 at Tallinn Art Hall, it is mentioned again and again that, even though the artist herself hasn’t identified as a feminist artist, her work might actually be included in the feminist discourse. Perhaps if this exhibition had made a stand, and wouldn’t have tried to be neutral concerning everything, it could have been judged as being a good example of feminist art that isn’t just “hairy, angry women attacking men”. It would be an example of the diversity of the feminist discourse, and therefore, it would open up the subject for education and discussion – as it should in a national art museum.