Liina Siib’s exhibition Politics of Paradise has a themed layout that instead of taking one through impalpable excitement, shares the embodiment of women’s desire and disruption within body, boundaries and normativity politics. The show is defined by photographs, sculpture, videos, installation and associated ideas. Curated by Taru Elfving, it features twelve artworks by Siib. The exhibition is the last one in the series of Estonia 100 art programme celebrating the centenary of Estonia, it was opened on February 16 and remains open until April 14 at the Tallinn Art Hall.
Liina Siib, a long-time presence on the Estonian art scene, is best known for her counter-visual narratives in which man-masculinity, patriarchal power norms, and stereotypical attitudes and values of grand narrative collide and swirl. Her works have been creating an in-between space where historically ignored or minor things can be seen in-detailed or heard diligently. And, she mostly deals woman as a subject in a different context.
Her artistic journey began at the end of the 1980s and involves many solo exhibitions in Estonia and abroad like Latvia, Finland, Sweden, Belgium, France and Germany. Her works have been presented at a number of festivals in the USA, Asia, and Europe as well. In 2011, she represented Estonia at the 54th Venice Art Biennale. This exhibition encompasses her very new artworks with some selected earlier works, of which some are already finished, and some are still continuing. This fusion is, according to the curator Taru Elfving “intergenerational conversations between individual lives and complex histories of privilege and power”.
Organised in seven sections of the gallery, her works do not follow any chronological order; instead, new, old and ongoing works are placed side-by-side. Of them, Augusta or Politics of Paradise (film), Haeska (film), Witches (installation), Come and Go (video), and Urban Symphony in E-minor III (installation) are new, 2019’s productions. Along with new works, her earlier works include Movie Poster (photograph 2001), Alienus (installation, 1995), Them (sculpture, 1996), Urban Symphony in E-minor (video, 2018), Séance (photographs, 1998), Orbs (video, 2016) and her famous project A Women Takes Little Space (photographs, 2007 to ongoing) is mentioned as an ongoing project.
The newness of Siib’s exhibition is not the inclusion of new works; to me, it is the connection between her old and new works. For example, when I was watching her 2018’s documentary film Urban Symphony in E-minor, I felt a connection to critical theorist Homi K. Bhabha’s term “liminality”. With this term, Bhabha refers to the in-between space where cultural transformation takes place in a way that individuals who are entangled in between two stages of development where they do not hold clearly defined positions within their social system and feel marginal, excluded and at the same time, see a new possibility. The 44-minutes documentary film is based on the interviews with Estonian immigrant working women in Finland who left their country for a new possibility, new hope – a paradise. While the video footages show the glimpses of city life in Helsinki, such as working place, shopping mall, restaurant, public transport, park, seashore and so on; voices of the interviewee women narrate wage discrimination against immigrants, language barrier, obstacles to start new business and some success stories as well.
The same section of the gallery, on the right side after the entrance, shares her new docufilm Come and Go which can be traced as the sequel to the Urban Symphony in E-minor. This 26-minutes docufilm projects an uncanny feeling of home that one can imagine as paradise in homeland and lost paradise in abroad. On the right side of the docufilm projection, another new installation Urban Symphony in E-minor III is displayed with a series of mannequin heads keeping their eyes closed with glittery decorated eye-leads. At the end of the wall of this room, a large prism sets out and beneath it, different colours of floor mats reflect the life of the Estonian immigrant minorities in Finland. Due to the spatial and conceptual proximity of these works, visitors do not encounter discrete media installation as it is totally immersive environment. A low hum soundscape of docufilms guides visitors’ movement from one section of the gallery to the other.
While entering the exhibition at the Art Hall, the first three posters in an urban setting, where a woman is moving forward to a movie screening hall, actually seem like an invitation to visit the exhibition. At the same time, it sets the voice that will be heard – her, him or their. Then, on the right side of the gallery, a plastic floor mat with handmade signs directs one to stand in front of Them. Them is a metal work combining vertical lines and round rings suggesting two human figures but any gender normativity cannot be identified. These two works in the corridor connect the story of Estonian immigrant women on the right side and the story on the left side that presents Estonian women’s different experiences from different historical eras and classes: Orbs, Séance, Witches, Haeska, A Woman Takes Little Space and Augusta or Politics of Paradise.
Liina Siib entwines the construction of the concept of “witch” into her newly finished works Witches and Haeska. Witches is an installation that comprises a historical document – a black and white photograph of three women, which Siib discovered in the album of Võru Criminal Police from 1922 and the elements of the photograph, such as wooden stage, chair, black curtain and the newspaper that published the photograph. This photograph and its story depict the process of constructing the identity of a “witch” imputed to the women in the feudal society 100 years ago. These three mid-aged women were accused and sentenced for fraud as their witchcraft didn’t bring a result for the client. Because of their cheating in the esoteric business, these women were found guilty by the legal system; hence society identified them as bad women, witches. Such interrelationship is also the primary concern of Siib’s new film Haeska, which contains references in its visual and sonic components. This 8-minute 30 seconds colour film narrates the story from the male viewpoint where he falls for two women’s glamour and latter suffers for his moves. As he has suffered for his own deeds, the two glamorous women are turning into evil. The film expresses the protagonist’s fear and agony through an infinite walk on the snowy field while two women are escorting him as criminal. The clamorous sound of the women’s steps increases the climax that envelopes audiences into the psychodrama.
Her ongoing project since 2007, A Woman Takes Little Place, presents about sixty colour photographs of women in their working place. Framed by a white border and hanged on the white wall, these photographs do not tell black and white, linear story; instead, they satirize the stereotypical attitude towards the working women’s space and wage. Initially, the inspiration behind this project came from the wage gap between men and women in Estonia and it is the response to the outcome of the research carried out – “women take little space” thus they should be paid less than men.
Augusta or Politics of Paradise, Siib’s new film that captures a medieval princess’s desire to live her own life, but in the end, it is turned into a tragic story by her death. Based on archival letters of Princess Augusta Carolina von Braunschweig-Wolfenbuttel from 1782 to 1788, the film illustrates a struggle, a tension between her initiatives to make her desires real and the royal, patriarchal power. This 28-minutes 20 seconds long colour film narrates the story through such non-dramatic voice-over that the dramatic life of the princesses becomes palpable. But, of course, for those who know the idea behind the story. If someone sits and watches the film without any idea, it’s not easy to get the storyline. Bringing this historically known “controversial” character to the contemporary discussion can be seen through the counter-visual narrative of an independent woman. Unlike the poor village women of 1922’s Witches photograph, or devil spirit women in Haeska film, Augusta’s desire to live her own life was politicised by the patriarchal power. By telling this personal story of Augusta, Siib again strengthens the feminist motto: “the personal is political”.