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Anu Põder: Space for My Body

by Kathryn Lloyd
Reviews / Exhibition • 30.06.2024

In a 2008 interview the Estonian artist Anu Põder (1947–2013) recalled the impetus for Lõige kui märk (Pattern as sign; 1995–96), a series of works in which she carefully dissected items of clothing. Some of Põder’s incisions reveal the inner workings of the garment’s construction, whereas others perforate the entire structure, creating large ruptures or voids. The artist began this process after discovering a pile of discarded coats at her family home in Jõski, which she decided to cut apart, exposing ‘beautiful graphic lines’.1 She subsequently collected similar coats from across the country, noting striking differences between the needlework – sometimes hurried and sloppy, other times neat and running in flawless parallels.2 Põder’s interest in dismembering these coats was psychological – ‘I felt as if I was opening human beings, with their plight and concerns and embodying their time’ – but it was also concerned with physicality.3 ‘I wanted to get a glimpse of the space that had once been between the human body and the sheepskin’, she explained. ‘I wanted to explore the body space modelled after the body, and how the body has shaped the skin of the coat […] This inner space is much more mysterious’.4

Although Põder’s remarks relate specifically to Lõige kui märk, they can also be understood in relation to her practice more widely and what, as a trained dancer, she might have described as a dance between the body and space.5 Throughout her forty-year career, she dismantled, reimagined, encased, abstracted, erased and approximated the human figure, questioning not only the physical ‘body space’ it holds but also how this is determined and formed by external factors. The trajectory of Põder’s sculptural approach to the (typically female) body was itself irrevocably shaped by the sociopolitical conditions she lived through. She worked across two distinct periods of Eastern European history: the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940 – which began seven years before her birth – and the era of renewed independence from 1991 onwards. As the art historian Juta Kivimäe has noted, the two decades before the restoration of the Republic of Estonia have often ‘been semi-pejoratively called the “bronze age” of Estonian sculpture’.6 Bronze was associated equally with state-sanctioned public art and the modernist avant-garde, who sought to challenge Soviet ideology. Põder, by marked contrast, consistently rejected such materials, instead opting for rubber, leather, fabric, jute, wax, soap and plastic, which were malleable and prone to decay.7

Space for My Body at Muzeum Susch, Zernez, is the first institutional retrospective dedicated to Põder’s practice outside of Estonia. Curated by Cecilia Alemani, it includes thirty-eight of the artist’s surviving forty-four works of art.8 In 2022 Alemani included three of Põder’s sculptures in her Venice Biennale exhibition The Milk of Dreams, framing them in reference to Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1985) and posthumanist, ecofeminist thought.9 Here, the curator takes a loosely chronological approach to the artist’s output, drawing out three major thematic concerns: Põder’s use of dolls and mannequins to investigate the body; her use of fabric and clothing as figurative stand-ins; and, in the artist’s late works, her exploration of the senses, nourishment and desire. The first is exemplified by nine sculptures from the 1980s and 1990s, which are displayed in the museum’s ground floor galleries. Eight strange, mutilated ‘figures’ are staged at varying heights on a large white plinth FIG.1, unified by tones of beige, brown and an uncanny pink. On the surrounding walls, a series of inflatable sex dolls are pinned down by concrete blocks; their heads have been replaced by black cylinders. This Surrealist, posthuman tableau introduces the visitor to the ensemble cast of Põder’s imaginary, who stand guard like sentinels and signal what is to come.

In this group of works, the head is either absent – simply removed or replaced by a cylindrical form – or manifested as a separate, severed entity. For example, Enne etteastet (Before Performance) FIG.2 shows a standing, headless, naked woman, one foot slightly in front of the other, knee bent, as though primed for activity. Her skin is composed of layers of brown netted fabric and covered in sections of measuring tape and marks and symbols that recall butcher markings or mail-order sewing patterns, which were commonly used in the Baltic states due to the lack of manufactured clothing under the Soviet regime. The petite figure is modelled on the artist’s own proportions, suggesting some form of vacated self-portrait. In Seotud tiibadega nukk (Doll with tied wings; 1985), the configuration of the body is forced further into a reductive grotesque: a thick, elongated neck culminates in a protruding wooden pole, reminiscent of an exposed bone. Two circles indicate breasts, one of which is convex; the other, a hole that seems to await growth. As with many of her sculptures of this period, it is encased in a thick pink ‘skin’, made from sheets of medical plastic used for prostheses and corsets, sourced from her brother, who was a doctor.

Kompositsioon mehe peaga (Mehe pea lipuga) (Composition with Man’s Head; Man’s Head with Flag) FIG.3 shows just a decapitated head, emerging indistinctly from an enormous neck. The section over the eyes and mouth is made of a brown fabric, attached to the surrounding plastic with large, visible sutures. The nose is rendered, by contrast, in the same medical plastic, evoking the original prosthetic usages of the material. A small, triangular flag emerges from the top of the head. The structure appears to be as much a helmet as a face. As Alemani notes in her catalogue essay, many Soviet Bloc artists of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Ilya Kabakov (1933–2023) and Erik Bulatov (b.1933), ‘dreamed up their own vast aerospace lab’ as an antidote ‘to the brutal simplifications trumpeted by the state’ (p.40). Their formations seemed to parody the spacesuits and ‘aerodynamic silhouettes of the conquerors who were supposed to spread the socialist message to the far reaches of the universe’ (p.42). Similarly, Põder’s cosmonaut, with its diminutive, planted flag, is anything but heroic. Instead, it is held together by thread and sprouts bulbous growths. The flag bears no insignia – probably an allusion to the fact that during Soviet rule, Baltic countries were not permitted to display their national flags. 

The first floor galleries demonstrate Põder’s move away from the plastic reconfiguration of the body towards more abstracted, softer forms FIG.4. The upright arrangement in Keerus (Coiled; 1993) is reminiscent of a figure, replete with head, but its arms are replaced by horn-like curves and its ‘legs’ wrap together into a single corkscrew. Rulli keeratud figuur (Rolled-up Figure; 1992) and Kompositsioon rippuva peaga (Composition with Hanging Head; 1994) test this identification with a human body even further, approximating it solely through gesture: the unnatural arch of the back, the impossible ‘hanging’ of the head. The latter contour is mirrored in Kompositsioon rippuvate kätega (Composition with Hanging Hands) FIG.5, the impossibly long arms of which dangle heavily towards the ground. Here, fabric is applied around a wooden base like bandages, with small squares of material loosely applied on the surface, conjuring the distinctive pattern of the harlequin’s costume. Such works seem to teeter on the edge of a tragicomic sensibility, somehow being drawn back from the brink of extreme collapse.

Põder’s works from the early 1990s mark her transition into more domestic themes: a development that coincided with the emergence of a new consumer economy in independent Estonia. Her corporeal language and critique of the commercialisation of women’s bodies took on additional dimensions within the context of a new capitalist society. However, it must be noted that Põder did not explicitly identify as a feminist artist. Although there was a burgeoning feminist movement in the visual arts, it was mostly embraced by a younger generation and otherwise dismissed as a Western import. As Katrin Kivimaa has noted: ‘Since Estonian women had already been powerful to some extent, the argument was that feminism, as a politics foreign to the needs of Estonian culture, had nothing to offer’.10 Rather, Põder’s work from this era can be seen as a response to the evolving role of women in an emerging post-Soviet reality.

This is perhaps most present in what Alemani terms Põder’s ‘semiotic investigation of clothing’ (p.43). Whereas the artist’s dolls and mannequins rely on the stitching together of materials, these works are brought into existence through incision and removal. Ruum minu keha jaoks (Space for My Body) FIG.6, which gives the exhibition its title, is reduced to almost seams alone: the artist has sliced into three women’s shirts, creating an intricate fabric armature. A series of the artist’s dismantled coats are suspended nearby FIG.7. Some hang on plastic mannequins, giving them volume, whereas others are illuminated from within by warm electric lightbulbs, affording the structure a more architectural quality. This three-dimensional treatment of the coat’s interior manifests Põder’s interest in the ‘space body’ – translating the absence, itself shaped by presence, into something tangible. Such interventions are also extended to a group of handbags FIG.8, which are reduced to linings, stitching, clasps and buckles. At once violent and tender, Põder’s dissections seem to enact a probing attempt to locate the imprint or essence of the object’s lost owner.

In the final three galleries, the visitor witnesses the development of Põder’s vocabulary as it becomes more varied throughout the late 1990s and 2000s. In Katsetatud kasu. Kummist kotid (Tested Profit. Rubber Bags) FIG.9, four large rectangles of linoleum are hung on the wall; each has the outline of a figure stitched into its centre. One is sliced open in the middle, resembling a body bag; another has irregular holes punched into the surface, a pattern that evokes welts or hives. The linoleum had previously served as hospital flooring and still bears the stains and scuffs of its previous, medical life. Installed in front of these ghostly remnants is Oksaaugud (Knotholes; 2003), in which the artist reduces human presence to a single vertebra. Small, moulded coccyges are placed at regular intervals along two long wooden benches, each suffused into the surface. The impression is one of a perpetually loyal audience, who decomposed long ago. This is augmented by Põder’s choice of materials, which themselves were chosen for their inevitable disintegration.

The exhibition culminates in the juxtaposition of two works from 2007: Limpsijad (Lickers) and Vahesein (Screen) FIG.10. The two helmet-like ‘lickers’ recall Põder’s mutant cosmonauts of the 1980s, but here all facial features are removed except for a monstrous, protruding tongue. The heads themselves are almost pure wire scaffolding, with small sections of aluminium foil skin. With no recourse to the other senses, they are led by their engorged tongues alone. A potential target for their blind tastebuds is offered in Vahesein, in which a wall of metal struts is filled with Kinder Eggs. These confections arrived in Estonia following independence in 1991, as part of a broader influx of Western products. In what are perhaps Põder’s most direct references to neoliberal consumerism, the artist appears to grapple with the rapaciousness of a new information society and its infiltration into all spheres of human existence. As Alemani so aptly states, when Põder created Enne etteastet, she suggested an affinity between sculpture and the pregnant space ‘before performance’. Made nearly thirty years later, the searching, greedy tongues of Limpsijad seem to indicate that, from this point onwards, everything is performance.

 

Exhibition details

Anu Põder: Space for My Body
Muzeum Susch, Zernez
3rd January–30th June 2024


Catalogue

Anu Põder: Space for My Body
Edited by Cecilia Alemani and Agnieszka Sosnowska
Muzeum Susch, Zernez, and Skira Editore, Milan, 2024
ISBN 978–88–572–5106–6

Order book

 

 

About the author

Kathryn Lloyd

is the Contemporary Art Editor at The Burlington Magazine.



Footnotes

  • Anu Põder, quoted from interview with by Isabel Aaso-Zahradnikova and Juta Kivimäe, 2008, Archive of the Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn, EKMA.12.1.8.11. footnote 1
  • The coats that Põder used in this series were often men’s coats, which many generations of labourers wore while performing daily outdoor tasks on their farms. footnote 2
  • Anu Põder, quoted from op. cit. (note 1). footnote 3
  • Ibid. footnote 4
  • Põder often described sculpture in terms of dance, as epitomised by her words ‘Really, sculpture is like a dance endlessly striving for light’, quoted from the catalogue: Anu Põder: Space for My Body. Edited by Cecilia Alemani and Agnieszka Sosnowska. 192 pp. incl. 130 col. ills. (Muzeum Susch and Skira Editore, Milan, 2024), £24.95. ISBN 978–88–572–5106–6, p.103. footnote 5
  • J. Kivimäe: ‘Lagoon sculpture: critical pop, romantic symbolism, hyperrealism and surrealism in Estonian sculpture of the 1980s’, in S. Helme, ed.: Kadunud kaheksakümnendad: probleemid, teemad ja tähendused 1980. aastate eesti kunstis / Lost Eighties: Problems, Themes and Meanings in Estonian Art on 1980s, Tallinn 2010, pp.132–43, available at www.digar.ee/arhiiv/nlib-digar:286761, accessed 30th June 2024. footnote 6
  • As Põder deliberately chose perishable materials – such as wax, soap, leather, grease and dust – her works prove challenging for museum conservators, see M. Kuźmicz: ‘Anu Põder: nothing is constant’, in Alemani and Sosnowska, op. cit. (note 5), pp.109–16. footnote 7
  • Põder created approximately sixty works of art during her lifetime, forty-four of which survive today; some are missing, have disintegrated or were destroyed by the artist. See Alemani and Sosnowska, op. cit. (note 5), pp.35 and 109. footnote 8
  • Reviewed by the present author in The Burlington Magazine 164 (2022), pp.688–91. footnote 9
  • K. Kivimaa: ‘Revolting 90s in Estonian art’, in A. Dimitrakaki, P. Skelton and M. Tralla, eds: Private Views: Spaces and Gender in Contemporary Art from Britain & Estonia, London 2000, pp.84–100, at p.85. footnote 10

See also

Body as language, language as body
Body as language, language as body

Body as language, language as body

14.10.2021 • Reviews / Exhibition

Veronica Ryan: Along a Spectrum
Veronica Ryan: Along a Spectrum

Veronica Ryan: Along a Spectrum

18.08.2021 • Reviews / Exhibition