Dr. Elo-Hanna Seljamaa
Among proverbs recorded by the second century sophist Zenobius is “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. Isaiah Berlin has famously used this saying to differentiate between two kinds of intellectual and artistic personalities:
“those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel (…) and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle. These last lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one (…) unitary inner vision.”[i]
Liina Siib is best described as belonging to the category of foxes, to creators “compounded of heterogeneous elements.”[ii] Siib shuns broad generalisations and resists reduction, striving instead for ambiguity and open-endedness. She challenges and disorients her viewers by tackling topics, characters, spaces and situations that tend to go unnoticed due to their ordinariness or are silenced or ignored. Giving voice to the voiceless, however, is a byproduct rather than the driving force behind her art and she does not fight under any particular banner. Rather, Siib is impelled by observations on her surroundings, by quotes, spaces and encounters that speak to her at any given moment.
In recent years, Siib has increasingly relied on a documentary approach and many of her projects are inspired by specific places or events that have taken place in a particular locale. In an interview on the occasion of her exhibition at the 2011 Venice Biennale, she described her work as “visual research”.[iii] Her working method resembles that of an ethnographer for she spends time observing places and people she depicts in her projects, participates, records her observations and analyses them. Siib seeks to lay bare various facets of her object of study and often conjoins visual images, sound, text and artefacts to create a space where this phenomenon can be discussed in its complexity. Even photographs and videos that are partially or wholly staged are often based on thorough research, standing closer to faction than fiction. Her art is theoretically sophisticated and makes intertextual links to philosophy, world literature and cinema. At the same time, it engages in topics that are relevant across state borders, class lines and even time periods: work and leisure, spatial relationships, violence, revenge, faith, submissiveness, conformism and resistance, truth and falsehood, public and private, street and home, play, sex and gender, ritual, memory.
Siib’s method of spending time in places observing bears a resemblance to how she discovered her mediums. Trained in graphic fine art towards the end of the Soviet era, she gradually strolled to photography, video and installation art in the 1990s after Estonia had regained independence. “Strolled” seems to be the right word for this shift because she started taking photographs in earnest while wandering through the streets of New York and later San Francisco. Hence, gazing at the city, reading its signs and dwellers, listening to their stories – flânerie as an activity – preceded in her case flânerie as a method for producing works of art. Then again, flânerie is said to be an “activity that takes training – in order not to overlook the obvious in one’s own city and in order to engage in meaningful collection of images – and a particular social habitus.”[iv] Of all the places in the world, it was arguably in Paris, the cradle of flânerie, that Siib decided to pursue a career as an artist.
As a flâneur, Siib is positioned simultaneously inside and outside, attentive to the given situation and empathetic but not looking for immersion. To the extent she uses herself as an instrument of field research, her works are always also autobiographical and serve as a log of her travels in the United States, Italy, China, Taiwan, Germany and, of course, Estonia and Tallinn. Juxtaposing images captured in different countries yields comparative visual investigations. Moreover, grouped in new ways, her works from different years shed light on each other and point to further layers of interpretation.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Siib would often concentrate on phenomena and groups in the margins of society in order to examine and question society’s boundaries, its mechanisms for exclusion and inclusion and systems of categorisation. While children and teenagers[v] are in the process of internalizing social norms, the homeless, prisoners and prostitutes[vi] are treated as outcasts and embody social order by virtue of breaching it.[vii] Questions of social conventions, disorder and failure continue to attract Siib’s attention. However, in her recent works, she has turned her camera to ordinary wage labourers, their settings of work and recreation.[viii]
Since 2007, Siib has been taking photos of women in their work places. A selection of this continuously expanding series A Woman Takes Little Space was included in Siib’s project for the 54th Venice Biennale, which bore the same title.[ix] The gender income gap in Estonia has already for years been wider than in any other member state of the European Union with women earning consistently over 25% less than their male counterparts. Siib began her series of working women in response to a popular explanation of this phenomenon, namely that women are paid less because they need less money and less space. True to her method of flânerie, she would walk to various workplaces in Tallinn and, if permitted, take pictures of female employees: “My precondition was to find real situations that confirmed to the idea in my mind – about women in restricted working conditions, where they practically blend into the environment.”[x]
The result is a large number of photographs of equal size, each portraying a woman in her occupational setting: blue-collar ladies, secretaries, guards, salespersons, bartenders, beauticians, nurses, cooks, clerks – characters missing from visual regimes of late capitalist consumer societies.[xi] Yet Siib does not treat her models as representatives of a type but respects their individuality and pays a tribute to their resilience: these women might be constrained to hold on to their low-paying jobs, yet there is more to them and their lives. At the same time, by presenting women’s ability – or habit – to blend into their working environment, their conformism, the artist appears to be asking whether, how and why women are complicit in the small space allocated to them.
The two-channel video Unsocial Hours (2011), also part of the Venice project, is similarly engaged in working women, but explores the cycle of production and consumption rather than individual breadwinners. More specifically, the video captures the women of Tallinn as makers, vendors and consumers of cheap pastries and rolls. Images of female workers doing a nightshift in a small low-tech bakery are juxtaposed with images of selling and buying these baked goods in a small kiosk at a busy railway station and finally with images of women eating these buns during what looks like a too short coffee break in a too small room. Though unknown to each other, women depicted in the video are interdependent: customers’ social rituals of coffee and conversation are maintained by bakers who work through the unsocial hours, skilfully handling the dough and fillings night after night, as well as by clerks who sell the buns, standing on their feet for hours every day.
This sense of routine and repetition is strengthened by the rattling of train wheels that can be heard in the background occasionally. In the words of Anu Allas, “(o)n the one hand, the repetition seems frustrating and mechanised (a vicious circle) while, on the other, it can be positively reproducing and stabilising (creating a circle of life), which indicates the failure to ‘get on, succeed’, but also the fact that it might be unnecessary.”[xii] Cheap comfort food that can be gobbled up on the go or used to reward oneself embodies this paradox aptly and in a manner many can identify with, at least in Estonia where pastries and rolls are hugely popular among women and men alike. One can see the occasional male customer in Unsocial Hours, but more importantly, the video has a male voiceover that announces the names of various baked goods produced at the bakery. Like women, the male narrator is trapped in a cycle of repetition and though he tries to break it by changing his intonation and rhythm of speaking, the names of buns start to resemble a nonsensical mock speech when read out over and over again. The male voiceover lends to the video subtle humour and irony that is so characteristic of Siib’s works and the artist’s appreciation of ambiguity.
While cyclical repetition has been associated with a distinctively female experience of time, it is also the starting point of modern industrial production, which has sought to maximise efficiency and prosperity by means of standardisation and segmentation of the production process. Approached from this angle, Unsocial Hours forms an interesting pair with Mineralwasser (2011), another recent two-channel video about workers and work environment. This latter work shows bottling of mineral water at the Sylt-Quelle plant on the German island of Sylt, where Siib held a residency with the kunst:raum sylt quelle Foundation:[xiii] a steady flow of glass bottles moving along the conveyor belt in order to be filled with water, capped, labelled, boxed, and finally stored for transportation. As in Unsocial Hours, sound is used to multiply possible interpretations. Bottles cruise across the plant to the melody of “La Krautoma”, Amon Düül’s instrumental version of the popular song “La Paloma” about a white dove bringing home greetings from a sailor.
The mineral water plant appears to be staffed by a handful of men, whom we see fastening a bolt here or there, rolling carts or eliminating occasional traffic jams on the conveyor belt, but mostly loitering about the premises; at some point, it looks as if the bottles are inside working and men are peeping at them from outside through the window. One cannot escape the feeling that the plant could manage without the workers and that men are being shepherded by bottles; that bottles have taken on human qualities. The protagonists of Unsocial Hours, on the other hand, are clearly the persons who make, sell and consume buns and bakers in particular are presented as skilled artisans: the camera lingers on women’s hands and how they create evenly shaped baroque structures from dough. Sylt-Quelle’s nearly fully automatized production line contrasts sharply with the bakery, where most tasks are carried out manually and workers have to make do with Soviet-era pendulum scales. The air in the bakery is hot and there is flour dust everywhere; women’s fingers are sticky with margarine and jam, while men at the mineral water plant wear gloves to keep the bottles shiny. Moreover, most women shown in Unsocial Hours are old enough to have been born to the Soviet system of planned economy, where unemployment was a taboo and gender inequality arguably a thing of the past. They have had to shift to capitalism midway and even though socialism looked better on a poster than in real life, they are making a more precarious living now.
Comparing the conditions of German male workers with those of Estonian female workers would nevertheless make little sense and besides, neither video seeks to typify. Yet curiously enough, by capturing the ordinary working people, Siib is following in the footsteps of those early 20th-century industrialists and scholars who observed, photographed and analysed workers’ actions in order to discover physical gestures that were most efficient for a particular job and could thus become a standard. Frederick W. Taylor, the American mechanical engineer known for such works study experiments, declared in his influential book The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) that “awkward, inefficient, or ill-directed movements of men (…) leave nothing visible or tangible behind them” and that “the remedy for this inefficiency” lies in scientific, i.e. systematic, management of not only production but “all kinds of human activities, from our simplest individual acts to the work of great corporations.”[xiv] Fordism, most notably, “turned the factory into a kind of super-machine in its own right, with both human and mechanical parts” and was also used to vision a new social organisation built on rationality, self-discipline and moderation.[xv]
Capitalism and industry have undergone drastic changes since Taylor and Ford. However, issues of “national efficiency”, “underworking” or “soldiering” and “management” [xvi] have taken on new immediacy under neoliberalism. There is furthermore the European Union, a big project of standardisation of its own right. Germany is often described as the engine of European economy, while Estonia, historically a German colony of sorts, prides itself on strict fiscal discipline. Voices demanding that all member states conform to EU regulations and strive for greater efficiency and frugality grew particularly loud during the recent economic crisis, which is when Siib shot Unsocial Hours and Mineralwasser and worked intensely on the series A Woman Takes Little Space.
Siib’s method of recording people in occupational settings reminds us inadvertently that advances in technology have provided employers with unprecedented possibilities for monitoring their (potential) employees. Moreover, cell phones and the Internet are increasingly obscuring the distinction between work and leisure, public and private, work place and home. Getting away seems to be getting harder and harder. This paradox is encapsulated in the series Sylt Beach (2011), another project inspired by the German island of Sylt. People photographed on the beach seem to have taken in earnest Taylor’s call to eliminate inefficient movements that leave nothing visible or tangible behind them. Rather than spending time at leisure, vacationists of all ages engage in what looks like work, designing and building sand castles, digging holes and establishing canals. If children are being socialised into proper psycho-physical habits, adults seem to be possessed by their work-time gestures, incapable of unproductivity. Clothes and shoes left on the sand waiting come across as ominous and funny at the same time as if they were the only ones who can still afford to relax.
Siib’s visual researches extend also back in time, most notably into Estonia’s recent past that has been narrated over and over again in the 20th century. Here too she relies on flânerie as an activity and mode of production, seeking out places associated with specific events and persons and capturing them in images that hide as much as they reveal. Siib combines her field observations with archival sources, historical accounts and various narratives circulating in the society as well as with psychoanalytic approaches and contemporary art and film theories. This yields an intricate approach that deconstructs the phenomenon under study by showering it with fragments that point at alternative accounts of what “really” happened. In a way, place is the only real thing, a constant that is being filled with ever new narratives, which in turn are motivated by ever new ideologies and personal agendas. The past accumulates in and can be entered as well as reimagined through places.
Video installation Compromise Excluded (2003) revolves around places in and near Tallinn that witnessed violence and terror during World War II, including Ülemiste railway station that was used for deportations, a suburban villa where the Soviet revolutionary tribunal executed and buried many people, territory of the Kalevi-Liiva concentration camp, and Freedom Square in downtown Tallinn where “people’s revolution” was staged in June 1940 to legitimise the Soviet takeover. Compromise Excluded consists of five videos or episodes, each of which is shot at a particular location and dedicated to a person of Estonian descent who fought among Them rather than Us, on the side of the Soviet Union.[xvii] Hence, the protagonists of the video are red revolutionaries, Soviet spies, collaborators of Soviet secret police agencies, Soviet administrators – yesterday’s heroes who are talked about only in the negative in contemporary Estonia. Siib refers to these characters cordially by their first names and has them telling us their stories, which shed light on their personal motives for their political actions: yearning for faraway places, revenge, adventure, a sense of mission, confusion or downright stupidity, weariness. By putting words into the mouth of her characters, Siib co-opts the working method of Soviet historians who would bend the truth according to their needs. However, unlike ideologists, she resists linearity and relies on the grotesque to fight the sublime. Moreover, text, the speech of characters, is not congruous with the visual story. The connection between the person and place is factual in some stories, fictional in others but always psychologically credible.
By experimenting with history, Compromise Excluded explores the possibility of giving a truthful account of the past, a question the relevance of which extends beyond post-Soviet Estonia. Siib has dealt with it further by looking at the People’s Republic of China, its relationship to Tibet and means to shape and control the horizons of its inhabitants (videos Banned Words and China Central TV in Lhasa). Body and the naked body in particular gains special significance in undemocratic systems as a site of resistance and the last resort. The video installation I, The Moon and My Shadow (2009) presents nude Asian men practicing t’ai chi, kung fu and Falun Gong, the last-mentioned of which is said to have more followers in China than the Chinese Communist Party has members. As a spiritual discipline that emphasises “self-cultivation towards spiritual perfection” and has given rise to a sense of community across social strata, Falun Gong has come to be perceived as a threat by the Communist Party and its practitioners are being prosecuted by the thousands.[xviii]
Saaremaa Waltz (2014), the installation created for the exhibition Spin Around and Twirl, brings together several issues addressed in Siib’s earlier projects on the workings of oppressive regimes and the relationship between work, body and ideology. This time she has focused her attention on popular culture, i.e. music that is genuinely liked by people and desired as well as feared by those in power. While the latter are eager to exploit positive emotions evoked by catchy tunes and beautiful pictures, the subjugation of the genuinely popular to dogma can never be complete since emotions and enjoyment precede language and any ideology: “at the root of preference and liking is affect,” a state that ignores the linearity and coherence of grand narratives.[xix] Yet the opposite appears to be true as well: pop songs and other products of popular culture provide people with a safe, responsibility-free means for engaging with the past and in this way contribute to conformism.
The song “Saaremaa Waltz” dates back to post-war Stalinist years filled with fear and violence: one of the mass deportations discussed in Compromise Excluded took place in March 1949 and only two months later the song was first recorded and became popular.[xx] Composed by Raimond Valgre, the composer associated with nostalgia for the interwar Republic of Estonia, to the lyrics of Debora Vaarandi, a poetess who appears to have believed in Communism in earnest, “Saaremaa Waltz” stands for Estonia’s turbulent past as well as for the resilience of the great mass of the population. The majority has to adopt and conform in order for life to continue, which is perhaps why Milan Kundera has described kitsch as a totalitarian denial of individualism, doubt, irony and anything else that contradicts the “categorical agreement with being”. Because kitsch induces feelings that masses can share, it is “the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements”.[xxi] One can only join Liina Siib in asking: what happens to the identity of a person who has to “spin around and twirl”, to adopt several opposite ideologies during his or her lifetime. Developing the artistic and intellectual personality of a fox and becoming a flâneur appears to be one the most productive responses.
The text is written for the catalogue Solo für … Liina Siib. Lass schwingen und springen! Spin around and twirl. ifa-Gallery Berlin, ifa-Gallery Stuttgart. Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen e. V. 2014.
[i] Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History. Princeton University Press, 203, p. 2.
[ii] ibid., p. 3.
[iii] Sarah Hardie’s interview with Liina Siib about her project A Woman Takes Little Space published in A Virtual Biennale: http://avirtualbiennale.tumblr.com/search/liina+siib#6590409421. Other interviews on the occasion include “Just an Arm’s-Reach Way” by Anna Itlnere in Baltic, Russian and Scandinavian Art Territory: http://www.arterritory.com/en/texts/interviews/34-just_an_arms-reach_away/1/ and “Dealing With Yourself Through Others” by Eero Epner in Estonian Art 1/2011: http://www.estinst.ee/est/estonian-art/article/estonian-art-1-2011/view/gb/.
[iv] David Frisby, “The flâneur in social theory” in The flâneur (ed. Keith Tester), Routledge, 1994, p. 92. Photo series Marlowe Path, Toys, Sõjamäe, Revenge Location, Hänsel und Gretel, Double Happiness and videos Scala Santa, Kiosk, People In The City, Gimme Danger, Quartieri Spagnoli, among others, serve as good examples of Siib’s application of flânerie. Images from these and other works discussed in the essay can be found at liinasiib.com.
[v] E.g. photo works Presumed Innocence II, Scratch Drive, Pastoral, Séance, Sharmanka-Sharlatanaka, Children’s Album.
[vi] E.g. photo series Coat of the Season, Presumed Innocence I, Apartness; video Averse Body.
[vii] For a more thorough discussion of this aspect, see “Significant Margins, as Seen by Liina Siib” by Elo-Hanna Seljamaa in A Woman Takes Little Space by Liina Siib. 54th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia (ed. Andreas Trossek). Center for Contemporary Art, Estonia, 2011.
[viii] In addition to photos and videos discussed below, Grave Digger, The Guard, Averse Body.
[ix] On show in Venice were also Apartness and A Room of Ones Own as well as Unoscial Hours to be discussed below. See also essays in the exhibition catalogue: “Women Take Little Space” by Agnė Narušitė and “Women Take Up Room” by Anna Kortelainen in the exhibition catalogue (footnote 7) as well as “Eat, Pray, Love…” by Anu Allas in Estonian Art 1/2011 (footnote 3).
[x] Interview by Sarah Hardie, see footnote 3.
[xi] Katrin Kivimaa, “Töötava naise tagasitulek”, kunst.ee. Eesti visuaalkultuuri ajakiri, 1-2.
[xii] Allas, p. 9 (footnote 9).
[xiii] Further works created in Sylt include Hänsel und Gretel and Kinderdisco.
[xiv] Frederick W. Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management. Harper Bros, 1911. Internet Modern History Sourcebook: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1911taylor.html
[xv] Peter Wollen, Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture. Verso Books, pp. 38-39
[xvi] Taylor (footnote 14).
[xvii] The video Compromise Excluded was the final project of Siib’s MA studies and accompanied by a thesis titled “Us and Them – Then and Now”.
[xviii] Leeshai Lemish, “Why is Falun Gong Banned?”, NewStatesman, 19.08.2008; http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-faith-column/2008/08/falun-gong-party-chinese
[xix] David MacFadyen, Yellow Crocodiles and Blue Oranges: Russian Animated Film Since World War Two. Mcgill Queens University Press, 2005, p. xvii.
[xx] Valter Ojakäär. “Georg Ots – kas ainult “Saaremaa valss”?”: http://www.jazzkaar.ee/et/avaleht/item/georg-ots-kas-ainult-«saaremaa-valss».html/
[xxi] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Harper & Row, 1984, pp. 250-251.