Significant Margins as Seen by Liina Siib

Dr. Elo-Hanna Seljamaa

A number of art critics discussing the photo and video installations by Liina Siib have come up with similar observations that contradict and reinforce each other simultaneously. First, it has been found that the work of Liina Siib explores subjects and places tucked away into the margins of respectable society and groups whose status within the social structure is questionable or invisible: violence and sexuality in their abundant forms, death, women who work as prostitutes and men who work as grave diggers, homeless people and criminals, sites of murder, and, in the case of Estonia, Communism and the Others of Estonians. Secondly, her projects deal with clichés, with topics, images, and views that are so commonplace and ingrained as to become invisible: childhood, puberty and family, conventional gender roles and the subjugated position of women, homemaking, the language of advertising, suppressed and commuted desires, cinematic narration strategies, psychoanalysis. In conclusion, Liina Siib is found to be an intriguing, even provocative artist with a penetrating, yet sensitive take on grave social problems. She is fascinated with the opportunities of the photographic medium and oftentimes adds a touch of humour or (self)irony, thereby multiplying the already broad spectrum of plausible interpretations. As she once stated in an interview: “One of the goals of art could be that you cast doubt on things, even if you turn out to be wrong. That we would constantly cast doubt on our own ideas” (Siib 2003: 18).

Interested in universal questions of human existence, Liina Siib is thoroughly aware that answers to them are always gendered, spatial and culture-specific, shaped by concrete historical, economic and political conditions. A Woman Takes Little Space, Siib’s project for the 54th Venice Biennale, is inspired by recent debates in Estonia surrounding the equal treatment of working women: women in Estonia earn app. 30% less than their male counterparts, which is one of the widest gender income gaps in the European Union. Siib takes up one of the popular justifications to this gender wage difference according to which women are paid less because they need less space and less money. She documents working women in their daily work environments, but she also goes further to raise questions about the space and place of women in the public sphere and at home. She explores the lines between pleasure and work, between the labour of love and labour of money, showing that these borders are blurry and awkward, individual and intimate and at the same time also social. As will be discussed in the last section of this essay, Siib’s photo and video installations compiled under the title A Woman Takes Little Space constitute savvy studies of gender identities and ethnic relations in post-Soviet Estonia. At the same time they are bound to offer moments of recognition to any woman or man and to inspire the viewer to draw comparisons with other societies and other eras, with their own life. The venue of the Estonian exposition, an apartment and former family home in Palazzo Malipiero, an 18th century palace with a colourful history involving Casanova, provides perfect conditions for reflections of this kind. Siib makes the most of this space by exploring the theatricality of domestic life and social spaces created within home by means of gaze and architecture, both of which are gendered.

Because Liina Siib refuses to take simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for an answer, her works and authorial positions are difficult to pin down. Her interest in the cultural construction of femininity and the everyday as well as her subtle autobiographic approach would make it easy to link her work to feminism. Yet it seems as if she was always pushing the boundaries by examining how women are complicit in their low wages and how teenage girls enjoy capturing the gaze of adult spectators, how rewards and losses are always intertwined and multiple and no ism can claim the truth. If we are to believe the artist, such a position is partly a generational issue, an attitude embraced by many Estonians born in the 1960s. Siib has suggested that the value assessments of her generation “took place in the 1980s when people were cynical and nihilistic, rejecting all values and beliefs as meaningless and I seem to have stayed that way.” The past, coming of age in the Soviet Union, has made her mistrustful of the feasibility of taking social issues in earnest and assuming responsibility. (Siib 2003: 20.)

According to anthropologist Alexei Yurchak (2006), such a romantic and somewhat detached attitude is characteristic of what he calls ‘the last Soviet generation’ – people who were born and grew up in the Soviet Union in the period of Late Socialism, between 1960s–1980s. Coming of age during the Brezhnev era meant that this cohort did not experience any major transformations of the Soviet way of life until perestroika and was socialized into the state’s highly formalized ideological institutions, rituals and discourses. Yurchak argues that unlike dissidents and ideological activists, many young educated urbanites did not read ideological descriptions at the level of constative meanings, as true or false. Rather, they recognized that formal participation in the system’s ritual reproduction was enough to guarantee them the freedom of creating new identities and ways of life that went beyond the system’s expectations and limitations. Furthermore, experiencing and witnessing the collapse of such a system as the Soviet Union left them with the knowledge that life could change in a drastic manner and unexpectedly.

Though Yurchak writes about the last Soviet generation in Russia and one needs to be mindful of differences between different parts of the Soviet Union, his thoughts appear to resonate with Liina Siib’s mistrust of institutions, her playful approach to conventions as well as with the ease with which she treats identity as multiple and performative. Siib is receptive to small worlds created within big systems and respects their claims for autonomy. Having studied and worked longer periods of time abroad, in the United States, in Great Britain, Italy and elsewhere, she is accustomed to observing her surroundings with the eyes of a stranger alert to details. By refusing to take ideological statements, ingrained principles and stereotypes at their face value, she is able to explore the work this ‘stuff’ does, the very building materials and mechanisms of the society. As scholars of culture have demonstrated, this is precisely where people in the margins and silenced things come into play: “where there is dirt there is system” (Douglas 1989: 35). My aim in the following is to concentrate on Siib’s photo and video installations that engage with the social order from the perspective of margins invested with symbolic significance, paying special attention to women.

Significant Exclusions
The eminent British anthropologist Mary Douglas (1989) argues that we perceive as dirt objects, ideas and people that confuse and thereby threaten our normal schemes of classification. It follows that our ideas of dirt are inseparable from those of order and that one should be approached through the other. According to Douglas, systems of pollution and purity are first and foremost symbolic systems that express moral ideas and draw on patterns into which we have been socialized. Any given system of classification gives rise to anomalies, which must be confronted and located in order to maintain the pattern or create opportunities for its transformation. I would like to argue that since her very first photo installations, Liina Siib has been dealing with questions of social order and disorder, purity and pollution, by focusing on persons, objects and ideas regarded as dangerous, unsuitable or metaphorically dirty in some other way. Similarly to Douglas (1978, 1989) and several other scholars of symbolic behaviour (e.g Turner 1969, Anttonen 1996: 83–84), Siib juxtaposes the human body with the society and boundaries of the body with boundaries of the community. Marginal groups and characters in her works make visible the otherwise implicit boundaries of the society and tell us about its members’ shared fears and convictions. Since borders create a distinction between the inside and the outside as well as connect them, they are a source of constant threat. Body openings, like thresholds of any kind, are vulnerable and dangerous precisely because they are openings, holes or gates in borders that need to be controlled in order to protect the system and its patterns. Women and fertile women in particular are subject to special surveillance because the reproduction of societies and (ethnic) groups takes place through them, through holes in female body, which therefore serves as the symbol of the society par excellence and is at the centre of Siib’s interest.

Since dirt is always relative, matter out of a particular place, both norms and deviations from the norm are multiple and context-dependent. More often than not, our different systems of categorization intersect, exposing the intricate character of our daily operations of ordering. Siib seeks to alienate her audience from its cherished patterns of perception and thought by discussing seemingly obvious and ordinary things from the perspective of persons found on the margins and in the interstices of the social structure. This incitement to conventional assumptions is evident already in Siib’s first photo installations from around 1997, which dealt with the topics of homelessness and abandonment as well as with cultural construction of gender identities. Presumed Innocence, Liina Siib’s breakthrough solo exhibition as a photographer, displayed images of learning and playing children side by side with those of female prisoners engaged in their daily activities: schoolgirls absorbed in learning how to apply makeup (Scratch Drive) next to children in a pool practicing swimming (Presumed Innocence II) next to mature women working, socialising, and attending to their looks and children (Presumed Innocence I). While this juxtaposition enabled the artist to point at the pervasiveness of beauty-centred ideals of femininity, it also had the effect of bringing convicted criminals, dangerous secluded individuals, closer to the viewer by depicting them as ordinary women, as mothers, wives and pet owners whose daily activities do not differ from those of us at liberty. In her work on homelessness (Hospitality and The Coat of the Season), Siib was similarly not interested in shocking the viewer with naturalistic details, but depicted the homeless as ordinary people with normal needs and simple pleasures of warmth, clothes, company and homemaking. In both cases, it is the ordinariness of the marginal that makes these images disturbing, not least because it makes it difficult for the viewer to assume the role of a prosecutor. Children, prisoners, and the homeless share a liminal status, which is signified also by the in-betweenness of their physical environment: water as a purifying element used in rituals, the jailhouse, and the street as the opposite of home. Children and prisoners in particular are in transmission, going through a rite of passage at the end of which they will be allowed to (re)join the world of self-governing adults.

It is notable that in showing the ordinariness of the excluded, Liina Siib is sure to keep a distance to the people she is portraying. I would argue that this deliberate detachment serves as a token of respect for the autonomy and integrity of the models and their worlds. Siib’s empathy appears to lie in her recognition that she cannot know what the life of an imprisoned woman or a street person is like, but that she can nevertheless encounter these people as fellow human beings. This is already a subversive act if we acknowledge that exclusions serve to affirm and strengthen the system to which they do not conform while at the same time opening it up for changes. While the lack of status puts the liminal personae in a vulnerable and submissive position, it also endows them with a power to disturb the system (cf. Turner 1969: 102–106).

Play and Gaze
Siib’s work reminds us that marginality is not a given, but a relation: the outsideness of her models is created, abolished and perhaps re-created through ways of seeing employed by the audience and the artist respectively. The artist’s interest in the margins is intertwined with her questions regarding the construction of social reality by means of gazes and images, which oftentimes emulate certain clichés of representation. Siib appears to be engaged in the study of visual culture as defined by David Morgan, a scholar of religious visual culture: “The study of visual culture concentrates on the cultural work that images do in constructing and maintaining (as well as challenging, destroying, and replacing) a sense of order in a particular place and time” (Morgan 2005: 29). Seeing is simultaneously a social and a biological operation for we see by virtue of habit and expectation, we see what we desire to see and what we are told to be there (ibid.: 74). Through examining and testing different ways of seeing, Siib explores epistemological lenses that give shape to what is being seen – shared ideas and feelings about the order of things. Many of her works include a meta-level on which she deals with the contractual relationship between the viewer and the image (cf. Kivimaa 2005: 25–26). Siib’s digitally manipulated photographs present the viewer with new realities where the actual and the artificial coexist, thereby blurring the line between fact and fiction. In casting doubt on the viewers’ perceptions of reality, the artist also questions moral conditions under which the audience encounters images. As I intend to show in this section of the essay, she does it by addressing silenced topics and by depicting people and things in ways and places that are not necessarily wrong, but ambiguous and hence leave the viewer with ambivalent feelings.

This latter strategy of showing matter as if it was slightly out of its proper place is particularly evident in several projects from the late 1990s and early 2000s that elaborate on the topics of childhood and identity formation first taken up in Presumed Innocence (Pastoral, Shift, Children’s Album, Séance, Sharmanka-Sharlatanka). Almost all of these series concentrate on female children and teenagers, which in itself argues against the idea of ‘child‘ as a genderless category. Siib challenges innocence and asexuality as the main stereotypes for depicting children by showing them as sensuous beings whose life worlds reflect those of adults, but who nevertheless create territories and meanings of their own (cf. Bartelt 2005: 11), oftentimes by means of play. Gregory Bateson argues that play constitutes a peculiar from of communication because “messages or signals exchanged in play are in a certain sense untrue or not meant” and what is denoted by these signals does not really exist (Bateson 1972: 183). This means that playing presupposes an ability to meta-communicate, to send out and recognise signals that stand for something else. It seems at times as if Siib and her models collaborated in testing the viewers’ ability to recognize the frame of play and to organize their interpretations correspondingly. The audience is expected to receive a multiplicity of signals and to operate with several partly overlapping frames at the same time. What makes this task even more challenging is the ambiguity and paradox inherent in play: there are rules, but they are implicit and subject to change for playing is essentially interacting and the maintenance of the play presupposes consistent communication between the players (Bateson 1972; Schwartzman 1979: 302) – among the artist, her models, and the audience.

As Johannes Saar has noted, Siib’s virtuosity lies in saying as little as possible (Saar 2000:189) about her intentions or those of her underage models who appear to be taking suggestive poses and flirting with the camera. The artist confuses her viewers by keeping them in the darkness of their own imagination and erotic impulses: dirt is, once again, in the eyes of the beholder and speaks about the viewer’s inability or unwillingness to see and recognize those aspects of childhood that do not conform to idealized notions that adults have created of children. The chances of getting ‘it’ wrong are increased by the fact that Siib depicts girls immersed in a world of play where there is no place and also no need for embarrassment or shame. When they are posing, perhaps doing what the artist has told them to do, this becomes a play, too, for modeling, like playing, involves performing unusual roles. Exaggerated expressions on children’s faces and their theatrical poses make it clear that they know they are posing and playing and, on top of everything, that they are making the most of it, a fact which some critics found disturbing or artificial.

Yet it seems that Siib’s aim was not even to pretend as if she could offer glimpses into authentic moments of children’s play. She knows that the girls know and play along. The artist recognises children’s ability to not only imitate the world of adults, but to comment upon it and question its conventions by means of caricature and mockery. While some scholars of play emphasize that playing serves as a mechanism of enculturation (think about the girls in Scratch Drive who learnt to apply make-up), others argue that play and games may also seek to challenge and reverse the social order and to make fun of conventional power and gender roles (Schwartzman 1976: 297–301). Siib’s approach leaves space for both interpretations. Furthermore, if children deconstruct the world through play, the artist herself is engaged in a similar project to the extent that her work explores the “stuff” that societies are made of and questions it. Furthermore, she has admitted repeatedly that in photographing or filming girls or young women, she has been photographing herself, her own problems and feelings as well as games she used to play in her childhood. The concept of play is therefore of crucial importance in perceiving the autobiographical aspects of Siib’s work as well as her methods for analysing the opportunities of photography.

In dealing with conventions of representation, Siib at the same time explores taboos, phenomena the representation of which is avoided altogether. To borrow again from Gregory Bateson (Bateson & Bateson 1987), she goes where angels fear to tread. The most striking example of this is the series titled (name changed), which takes up the topics of incest and sexual abuse of children. Based on a true story, the series presents the viewer with staged scenes that claim to depict fragments from the lives of several different girls and families. I would argue that the disturbing effect of these photographs comes, at least partly, from the viewers’ silent recognition – their ability to place these images within a narrative they know but never tell to each other. Bateson suggests that noncommunication of this kind may serve as a meaningful form of communication and fulfil a protective function, especially in cases where knowledge resulting from communication would transform, even destroy the system (Bateson & Bateson 1987: 80). In this sense the notion of noncommunication bears a resemblance to Mary Douglas’s ideas of the dirtiness and dangerousness of matters that do not fit into conventional systems of classification: both noncommunication and dirt condition order by threatening it.

Though girls in the series (name changed) are depicted alone or with their abuser, they are surrounded by an invisible yet palpable web of secrets and silencing that serves to protect not only the abuser, but ultimately the whole family and the larger community as well as more abstract ideas about love, order, shame, honour, and respectability. We find the same web of silence from around domestic violence and prostitution, to mention some of the topics Siib has dealt with. On a more general level, Siib’s works on such topics tackle discourses and mechanisms of repression that operate on different levels of society, also through images and ways of seeing.

A Space of Her Own?
A Woman Takes Little Space, Liina Siib’s project for the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, continues the exploration of significant margins and symbolic meanings attributed to women and female bodies. The exhibition comprises installations created for this occasion as well as works from recent years (the video Averse Body (2007), photographs from series Apartness (2008) and A Woman Takes Little Space (since 2007, first displayed in 2008)). Assembled together under one topic and in one space, an 18th century Venetian family home, these works enter into a dialogue whereby new works open up novel aspects in earlier ones and the latter deepen the grasp of the former. Whereas Presumed Innocence juxtaposed convicted criminals and schoolgirls, females from both ends of the extreme, and the next set of works dealt with preteens and teens on the threshold of womanhood, A Woman Takes Little Space concentrates on grownup working women, the largest and most dominant subgroup within the category of women. The artist has moved closer to what constitutes the mainstream but without leaving the margins, suggesting once again that marginality is not a given but a relation.

Though Siib is continuously interested in theatricality and in blurry lines between fact and fiction, she no longer stages mise en scènes in predetermined environments. Rather, she has turned her attention to subtle performances of category membership encountered in everyday life. Siib documents her surroundings with a sophisticated understanding of the workings of representations, knowing that each visual record she produces is always already also an interpretation, a specific take on the phenomenon in question that is in turn open to new interpretations. Another indication of a more documentary approach is her increased fascination with space and with urban space in particular: she is immersed in exploring how streets, architecture and the interior design of work places as well as homes produces gendered subject positions (e.g the 2010 exhibition Gimme Danger). Moreover, Siib has become increasingly interested in ethnicity as an identity marker and as a means of differentiation endowed with symbolic meanings.

Turning to ethnicity is not a surprising direction, given the ethnic situation in Estonia and the artist’s persistent engagement with subjects conceived to be marginal. People of other ethnicities constitute app. 32% of Estonia’s population of 1.34 million and over a quarter of Estonia’s inhabitants define themselves as Russians. Despite such numbers Estonia tends to be imagined as a country of and for ethnic Estonians: even the preamble of the Estonian constitution declares that the Estonian state “shall guarantee the preservation of the Estonian nation, language and culture through the ages.” The state is indistinguishable from Estonians’ national culture and language the preservation of which depends ultimately on the reproduction of ethnic Estonians.

Siib leaves biological reproduction aside and focuses instead on women engaged in breadwinning. A Woman Takes Little Space could be regarded as a collection of studies into the place of women in post-Soviet Estonia that encompasses both physical and imagined places as well as their intersections where the material becomes symbolic and vice versa. In tackling the gendered division of labour in post-Soviet Estonia, Siib explores simultaneously an ethnic division of labour between Estonian women and Russian women, whose position and opportunities on the labour market are oftentimes scantier still. This ethnic division of labour is a subtler but symbolically more significant distinction to the extent that it is tied to notions of national and ethnic identities and communities. As always, Siib gives her audience very few clues and leaves her works open to different interpretations: the ethnic aspect is there, but becomes meaningful only if the viewer takes it up. Recognizing the ethnic frame becomes yet another game the artist is playing with her viewers and their preconceptions.

This is particularly evident in the case of the photo installation A Woman Takes Little Space, which gave the title to the whole exhibition. The viewer is presented with a large number of photographs of equal size depicting ordinary women in public or semi-public spaces: in their work environments, on their way to work or at a café, grabbing a bite to eat before going back to work, empty work stations waiting for the woman to return. There are secretaries, accountants, cooks, shop assistants and sellers in kiosks, factory workers and bar tenders – the list is endless. The majority of these jobs are repetitive and require patience, manual skills, empathy or physical strength. A couple of photos depict women who appear to be working from home and are thus unable to draw a clear line between their working space and living space. One of these women comes across as a call girl and the other one is, perhaps ironically, the artist herself. By inserting a self-portrait in the midst of photographs that she has taken of other women, Siib positions herself as an ordinary working woman. These images are autobiographical by virtue of recording moments of encounter between the photographer and ‘a woman taking little space’ in the course of which the artist has recognized herself in the type and situation (cf. the autobiographical layers of Siib’s work on childhood discussed earlier in this essay). Drawing on these instances of recognition enables Siib to look beyond differences in age, ethnicity, education, position, and also family status: if there are any children to be seen, they are accompanying their mothers to work, thereby further decreasing the space of the woman. The series instils a sense of solidarity among women who work and perhaps even pays a tribute to their ability to cope and adapt. At the same time, however, this same autobiographical tone creates space for gentle irony that questions the purposefulness of these women’s – and the artist’s own – resilience.

As in other works, Siib uses detachment as a means of showing respect towards her models and securing their integrity. The seriality of images seems to express a dispassionate, objective attitude, likewise the title of the project, which could be taken as a neutral statement or as an observation made form a distance. Lined up on the wall row after row, these images of women and ‘their’ spaces resemble an assemblage of television screens, the windows of an apartment block or a herbarium, a systematically arranged collection of human beings belonging to a particular subcategory. The form of the installation comes to stand for a normative system of gender roles and expectations that gets simultaneously deconstructed by the personalised content of individual images. Siib demonstrates and cherishes the individuality of each specimen as if suggesting that norms are fictional constructions.

The installation Averse Body (2007) builds on a similar tension between the rigidity of form or system and the individuality of content. The video begins with a quote from the Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski about prostitutes often having a coarse voice that expresses their split personality and aversion to their own body. This statement is followed by the artist’s eleven interviews with thirteen prostitutes from Tallinn, whereas most of the respondents are Russians. The use of the sociological term ‘respondent’ seems apt because all conversation follow the same pattern as if the interviewee was completing a questionnaire: What part of your body do the clients like the best? How often have your services been rejected? Have you ever been dumped? How much time do you spend each day on taking care of your body? Do you have a low self-esteem?, etc., etc.. The voice of the interviewer asking these same questions over and over again is monotonous to an extreme, which contrasts with the intimacy of discussion topics as well as with the unique voices of individual women. Furthermore, each interviewee is asked to draw a flower, a simple experiment that is sometimes used to test the size of the drawer’s ego. The conversations are accompanied by footage that was filmed at night through the window of a taxicab and takes the viewer to the sites Tallinn’s numerous brothels. The viewer gets to see fragmentary static images of women immersed in drawing, hears their voices and is introduced to neighbourhoods where they work, but this is all. The repetitiveness of images and questions has a hypnotic effect, which is further intensified by a disco song that plays quietly in the background.

While the artist seeks to disclose and highlight the individuality of each woman, prostitutes aim at fitting themselves into the category of an ordinary woman as they imagine it. The topic of ethnicity is constantly present latently, already through the fact that the interviews were carried out in Estonia and most interviewees are Russian-speakers. However, several women, both Estonians and Russians, also describe the reluctance of their male co-ethnics to buy services from them. Accounts of this kind are of crucial importance to analysing Liina Siib’s work on significant margins for they point at the role of symbolic thinking and behaviour in establishing and maintaining ethnic boundaries. If the body of an Estonian woman serves as a metaphor for the community of ethnic Estonians and marks its boundaries, an Estonian man buying sex from a female co-ethnic would disgrace his own community. Using the services of a Russian prostitute would be different to the extent that her body would lack symbolic connotations of this kind and, furthermore, the act of buying sex from her would reaffirm and recreate her difference. At the same time it would establish a relationship between the buyer and seller, a connection that is simultaneously material and symbolic and the stronger the more secret it is. Similarly to many other things regarded as dirty, this relationship reinforces the social order by putting it in danger. At Siib’s exhibition in Venice, there are images of a call-girlish woman hanging in the exhibition room decorated as a marital bedroom, suggesting that the public women from the video Averse Body have a place of their own at the heart of their clients’ homes. Here the approach becomes again playful for it is up to viewers to decide who imagined this woman into this room and whether she is a prostitute or plays to be one, whether she is a prostitute performing the role of a respectable woman or just an ordinary working woman, whether it really matters who she really is.

In Conclusion
In her project for the 54th Venice Biennale, Liina Siib continues to explore how images and gazes mediate relations among a group of people, be it a family, a couple, an ethnic community, a gender category or a society of a particular kind. Her work on topics and people in the margins encourages viewers to question their convictions and patterns of classification by casting both light and doubt on epistemological and moral lenses that give shape to what is being seen. Of crucial importance hereby is the concept of play: while the artist is interested in different forms and functions of play in everyday life, she also uses it as a method for approaching the social reality and for interacting with her audience. Significant margins stand in the works of Liina Siib for symbolic edges and material differences but also for opportunities to change and become transformed.

The text is written for the catalogue Liina Siib. A Woman Takes Little Space. Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia 2011.

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