Staged reality and signs of actuality in the art of Liina Siib

Dr. Katrin Kivimaa

Liina Siib appeared on the contemporary Estonian art scene as a graphic artist, but since the second half of the 1990s she has devoted herself almost exclusively to the medium of photography. Her choice was no accident, reflecting wider changes in the art landscape: the triumph of photography, video and computer technology in Estonian art of the 1990s denoted stepping away from traditional painting, graphic art and sculpture. This meant simultaneously that the local art world was becoming more contemporary and the public space more media-centred in the post-socialist society. The fascination of artists with new media inevitably brought forth new topics and problems: so far almost exclusively art-related issues were often replaced by more radical and socially sensitive art practices. The photography of Siib in the 1990s belongs among the best examples within these trends.

The photo installation Desidentification displayed at the exhibition Estonia as a Sign in 1996, signified the emergence of social concerns in Siib’s art. In this work, uniting historical and contemporary Estonia, the artist presented a digitally coloured enlargement of the black-and-white police photograph taken of a man’s head which was found in 1996 in Pirita River. The painful points of the ‘new’ Estonia, not instantly visible behind the brightly coloured book-cover image of Estonia, became essential in Siib’s art. For example, the installation Hospitality (1997) consisted of photos of abandoned houses inhabited by homeless people. The heroes of the work The Coat of the Season, completed in the same year, were the inhabitants of these houses – the homeless and the beggars whose appearance in the daily life of Tallinn designated the arrival of the ‘brave new world’ of the 1990s as much as did the pictures of the ‘winners’ dressed in Calvin Klein or Chanel.

In the medium of photography, Siib was first interested in the problems of identity and role play, and her interest was manifested in various projects documenting the shaping of femininity as a social phenomenon. The 1997 exhibition Presumed Innocence tackled the connections between the notion of innocence and the notion of culturally construed femininity. The work examined two groups – female prisoners and schoolgirls – who in various situations tried to assume the accepted role of femininity, e.g. playing an ‘innocent’ bride in the prison environment or adopting the standard ‘feminine’ behaviour at an early age. This project started the artist’s longer term interest in the social construction of gender identity and its visual reproduction: traditional femininity here appears like a masquerade where all female subjects inevitably participate.

The artist pursued analogous questions in the series Scratch Drive (1997), which shows the seven to ten year-old pupils of a modelling school who are taught how to use make-up and to acquire other external features and norms of behaviour associated with ‘female’ essence, i.e. ‘femininity’ – something which can within the logic of dominant patriarchal value-system be converted into the rhetoric of symbolic and economic privileges. Photographing the girls in occasionally funny but sometimes problematic or even somewhat repulsive roles continued the photographic ‘research’ in the field of the social shaping of physical, gender and sexual identity – a topic that the Estonian public consciousness still refuses to fully acknowledge. Recent research on the use of gender roles in school textbooks or mass media demonstrates that these areas keep reproducing the notion of radical and essential difference between men and women: whilst the former are predominantly associated with public and active roles, the latter are pictured often in private space or fulfilling their ‘essential’ role as mothers.

Also the girls in Siib’s photographs emerge as pleasant and harmless objects reminding the viewer of the use of women’s images in visual culture and mass media. The project Hypnosis (1999) opposed a touristic ocean panorama wherein the peace is disturbed by a pair of powerful women standing side by side, with a photograph in less dramatic colours about a nymphet daydreaming in the bath. In the artist’s opinion, the viewers preferred the closed bathroom milieu with the young girl to the expanse of the ocean inhabited by two women, because the image of the nymphet corresponded to the pictures of femininity circulating in the contemporary visual culture.

As far as I know, Liina Siib’s photo series (name changed) (2001) is so far the only work in Estonian art tackling the problem of incest and the sexual abuse of children. As with other areas related to personal life and sexuality, the topic of domestic violence, incest and the sexual abuse of children was taboo in the Soviet society which had succumbed to patriarchal control, and the consequences still contribute to the mis- understanding of these painful social problems. (name changed)  was inspired by the first scandalous revelations in the press, and the series itself caused wildly differing opinions. This acute socially critical work drew attention to the suppression of sensitive social issues in the press; it can also be regarded as a challenge to the tradition of local artistic expression.

In addition to the social message, Siib’s use of imagery from the history of art and culture, and elements of staging, is typical of the postmodernist art of photography. Her photographs do not rely on the tradition of photo journalism. Quite the opposite – the artist is fascinated with the aesthetic opportunities of the contemporary photographic language. In Siib’s works, the aesthetic emphasis on the principles of staging and other means of visual transformation comments on (digitally manipulated) photography as an artistic medium and technology.

The visual language of Siib’s photographic art not only derives from the specifics of that medium, but also from the pictorial memory shaped by visual culture and art history. The artist occasionally relies upon the motifs of classical painting, at other times she prefers the imagery of mass culture in the form of film posters or fashion photographs. I would like to examine the characteristically double structure of her work, which formally deals with the questions of the photographic medium and visual culture, but is thematically or contextually located in the social discourse of contemporary art, on the basis of one of her most popular works, the series Le Carceri (1998–2001).

The series consists of photographs for which the material was found in the boiling department of the former Tallinn Cellulose and Paper Factory. The artist managed to get into the previously inaccessible and productive room that now, unproductive and useless, has become an accessible territory. At the time of photographing, the abandoned rooms were of no interest to anybody except the artist – the romantic wanderer who maps phenomena neglected by the society that follows the logic of profit-making. True, empty rooms are always ready to fulfil a new function, and the artist founded the symbolic nature of these spatial landscapes on that suspense, on the momentary and actually imagined point in time.

Estonia of the 1990s was called a transitional society. Progressing from one economic and ideological formation to the other was expressed, among other things, through demolishing old economic structures, either with good reason or not. The work at the Cellulose and Paper Factory, with over two hundred years of production practice, was also terminated on ecological and economic grounds. To the artist the remaining architecture seems occasionally sacral, and at times sinister (hooks, electricity cable, etc). “It resembled a slaughterhouse, then a church.”

Those fantastic and ominous architectural forms probably provoked an idea to associate the photographic images of the romantic harrowing rooms with the series of prints by the 18th century Italian architect and artist Piranesi called Le Carceri, depicting images of fantasy prisons with visionary architecture. Siib relied on the interpretation that sees Le Carceri as a metaphor of spiritual and physical imprisonment of modern man in the industrial world.

True, Piranesi’s prints are imaginary landscapes and not reality. Siib takes pictures of the real world, the result of historical process. Piranesi is guided by personal and collective fears, hurling his anxieties into the world of fantasy. Siib relies on the documents of material culture. At the same time she is probably fascinated by these abandoned rooms more from an aesthetic than social point of view. In a sense, Siib’s Le Carceri is nothing but an architectural landscape in ruins – a specific art historical (painting) genre on the aesthetic tradition of which the author founds her work.

The projects of recent years increasingly focus on practices typical of the human culture where objects or gestures acquire an agreed, symbolic meaning. It should also be noted that Siib’s interests have moved away from local, i.e. contemporary, Estonian cultural space. Her recent exhibition Dexiosis (2005) used two signs that have a significant symbolic role in the history of Western culture – the handshake and a fig leaf. Siib seeks out the historical roots of the signs and also refers to the fact that their meaning has changed in time. Similarly to the earlier photographic presentations of role plays the artist uses staged situations here as well, emphasising the arbitrary nature of gestures, images and signs used by human beings. The strange objects in Siib’s pictures, over-dramatised role plays or fictional film posters – all these details inevitably refer to the power of today’s photographic medium to shape a reality that at first glance seems more real than the actual world itself. However, the aim of Siib’s performances is not the creation of an illusory reality, but to reveal the illusory reality produced by the (photographic) process of representation.

We still cannot deny the significance in Siib’s works of social practices, including photography or role plays. Pictures used in the installation Toys were taken in London, where the artist chanced upon an unofficial cemetery, the last resting-place for small children from immigrant families. The graves are adorned with simple plaques with names and dates, but the pictures are turned into a real ‘visual feast’ by toys amassed on the graves – figurines, favourite playthings or other symbolic items by which the families remember the children. The impact of Toys on the viewer resembles the experience, difficult to describe, which the psychoanalytical discourse calls uncanny (unheimlich). Functioning as grave stones these familiar everyday items associated with life and existence, childhood and play, become eerie objects and are impossible to remove from the meaning assigned to them in this unusual context – the act of remembering and the emotions of lost love. The viewer is compelled to ask questions about the changing meaning of cultural practices and perhaps even to admit that the used objects have no meaning outside human communication and cultural conventions. Although for the artist this is a documentary project without any element of direct staging, it is difficult to totally disregard the notion of staging even here. The cemetery of Toys is in itself a theatrical reality that was a perfect object for Liina Siib’s camera. Artificiality is further emphasised by the fact that in the first version of the installation Siib used Emily Dickinson’s poem Toys, which gave the work a literary frame.

Compared with the social message of her earlier series, the linguistic games and structure of Siib’s photographic series have in recent years become more complicated, and thus we can speak here about her individual photographic language, obviously influenced by poststructuralist and postmodernist texts about photographic representation, the functioning of visual signs and photography’s social and psychic impact. The individual photographic ‘language’, as the end result of realising the opportunities of this technology, plays a significant role in nearly all of Siib’s works; but the ‘language’ of representation is always set in a social and cultural context, it has a human-made and historically changing meaning, and the artist is well aware of that. The pointed stage effect of her photographs always places the viewer in an unpleasant position: however aesthetic and familiar the characters, situations and objects in her pictures initially seem to be, they are never wholly ‘natural’. Between real life and its representation there is always an unsurpassable abyss and Siib does not wish to create an illusory reality that would replace the true experience. A large part of contemporary photographic culture serves this very task, i.e. creating the so-called hyper-reality, and Siib as a socially sensitive artist is no stranger to the role of media that she herself uses. The images of graves decorated with toys may release a flow of imagination in the viewer, but for her/him they remain no more than signs, to which no relevant experience can be attached.

The text is written for the catalogue eye strip Liina Siib. Liina Siib 2006