Women Take Little Space

Dr. Agnė Narušytė

It all started with a discussion in the Estonian media, where it was revealed that the country had the greatest gender pay gap in Europe. The phrase that struck the artist Liina Siib was that women actually needed less money and less space than men did and, therefore, they should be paid less. I do not know what was meant by ‘less space’, but this claim sounds odd, funny, intimidating and intriguing. Women need less space? Don’t we all occupy approximately the same amount of space as human beings? Or does this refer to some mysterious correlation between the size of the female body and money? How much space is enough? What area could accommodate the population of the world standing shoulder to shoulder? Why does this remind me of the cattle-trucks that transported Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian men, women and children to Siberia, all of them taking very little space? Is it because I hear a similar voice of oppressive power in this statement? So many questions after such a bizarre claim.

The note of intimidation in present-day Estonia echoes what Virginia Woolf discovered eighty-three years ago while doing research for her famous essay A Room of One’s Own (1929). She wanted to find out what was known about women and discovered hordes of books written by men. She was struck by the anger of men who had the authority of knowledge, the anger that betrayed the sense of threat to their confidence. The writer created a portrait:

“It was the face and the figure of Professor von X engaged in writing his monumental work entitled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex. He was not in my picture a man attractive to women. He was heavily built; he had a great jowl; to balance that he had very small eyes; he was very red in the face. His expression suggested that he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even when he had killed it that did not satisfy him; he must go on killing it; and even so, some cause for anger and irritation remained” (Woolf 1993: 28).

The anger and irritation are still there, always ready to surface: in the statement that women ‘need less space’, in the general scorn at feminism, in the very fact that there is an official gender pay gap not only in Estonia, but all over the world, even in the ‘politically correct’ countries of Western Europe.

In response, the artist Liina Siib has taken the bizarre claim at its face value, as if it were true: ‘a woman takes little space’, she says. Then she photographs and films women in their work places, usually small spaces, thus confirming the truth of the statement. She films women baking and selling pastries, and then Russian women dancing. She meets a prostitute and photographs her at home – a small space as well. Then she talks to prostitutes about their bodies. Finally, she goes to a middle class area where working women raise their children and have quite a lot of space. But little by little, frame after frame, sequence after sequence, the artist unravels the original message, which no longer seems to be true. The chauvinist claim, supported by photographic evidence, has become ironic. It laughs at itself, at what it says. It has acquired a double meaning, as if the artist has winked at us, by verbally confirming what the man in the media has said and disproving it visually. Why this duality? Why doesn’t the artist say it openly and straightforwardly – that the statement is wrong?

Whatever the artist’s reasons, to me this duality of affirmation and negation is especially beautiful because it mimics the way men have always spoken about women: contradicting themselves at every step. Liina Siib’s artistic statement radiates the same wonder, shaking with buried laughter, which Virginia Woolf expressed with regard to the image of woman she found in books written by men:

“A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband” (Woolf 1993: 40).

This composite being survived for centuries in the Western civilization because only men had the right and power to speak. Women had no power, no rights. They were too poor to have a ‘room of their own’ where they could be in charge of their time. The ‘room of one’s own’ in Virginia Woolf’s text is both literal and a metaphor of a woman’s self. Yet it can also be read ironically, because it both accepts and inverts the traditional representation of women in spatial terms. Liina Siib picks up this metaphor and uses it to speak of women’s condition in Estonia: if ‘a woman takes little space’, she shows us a set of ‘rooms of her own’.

Rooms: Walls, Windows and Beds
We meet her characters, versions of femininity, in different rooms of the Palazzo Malipiero. Let us enter them, once again, with Virginia Woolf:

“One goes into the room — but the resources of the English language would be much put to the stretch, and whole flights of words would need to wring their way illegitimately into existence before a woman could say what happens when she goes into a room. The rooms differ so completely; they are calm or thunderous; open on to the sea, or, on the contrary, give on to a prison yard; are hung with washing; or alive with opals and silks; are hard as horsehair or soft as feathers — one has only to go into any room in any street for the whole of that extremely complex force of femininity to fly in one’s face. How should it be otherwise? For women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics. But this creative power differs greatly from the creative power of men” (Woolf 1993: 79).

The rooms of the palazzo must also remember the ‘force of femininity’ that had been soaking into their walls for nine centuries, while Venetian women spent their lives in them making homes for their families and masters – and dreaming. Now, transformed into exhibition spaces, they are stripped of their texture and soul, to become a neutral background for art. Yet after Liina Siib has furnished the rooms with beds, sofas and television sets, populated them with women from Estonia telling their stories, the walls have regained some of their power again, whispering, remembering.

One of the rooms is a ‘bedroom’. Its two separate beds belong to a woman who works as a prostitute – the most demeaning profession, condemned by many, often treated as a crime. Yet by showing her in this ‘home’ setting, the artist has subtly changed my attitude. We are used to seeing a prostitute only as a body – without a name, a face or feelings. Liina Siib has spent some time with her – photographing. She tells her to be herself. Now the prostitute has a name – Lisa. During the process, she talks about herself, and the photographs reveal something about her: the blond wavy hair framing her blue eyelids looks genuinely beautiful; her carefully plucked eyebrows show how much she cares about her appearance; her huge breasts and belly almost falling out of her tight clothes betray some uneasiness in her manner; shiny shoes with extremely high heels, their laces pinching her flesh, cheap necklaces and a detached look on her face are the signs of her trade – everything is exaggerated, not something that a ‘normal’ woman would choose to wear. This ‘normal’ woman would want to stare at Lisa, to examine her, because her ‘prostitute-like’ look seems to give permission and because she is so close to transgression, to being an outlaw and even a thing. Her body arouses interest because we know it is used in ways we would be ashamed of: if we had to do this, we feel, we would lose our selves. We see a prostitute almost as we see death: they both are the unknown that is always an unwanted, scary part of ourselves. The photographs let us indulge in this, they neither glorify the prostitute nor debase her, and they do not use ‘style’ to transform her into a ‘picture’, a cultural icon embellished with myth. Among the photographs that were taken, I particularly like the one where Lisa wears a green knitted hat and a scarf and looks at herself in an unseen mirror. Her gaze is so melancholic and calm that it seems she is not just checking if she looks all right on the surface, but is really looking deeper into herself, reflecting on her existence.

This is why this room is not just a place, an exhibition site in an old palazzo, but a metaphor for the soul. Lisa’s home is ‘a room of her own’. It is small, poor and not very beautiful, because it reflects her alien taste. It is a place, however, where she can be herself, which is much more than the veil of her profession lets us see. In front of the photographer, Lisa continues her masquerade, of course: sunglasses almost hiding her face, the shiny clothes, and the postures. But visual contingencies also captured in the photographs let us move below the surface. Her gaze escaping the observer, a tinge of uncertainty in her gestures, the disobedient irregularities of flesh, the cellulite, tell us something about her desire to be liked, not as a prostitute, but as a woman who feels insecure in the visible world. Photography strips away her performance and shows a glimpse of her naked soul. It is cruel, but this photographic cruelty has a transformative power: this particular prostitute, Lisa, is no longer an anonymous thing. We see that she has not only a room of her own, but also a mind of her own. Her body is demystified: it seems there is something very ordinary and simple about being a prostitute, like having any job. Here I remember the first sentence that led Jenny Fields, a character in John Irving’s The World According to Garp (1978), into writing her book about woman’s condition: “In this dirty-minded world, you are either somebody’s wife or somebody’s whore – or fast on your way to becoming one or the other” (Irving 1998: 154).

Some wives have larger rooms. Next to the meagre digs of the woman at the wrong end of society, these sitting rooms look like a dream. These are the women who take more space. They have jobs and now are on maternity leave. They are safe. But are they happier? If the walls of the room have anything to tell, the story of wives seems to be sadder than anybody else’s. The clean emptiness of their rooms is profound; being newly built, they are soulless, factory-like, cold and impersonal. The uniformity of space in these rooms organises life in similar patterns everywhere: the same sofa to relax on; a television set to fill the time; the large windows and open kitchen to observe children constantly, while she is doing something else. This openness guarantees not only the safety of children, but also the absence of ‘a room of one’s own’; it seems these women are constantly available, caught in their circumstances more than the prostitute is. The rooms of wives are the most melancholic spaces among those Liina Siib has filmed or photographed. In fact, women here seem to take even less space than anywhere else. Their sad monotony is made more palpable by the contrasting mood on the other screen in this sitting room: Russian women dancing outdoors, not bothered about how they look to others, completely free, claiming the space for themselves. While the sitting rooms on the other screen represent the life of dreams, these dancers bring the rhythm of freedom that the wives crave. One dream is projected onto the other – an infinity of reflections within reflections within reflections, an eternity of desire to be someone else in a different space.

The City: Women Take Public Spaces
The statement that women ‘need little space’ also implies that women do not have to work. But, of course, this is no more than a dream. Even the housewives now killing time in the living room will be going back to work when their children get older simply because someone has to pay the mortgage. Women are no longer confined to their rooms; the public space belongs to them as well. When the archetype romantic flâneur Charles Baudelaire walked around the city in the nineteenth century, he described the women he encountered as erotic beings, a bit like those on advertisement billboards:

“Woman is for the artist in general… far more than just the female of man. Rather she is divinity, a star… a glittering conglomeration of all the graces of nature, condensed into a single being; an object of keenest admiration and curiosity that the picture of life can offer to its contemplator. She is an idol, stupid perhaps, but dazzling and bewitching… Everything that adorns women, that serves to show off her beauty is part of herself…” (cf. Pollock 1988: 100).

The women that Liina Siib meets in a real city, Tallinn, are nothing like that. She photographs women in their workspaces. Some women are young, some older, some quite beautiful, some working on it, some tired, some smiling, some absorbed by work, some lost in the virtual space of their monitors, some bored, some pensive, silently waiting for something. Often, they look overwhelmed by things they sell or mend or make: bobbins, sewing machines, computers, chocolates, office furniture, CD boxes, toys, wedding dresses, flowers, shoes, pots, pastries, cables, sockets, etc. In a way, they are things among things: they have merged with their environment by accepting the same textures and shapes as objects that surround them. They have become part of the space they inhabit. And by making the women look small in their spaces crowded with things, the photographs create the effect of indifference.

In her well-known text Spaces of Femininity (1988) Griselda Pollock discussed the spatial rhetoric of modernist women painters in three steps. After having identified the traditional spaces where women could be found in nineteenth century Paris (mainly drawing rooms and sitting rooms), she saw that the cramped spaces of paintings by Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt suggested the intimately close position of the observer. Finally, she described the ‘reciprocal positionalities’ of the social space, claiming that:

“The producer is herself shaped within a spatially orchestrated social structure which is lived at both psychic and social levels. The space of the look at the point of production will to some extent determine the viewing position of the spectator at the point of consumption. This point of view is neither abstract nor exclusively personal, but ideologically and historically construed” (Pollock 1988: 92–93).

Like impressionist female painters, Liina Siib not only depicts a cramped space, but also inserts herself into it, thus letting the viewer feel the lack of room as a way of stepping back, of creating a distance that is needed for the objectivity of panoramic vision, of ‘putting things into perspective’. Hence, the spectator-consumer cannot get out of the situation and shrug it off with indifference. While watching the two videos on the production and sales of pastries, the viewer has no choice but to accept emphatic identification through the sense of touch. The hands of women working overnight in a bakery move constantly, kneading and moulding the dough, flattening it, spreading the ingredients, cutting the long loaves into little pieces, plaiting them. The silence is full of quick movements, spongy reactions of dough, fingers twisting like lizards, sticky sheets of jam, and the floppy thud of the long snaky roll. All these movements are both soft and mechanical; the women seem to be completely detached from what they are doing, just working through the unsociable hours, unaware of a space that is cold and boring. All this is so alien to the good times and pleasure associated with the consumption of buns and pastries – a ‘no-time’ carved into the night.

The sale of buns and pasties has a different texture – the texture of noise. To film this activity, Liina Siib goes into the tiny shop of Lilia, who sells baked goods in the railway station. The flow of people never stops: different professions, men and women, old, young and children. Lilia does not stop either: listening to the same words, the names of pastries, the prices, picking up the buns with plastic bags, counting the money, looking into her customers’ eyes again and again, smiling. She is at the heart of events, surrounded by movement, a place of transit, where people are coming from nowhere and going nowhere. Lilia is almost a cliché – a typical seller of buns in a shop without a name, practically invisible. Yet by stepping into her space Liina Siib achieves a shift in perspective: we, consumers of pastries, normally focus on their texture, smell, taste and the pleasure of eating them in the future; our eyes wander around measuring their shapes; then we count out money, take the products and leave. But now we see ourselves through Lilia’s eyes: our detachment, our routines, the stories we carry with us, the possibility of conversation. Thus passes Lilia’s time – sewn together from the insignificant moments carved into her day. I realise that the work of women has not changed much from Virginia Woolf’s time:

“To begin with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning, not always necessarily perhaps, but it seemed necessary and the stakes were too great to run risks; and then the thought of that one gift which it was death to hide — a small one but dear to the possessor — perishing and with it my self, my soul — all this became like a rust eating away the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its heart” (Woolf 1993: 34).

Is this why Liina Siib, aka Foxy Haze, asked the prostitutes she interviewed for the film Averse Body to draw flowers? To scrape the rust off for a moment? When men write about cities they visit, they never fail to mention prostitutes – as if seeing these available and forbidden women added to their reputation as macho adventurers. While Foxy Haze keeps questioning prostitutes about their bodies, a taxi drives through Tallinn – and we do not see any of them, or any other women. The taxi prowls through narrow streets and wide roads as if looking for somebody. But the city in winter seems to be far from the site of pleasures described by Baudelaire, a place where one can find a warm body to share some time with. This flâneur cannot satisfy his voyeuristic desire. If women take little space, this space is vast, cold and empty, completely indifferent to the lives of women who work through the night baking, through the day serving, and again through the night selling their bodies.

The Body Takes Space
Foxy Haze asks the prostitutes about their bodies: how do you like your body? Would you like to change anything? What parts of your body do men like best? And so on. The answers are shockingly mundane (if the mundane can shock) and thus demystify these figures of darkness. Why do we believe, like Jerzy Grotowski, that a prostitute must be disgusted with her own body, that her voice must be crude to signify her aversion? The prostitutes questioned in this film like their bodies, even if they are overweight, because, they say, men like bigger women. Perhaps, these women are not in awe of their bodies, but who is? Surprisingly (and why surprisingly?), the prostitutes talk about their bodies and men with the same voices as we, the ‘normal’ women, do. One observation strikes me, however: a girl says that Estonian men refuse Estonian prostitutes because they are used to prostitutes being Russian. I can hear Baudelaire again – faintly – because a Russian is suitably the other, and Estonian women are of the same kind; they would be too close to normality, too close to being the girlfriends of those men. Perhaps, Estonian men do not want to buy the services of Estonian prostitutes because they cannot be treated just as bodies.

What the prostitutes talk about is the incessant masquerade designed to attract male attention. As if a woman has no shape, no body, before she is seen or before she sees herself in the imaginary eye of the other. In this, the prostitutes are no different from other women that Liina Siib has photographed or filmed. Surrounded by things, women present their textured surfaces to the camera, their selves hidden under the protective layer of make-up, colourful clothes, uniforms, jobs, professions. The masquerade is discussed in feminist theory as a function of femininity and, according to Mary Ann Doane, is riddled with contradiction because “it attributes to the woman the distance, alienation and divisiveness of self (which is constitutive of subjectivity in psychoanalysis) rather than the closeness and excessive presence which are the logical outcome of the psychoanalytic drama of sexualised linguistic difference” (Doane 1991: 37). In a society dominated by men, to get permission to speak, to become the subject, a woman has to prove she is ‘feminine’, to present a mask, hence, create a distance with her ‘true’ self. But this would mean the loss of proximity associated with the female body as having a space ‘inside’ rather than ‘outside’, thus ‘taking little space’ indeed. When women photographed at the counters, shop windows and offices merge with their background, like chameleons inscribing themselves back into space, they seem to have internalised this contradiction by obliterating space completely: we see two-dimensional images of femininity; we do not see their souls.

Here Liina Siib has created a tension between the still and moving image, because in films emphasised tactility dissolves the masquerade. Luce Irigaray has shown how a culture focusing on visual perception affects our relationship with the body:

“Investment in the look is not as privileged in women as in men. More than other senses, the eye objectifies and masters. It sets at a distance, and maintains a distance. In our culture the predominance of the look over smell, taste, touch and hearing has brought about an impoverishment of bodily relations. The moment the look dominates, the body loses its materiality” (cf. Pollock 1988: 71).

The movement of dancing bodies, the touching and wrapping of buns and pastries, as well as social interactions, provide the body with presence, with flesh. The effect is twofold: the women can no longer be seen as objects of attention or desire, but only as individuals with three-dimensional lives; on the other hand, we see that the ‘little space’ required by the body does not mean social or existential insignificance.

Thus, Liina Siib breaks with the old tradition of separating the body, and hence the woman, from culture and creativity. She does it subtly, by focusing more on what women’s hands do, on the arrangement of things, on performance, and by asking the prostitutes to draw their favourite flowers. They talk about their bodies and draw flowers with bright colours – a contrast to the grey tones of the nocturnal city. The camera seems to be glancing over the women’s shoulders, thus creating the feeling of a cramped space, an intimate closeness of the prostitute’s body, almost a physical contact. I wonder if the prostitutes think about the semantic proximity of their bodies and flowers – both being sites of sexual reproduction, dressed up to attract somebody else’s eye, both promising pleasure. The presence of flowers interrupts the continuity of questions and answers with doubt: if flowers are free to use visual, tactile and olfactory tricks to seduce insects without any guilt, why should women doing the same thing be stigmatised? Where does this idea of female sexuality as sin come from? We know where from. And knowing this, we see that the artist undermines the old tradition of hate, scorn and blame through a simple act of creativity.

Their Time
Writing and creativity bring the vector of time into this discourse of space. As we follow the women working in Liina Siib’s films, we spend time with them. It is a busy time, and it is obvious that the women have no time for themselves. Meanwhile, the photographs of women in their workplaces show the opposite: the women waiting, lingering, gazing into the distance, where time does not matter. Time is tricky. When we are waiting, we want time to pass quickly. When we just go on living or enjoying our everyday being, we want it to move slower, but it flies and then runs out. Time constitutes the tragic dimension of human existence, because it cannot be stopped or captured. The only thing that remains is memory and a few products of our creativity; nothing else is real. If those products could be used to measure existence, then it would turn out that most women do not exist: their services, smiles, touches do not last. The giving of the prostitute, of a baker who works at night or of a shop girl who is never really seen are not considered to be of any value to society; their gifts are never praised. While a woman takes little physical space, she also takes little time in history. It seems Virginia Woolf was right again:

“And if one asked her, longing to pin down the moment with date and season, but what were you doing on the fifth of April 1868, or the second of November 1875, she would look vague and say that she could remember nothing. For all the dinners are cooked; the plates and cups washed; the children sent to school and gone out into the world. Nothing remains of it all. All has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about it” (Woolf 1993: 81).

The self of the woman that has been given to the community is scattered around like worthless dust. Yet when touched by Liina Siib’s camera, it shines in the vast indifference of space like gold. Writing and creativity produce something that stays and draws the arrow of her story into the future.

This is not all, however. We hear a man’s voice singing in a bathroom. He is taking a shower, oblivious to women’s activity in other rooms. Masculinity reduced to the invisible voice is still an axis for everything. Although this particular man takes no physical space, he retains the social and existential significance. For the eyes and bodies of women are tuned to his presence. His imaginary gaze divides (godlike?) the uniform mass of femininity into desires, actions, jobs, needs and spaces. He does not have to be the angry professor of Virginia Woolf’s story to fill social space with contempt. He only has to say: “women need little space” with insouciance, and women listen. But this is not where their story ends.

Doane, Mary Ann 1991. Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.
Irving, John 1998. The World According to Garp. London: Black Swan.
Pollock, Griselda 1988. Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and Histories of Art. London: Routledge.
Woolf, Virginia 1993. A Room of One’s Own / Three Guineas. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

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