Liina Siib’s “Politics of Paradise” at Tallinn Art Hall, Tallinn
by Agnieszka Gratza
Born and raised in Tallinn, Estonian artist Liina Siib belongs to what anthropologist Alexei Yurchak, in his seminal 2005 book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, calls “the last Soviet generation”: people who came of age during the “late socialism” period, the three decades that preceded the Perestroika. Siib graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts in 1989, when the Soviet system was in its final throes. Along with the other Baltic states, which celebrated their centenary last year, the Republic of Estonia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Although the artist considered leaving the country at that point and has had many opportunities to study and work abroad, her work is firmly rooted in the realities of a place whose dual identity—the Soviet past and the capitalist neoliberal ideology that has gradually replaced it—reflects her own divided self.
Chiefly known for her photographic, video, and installation works, Siib initially trained in printmaking at the Estonian Academy of Arts. “When I first graduated from the graphic art department as an artist, the medium was the message. It somehow did not suit me,” says Siib. Photography seemed to her better suited as a medium for exploring a society in transition like Estonia’s. Two study grants that took her to New York in 1995, as an exchange artist at the Lower East Side Printshop, and then to San Francisco in 1998 allowed Siib to establish herself as a photographer. Video came into her life a few years later, during another stay abroad. Siib, who describes herself as a cinephile and cites Italian neorealist filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, and Vittorio De Sica as her influences, bought her first camera—a Sony camcorder—in London. She spent a year there studying photography at the University of Westminster in 2002, while completing a master’s degree in photographic studies at the Estonian Academy of Arts, where she has been head of the department of graphic art since 2015.
The camcorder was purchased with the proceeds of a set of fictional Movie Posters (2001) sold in Germany. One of these was displayed at the start of Siib’s retrospective show Politics of Paradise at Tallinn Art Hall, together with two original slides the artist took on a trip to Kiev with her mother that coincided with the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986. Presented as light boxes, the color photographs illustrate the collage and photomontage techniques Siib used to construct the poster image for a mock documentary; the documentary’s ironic title, Oblivion Bug, points to the politics of concealment in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear accident, which resulted in thousands taking part in the May Day parades across the country, oblivious to any potential health risks, as the authorities in Moscow did not see fit to cancel the parades.
The final exhibition scheduled as part of the Estonia 100 art program at Tallinn Art Hall, Politics of Paradise brought to a close its centenary celebrations. Dedicated to one of the country’s foremost artists, who represented Estonia at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011 with her ongoing photographic series A Woman Takes Little Space (2007–present), the show gave a sense of Siib’s artistic itinerary and abiding interests in gender typecasting, the staging of femininity, how women—including migrant workers—inhabit their work environment, folktales, and esoteric practices such as fortune-telling or witchcraft that are typically associated with women. Yet despite the resolutely women-centered focus of her works and a palpable empathy for her mostly female subjects that comes across in her more or less staged video and photographic portraits, Siib does not see herself as a feminist in an unqualified way, pointing out (in an email exchange with the author) that “Eastern European feminism is different from the western one and it should not be considered as an illustration of existing western theories.”
The idea for the show and its title came to Siib during a six-week residency at Civitella Ranieri in 2016. The old Umbrian castle, with its thick walls and the ghost stories told by fellow residents from Europe and the United States, has its counterpart in the Estonian Koluvere (formerly Lohde) castle, where Siib filmed Augusta or Politics of Paradise (2019), inspired by the tragic life of the eponymous character, Augusta Caroline von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel (1764–1788), who died there in mysterious circumstances on the eve of the French Revolution, aged twenty-three. “One reason why I wished to work with the subject was the castle itself, the park and the environment. The space around the story,” says Siib. The twenty-eight-minute short alternates scenes styled as a period drama and performed by professional actors in candlelit interiors with ones shot amid trees on the castle grounds, in which local community members participated as extras. Effective in its simplicity, Orbs (2016), a video work made at Civitella Ranieri, shows two hands—a woman’s and a man’s—handling a gilded armillary sphere, a relic from the past pointing to a now superseded system of beliefs, progressively discarded as Copernican theories gained currency in the Renaissance.