Part of the permanent collection at KUMU (Eesti Kunstimuuseum)
Composition with a Man’s Head or Man’s Head with a Flag and Composition with a Torso and a Child’s Hands by Anu Põder are forceful three-dimensional portraits that blur the boundaries of sculpture, gender, and aesthetics. Formal in structure and titles, the works are decidedly feminine: the softness of the forms, the connotation of the use of textiles, and the process of stitching; although the visual elements are masculine in actuality: the male form, the sharp angles, the association of the metal and wood. As is typical of her work, a complete body is rarely presented; instead she utilizes the segmented figure into just the head and torso. I find it interesting that she consistently separates the mind from the body, suggesting a separation of logic and emotion, the imagined and genuine experience.
Composition with a Man’s Head utilizes flesh colored plastic molded that is uniformly stitched to construct an oversized male head with an exaggerated neck with portions of the face revealed (or perhaps still concealed) behind subtle metal netting. A tan, stuffed, organic mass is wrapping around the back of the neck and crawling up the head towards a small, black flag staked into the skull. It could be interpreted that the figure is being stalked, suffocated by the mass; yet he faces staunchly forward, defiant and proud. I see the face beginning to emerge, to be exposed from the plastic (what I associate with something false); an opportunity to forge one’s own way, to rebel from the weight that has kept him tethered and consumed though it is ever present.
Conversely, the gentle curves and soft belly of the headless female figure in Composition with a Torso and a Child’s Hands is a far more complicated and tangled mess. The stocky figure pronounces the strength of the female body, yet she has no head or arms or legs – she is merely a core of a body without a mind or abilities. Half of her body is systematically sliced away and replaced with a wooden frame, a “box” of assumed understanding of what she has to contribute and her role in the place of things. Strapped to her breast is an identical mass to the man’s, but protruding from within are two small hands that offer gentle modesty where her sliced left breast should be. The work suggests confinement, control, and generalized expectations of a woman’s role in life and in society. There is a heavier burden here, Põder impresses that the struggle is more difficult for women: in their career, in art, and in life – that perhaps one cannot (or should not) have it all from the perspective of the “other” (meaning individuals and groups). And although she is attributed as an Estonian feminist artist, the sense of loss of power and utter confinement feels incredibly personal and not just a collective statement.
The contrast in the two figures is rather stark, as is the complicated time in which they were made: one feels hopeful and optimistic, while the other is stymied by stereotypical and perhaps political limitations. The mid-to-late 1980s were a complicated time amid waves of change in, what I can only imagine, nearly every aspect of life in Estonia; well beyond any artistic or creative endeavors. And it is near impossible to comprehend the extent of what Põder experienced, internalized, and is trying to represent during her lifetime at the time she made these works; but I think that is precisely why these works are so engaging. They are obviously not about the surface of the issues, as is seemingly much here in Estonia, they run much deeper into complex histories and profound emotions. There is also a subtle assertiveness expressed in their stature atop barely whispered tones of pride and courage that are impatiently waiting to emerge. But it is in viewing them together that I find the most interesting dialogue: a dueling commentary about time and place and experience, or better yet, the potential for wanton, unfulfilled experiences. They become stand-ins, quietly defiant and distinctly Estonian, conjured vessels for what is and what could be. And they are filled with more intention and sincerity than I have yet to fully understand.
Composition with a Man’s Head or Man’s Head with a Flag and Composition with a Torso and a Child’s Hands by Anu Põder are part of the permanent collection of KUMU (Eesti Kunstimuuseum) located at Weizenbergi 34 / Valge 1, Tallinn, Estonia. To learn more, visit: kumu.ekm.ee/en
Image captions (from left to right at top): Composition with a Man’s Head or Man’s Head with a Flag, 1984, plastic, textile, metal net, 60 x 40 x 45 centimeters; Composition with a Torso and a Child’s Hands, 1986, wood, plastic, and textile, 55 x 62 x 36 centimeters