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The Gender Aspect In The Work Of Moscow Women Artists In The 80's And 90's

14.05.2004
Anna Alchuk, www.we-myi.org


(This article is accompanied by a four-page color spread reproducing the art of eight Moscow women artists.)

At the metro station "Baumanskaya" there stands a sculpture of a woman just slightly less than human size. She is coming forward out of a red marble alcove in a billowing quilted jacket, a holster is belted around her. There is a revolver in the holster. Her eyes are burning with surreal hatred. In one hand she is clutching a hand grenade, in the other- a machine gun. It is of no small importance that all eight figures at the station, which was built in 1944, have a similarly impetuous gait, and threatening look, they are all armed (even the "intellectual" who is holding a stack of papers in one hand and clasping a strange object in the other which suspiciously resembles a slab of lead, which could be used as a weapon if need be). However none of them looks as fanatic or aggressive, or is armed as heavily (hand grenade, machine gun, revolver) as the woman. What does this mean? Is it gender compensation, or are we looking at Nemesis herself in a quilted jacket and cap with ear flaps?

Also, what is the meaning of the qualitative (in terms of pure energy) if not quantitative prevalence of female images in the iconography of such a sacred socialist place as the Moscow metro, with the inevitable depiction of female tractor drivers taking part in the labor process, female combine operators, female construction workers, asphalt layers, and vegetablegrowers, etc.? At the "Avtozavodskaya" metro station there is a fresco in which among several drab men, a female silhouette proudly stands out, wearing a billowing bright red dress: this woman is pushing in front of her an enormous coal wagon. A paradoxical situation arises, where carefully emphasized gender differences play an opposing role on the symbolic level, erasing the dividing line between the male and the female. These bodies, with all their signs of femininity, but with accentuated musculature and muscular arms, are a metaphor reflecting the ideal collective body; bodies as sexless as the sexless bodies in Plato's myth of the first human beings who were half-male, half-female. The difference however lies in the fact that the Plato body was self-contained in its singularity, whereas the collective body acquires fullness due to its uniformity, i.e. it merges with a multitude of similar other bodies, regardless of gender. The mass and genderless image as a pledge and guarantee of governability - is the result of Stalin's collective industrialization, giving birth to the most archaic level of collective unconscious. Michel Foucault wrote in his "History of Sexuality", "the logic of power in gender relations is a paradoxical logic of law, expressing itself as directions for nonexistence, nonmanifestation and silence."

For the most part, our interest in this context is in the displays of unconscious eroticism as enjoyment of the pure energy of power and subjugation in the iconography of the Moscow metro. At the "Electrozavodskaya" metro station, Motovilova's sculpture has two bas-reliefs depicting three women and one man in the center of the composition. On one of the bas-reliefs the women in light dresses are embracing the barrels of three cannons and on another, three graces in military attire are pressing up against the blades of a propeller. In 1990, at the "Female Worker" exhibition at Gallery "L", I exhibited the work "Trizhdy Tri" ("Three times three") where between two photographs of the depicted bas-reliefs I placed a picture of the bas-relief from the "Krasnopresnenskaya" station with three threatening fists clutching three hammers. The American critic Joanna Isaac, in her article "The Coming Loss of an Illusion: Gender, Truth and Photography in the Former Soviet Union", asserts that the picture of the bas relief from the "Krasnopresnenskaya" station symbolizes the apotheosis of labor bringing pressure to bear on the phallic and fertility symbols of this repeated Trio. "In the period of socialist realism, the depiction of the labor process as ecstatic action began to acquire an erotic aspect. Eroticism is used as though it were a part of the natural resources which can be tapped in the labor process. The iconographic appropriation of the female form which in Western culture helps to design a mechanism of differentiation, here personifies a sexless collective body. It is paradoxical that both systems of representation aim to have control over female sexuality, to control women at their workplace."

In light of what has been said above, the question arises, could the introduction of Western feminist dialogue describe the problems linked with women in the workplace: a situation which previously had very little to do with market relations? It would also be interesting to follow how women's awareness has changed during the last decade, during which Soviet society has undergone headlong transformations, having cultivated the numerous shoots of a still savage capitalism during an outdated system of management. I will attempt to do so using the example of Moscow women artists working primarily in the conceptual field. I wish to comment that most of these artists became known during the eighties. In those days, gender problems and feminist discussions were perceived by many local women as something immaterial, artificially imposed from the outside. Irina Nakhova, who had done conceptual work back in the seventies, told me that for her, art exists regardless of the sex of its creator.

At the basis of Nakhova's work is a conceptual approach to painting. Her work presupposes an active spectator, capable of becoming involved in the intellectual game of metamorphosis taking place among her cloth pieces and installations. According to the artist, the elements of the work themselves are objects of manipulation, which have a direct effect on the psyche. Almost as though studying the eyesight mechanism, Nakhova creates artificial obstacles to ordinary contemplation. For example she did a series of "Work for the Colorblind". The use of eyesight defects with good effect, in Nakhova's case, becomes a positive thing, turning into the basis of her experiment, and pointing to the relativity and fragmentation of our images of the world we see. The works of the female artist can also be part of a group dialogue, and as a result, not contain any signs of gender. This is the case, for example, of the work of Yelena Yelagina, a member of the "Collective Action" (CA) group. Among her installations we find the titles "Dyetskoye" (Childlike), "Adskoye" (Hellish), "Vysheye" (of the Highest), "Chistoye" (Pure), etc. The neutral gender of the titles seems to indicate a distancing away from gender problems. Being incorporated into the CA dialogue, these works are linked in their method and topic with certain idiosyncrasies of the group canon.

The works of Nina Kotyol are also relatively indifferent to gender problems. In her many still-lifes, made up of the most unexpected objects: apple peel, a peeled pear, paper clips, rubber hot water bottles, dumbbells, etc. - in the most fanciful combinations and permutations - she studies the problem of photovision, i.e., tries to force us to see objects as they "really are" separated from mental processes which ordinarily link us to them.

There are a number of female artists: Svyetlana Kolystyanskaya, Larissa Zvyezdochotova, Aydan Salakhova, Maria Serebryakova, Maria Konstantinova, and Vera Khlebnikova, whose works reflect gender issues without them becoming the subject of special artistic analyses. In the works of Maria Konstantinova and Very Khlebnikova, gender is brought out quite distinctly, although in different ways. Konstantinova's paintings represent a number of archetypal female figures, painted in manneristic style. Usually these are double creatures with the same faces and one body. Sometimes the bodies are knitted together at the breast or genitals. When looking at her paintings, we enter a kind of psychedelic space, filled with the metamorphoses of one and the same portrait. In this connection one is reminded of the fact that in the drawings of girls aged five to twelve, one very frequently encounters the repeated images of certain idealized creatures, usually princesses or kings; while at this age boys usually draw airplanes, cars, houses, and other objects from the external world. Moreover all these creatures strongly resemble each other, and they all represent the mind of their author. Thus, by drawing one's own image, a girl is, so to speak, drawing the entire world. This partly explains the special aspects of female objectification, that is, the capacity of female consciousness to perceive the entire world through their body.

The work of the female artist Vera Khlebnikova is just as private in nature. Like Svyetlana Kolystyanskaya, she uses different texts. However in contrast to Kolystyanskaya, who creates texts on oil-primed canvass, Vera compiles a collage using various printed texts. Selecting sheets by color and texture, she manufactures a variety of refined figures out of them. The figures, around the edges of which a nonsense text shows through, form compositions which plunge the spectator into a world of contemplation of soft pastel decorative forms. The discreet aesthetics of this kind of work find their best expression in the Japanese concept of "Mono-no avare" which means "the secret charm of things". Original and spatial thinking is characteristic of Khlebnikova. She creates objects which, following in the footsteps of her grandfather Pyotr Miturich, can be called "spatial graphics" which are on the one hand an illustration of Khlebnikov's poetry, and on the other, visual poetry in its own right.

In the nineties, a number of women artists emerged for whom gender issues became a natural component part of their work. An explanation can probably be found in changes in the social situation, when the introduction of the principles of free enterprise and competition (no matter what fantastic form they assumed in the local context) gives rise to consequences already past-history in Western society. This relates to the status of women and their having less social protection. In this context, feminist ideas, which were previously considered a luxury, take on a totally new meaning. Among the women artists who exploit gender issues in their work, one can mention: Tatyana Lieberman, Tatyana Antoshina, Natalya Kamenetskaya, Maria Chuykova, Lyudmilla Gorlova, Tatyana Khengsler, and a few others. The year I spent in America and my acquaintance with radical American feminism had a considerable influence on my work too. How is the woman's body shaped through the mass media? With what stereotypical behavior is she labeled? What does it mean to be an object stared at by men? In other words, what does it mean to be "the Other"? - These questions seemed to be relevant at the beginning of the nineties. In 1994, in the Gallery "21" in St. Petersburg, my work "Dyevichya Igrushka" ("Little Girl's Toy") was exhibited. Six black and white photographs of male torsos (I photographed quite well known members of the Moscow Arts Association: critics, artists, photographers) were presented in the Venus de Milo pose, with swaddled genitals and no head. In the center of the gallery, the head of Venus was placed on a pedestal, as though contemplating the male company surrounding her. In this work I was interested in the comic effect of the role reversal, where the main object for contemplation, Venus de Milo (it is not just by chance that this sculpture was considered to be the embodiment of the ideal of female beauty, a sadistic aspect was brought out: for it is common knowledge that Venus de Milo was found without her arms, that is to say initially unable to defend herself against voyeurs) becomes the subject, while the set of male figures are the ideal object of contemplation. The development of this idea can be found in the series of photographs by Tatyana Antoshina "Musei Zhenshchiny" (Women's Museum) in which she replaces bare female figures from the classical paintings of Manet, Rembrandt, Durer, and other famous painters with male figures from a peripheral Moscow artist circle. In her photographs, the men's roles are played by women artists.

Tatyana Lieberman conducted an interesting gender experiment. She offered herself as photographic model to some male photographer acquaintances. How surprised she was to find that they all suggested that she play the role of a prostitute. The only difference was that one saw her in a garden, another in the park, and another - in the street. As a result, Lieberman took up the camera herself and created the work "Komnatnye Syuzhety" (Room Subjects) where strange outlines of framed fragments of the human body and kitchen objects contain a subtle erotic subtext. The concept of designing gender through dialogue comes through in the work of the "Pertsy" group (Mila Skripkina and Oleg Petrenko). Their dual authorship typically creates an object representing "a visual aid which is stripped to the bone with everything extraneous removed." The "Pertsy" gynecological tables produced from ordinary medical charts and enlarged, represents this kind of artificial bare-boned structure, upon which the gender dialogue is gradually built up, a layer at a time.

In an interview published in the "Eau de Cologne" magazine, Rosalind Krauss, an art expert, stated that what interests her is a specific aspect of feminism, "namely the idea that gender is something artificially designed and then understanding for ourselves how we arrive at gender reliability as a given fact and as a reflection of faithfulness. To untangle and demystify this "given" would mean to promote liberation."

With this kind of approach, female gender, just like the male, inevitably becomes fiction. This fiction can be synthesized into the macrogender "truth", whose relevance is increasingly waning in post-modern dialogue.

A JOURNAL WITHIN A JOURNAL
FROM KARELIA WITH LOVE
by Larisa Boichenko, chair of the Karelia Center for Gender Studies (KTsGI), and Ph.D. in History.

Dear friends and readers of You and We: I'm very glad that you're holding in your hands the first regional issue of our beloved journal, dedicated to the Republic of Karelia, and the activities of Karelia's women and women's organizations.

I wanted very much to tell you about the forests, lakes, and wetlands of our region, about our beloved city Petrozavodsk, and, of course about the status of our women. But to write about the numbers, which are insufficient (in our official statistics) to permit analysis of the actual status of women, or to write about how many months we've already gone without receiving our salaries and child welfare subsidies, or about how hard it is under such conditions to "raise" children, not to mention our at times bewildered husbands, seemed not terribly interesting. [She therefore decided to rely instead on information based on in-depth interviews with ten activists in Karelia's women's movement.] I also provide for you the answers of two of these activists - a Karelian and a Russian - and I hope that those whom I didn't manage to interview this time won't be offended; they too are well known and much valued at our Karelian Center for Gender Studies.

WHY DON'T YOU HAVE SLANTED EYES?

I remember, during the 1970s, I was traveling with some other 14 and 15 year-olds from Karelia to one of Russia's children's camps, called "Orlenok." We were taking the train, and not far from Tuapse, a woman came into our train car. Having heard a question: "Where are you kids from?" and the answer, "From Karelia," the woman started to look at us suspiciously, and burst out, "And how is it that your eyes aren't slanted, and you speak Russian so well? Did they teach you that in Korea?" We laughed until we cried; we'd never expected that our Republic, located in the northwestern European part of Russia, could be confused with the foreign, Asiatic Korea. That insignificant moment on the train touched me so much that almost thirty years later, I am still trying everywhere I go to talk as much as I can about Karelia, about its history and culture, about its wonderful people: Karelians and Veps, Russians and Finns, Ukrainians and Jews. In the Republic of Karelia 470,000 people live together in friendship and harmony, representing more than 50 nationalities.

MAMA, I'M A KARELIAN.

When my son was about 5 years old, he came home one day from daycare and asked: "Mama, am I really a Karelian?" My first reaction was confusion: our family combines many nationalities, although the only Karelians we had were friends (in fact, as I found out later, my son honestly thought that several of those friends were our blood relatives, and this pleased me greatly). Taking advantage of my silence, my son continued to express his thoughts, asking questions, and answering them immediately: "I was born in Petrozavodsk, right? Yes, in Petrozavodsk. And Petrozavodsk is the capital of Karelia, right? Yes. So, that means I'm Karelian. We were learning a poem today called 'We Karelians' and the teacher said that Karelians are people who were born in Karelia." I smiled at that point and said, "Well, of course, look how well you explained it, and moreover you feel like you're a Karelian, so that means you are."

Somewhat later, when my son took classes in Finnish (Karelian and Veps classes appeared only recently), he had other questions and revelations. Once, coming back with his grandmother from a trip to Moscow, he told me about how he'd met some women in Red Square, who were speaking in Finnish. He said hello to them, and they asked him, "What's a child who speaks such good Finnish doing in Moscow?" And when they heard the answer - I'm from Karelia - they started to hug and kiss him, and say, "You're one of us!" and gave him a bible. That was 1990, and that bible in Finnish was the first bible ever to appear in our house. And we live based on the idea that all people are not only brothers - but also sisters.

WHAT KIND OF LAND IS KARELIA?

[In this section, the author describes the physical geographic history of Karelia. In sum, Karelia is a land of many lakes and rivers; nearly half its territory is forested. Karelia also boasts various building materials such as marble and granite, used in palaces and in the subway stations in Moscow and St. Petersburg, among other places.]

A LITTLE HISTORY.

Between the 9th and 12th centuries, the territory of Karelia was part of Kievan Rus, then, for nearly all the middle ages, a part of Novgorod principality, but in 1478 was transferred to the rulership of Moscow. From the 16th to 18th centuries, the Karelian lands were administered by Moscow. After the October Revolution of 1917, Karelia received statehood for the first time, as the Karelian Labor Commune, formed on June 8, 1920, then on June 25, 1923 was transformed into the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. After the end of the Soviet-Finnish war (the "Winter War") in 1939, on March 31, 1940 the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic was created. Its territory was increased by the land captured from Finland and became the 16th republic of the USSR until July 16, 1956, when it again was given the lower status of Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Since November 13, 1991, it has been called the Republic of Karelia.

WHAT ARE THE SOURCES OF THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT IN KARELIA?

Historically, the attitude to women in Karelia was patriarchal, but more respectful than in central Russia, judging from the runes of the Karelo-Finnish epic poem "Kalevala."

It was never easy to survive in the harsh northern conditions. Many men began to spend all winter away, working in the cities of St. Petersburg, Revel, Riga, Helsingfors, and elsewhere in order to earn money through various trades, and would return to Karelia for the sowing season. Women were left to manage the home and children, and having returned from a 4 or 5 month absence, a man had to take a woman's opinion into account.

Unfortunately the history of Karelia, as is the case with many other histories, was written by male historians, and about men. In our history, we either see no women's faces or see them only in connection with women's so-called "natural predestination," which undeservedly alienates us from women's personality, from her soul.

This situation changed at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, when schoolgirls from Petrozavodsk began to enter the Bestuzhev Higher Courses for Women. Female political exiles were sometimes even sent to Karelia, since our region was considered "Siberia just-beyond-the-Capital."

At the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s, "women delegates meetings" began their activity, organizing women according to their place of residence (later, according to place of work). These organizations did a lot of useful work toward eliminating women's illiteracy, but they were not "civic" organizations in the full sense of the word, because they operated under close [communist] party scrutiny. At the end of the 1930s, Stalin announced that the "women question" in the USSR had been solved once and for all, but this slogan only masked what was actually the super-exploitation of women.

In the 1960s during the "thaw" [this refers to Khrushchev's political liberalization - transl.], women's councils (zhensovety) began to appear in Karelia, organized on a territorial basis (by city, district, etc.). Their goal was to struggle with or make up for inadequacies in production and daily life, child care, and leisure activities. The action of these women's councils was not directed toward the achievement of actual equality for women and men. During perestroika, at the end of the 1980s, other women's organizations began to arise in Karelia, alongside with the traditional women's councils. These included the association of women-writers, "Mariia," which unites the creative intelligentsia; and the Karelian republic committee of soldiers' mothers, which was created in order to solve a concrete task - ameliorating the conditions of army service for their sons.

In 1994, the Union of Women of the Republic of Karelia, and the women's club "Elita" were registered with the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Karelia. The Karelian Center for Gender Studies - the first women's organization not to hide its feminist views - registered in 1995.

THE ASSISTANCE OF WOMEN FROM FINLAND.

The Republic of Karelia occupies a particular place in Russia, namely, it has the longest (700 km) land border. with neighboring Finland, which has its own complex history. Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom, and then for more than 100 years was part of the Russian empire. Perhaps this is why the women of Finland, relying on the idea of national self determination, were the first in history to achieve the right to vote in 1906, at a time when the great principality of Finland was part of Russia. The women of Karelia, along with the other women of Russia, achieved this right in 1917. It was precisely the women of Finland who gave us a helping hand, when they saw that the reforms, starting with perestroika, were striking women hardest. This help was in the form of humanitarian assistance, such as aid to the needy, and assistance in the field of education, and also in recreating women's organizations on the former Finnish territories. Thus, in 1992, the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Karelia registered the women's civic organization "Marta" - in Kurkieki village, in Lakhdenpokhsk district - which had begun its activities in that village at the start of the 20th century.

The Karelian-Finnish Forum, "The Modern World through Women's Eyes," was widely well-received in our republic in March 1996, and represented the first time that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the state structures worked together on an equal footing. Now the next, second, Forum is being prepared - this one will be Finnish-Karelian. It will take place in November 1998, in the city of Oulu (Finland), where the northernmost university in the Republic of Finland is located.

ASSISTANCE FROM AMERICAN FOUNDATIONS.

The people of Karelia relate to international aid, including American aid, in various ways. But I personally am very grateful to the Ford Foundation, which supported my trip to Beijing for the Fourth Worldwide Women's Conference in September 1995. Later, the activity of the Karelian Center for Gender Studies was supported by the embassies of the Netherlands and Great Britain, and by German organizations, but the biggest support we received was in grants from the Ford and Eurasia foundations, for an "Information-Education Center for Women of the Republic of Karelia." Working with women from the provinces, I would like to make note of the activity of: Nina Dembitskaia, from the Karelian village of Sel'ga, in Medvezh'egorosk district; of Ada Iakhontova from Kondopogi; Nina Sitkareva from Kemi; Galina Eremina and Natalia Dzaparidze from Pitkiarant; Liubov Dubinina from Segezhi; Svetlana Chernobai from Sortavala, and many others who, thanks to the support of the US Agency for International Development, were able to attend three-day seminars in Petrozavodsk, conducted by our Gender Center to support the women's organizations in various regions of Karelia.

The Karelian Center for Gender Studies is now participating again in a grant competition, and hopes to be able to continue its programs of support to Karelia's NGOs.

THE GOVERNMENT AND WOMEN'S NGOs IN KARELIA.

Although they criticize each other, the state structures and women's NGOs of Karelia understand that they live on a single territory and have a common cause. In 1997, a Commission on Issues of Improving Women's Lives was created in Karelia, at the Republic level, and also at the Petrozavodsk city level. One hopes that the other cities of Karelia will follow the capital's example. Leaders of women's civic organizations are represented on the commissions, alongside high-level officials. Not everything is going the way one might like it to, but we understand that this is only the beginning of a difficult path.

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