When I find the place after walking the hills of the city the first thing I am confronted with is a buzzer. It sounds like it's not working and so I wait and wonder if I am connecting or disturbing someone unnecessarily and my sense of anxiety increases. Finally there is a faint noise of a human voice and the door is clicked open.
Last night we watched Love... directed by Sandra Jogeva. The screening at Walled City Brewery and was attended by an audience of around 20 people. We ate Estonian chocolate sent by Sandra and watched as the lives of Veronika and her partner Fred unfolded over 78 minutes of our time and almost two years of their lives.
It was a tough watch; lots of verbal abuse, emotional abuse, evidence of physical abuse, alcoholism, drug taking, courtrooms and reflections on tragic past events. A daily struggle with mental health sprinkled with brief moments of sobriety, peace and academic achievement but is ultimately unresolved and the protagonists are lost at sea.
This is reality. This is how it is. These are real people living real lives right now. Who's side do you take, who is to blame, how did this happen, what would help them, who can help them, will they every change, what about the next generation?
All of these questions and more were brought up and discussed with Sandra, representatives of Relate NI and Foyle Women's Aid and the audience in a lively conversation that continued even after the event finished.
There was palpable tension as Léann Herlihy stood a the midway of the concrete steps with a band-saw blade hovering between her legs swinging it above the line of opened Russian dolls that stand on each step all the way to the ground below. I held my breath as I waited for her next move. I wondered if I needed to move the audience out of the way but I also trusted that she wouldn't harm us. Still here she was. Us staring at her in an animal muzzle as we had been for the past 20 minutes or so and now in this moment, when we were hooked into her presence she asserted her power over us. Teasing us with the idea of the blade bounding down the steps as it had previously when she cut the tape that bound the blade into a figure of eight. As it released, the tension made it bounce and land on the steps below.
But she didn't throw the blade and we were safe again. Breathe out.
The muzzle is released and Herlihy moves towards us descending the step, the band-saw safely over her shoulder. She squats at the bottom of the steps and introduces the dolls as her mother, her mothers mother, her mothers mothers mother, her mothers mothers mothers mother....her mothers mothers mothers, mothers mothers mothers mothers mothers mothers mothers mother.
I begin to think of those women who brought me here. I do not know anything of my mothers mothers mother. For me the story ends at three generations of female. Where are the rest of them? I think about the many who do not even have one generation to know, the many motherless, the stolen children. Their histories wiped out by systems and institutions and the histories wiped out by silence and shame.
We are at the back of the Walled City Brewery on Ebrington Square. Before now soldiers drilled and fortified here. Today there is a gallery, a creative business Hub, a café and a gastro pub. The public wander around taking snaps of the view over the Peace Bridge. Times change, things move on, but some things we need to carry with us, some things need to be remembered, given time to, considered and cared for. We have the opportunity to choose our direction of progress, to chose what we take forward and how.
Jõgeva’s provocative work often uses humour to entice viewers, evident in her text-based performance series, ‘Stand-Up Tragedies’. Her drawings 'Crisis of Identity' which were exhibited at Walled City Brewery just yards from where David Shrigley showed his ‘Life Model’ in 2013 are based on her sculpture of silicone breasts. The sculpture as well as a live performance were selected for the Baltic Triennal 2018 curated by Vincent Honoré of Hayward Gallery, London. The series of drawings were commissioned by Art Estonia magazine and printed in the 2/2018 Baltic Edition.
I exhibitied the nine drawings mounted behind glass on a large pink framed mirror in the vestibule area of the gastro pub. The venue is well furnished and already has many eye-catching displays for visitors. The only space that was unadorned in this way was the vestibule area that led to two toilets. I reasoned that this would be an ideal place to hang a mirror especially one that questioned identity. In my experience the main times I enter into conversations with complete strangers is whilst mutually waiting to use the facilities. By placing the artwork here, displayed upon a mirror it would draw people into a conversation either about the artwork and the subjects it alludes to or perhaps they would use conversation to hide their discomfort about being in the presence of nine pairs of breasts.
Underlined in my well worn copy of Grant Kester's 2004 book Conversation Pieces is the word interlocutor. I had looked it up and penciled the meaning in the page border. Interlocutor is a formal noun that is defined in the Oxford dictionary as A person who takes part in a dialogue or conversation.
In this series of exhibitions and related events I want to create a platform for public discussion on issues that have a direct impact on women's lives and therefore an impact on wider society. Public speech and male power have been interrelated since Ancient Greece and Rome. In her short book Women & Power (2017) author Mary Beard says of Ancient Rome and Greece, where our Western structures for speech originate, that '...to become a man (or at least an elite man) was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a -if not the- defining attribute of maleness. ...A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman."
I've been in conversation with Sandra Jogeva since we met in Tallinn in 2009. We spent many hours drinking black tea and discussing the world, art, society, politics, history and culture on my first visit to Polymer Culture Factory. We spent most of our time at the office of Art Container, a collective with Eirk Alooga, Tanel Saar and Sandra Jogeva. The office was dark and smokey. A homemade stove kept it warm for the handful of artists who lived in makeshift rooms off the main space. On a raised platform among metal assemblages and life-size plaster cast and fiber glass figures was a communal PC that whirred and binged and was cursed at and gathered around throughout the day and night.
I'd first entered here to use the communal kitchen, a tiny space which consisted of a sink, gas stove, fridge a basket of dried herbs and spices and a collection of crockery and utensils acquired for food preparation as well as art making from the market as it was needed. I'd arrived in summer but there had been a sudden rainstorm. I woke up on my first day in the factory menstruating heavily in a foreign country. I found some wellingtons and headed out in the rain to find a shop for supplies. When I returned drenched and culture shocked I stood guiltily as the boots owner glared at my sorry state. The kettle was boiled and we began to talk.
Sandra seemed to know everybody in Tallinn and she had an opinion on everyone and everything. She was the host of a TV program, a writer, curator and had rose to fame for her career as a dominatrix and artist. She was fearless and I loved being in her company. Her presence made me brave.
In 2016 Sandra told me that a mutual acquaintance who we had been concerned about for a while had stabbed her boyfriend and was in court. We were worried for her. This was a very serious matter and she could end up in jail. We both knew that she needed professional support for her metal health and not imprisonment. Sandra decided to make her first documentary film about Veronika.
In the meantime I had a baby and our conversation quietened as Sandra worked out how to be a film director and worked out how to be a mother. In early 2017 Sandra quietly send me a link to the finished film. On headphones through my smartphone as I breastfed my infant I watched it in segments over a few days. Then I watched it again. I was stunned. This wasn't just a document of Veronika's struggle it was much more. There were so many questions; why did nobody listen when she showed signs of serious mental health problems? why does she hate men so much? did her education awake something in her that she could see her family life was far from perfect? why is domestic violence when perpetrated by a women not taken seriously? why are we drawn to the people that we are? what binds us and what tears us apart? what is the impact on children who are unwanted? is prison the best solution? how does free expression through self directed art making impact the individual? should we only act when things are physically violent? who does incarceration benefit? should we punish those citizens who are victims of a lack of mental health services?
In June 2018 I was selected as one of four curators on the New Spaces project and I saw this as my opportunity to screen this controversial yet award winning film along with several other artists (Léann Herlihy, Emma Hirsk, Hiroko Matsushita) who's strong female voices need to be heard. In this way I could become an interlocutor to the conversations about transgenerational abuse and the silencing of women that these artworks address.