Anu Põder, Composition with a Torso and a Child’s Hands, 1986, textile, wood, plastic, epoxy, 21 5/8 × 24 3/8 × 14 1/8".

Anu Põder, Composition with a Torso and a Child’s Hands, 1986, textile, wood, plastic, epoxy, 21 5/8 × 24 3/8 × 14 1/8".

Anu Põder

Anu Põder, Composition with a Torso and a Child’s Hands, 1986, textile, wood, plastic, epoxy, 21 5/8 × 24 3/8 × 14 1/8".

Estonian sculptor Anu Põder (1947–2013) has been internationally unrecognized for too long. The curator of“Anu Põder: Be Fragile! Be Brave!,” Rebeka Põldsam, attempted to put her on the map and into the broader canon of art history by presenting her outstanding oeuvre next to those of precursors and contemporaries, including Katrin Koskaru, Ursula Mayer, Ana Mendieta, Alina Szapocznikow, and Iza Tarasewicz. Like Szapocznikow, Põder draws upon an artistic strategy of merging representations of fragmented body parts with amorphous masses of various materials: Torsos emerge and sink back into dark clouds of synthetic wool in works such as Põder’s Composition with Plastic and Synthetic Wool, 1986, and Szapocznikow’s similar Tumours Personified, 1971, in which casts of the artist’s face seem to be fighting shapeless tumors’ attempts to suck them in. Anxiety about the body is pertinent in both artists’ practice. In Põder’s earlier works, installed in the show on an elevated stage (thus repeating the presentation of Szapocznikow’s Tumours Personified), smooth, flesh-toned plastic or leather body parts are almost aggressively stitched together with soft dark textiles, as if the artist had been trying to control the formless, the dissolving (both in body and memory), and the temporary—or the fear of temporality itself. 

The impermanence of the corporeal also appeared through disappearance, when only traces of former bodies remained. Like Mendieta, Põder often employs physical imprints on materials that in one way or another refer to the body—for instance, pieces of clothing in works such as Space for My Body, 1995; Ancient Light, 1995; and Pattern as Sign. Furcoats, 1996. These three pieces were installed together in one room of the museum. The four wall-mounted objects that constitute Tested Profit. Rubber Bags, 1999, are especially close to Mendieta’s works, both visually and conceptually. In them, rubber surfaces are disrupted by stitched and cutout human-shaped silhouettes. The objects lie flat—as if the bodies they reference were taken away, or evaporated, or perhaps resurrected—and look like empty cadaver pouches.

The artist’s rigorous sense of how materials can evoke bodies becomes even more evident in Clodhopper, Stride of a Man of the 20th Century, 1999, which comprises realistic casts of men’s work boots made of soap and fat. Placed on a small square stage covered with soil, the footwear looked heavy and tired. Yet at the same time, the materials could dissolve at any moment in certain conditions. Serial presentation is important in all the aforementioned works (Tested Profit. Rubber Bags, Tongues, 1998, and Tested Profit. Rubber Dolls, 1999, were shown together in her solo exhibition “Tested Profit” at the Tallinn City Gallery in 1999) as if to underscore the interchangeable nature of the bodies separated from the remains presented in the shows.

Anxiety in Põder’s works is often suggested not only by their material temporality, but also by their references to pressures exerted by established social structures and authorities. The uneasy, complicated position of a female artist forced to divide time between artistic creation and her family’s needs is evident in Composition with a Torso and a Child’s Hands, 1986, where casts of small, almost greedy-looking hands seek the breast of a flesh-toned female torso. A struggle against conventional power structures permeates the work Lectern, 2007—an actual lectern burnt from the inside that greeted the visitors entering the exhibition. The show’s title, “Be Fragile! Be Brave!,” pointedly expresses the complex character of Põder’s practice, as well as her unique ability to translate the mental and physical experiences of daily life through material accuracy and vivid forms.

––Neringa Černiauskaitė