Sigrid Viir’s work seems hectic, ranging from photographic installations to performative interventions, covering the family and private spheres as well as public and political questions. From her position as an artist, Sigrid writes: “I draw my inspiration from everyday situations that seem of little importance at first glance; behavioural habits and functioning models about which the question ‘why’ does not even come to mind. Social agreements, moral norms and rules are the everyday ‘tools’ we use to function socially but whose use often goes unnoticed because we have identified too much with them.”(1) Very generally then, Sigrid studies symbolic order – the language-based system of representation which controls the subject without her being aware of it and includes kinship, social and political structures, as well as laws and sanctities. As the artist’s position, stated when defending her Bachelor’s degree in the Department of Photography at the Estonian Academy of Arts, still holds true today, it testifies to the artist’s determination and aptitude for self-reflection.
From her choice of subject matter, work with models, and the often sculptural quality of her works, I conclude that Sigrid has an unusual perception of the body. The sculptural may mean directing the scene being photographed or making the frames of the photographs into strange pedestals of furnishings, which relate to the physical body of the viewer. The curiously constructed frames for the series Routinecrusher, Wanderlust, Tablebear, and so on (2009–11) seem to me to be visually ergonomic for the viewer but rationally absurd; it is as if they pose the question of whether we are able to enjoy something that does not conform to the accepted rational order. As a subject, Sigrid retains the skill of “feeling” oneself from the outside; in an interview with Alistair Hicks, she calls this a “like-an-animal-in-a-cage” feeling.(2) I think that, rather than a feeling of mental encapsulation or unbreachable imprisonment, for Sigrid, in her work both as an artist and a model, this means perceiving one’s physical boundaries within a limited area or situation defined by the viewers’ gaze. Perhaps the cage metaphor best describes the state of being photographed as well as photography itself, where the world beyond the frame of the shot is unattainable. It is precisely this that the pedestals in Routinecrusher fight against, being an ideal continuation of the absurd compositions of dishes, stationery or household utensils depicted in the photographs.
Sigrid herself takes her focus to be adaptation – bewildering situations which have become normal. This may be true in some cases. For example, the photograph Shirt (2007), which takes the reversal and differentiation between men’s and women’s clothing to an extreme; or the photographic installation 49°00’27.52’’N : 8°18’46.15’’E (2008), which stages an actual place with a view of an idyllic village road and, next to it, a buzzing high voltage substation, which the locals have to adapt to. Another attempt at normalisation, or the suppression of the feeling of discomfort, is the slide installation Nude with Parents (2009–11), where we suddenly discover that being naked with our parents as a child is completely different to how it is as a young adult; that is, after reaching sexual maturity. In the series of macro photographs of pieces of chewing gum stuck under a cafeteria table, normalisation is expressed by our conscious preparedness to sit and eat at a table like this while trying to forget about the fact.
Despite its modest assertiveness, the latter series, Metamorphosis (2007), is in fact a secret doorway into Sigrid Viir’s work. Chewed, mixed with saliva, stuck under the table with the thumb, and still bearing the thumbprint, these cracked and dried pieces of discarded waste, which the artist is showing us in close-up, are abject in the classical sense. Think about the feeling you get when you accidentally touch one of them under the edge of a chair. “It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated,” says Julia Kristeva.(3) Sigrid’s other works now also emerge as related to abjectivity, an unbroken line between the norm and the repelled. A woman standing with her back to the viewer wearing men’s clothes on backwards; nudity with parents, which involves the prohibition of the gaze and incestuous arousal; or an attempt to slide out of the social obligation of motherhood. In the series Do Not Look at Me (2008), people pose as models in the comfortable, loose clothes they wear at home, those rags that have become too messy to wear in public, simultaneously drawing the viewer’s gaze and repelling it. In the project Corridor (2010), with Taaniel Raudsepp, the aim was to get captured by security cameras in administrative buildings and then get hold of the footage, according to lawful procedure – giving one’s image and then claiming it back... “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection, but what disturbs identity, system, order. That which does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”(4)
Sigrid Viir continues this in-betweenness and ambiguity in Visible Solutions OÜ, a firm/art work co-founded with Karel Koplimets and Taaniel Raudsepp to work simultaneously in the fields of art and business. Their main working method is performative oscillation between the vocabularies and logics of the two fields, combining them into a fairly repulsive ideology. Strangely enough, this success story, too, invites an association with abjection, thereby determining one’s attitude: “The abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor assumes a prohibition, a rule or a law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them, takes advantage of them, the better to deny them. ... it establishes narcissistic power while pretending to reveal the abyss – an artist who practices his art as a ‘business.’”(5)
The series Postcard for Grandparents (2007) is made up of pairs of photographs on one of which a smiling, young family with a small child are sitting cosily on a sofa, while the other shows the artist alone in the same room, having repositioned herself or the furniture. In the text accompanying the series, Sigrid gives the viewer a whole narrative with some important keywords regarding the “transcendence of parenthood”. Some of these are related to the changing of the body and the transcending of corporeal boundaries from the inside to the outside – pregnancy, breast milk, childbirth, diapers – and some are social, like family, bank loan, child support and divorce. The author shows how this narrative diverges in the imagination from the postcard image sent to the grandparents from a happy home and a soft couch. Or else, we use this postcard, a defined and expected image of happiness, to repel and silence the “social anatomy of parenthood”, which is corrupt, amorphous and unstable from the point of view of the state as well as physiognomy. Sigrid Viir herself refuses to participate in this game, although feeling the social pressure she responds with rebellion – she turns over the couch, a pillar of all family-centred values, and builds a cave out of it for herself, squeezing into it alone. It becomes her social womb, which protects the artist, who is forever a child. Perhaps Sigrid Viir’s more general view of the artist’s role can be read from this: the artist is someone who is free to be insubordinate, in-between, playful, but also obligated to affect people sharply and seriously.
(1) EKA FOTO III. Eesti Kunstiakadeemia fotograafia osakonna koondportfoolio, 2009, lk 2. [Joint portfolio of the Department of Photography, Estonian Academy of Arts]
(2) Alistair Hicks. I Don’t Know Sigrid Viir. – Sigrid Viir. Selected Works. Tallinn: Temnikova & Kasela Gallery, 2012, lk 2.
(3) Julia Kristeva. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982, p. 1.
(4) Julia Kristeva. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982, p. 4.
(5) Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982, pp. 15–16.