A Woman Observing Women
Stella Pelše, Art Historian
Collection of the Latvian Contemporary Art Museum: Sarmīte Māliņa. Language. 1989-1996
Sarmīte Māliņa belongs to that Latvian generation of contemporary artists who discovered installations. She arrived on the scene with events that were provocative in the local context (People in cages, 1987; Children of Staburags, 1988, in collaboration with Sergejs Davidovs and Oļegs Tillbergs) and the original cover designs for the free-thinking magazine Avots. Thereafter she took part in a string of major exhibitions in Latvia and the world. Māliņa is particularly fascinated by combinations of objects and the relationships between them as a source of paradoxical, stimulating associations. Thus, her projects continue and transform the praxis of using ready-made objects or objets trouvés, which goes back to Marcel Duchamp and the Dada tradition. “While our century has been obsessed with raising things to the level of art, it has also been obsessed with demystifying the sphere of art to that of yet another kind of thing in the world.”1 In Māliņa’s case, natural materials also can be important, for example, the parallels between the vivid textures of marble and beans as aesthetic bridges between the living and the lifeless world (Set of Values, 1994); the construction of a world model using a flat earth and a tiny person as the always subjectively-perceived centre of the world (Sunny Day, 1997); and a glass sheet whose transparency questions the function of a work of art: does this mean showing the world as it is? (Experience, 1998).There is also the object Love never ends (2008), created together with Kristaps Kalns – an artificial, sterile white cube containing combinations of objects chosen with the precision typical of Māliņa, all on the theme of “conserving” feelings: an unmade bed in a smoky glass box reflecting the image of a park bench, a musty bunch of dead flowers in a glass case and the “conserved” auditory background from a music box.
Sarmīte Māliņa. Language. 1989-1996
Sarmīte Māliņa. Language (Valoda). 1989-1996
The work under discussion here, one of Māliņa’s most attractive and best-known objects Language (1989–1996), has been exhibited both as part of a triptych-spatial instal-lation Electric Chair for the exhibition Personal Time in Warsaw (1996), as well as in the Window/Mirror (1997) exhibition of Finnish and Latvian contemporary art. Quite recently, in 2009, it was included in the Insight into the Collection I exhibition at the kim? art space, and in Gender Check at the MUMOK Museum, Vienna. The finely decorated old-fashioned swinging mirror or trumeau with its bright red lipstick drawer presents an identical set of feminine weapons, contrasting with the apparently self-evident diversity of elements that the concept of ‘language’ entails. A language where all the letters/words/sentences are the same is, finally, useless for conveying any kind of message. Māliņa’s own comments on this work are laconic and direct, and do not invite complicated interpretations: “I assume that this work came about at an age when it was important to me to observe other women and to think about myself ... and it’s all there – the language of women...”2 She has also admitted that: “Actually, I find femininity annoying”3, and those interpreting Māliņa’s art have taken this further: “The work in the exhibition Window/Mirror (1997) of Finnish and Latvian contemporary art was a protest against obvious femininity. The range of lipsticks next to the trumeau, one of them (a “dead beauty” by Estée Lauder) like Snow White in her glass coffin, and the rotating Auguste skirt – are messengers from the world of women, so pleasant to observe, but so diverse.”4 Red lipstick is the classic weapon of ‘woman on the attack’, a means of getting noticed and standing out. The block of lipstick resembling a column of troops emphasises the repetitiveness of the feminine language, the identical means that women use to get what they want. This is her comment on a world order in which this kind of an arsenal is available to women. The question of why this should be so, and what is the role of patriarchalism in Western culture would belong to the interest sphere of socially critical feminism.

In seeking to find parallels elsewhere, and a broader context, we could mention the installation of objects Pink Project Table by American artist Portia Munson, first shown in the exhibition Bad Girls at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1994. “Munson’s accretion and careful arrangement of pink objects highlighted not only the arbitrariness of ‘feminine’ signifiers (pink, after all, was considered a masculine colour until the last century), but actually re-created the manic energy expended by women desperate to conform to narrowly defined, often equally arbitrary stereotypes of beauty and femininity.”5 The set of similar pink objects (hair brushes, toothbrushes, buckles, everyday utensils and a vast number of other things traditionally connected with a womanly world) gathered together, like other works by Munson, such as the ecologically-toned collection of green detritus entitled Lawn, reveals a similar preoccupation with the world of objects, with their concealed and overt meanings and symbolism. However, Māliņa’s selection of objects seems in some way more universal, more laconic and more profound, since it doesn’t focus on the quantitative effect of throw-away items and the aspect of pure consumerism. They are more sophisticated, more select and in some cases actually antique items, bringing together the contemporary and the historical, attractive kitsch and classic refinement, a clear message and an intriguing secret.

/Translator into English: Valdis Bērziņš/

1 Herwitz D. Making Theory / Constructing Art: On the Authority of the Avant-Garde. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 226–227.
2 ?v=wG9h8Yl_irk.
3 Rudzāte D. Viņa domā par mākslu. Studija, 1999, Nr. 8, p. 24.
4 Ibid.
5 Schwendener M. Portia Munson: P.P.O.W.
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