Tableaux I - From the series Studies of Bourgeoisie Tableaux II - From the series Studies of Bourgeoisie Tableaux III - From the series Studies of Bourgeoisie Self Portrait with Mother - From the series Tell me Nora's Sisters (Still) Nora's Sisters (Still) Kreenholm #3 - From the series Fall of the Manufacture Kreenholm #13 - From the series Fall of the Manufacture Kreenholm #10 - From the series Fall of the Manufacture Kreenholm #16 - From the series Fall of the Manufacture Kreenholm #8 - From the series Fall of the Manufacture Kreenholm #7 - From the series Fall of the Manufacture I Don't Eat Flowers (Poster) Forum (Still) Forum (Still) Useful Work Useful Work Shaken Not Stirred (Still) Shaken Not Stirred (Still) Red Dawn (Punane koit) - Installation view
Tableaux I - From the series Studies of Bourgeoisie
Tableaux II - From the series Studies of Bourgeoisie
Tableaux III - From the series Studies of Bourgeoisie
Self Portrait with Mother - From the series Tell me
Nora's Sisters (Still)
Nora's Sisters (Still)
Kreenholm #3 - From the series Fall of the Manufacture
Kreenholm #13 - From the series Fall of the Manufacture
Kreenholm #10 - From the series Fall of the Manufacture
Kreenholm #16 - From the series Fall of the Manufacture
Kreenholm #8 - From the series Fall of the Manufacture
Kreenholm #7 - From the series Fall of the Manufacture
I Don't Eat Flowers (Poster)
Shaken Not Stirred (Still)
Shaken Not Stirred (Still)
Red Dawn (Punane koit) - Installation view
Marge Monko is a visual artist who works mainly with photography and video.
In her earlier works, the photographic series Studies of bourgeoisie and Tell me, she explores connections between psychoanalysis and gender representation. In recent years her focus has shifted towards the study of labour. Monko’s videos Forum and Shaken Not Stirred tackle the influence of changes in labour politics on both a global and a personal level. In her critical approach, the issues related to work involve the aspect of gender and its representation which is most evident in the photo film Nora’s Sisters.
Marge Monko interviewed by Maria Kapajeva
“I DON’T EAT FLOWERS!” MARGE MONKO
I met Marge in 2010 when she was directing the first ever photography festival in Tallinn, Estonia. Since then, Marge has become one of my dearest friends with whom I love to discuss and debate various themes starting from our common Soviet past up to the issues surrounding the art world or our experience in education. Despite the fact that we meet from time to time, it was hard for both of us to find a common timeframe for the interview. Marge was constantly travelling between Estonia and Belgium (where she attends post-academic program for the artists at HISK School in Ghent), I was busy between my studies and job. So, we decided on a skype interview which we held at the end of June, 2013.
Maria Kapajeva: Skipping an introduction that we both don’t need, let’s start straight away with the questions. And one of the first things I am interested in is your education in photography.
Marge Monko: I had known for a long time that I wanted to study photography. But before going to the Estonian Academy of Art, where I did my BA in photography, I studied photography in technical school for two years. The curriculum focused strictly on the practical side of photography. The school was training photographers for very different fields such as journalism, printing etc. So, by the time I went to the Academy, I was already 25 years old. During my studies there, I decided to spend a semester somewhere else and I applied for the Erasmus program to study at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. I did not know much about this school, how it was run or how good it was. It turned out to be quite different from my previous studies in Estonia.
MK: What was different and difficult there for you?
MM: You know, in Tallinn the curriculum was similar to the photography studies in the UK. It was partly because our Professor Eve Kiiler had a good connection to David Bate (MK: he is currently Photography Professor and Course Leader of the MA Photographic Studies at University of Westminster, London). The study program in Tallinn was based on a critical approach towards photography within visual culture while the program in Vienna considered photography as part of fine arts. So the students there were mixing photography with different practices such as performance, drawing etc. I guess it was influenced by local artists and movements from the 1960-1970 such as Valie EXPORT or Viennese Actionism. It was very different but at the same time it was a very enriching experience for me. Actually the most inspiring thing was Vienna, the city and its people.
MK: In the beginning, how and why did you decide that photography was your calling?
MM: I think I first chose photography mainly because I was interested in film during my high school years. At that time it seemed to be very unrealistic to study film and directing. Then I thought that I could start with photography and now I am really happy I did. So when I went to the art school, after just a few months I knew I was in the right place.
MK: How did photography attract you in comparison with film? The still and moving images have different approaches in their way of delivering ideas.
MM: Yes, they have. Compared to film, photography is more demanding in a way. It needs more concentration to articulate your story or concept with an image or a series of still images. On the other hand, it also demands more efforts from a viewer. The photographic image is a silent object. It’s very difficult to attract a viewer’s attention, especially nowadays when everything around us is moving and talking intensively.
MK: Does it relate to the idea that one image can tell a story?
MM: It is kind of like that, but I don’t agree with people who say that one image can say more than 1000 words. I think an image is actually more open, less fixed in its connotations and connections. So, when I was in Vienna, I was interested in staged photography, so-called tableaux vivants, which allowed me to talk about my ideas in one or in a series of the images.
MK: Your project Study of Bourgeoisie (2006) can be called a series of tableaux images. I am interested in the process of making this series. As I know, you collaborated with other people to produce this work. Can you tell me more about it?
MM: The series relates to the women of the 19th century who were considered hysterics. I was inspired by images taken in the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. It was clear to me that hysteria was so widespread because of the different standards for men and women in the society. I was interested in how the same mentality and these photos of hysterical women affect a contemporary representation of women. I worked with this project over two years and staged photographs using models as well as myself. For instance, in Vienna I collaborated with a choreographer called Krõõt Juurak. I wanted to stage choreographically the extreme bodily convulsions of a hysterical attack, so the collaboration with the choreographer was very essential and important for me. As I was psychologically involved in this project I felt that if I had lived in the 19th century, I would have been one of those women myself. That is why it was a logical step for me to pose as a patient lying on a sofa for the image of a psychiatrist with a patient.
MK: How do you think these images affect us nowadays?
MM: There is a very strong but complex connection. For instance, I clearly see the connection between those 19th century images and practice of the surrealists. They admired those images and used them in their work. For the surrealists hysteria was a kind of an artefact. They were very interested in unconsciousness and how it was manifested in bodily expressions. As you know, some of the surrealists got their incomes from advertising jobs, so the same visual language can be found and we can trace in advertising images till now. For instance, if we look at any advertising campaigns for perfume or high fashion products, they usually represent some type of erotic fantasy. Even if you recognise that depicted scenes are not realistic, they still suggest a certain idea of fantasised femininity. It is all about what a woman should desire and how to control her desires.
MK: Your work mostly focuses on women’s issues and women’s representation. Have you always been aware of feminist issues? Can you call yourself a feminist?
MM: Yes, I call myself a feminist and I am aware of it in my work. I think I started to insert the feminist critique in my work with the same series (Studies of Bourgeoisie). I felt that being a woman who works with photography I couldn’t avoid how women appeared on the images. Photography is a medium that has a big role in reproducing ‘the standardised’ image of women.
MK: Where do your feminist roots come from – from your educational period or earlier?
MM: I come from a family that is dominated by women. This doesn’t mean that my mother and grandmothers deliberately had chosen to live alone, it just happened. Their lives turned out to be like this because of different reasons. Therefore I started to notice an inequality quite early. I observed that women had to work harder than men: with their day jobs they also had much more responsibilities at home than men. At the same time they were submissive and had a low self-esteem. Of course, later on, my relationship with feminist ways of thinking was encouraged in the Academy as it was a part of critical approach that highlighted our studies.
MK: How do you feel now as a female artist – are you always aware of your gender? Are there debates about women in art taking place in Estonia now?
MM: Estonia is slightly different because of its Soviet past. Back then, as you know, in the public field, gender equality was promoted and there were many female artists. Nowadays I think the main issue for women (as well as for female artists) is equal pay and integration in the workplace and in private life. I guess it’s the same as in the Western world. For me personally, the main issue is how to build up a career as an artist while being a single mother. I think it’s easier for male artists to find time to work and to continue the career of a jet-setting artist after becoming a father because women are still more willing to stay at home with children. Of course I realise that there are also exceptions.
MK: Speaking of the family, another project Tell Me (2007) is your collaboration with your mother and two grandmothers. Can you tell me why you decided to turn the camera towards your family?
MM: It is a series of portraits of my mother, my grandmothers and myself. I was inspired by Lacan’s theory of four discourses. They are basically four different communication schemes. I was mostly engaged with one of them called the Hysteric-Master scheme. I wouldn’t say my work is an illustration of the discourse but I was interested in representing the communication in Lacan’s formula. The relationship of a Hysteric and a Master could also be compared to the relationship of a parent and a child, citizen and police, a student and a teacher etc. I was interested in the power structure between my Masters (my mother and grandmothers) and me and how it changed since I grew up. These are the three women in my family who have influenced me the most.
MK: You continue using yourself as a model in your other project called Acknowledged Work (2008), which I found interesting because of its performative edge. The feel is of still shots from a video.
MM: It was, as I call it, a photo performance. I recorded my performance with photographs and it was mainly performed for the camera. It is quite reactionary work. At that time I was about to finish my MA and I had started to think more about the art scene and an artist in contemporary society and what kind of possibilities artists have to survive financially. I had an opportunity to do an exhibition with my colleague Tanya Muravskaja. I decided to address the questions concerning the work of an artist, so I visited the annual exhibition of the Estonian Association of Artists which is known as an official overview of the Estonian art scene. I cleaned the dust around the exhibited art works and it was recorded with the camera. This act was influenced by the performances of the US artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles who wrote “Maintenance Art Manifesto” in 1969. My main aim was to stress an idea that even the cleaning job is paid whilst an artist’s job is not. There was also another aspect – me as a young artist cleaning the work of established artists.
MK: Have you got any feedback from these established artists?
MM: Actually no.
MK: Interesting. This project looks more spontaneous compared to all your other projects.
MM: Yes, I usually work in a very different way. It starts with some text, image or an idea. I work quite slowly and I need some time for my research. My process includes working with images and texts or going to archives and searching for images there. It always depends on the situation. Of course, sometimes exhibition deadlines are pushing me to produce the work quicker but ideally I would like to take my time to get into the topic.
MK: A few months ago I saw one of your latest works Shaken Not Stirred (2012) at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow at the exhibition Economy. It seems to be an opposite to Acknowledged Work as it’s a staged video piece and for it’s production you worked with quite a big team of professionals.
MM: Yes, it’s almost like a short feature film, one that continues my interests towards labour and personal histories. I have to admit that the script was written quite quickly. I’ve had this idea for a long time and I wrote some parts earlier, but the main script was completed in just two weeks. After that I had another two weeks to find a crew and organise the shootings. It was quite an experience to work with such a big team. The story is based on three characters who represent different classes of Estonian society. A business woman, a cleaning lady and a barman tell their personal stories of being affected by political and economic changes in society at the beginning of the 1990’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
MK: Are your characters inspired by real people or have you made them up?
MM: The characters are a mixture of fictional facts and stories of people I have encountered in my life. I wanted to represent different classes: a cleaning woman representing the working class; she describes herself as ‘newly-poor’. Another female character represents a middle class or ‘managerial class’, the barman is an example of service personnel, a class of employees who are not poor but somewhere in between. The structure of three characters is inspired by August Strindberg’s play Miss Julie (1888).
MK: Would you like to do more projects with a big crew?
MM: That’s a very interesting question. During the last year and a half I have been thinking about doing another film, I even attended film school for a year. You probably noticed that film is becoming more and more important in contemporary art. So it made me think that there are so many new works coming up that there are not many possibilities to be really inventive in this medium. Moreover, it takes a lot of effort to make a film when you’re an individual artist. We don’t really have access to film funding in Estonia as we are not considered as filmmakers. So it takes a lot of time and money to produce that sort of work. I feel that filmmaking is like a virus in my blood but I hesitate to start a new project because of these practical reasons.
MK: It’s fascinating that your teenage dream of doing film is being realised now. Speaking of funding – what do you need to be called a filmmaker?
MM: Well, you need to have a professional producer who trusts you. Your film needs to be done by a film company, which takes care of all production and distribution. Unfortunately, the funding bodies are not interested in producing films for the gallery space.
MK: Speaking of galleries – have you always produced your work for the gallery space? How do you work with installations?
MM: I always work in the form of exhibitions. I have nothing against showing my videos in cinemas or other places, but my main format is the gallery exhibition, whether it is a series of photographs or a video piece.
MK: Let’s talk a bit about your works that are based on the Krenholm textile manufacture’s history (The Fall of The Manufacture, Nora’s Sisters, Forum, I don’t eat flowers, 2009-2010). It is a very personal topic to me as my parents used to work for this company and I grew up in that area, Narva town (210km from Tallinn). As you are from Tallinn, tell me how you came up with an idea to do the work on this.
MM: It’s an interesting story. I didn’t visit Narva at all until 2008 when I heard about the manufacturer’s bankruptcy. A part of my family comes from Narva. Right now we don’t have any connection but my mother was always talking about my great-grandmothers who had worked for the Krenholm. One of these great grandmothers had two daughters and she didn’t allow them to work there because the working conditions were very harsh. During the Soviet time it was a closed area like other big enterprise areas at that time. In autumn 2008 I intuitively decided to take a bus and went to see the factory. I didn’t know if the property was closed, so I was trying to make some images from outside. Later on, I applied for permission to enter and walked in the area to look at the facilities. I was intrigued by the huge space and the architectural scale. By that time all production was moved out from these buildings so there were other companies still renting some buildings but most of it was abandoned. They had five factory buildings, most of them built in the 19th century. There were lots of tools and fabrics left behind. It was a strange experience. So, I took some photographs both inside and outside, but I didn’t have a plan of what to do with this material.
MK: As I understand it brought you to further your research and you produced a few more pieces besides The Fall of The Manufacture which depicts abandoned factories.
MM: It intrigued me that the Krenholm was considered as one of the biggest manufactures in Europe in the 19th century. I decided to go to an archive and search for photographs of that period. But instead, I found very interesting images from the Soviet period. There were lots of photographs of workers using a specific visual language of propaganda. Most of the scenes depicted are very didactic – workers educating each other, discussing things. It was obvious that these scenes were staged. First I wasn’t sure how to work with those images. I don’t remember how I came across the text by Elfriede Jelinek, which I used as a voice recorded text in the video. In Jelinek’s play What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband or Pillars of Society (1979) there is a scene where the protagonist Nora comes to the factory to warn the women workers about the closing of the enterprise. The subject corresponded to the current situation in the Krenholm, so together with the archive photos it opens up the wider context of the history of modernisation and post-industrialism. The video is called Nora’s Sisters.
MK: After that you decided to collaborate with some Russian women and re-stage one of the TV programs in your piece Forum.
MM: I think the situation of the Krenholm reflects a trend from all over the world – textile production is moving or has already moved to the South-East of Asia. It has had an effect on work policies in Europe. In 2008 the Estonian parliament started to change labour contract law. I happened to see a TV show called Foorum where politics (all male!) were debating about the project of the new law. They also mentioned the Krenholm describing it as a kind of enterprise that has no place in the contemporary economy. They were suggesting that its ex-workers should stop complaining and should re-train themselves. What upset me most was that the new Labour Contract Act which was about to concern all social groups, was discussed by only five men. Obviously the minority of Russian speaking female workers were excluded from the discussion (MK: the majority of the Krenholm workers are Russian speaking females). So I decided to script the debate of this TV program and re-stage it with ex-workers of the Krenholm.
MK: What about the poster you have made called I Don’t Eat Flowers! Was it part of your work about textile workers or something different?
MM: I had an exhibition in Tallinn in 2009 and for this exhibition I already had series of photographs of Krenholm and the video piece Nora’s Sisters, but I felt that I should make an additional piece of work, since the opening of the exhibition was on 8th of March which, as you know, is International Women’s Day. It was celebrated in Soviet times and still is now.
MK: Well, but it’s a very different celebration in the Soviet Union and in the rest of the world…
MM: Yes. It was initially called The International Working Women’s Day and it was first celebrated at the beginning of the 20th century by socialists. During the Soviet time the original idea lost its meaning and it was mainly about acknowledging women for being women and freed women from their duties for one day. Part of this tradition was and still is that men bring flowers to women. I decided to react to this tradition. I made a self-portrait referring to the woman posing on a famous US poster of the 1940s We Can Do it!. The text ‘I Don’t Eat Flowers’ reflects the global financial crisis which broke out in 2008 causing high unemployment rates. It also references a song by the US textile workers from beginning of 20th century that goes ‘We want bread but we want roses too’.
MK: Last but not least: recently you won the Henkel Art Award. Can you say that you were awarded for one particular body of work or was it a general recognition. I know that part of the award is to have an exhibition of your new work.
MM: The award is meant to be for Central and East European artists. The artists apply in their country (there are 23 countries all together) and then the winner is chosen out of five finalists. My whole portfolio was considered for the final. The fact that I got this award came as a great surprise to me and this year I am having two exhibitions as part of the award: one in the artist’s country and another one is in Mumok (Museum of Modern Art) in Vienna. I am planning to show some existing work together with new pieces. My show in Estonia opens in the Tartu Art Museum, opening on July 4th, then the show in Vienna will be opened on the 24th of October, 2013. Since January 2013 I have been attending a two-year post-academic studio program HISK (Higher Institute for Fine Arts) in Ghent, Belgium. During these 2 years I am planning to experiment and to find new ways of working but I am quite sure that my main mediums will still be photography and video.
MK: It is very interesting to see that nowadays artists are freely moving between mediums and crossing the borders between disciplines.
MM: Yes, I think photography has been expanding in recent years, trying to overcome the flatness of the image by combining it with 3 dimensional objects. It’s very fascinating.
MK: Do you feel it gives you more freedom or more confusion when selecting your medium for the projects?
MM: It depends on the person but I think it’s quite difficult to start working with objects when having a background in photography. You need to know about materials and how to work with them. I think there is a kind of trend that directs the artist to show something more than just photographs. In some cases it is reasonable but often it feels that the use of installation elements is random and derives from the insecurity that showing just photographs is too boring.
Marge Monko (born 1976) is an artist living and working in Tallinn, Estonia and Ghent, Belgium. She has studied at the Estonian Academy of Arts (MA in Photography, 2008) and at University of Applied Arts in Vienna.
Monko mainly works with photography and video and has examined psychoanalysis and it’s impact on gender representation in visual culture. Her recent subject matter focuses on gendered work in the context of paradigmatic changes in labour policies.
Monko has had solo exhibitions in Tallinn, Helsinki and Budapest and has participated in several group exhibitions: Manifesta9, Genk, 2012, curated by Cuathemoc Medina, Katerina Gregos and Dawn Ades; CCA Glasgow, curated by Angela Dimitrakaki and Kirsten Lloyd and Bétonsalon, Paris, curated by Aliocha Imhoff and Kantuta Quiros. In 2012, Monko won the Henkel Art Award. Since January 2013, she has been participating in a 2-year studio program at the HISK (Higher Institute for Fine Arts) in Ghent, Belgium.