Corina Apostol

On Radical Softness and Irreverent Flux: The Politics of Art as Self-Care

In 1989, the personal care brand Gillette launched a now-infamous advertising campaign entitled “The Best a Man Can Get.” The campaign with a global appeal promoted their shaving cream as a way to achieve what a successful (white, cisgender, upper middle-class) man should be and what he should look like. Three decades later, the company released a radically different video, “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be,” that played on the earlier slogan to address widespread bullying, sexual misconduct, and toxic masculinity in the era of  #MeToo. It showed men of different ethnicities reacting to these issues and embracing their feelings, showing a “softer” side. This latter video immediately triggered intense controversy worldwide: conservatives widely criticized it and it remains one of the most disliked Youtube videos in history. 

Today, in 2020, as governments are threatening to roll back rights for women (especially those belonging to migrant, precarious or LGBTQ communities) public conversations on misconduct, gender violence, and trauma are as relevant as they are divisive. The media are awash with misinformation, commodification, fear, and attacks on our bodies. This exhibition argues that it is imperative for people of all genders, ages, and origins to become conscious of the representational politics around gender prevalent in everyday life. When it comes to gender inequity, there is still a need for profound change. One of the first steps in that direction is the acknowledgment of the fact that our contemporary social structure privileges patriarchy.

Throughout her career as a feminist conceptual artist, Ede Raadik has employed socially conscious installations as a tool to engage with the world that we inhabit. From her “Menopause Club” project inspired by the range of species who experience this biological process and the associated cultural stigma, to the quiet workplace drama of female exploitation reflecting the challenges of living in Estonia, Raadik has found dark humor to be a generative and poetic rendering of social constructs. For this exhibition, she has devoted herself to thinking about the gendering of self-care products and how we relate to them in the age of mass consumption and widespread precarity. 

She follows this line of inquiry by adapting the format of an open space for healing and empowerment to address issues of pain, pleasure, and wellbeing through the lens of beautification products presented in surprising ways within the exhibition space. Indeed, artists and activists today are highlighting the importance of acts of self- and communal-care, as well as that of restorative actions when an individual or community have experienced trauma. This exhibition proposes “softness” as a result of the restored state of mental, physical and emotional rest, that is not a passive state, but rather something that represents strength that allows oppressed groups to do more than survive, and creates alternatives where they can flourish. In this space, the artist affirms her being, beliefs, practices, and pains without regret or shame, hinting at ways to shift some of the patriarchal boundaries we were born within. 

Using personal care products in a variety of shapes, colors, and states, Raadik’s series “Self-Care” embodies the spirit of Fluxus as continual change, resembling the international avant-garde movement1In 1963, Lithuanian-American artist George Maciunas wrote the Fluxus Manifesto, in which he heralded a new style that sought to “PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art—PURGE THE WORLD OF ‘EUROPANISM’!” Fluxus was an artistic movement in which everyday objects and experiences could be framed as art. in both its irreverent content and disregard for conventional aesthetic norms. The series blurs the lines between art and life: its amorphous nature and sheer strangeness mean that it remains somewhere in between the two. While the exhibition will be running at Tallinn Art Hall, this series will effectively appear, disappear and reappear within a matter of days: nothing about it lasts. Indeed, the products used by Raadik are in a state of flux and subject to processes of decay: the nature of this series is never fixed nor finished, everything is in a state of transformation. The artist works with a notion of ritual and renewal that is not so much the standard idea of an oft-repeated action performed by followers of beauty regimens: it is not about trying to follow a formula, but rather about using products that compose themselves or are composed by chance. 

While the series “Self-care” envisions art as an organic process, something that can be done and undone over time, the series “Champion” proposes a more explicit critique of a particular type of masculinity extolled in our society. For this series, Raadik has commissioned glass sculptures that reference both an ideal body type and actual beauty products. Here, she takes advantage of the assumption that the media cultures regulating our bodies are supposedly objective, when in fact, they are often built on profoundly patriarchal rules that naturally favor the biology of some over others while capitalizing on our pain and insecurities. Her work speaks to the importance of taking agency back from corporations that sell forms of healing and giving that agency back to the communities who use them as a means of survival.

In refashioning the nature of these everyday products conceptually, Raadik has created works that are not objects of aesthetic contemplation but a gesture of generative social action. The implicit and explicit critique of traditional art practices is not a means in itself here. Rather, the artist is more interested in experimenting with what a space for healing, emotional nourishment and soft power may look like. By making these products her own material, Raadik also criticizes the self-care practices often recommended online that prompt us to purchase lavish products that require a monetary transaction or construction of experiences that are aesthetically pleasing enough to post them on social media. 

The exhibition also includes a series of photographs that document a year in a life of a woman who is recovering from trauma. These photographs are accompanied by a fictionalized account dealing with harassment, violence, mental and physical health, which is based on the experiences and the realities of being a woman artist. The viewer is invited to peer into the young woman’s desktop and view the photographs as a stream of images arranged in a chronological order. This black and white series is a documentation of self-healing, meticulously recorded on a daily basis. Practicing art has encouraged this process, by catalyzing creative explorations that promote mindfulness and provide a path to survival. Submerging herself in art and artistry enhances self-expression and knowledge of the self. The photographs are an external representation of the woman’s thoughts, offering glimpses into what happens inside her mind during recovery. Here, Raadik has found a way to intimately invite the audience into her character’s world, whether or not the viewers are members of her community. She unpacks emotional trauma and airs it out to inspire change in everyone.

Both deeply personal and political in tone, this exhibition links cultural, economic, and feminist critique to explore how the products we use propagate various forms of gender inequality and violence, replicating the patriarchal construction of gender. Moreover, the exhibition questions how the commodification of culture is sometimes reified by the very population it oppresses.2 See Victoria E. Collins & Dawn L. Rothe (2017) ”The consumption of patriarchy: commodification to facilitation and reification,” Contemporary Justice Review, 20:2, 161-174. Can care (in its many forms) become an alternative ethics to capitalism? Our goal is to begin a discussion on how this power system is perpetuated, as well as to suggest that patriarchal models must be revised to support a different, more equitable, and a radically inclusionary future.