Over the past decade Estonian artist Flo Kasearu (*1985, in Pärnu, Estonia) has been investigating the societal conditions, rhetoric and reality of politics in her home country. By continuously producing work that mainly embraces sculpture, video, performances, drawings and site specific installations, she has developed an inquiring artistic language that not only examines the institutions creating meaning and value, but also the possibilities and limitations of her very own milieu, namely contemporary art and its institutions.
Cut Out of Life, a major solo presentation by Kasearu that is occupying the main exhibition spaces of Tallinn Art Hall, focuses on one specific thread within the “social fabric” of life in Estonia today: domestic violence against women. Even though the artist is dedicating the show to the experiences of Estonian women, it touches upon problems that don’t lose their validity outside of the country, as they occur in almost every society. In particular, domestic violence today is a crisis that has been increasing steadily under the shadow of the global pandemic, alarming governments worldwide. Yet the artist’s personal interest in this topic has not just emerged recently and did not simply rise out of solidarity; rather, it is rooted within her own biography. In 2009, the mother of the artist, Margo Orupõld opened a women’s shelter in the city of Pärnu, as part of a national movement that has seen the gradual opening of women’s shelters across the country since the early 2000s. Over the years, Kasearu through creative workshops and art projects has been engaging with several generations of women living in and receiving counselling from the Pärnu Women’s Shelter.
This long-lasting commitment of the artist is most prominently reflected in one of the core pieces within the show, titled Festival of the Shelter (2018). This video is a subsequent work to an exhibition held in the shelter and was produced in collaboration with victims seeking help there. While the art institution has been brought to the shelter in this work, the opposite is the case for Cut Out of Life. Spanning across the generous spaces of the Art Hall, the artist conceived the exhibition as a narration in chapters that follows the commonly known steps often undertaken and experienced by survivors who seek to claim independence from their abusive partners. Instead of just focusing on the history of one woman, the narrative strand is essentially inspired by the stories of several women that the artist has got to know over the years. The link between the actual accounts of the women told to the artist and the specific narrative form of the show transcends to a “conceptual reproduction”, i.e. “reflection of social reality”. Originally used to describe the relationship between literature and real life, as defined by philosopher Georg Lukács, those terms here help to delineate the connection between art and life made in the show. For Lukács, the role of writers/artists is characterised by their ability to reflect upon and essentialise the contradictions and conflicts within society through the rendition of specific stories and characters without necessarily giving solutions to those very problems. In that sense, the story of Cut Out of Life similarity takes off by reproducing the stories of particular women and the collective struggle against domestic violence, while at the same time it tells a story on a greater level about the status and history of women in Estonian society. The exhibition as a “reflection of social reality” tackles certain phenomena such as the rather late inception of shelters in the country around the early 2000s. This circumstance is rooted within the recent history of Estonia, which only gained independence in 1990 during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While the role of women in the Soviet Union was complex in that they were encouraged to be both economically independent while still being completely reliant on men socially, a gendered nationalism emerged within the process of Estonian liberation, which pushed women back into a passive role as caregivers. Instead of documenting this reality through an analytical perspective, the artist creates a storytelling mode in which she seeks to find forms that represent this very reality, through both documentation and fiction. Often working around the idea of the readymade, she shifts the meanings of objects, creating new works by juxtaposing them, changing their form and removing their original purpose. The underlying force that seems to unite the complexity of her various approaches in so many different media seems to be the subversive power of humour. Even though the exhibition touches upon very serious and critical topics, many of the artistic gestures as parables for expressing heavy content evoke smiles. Within these moments of humour, the artist helps convey a mental space in which resistance and resilience are able to unfold. These instances of humorous subversion simultaneously point towards the women’s refusal to be victimised and the witty stubbornness within the works of Kasearu, who never stops to question our societal conditions and institutionalised conventions.