Anu Põder

Tongues (Activation Version)

1998

In Tate Modern

Artist
Anu Põder 1947–2013
Medium
Soap, tin bowl and water
Dimensions
Overall dimensions variable
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by the Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisitions Committee 2021
Reference
T15611

Summary

The Estonian artist Anu Põder’s installation Tongues 1998 (Activation Version) consists of fifteen tongue forms of identical size, cast from one mould in soap of different colours, ranging from pink to brown hues. Fourteen tongues rest directly on the floor, while one tongue rests in a tin bowl filled with water that is placed on the floor alongside them. Over the course of display, this tongue melts away, turning the water into a thick soapy substance and filling the air with the smell of soap. The work can be remade using the artist’s mould once it has deteriorated to a certain point.

Tongues exemplifies Põder’s interest, ongoing throughout her work, in the body and corporeality. The fleshy colour of the sculptures and their form reference the human tongue, dislocated and separated from the rest of the body. The fragmented body or body part featured prominently throughout Põder’s practice from the 1970s onwards, in the recurring forms of the cut-off torso, disembodied limb or other fragmented body parts that obliquely allude to surrealist images of the body, combining references to the sensual with the violent. The exaggerated, distorted scale in Tongues, moreover, points to more violent undertones: taking their scale from that of cows’ tongues, their origins also lie in the artist’s upbringing in rural Kanepi, Estonia and the commonplace slaughter of cattle. The art historian Mari Laanemets has noted the tension within Põder’s practice: ‘The two poles of the artist’s work delineate, oppositional, yet inseparable from one another, tender and ruthless, fetishist and sacrificial. Just like the touch itself is ambivalent, either healing or erotic.’ (Mari Laanemets, ‘Dissected Bodies’, in Estonian Artists 2, Tallinn 2000, p.149.)

Interested in the fragility, impermanence and human-like ‘lifespan’ of materials, Põder favoured the use of textile, wax, plaster, soap, glue, plastic and wood throughout her artistic career that began in the 1970s within the context of the so-called ‘bronze age’ within Estonian art, when the visual language of heavy and solid materials such as bronze, granite and gypsum was dominant. By contrast, Põder explored the capacity of materials to deteriorate, corrode and change appearance. In Tongues Põder not only caused the gradual disappearance of the soap tongue immersed in water, but made use of soap’s inherent capacity to slowly change colour, dry out and develop a layer of mould over time.

Born in rural Kanepi and continuing to reside there periodically alongside her time in Tallinn, Põder’s memories of childhood in the countryside likewise fuelled her choice of material in Tongues. The art historian Juta Kivimäe noted that:

While commenting on her soap sculptures, Anu Põder has always emphasised her childhood memories on the farm in Kanepi … As late as the 1960s–70s, the Estonian peasant women used to boil home-made soap from soiled remnants of grease and caustic soda … according to Anu Põder, the very process of boiling soap, especially the pouring of the liquid soap into moulds was certainly very creative, not entirely unlike sculpting.
(Juta Kivimäe, ‘The Memory Projects of Anu Põder’, in Tallinn 2009, p.35.)

Soap likewise became the material of choice for Põder’s installation Clodhopper, Stride of a Man of the 20th Century 1999 (Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn), while other objects and materials found in Kanepi fuelled her practice for years to come. These included Pattern as Sign. Coats 1996 (Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn), in which Põder recovered old clothing that had been worn for generations by families in Kanepi throughout the twentieth century and which, by the 1990s, was outdated and discarded, cutting the items to leave only the seam ‘skeletons’ and lighting them from the inside to reveal the inner space of the bodies that had once occupied them.

Paraphrasing an Estonian-language interview Anu Põder conducted with the Art Museum of Estonia in 2007, curator Rebeka Põldsam articulated the position Põder took in relation to her choice of impermanent materials for her work:

Anu Põder spoke about how in the early 1990s she made a clear decision about whether to create works that would most likely be infinitely preserved or to become involved in new art forms like performance and happenings, which for the most part lived in the moment they occurred and only left behind a memory or, in the case of an installation using ephemeral materials, a faded conceptual piece that would eventually dissolve. Põder chose something in between, as she realised that for her it was more important to articulate something of the present moment … and thus, her pieces of art would not need to be preserved like bronze sculptures and remain the same forever.
(Põldsam, in Art Museum of Estonia 2017, p.9.)

Tongues occupies this in-between position: a set of objects that make up what Põldsam describes as a ‘faded conceptual piece that would eventually dissolve’, they are continually transformed by degeneration and regeneration. Another version of Tongues, also made in 1998, is held in the collection of the Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn.

Further reading
Reet Varblane (ed.), Anu Põder, Tallinn 2009.
Rebeka Põldsam (ed.), Anu Põder. Be Fragile! Be Brave!, exhibition catalogue, Art Museum of Estonia, Kumu Art Museum, Tallinn 2017.
Rebeka Põldsam, ‘Anu Põder’, in Vincent Honoré (ed.), Baltic Triennial 13, exhibition catalogue, Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius; Tallinn Art Hall, Tallinn; kim?, Riga 2018, pp.132–3.

Dina Akhmadeeva
June 2019

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