Anu Põder was born in 1947 and died in 2013. They were one of the most significant and fascinating artists of contemporary Estonian sculpture and installation art. Their career began in the 1970s and continued actively until the 2000s. Most of their work deals with family life, internal struggles and the emotional realm, framed by the constraining norms and taboos of post-/Soviet society. In contrast to their contemporary peers, Põder worked with ephemeral materials: textile, wax, plaster, soap, glue, plastic and wood. Most of the works set themselves as a measure of the human experience and it could be said that their pieces even age like humans: they change colour, become deformed and disintegrate. Throughout the years, they supported their artistic practice by teaching at art schools, where they were fondly regarded and remembered by many contemporary artists of today.
In 1998 Anu Põder found some old pieces of soap that their mother had boiled a few decades earlier on their farm in southern Estonia. Making soap from animal fat and caustic soda is a stinky job, however, many people who were living in the countryside used to do it outdoors in summer during the Soviet era. When the artist was re-boiling and melting the old dry soaps to make new moulds, they added fresh pink and lightly coloured shop-bought soaps. On the one hand soap had become a characteristic item of the era, widely popular soap operas became part of daily culture and topics of discussion in mid-1990s Estonia. While on the other hand, glamorous soap ads on television and large posters presented imported soap as a luxurious commodity of western life comparable to pearls and champagne.
In retrospect, looking at Tongues and Põder’s later soap-based installation The Clodhoppers, Footspace of a Man of the 20th Century (1999), one can see the difference in quality between the home-made soaps that age much slower and the deluxe unecological commercial soaps that were full of synthetic ingredients that proliferated a rather quick decomposition and propensity to mould. For this reason, the original set of fifteen magnified human tongues made of soap are kept at the Art Museum of Estonia, and for the first time, the Baltic Triennial 13 will present a new set made in 2018 with the original cast.
Over the years, Tongues has been installed in a number of configurations on various gallery floors, with one tongue consistently placed in a metallic bowl filled with water to diffuse the air with the fresh greasy odour of soapy water. Are these soap tongues going to wash the floor? Are they moving in chorus? Are they washing the mouths they belong to? What would their eyes look like? Would you rather think of them as animal tongues coming from a slaughterhouse to the market stall? But why are they on the floor, then? Don’t they seem to be moving like worms or is this a metaphor for how our tongues become exaggerated in our minds when we are turned on, like in spring, and want to lick and taste every bit of the surrounding fertile air?
All of Anu Põder’s works are more or less abstract, fragmented, yet whole, and originate from and create the human measure of the artist, their own self and body. With their truly meticulously considered sculptures they fully mastered corporeality. The works demand the viewer to identify with the sculpture in a bodily way, while the presence of unexpected twists invite the viewer to intuitively dis-identify with their bodies. Hence, what might at first glance seem smooth and passionate, can come from exhaustion or perplexity, and something seemingly nostalgic or melancholic can turn into vitality and tenderness. As it is in life.