Mare Tralla is an Estonian queer-feminist artist and activist currently living in London. Mare’s professional art career started in Estonia in the early 1990s, where they became one of the leading interdisciplinary artists of the younger generation. Drawing from their personal history and everyday experience, their practice was in direct critical response to how the transition period of East-European societies affected women. They were one of the very few artists conducting a feminist revolution in the field of contemporary art in Estonia.
Mare Tralla first emerged as a queer, feminist artist in 1990s Estonia, at a time when the country found itself in the throes of a post-Soviet race for self-identification. In this newly capitalist world, one of their first works to address the gender imbalances, and changing role of and attitude to women was the video installation This Is How We Gave Birth To Estonian Feminism (1995), produced for Est.Fem, an exhibition co-curated by Tralla, which introduced feminist critique into a society unwilling to give up on its long-held patriarchal values. In this video collage, Tralla overlays found footage of hardcore German pornography with photographs taken from the artist’s personal archive of their mother as a flower girl in ceremonies celebrating Socialist kolkhoz workers (usually older men), and diaristic texts taken from Tralla’s own childhood as a Soviet pioneer, each diary entry followed by the titular text. The post-Soviet liberation of the body politic collides with naked and violated female bodies, the rawest denominator of commodity fetishism: one type of ideologically systemic violence deftly replaced by another.
How do you introduce feminism as a concept into a nascent socio-political context that was still finding its feet? How do you free the term from its overtly suspicious status as a seemingly Western import? And, paradoxically, how do you create and maintain a discourse around gender equality when the very idea smacked of Soviet occupation – a period that nevertheless prided itself on having achieved egalitarianism among the sexes, when women were superwomen, both mothers and labourers?
Tralla’s responses in their performances and video vignettes have relied on humour, self-parody and irony as tools for resistance and survival, emerging out of a frustration with the singularly macho conceptual environment in which they found themselves in the early 1990s. Enter The Heroine of Post-Socialist Labour (2004), in which Tralla revisits the socialist myth of women as work heroines. Archival footage of women working in factories and on farms gives way to close-up shots of the artist following online hair and makeup tutorials, labouring to live up to that post-1991 new model of female heroine: the supermodel sex goddess. Yet this striving for perfection is constantly undermined, here as in other works, by the purposefully lo-fi aesthetic: ‘Life isn’t sterile… As a female artist, you’re always seen as lower anyways, so why not emphasise that from the start?’(1)
In We Still Have Chickens to Pluck (2018), a live performance conceived for Bastard Voices at the South London Gallery in March 2018, Tralla dove into their personal experience to uncover incidents of mistranslation and miscommunication that have plagued their position as an immigrant (they’ve been based in London since the late 1990s) and a queer woman even among the activist community of which they are a part. Wearing a dress made of black feathers, individually inscribed with a word or a phrase applied to women or Eastern European immigrants, Tralla was progressively stripped bare as they twisted and rubbed themselves against an oversized plucking wall made of phallic ‘teeth’. These too were inscribed with words: patriarchy, bigotry, misogyny, racism, religion, geography… A liberation conceived with equal doses of violence and vulnerability. In the artist’s own words: ‘I use the tools of patriarchy to take off the layers of oppression from my body.’(2)
1 Quote taken from a conversation with the artist: April 5, 2018
2 Quote taken from e-mail exchange with the artist: April 4, 2018