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Marge Monko, winner of the 2012 Henkel Art.Award, opens exhibition at mumok
Exhibition view, Marge Monko. How to Wear Red, mumok, Wien, 25.10.2013–2.02.2014. Photo: Gregor Titze© mumok / Marge Monko.

VIENNA.- At the center of Marge Monko’s—b. 1976 in Tallinn—video and photo works lies an examination of social developments in a post-socialist context. The winner of the 2012 Henkel Art.Award. traces the changes in gender-based role models that were inserted into Estonian culture by neoliberalism after the end of the Soviet era. In How to Wear Red Monko portrays a society undergoing change and refers to the connections between the communist past and present day identity models.

The artist also exhibits a similar critical awareness of communist legacy history in her photo work about the Soviet monument in Vienna’s Schwarzenbergplatz. The memorial to the fallen soldiers of the Red Army not only marks the end of the Nazi dictatorship but also stands for Austria’s ambiguous way of dealing with its own encumbered past. Monko’s photographs make it clear how the jets of water from the fountain in front of the monument veil it and may thus be read as an allegory for the suppression of disagreeable history.

Not only does the artist show her true colors in the ambiguous game with red—as in the title of the exhibition, How to Wear Red , or the working title, Punane koit (Red Dawn), reveal—she also does so when depicting class contradictions and gender hierarchies.

Gender identities yesterday and today
In Free Love (2013) Monko establishes the linkages between history and the present in the context of questions of gender identities and hierarchies. The historical pivot consists of a 1905 newspaper report in the Estonian daily, Postimees. It scandalizes schoolgirls who had relationships with socialist Russian students. The article shows the contemporary opinion leaders’ hate of gender roles and incipient indications of feminist emancipation in the oncoming revolutionary socialism. In this work Monko confronts material—pictorial and written—about the school in former times with a series of photos of present-day graduates. In doing so she draws attention to both the historical fundament of the movement for emancipation and to the responsibility the present generation have to that history.

Crisis and the Decline of the Textile Industry
In some of her works Marge Monko links questions of the reality of gender specific hierarchies with ethnic conflicts. The two subjects overlap and this is especially pronounced in the form of underprivileged Russian textile workers. They have been multiply marginalized, not only as women and as part of an ethnic minority but also as symbols of a former occupier. The two-part video work, Forum (2010), both makes this clear and takes sides at the same time. The title of the work refers to a television debate which took place in 2009. In it political and trade union representatives discussed a new labor law in the context of the economic crisis. In the final outcome it was the Russian women workers who suffered most. While the original discussion was carried out exclusively by men, Marge Monko has the unemployed Russian women take over their roles. They read the original statements but add their own critical commentaries. In this way those who had no opportunity to speak for themselves at the time can now make their voice heard — a reference to Bertolt Brecht’s worker’s theater.

In one of her more recent works Monko engages with the history of the textile industry using architecture as an allegory. The work consists of a wooden construction which includes a projection surface on which a video is shown of the reinstallation of the words of the title,“ Punane koit” (Red Dawn), on the roof of the former corsetry factory. The construction mirrors that in the video where the workers are in the process of mounting the letters at dawn. The reference to red here is not only to communist color symbolism but can also be understood as a poetic and sensual allusion to the goods being produced. The title of the exhibition, How to Wear Red, intentionally takes up this ambivalence between the political and the sensual, between ideology and fashion. The installation against the background of the rising sun plays with the notion of the dawning of a new future and the possibility of a social fresh start.

Social Indifference in post-socialist life
Frigidity in interpersonal relationships as a consequence of capitalist competitiveness runs through the video Shaken not Stirred (2012) and forms its leitmotif. It tells the story of three protagonists in their post-socialist reality: a business woman, a barkeeper and a cleaning woman. In their monologues and dialogues they reveal the deep rifts and contradictions in the polished surface of neoliberal society. While the business woman embodies professional success but private failure, the barkeeper represents the macho and opportunistic beneficiaries of the free market. In contrast, the Russian cleaning woman allows her raw emotionality to express, audibly and forcefully, the divide between her and the established elite. Here Marge Monko makes use of the apparently coincidental encounters of individual strangers to hold up a small-scale mirror image of society.

The exhibition is the result of a collaboration with the Tartu Art Museum, Estonia.

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