Jurij Kozyrev, From the Collection of Sandra Straukaitė / Photo Session at Jūrmala Beach, Latvia, 1992 / Courtesy of Bruno Birmanis
We Don’t Do This. Intimacy, Norms, and Fantasies in Baltic Art
Mar 9 – Sep 8, 2024
MO Museum
Vilnius, Lithuania

During the long decades of Soviet occupation, sexuality-related content and discussion were widely censored from the public. According to a famous catchphrase, there was no sex in the USSR. We ask why was sex so suppressed and what kind of love was allowed? How different are the region’s public notions of intimacy, gender, love and sexuality today? We Don’t Do This. Intimacy, Norms and Fantasies in Baltic Art will explore the shifts and changes in representations of gender, family and sexuality, marked by back-and-forth loosening and re-enforcement of norms throughout the Soviet era and beyond.

Sexuality is a central part of human life, as are desires, fantasies, gender, and the relationships we form. No less widespread is the wish to impose control over these facets of life. Bringing together a diverse range of works drawn from museum and private collections, as well as new commissions, We Don’t Do This. Intimacy, Norms, and Fantasies in Baltic Art focuses on gender representations and relations in visual art of the Baltic region from the 1960s until the present.

The exhibition borrows its title from an eponymously titled drawing by Česlovas Lukenskas from 1984 – Šito pas mus nėra. Lukenskas’ statement anticipated the famous 1986 tele-bridge between the USSR and the United States, where a woman on the Soviet side remarked that there was no sex in Soviet TV commercials. Since Stalin, the USSR was famously anti-sexual: Sexuality-related content and discussions were widely censored from the public for many decades. We ask why sex was so suppressed and what kind of love was allowed. Through new research in Baltic art collections, re-interpretations of art historical narratives, and by following recent academic writing on sexual culture in the Baltics, this exhibition explores how different the region’s public notions of intimacy, gender, love, and sexuality are today. How much are we still under the spell of the dreams of the Soviet period and how have national aims changed over time?

Chronologically, the exhibition begins with the Khrushchevian “Thaw”, picking up echoes from the ultra-conservative Stalinist period. It highlights the aestheticized nudes and lofty representations of romance in the 1960s and 1970s, the freeing and hyper-normative trends of the 1990s and 2000s, and the critical interventions of artists working today. Examining figuration in painting, sculpture, drawing, among other media, We Don’t Do This revisits canonical artworks, engaging them in unexpected and playful dialogues with lesser-known works from different generations and countries. A number of them resist the pressures of their era, with artists diverging from the visuality of official discourses and an inherited patriarchal imagination. Arranging works in thematic clusters, the exhibition presents an array of both intimate, and normative representations or fantasies of gender, family, and sexuality, marked by the back-and-forth loosening and re-enforcement of norms throughout the Soviet era and beyond.

We Don’t Do This suggests that the fight for political liberty did not always automatically result in social and sexual freedoms of equal rights to pleasure, safety, and love. Queerness, which lives in everyday realities, on the streets and in social media, as well as in new scholarship in gender studies, supports a critical look at the heteronormativity of the Soviet past as well as of the neoliberal present. New commissions by contemporary artists Kadi Estland, Saša Kochan, Janina Sabaliauskaitė, and Konstantin Zhukov suggest that today there is more space for resistance and deviation from social conventions than during any period in the past. If we were to rethink the exhibition’s catchphrase, perhaps it prompts us to ask how we could be intimate, fantasize, and form relationships differently?

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