“M” stands for emancipation

The Finnish Museum of Photography is currently featuring Douglas Kirkland’s photographs of Marilyn. How many women – or men – have at some point imagined they knew who Marilyn Monroe truly was? Kirkland’s portraits for Look magazine display the famous star wearing nothing but a sheet – and perhaps a few drops of Chanel No.5.

Now, however, we are not in Helsinki, but at Rauma Art Museum, which is hosting Anna Eriksson’s exhibition The Rituals of a Lonely Bitch. Outside literature nobody prior to Eriksson has dared to peer behind the iconic mask, the glossy red lips and the powderpuff pastiches replicated ad nauseam by pop media, nobody has dared to delve into the murky depths of the subconscious to ponder exactly what imprint all the hype and publicity around the legend of Marylin has ultimately left in our culture. Because objects of desire, just like beautiful women, are rarely what they appear to be.

Back when I described the release of Rauma-born Eriksson’s internationally acclaimed debut film M as the cultural highlight of 2018, I noted how the film added a wholly new Monroe to the existing spectrum of syrupy fan fantasies and portrayals of a sweetly vulnerable actress dedicated to her art – Eriksson gives us a modern, emancipated Monroe: a hard-edged character who refuses to be subjugated yet who is irresistibly powerful in her heightened awareness of her own corporeality. M confused, cajoled, and challenged us into totally rethinking Marylin. Eriksson peeled away the tragic veils until she exposed a dominatrix who outright violently subjugates the viewer.

The film and accompanying book are autonomous artworks, and the Rauma exhibition now marks the continuation of the same theme in a series of works combining visual and audio material. The images are by Matti Pyykkö, with curation by Heta Kaisto, Chief Curator at Rauma Art Museum.

The sombre-toned exhibition architecture heightens the uncanny content of this complex, multidimensional art experience. First the viewer enters a black cube. Behind the curtain unfolds the image of a spanner digging a fleshy clump inside a bleeding vulva. With a hypnotic soundtrack playing in the background, the vulva invokes a sighing mouth – not unlike that of the former screen icon, the innocent in the white dress. Viewers who recover from this initial shock are invited to go on and experience further encounters with Eriksson’s video projections and photographs.

The viewer’s gaze is drawn like a magnet to the image of a perfect but difficult figure of femininity. In place of a white dress stands a sculpturesque nude, resplendent in the whiteness of its glistening plastic flesh, placed on display before us like an object. M is shown nude, crouching, a mechanical mannikin that is replicated in a cavalcade of headless sculptures in a moonlit garden. She teeters on high heels as she polishes a motorbike, simultaneously loved and punished by her creator as she drapes herself across the shiny metal vehicle.

Reduced from being a woman to the mere letter “M”, the figure contorts herself from one impossible pose to the next, tantalizingly available like the forbidden fruit, but with dubious ambiguity. “I can do whatever I want with her,” states the artist, describing her relationship with the woman she consciously reduces to being a toy, just as contemporary society does to the natural world.

Towering in glamourous Louboutin pumps, this deity with bulging calf muscles prowls among the lush foliage of an overgrown garden, her name reduced to a mere symbol, M. She is an old soul trapped in the body of a self-absorbed bitch who expresses her disgusted weariness with it all, with people who care nothing about her paradise – and perhaps also weariness with her own fetishes, her compulsive rituals.

The video installation Untitled Ritual #3 features double exposures and an ear-splitting, metallic soundscape reminiscent of Lynch. This is the only work that suggests the presence of an outside menace – a faint flicker of fear crosses the woman’s eyes. If David Lynch had made a movie about the Hollywood legend as he originally planned, would his Marilyn have looked like Eriksson’s? But Marilyn is gone, and Lynch is not Eriksson, whose take on Monroe is fresh and original – all that remains of the idol is a dream-factory shell and the signature platinum blonde coiffure.

Reinventing an icon was a bold and stirring move from Eriksson, and its impact only gathers momentum from one version to the next. What I see in Rauma is an exhibition about the life of an immortal bitch, whose name “M” stands for emancipation It is impossible to imagine a cliché-stripped myth escaping any further from the dream factory, but here it transpires. Through Eriksson’s creations, M is reborn in a new role; as someone real, as nobody. As someone free.

Kati Heljakka / An art critic / Satakunnan Kansa

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