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1. Good Vibrations

2. Type / Cast / Thrill.

3. Hallöchen: Sonja Yakovleva

1. Good Vibrations

21 May - 31 July 2021
Robert Grunenberg Gallery, Berlin

Naked skin, breasts, vulvas, phalluses and other intimate areas of the body – mostly in explicitly sexual positions – presented against dainty decorative backdrops and floral arrangements. At first glance, Sonja Yakovleva’s elaborate paper-cut compositions seem easy to decipher: the hyper-sexualized physical depictions employ visual strategies recognizable from the worlds of porn, pop culture and advertising. But the self-confident, lust-thirsty poses of the women depicted – a central element in most of Yakovleva’s work – confound the viewer, jar somewhat. The technique of the paper cut, primarily associated with handcraft and the aesthetics of quaintness, stands in stark contrast to the polarizing nature of the motifs Yakovleva fashions from the paper. Women with their legs spread, sensually touching themselves and others with abandon, dominating their counterparts; men flaunting themselves, exposing their private parts, candidly capturing themselves in selfie-mode. Afflicted by a sense of shame, I want to divert my eyes from the provocative gaze confronting me, focus on another feature of the image, find distraction in the floral adornments in the background. In German, the respective terms for labia and pubic hair are Schamlippen and Schamhaaren, literally ‘shame lips’ and ‘shame hair,’ an issue taken up by Margarete Stokowski in her 2018 bestseller Untenrum Frei (Free Down Below). She writes that these things are spoken of as if they hide something forbidden, asking if the pubic area is something to be ashamed of. Do these paper cuts, with their nudity, sex and excess, perhaps hide something else, something beyond that which is immediately evident, i.e., shame? And what does this something say about me, about us all?

Good Vibrations, Sonja Yakovleva’s (*1989) first solo exhibition at Robert Grunenberg, brings together dense visual narratives of intimate sexual encounters whose main protagonists are predominantly naked or sparsely clothed. Her works feature women from the present and the past, such as the sex worker, sexual therapist, porn actor, artist and activist Annie Sprinkle (*1954) (, 2021) or the Russian Empress Catherine the Great (1762–1793) (Reiterinnenportrait Katharina II., 2021), both of whom were notable for their sex-positive attitudes. The title of the exhibition is taken from one of the first female-friendly sex shops in the USA, opened by the sexual therapist and educator Joani Blank (1937–2016) in San Francisco in 1977. It was founded as an alternative to the male-oriented establishments common at the time, which were primarily geared towards the needs associated with men.

Even though the characters in Yakovleva’s paper cuts are mostly women, she is also interested in other – male – perspectives on and representations of sexuality. OnlyFans (2021), for instance, depicts a male figure lying on his back, the focus on his anal and genital area. The work’s title is a reference to the online platform of the same name, which since 2016 has served as a portal for generating income through the sharing of photos and videos – including pornographic content – with (mostly male) ‘fans.’ According to founder and CEO Tim Stokely, the reason for the platform’s success is the “intimacy” it offers between subscribers and content producers. But what does intimacy mean in this context? While OnlyFans has been criticized by many people, others consider it a social and economic opportunity: for example, the Berlin-based artist Sarah Julia Sabukoschek believes it even has feminist potential, as it enables women to control how their bodies are presented and autonomously earn money this way. She is of the opinion that female nudity should not automatically be associated with sex; this notion stems from the permanent sexualization of women in the media. In a similar way, OnlyFans references internet imagery and online networks and their contentious position between emancipation and over-sexualization. At the same time, Yakovleva places a visual emphasis on vulnerability, a quality inherent to all intimate representations regardless of their forcefulness.

Many of Yakovleva’s motifs originate from footage found on porn sites and online forums, content that was not intended for the public (or female) gaze but for consumption by individual (predominantly male) users. She appropriates this material as the basis for her compositions, complementing it with additional elements and new visual axes that challenge established perceptual habits: the focus on women as dominant, assertive characters, supplanting the prevailing representation of male potency. Sweet Sixteen (2021), for example, features a rear view of a muscular figure on a stage at the center of the composition, to which she has added a female audience that is lustfully ogling the naked body presented in front of them. The male character in the work is placed in a pose that is generally reserved for female figures, illustrating how depicting (predominantly female) subjects in this way turns them into objects (for men).

As well as her paper cuts, Yakovleva’s work with the KVTV artists’ collective radically highlights things that most people would prefer to leave confined to the bedroom. She considers herself as a feminist who seeks to disrupt established visual viewpoints and narratives. “For me, feminism is associated with radicality,” she said in an interview with Monopol of her work with KVTV, for whom she now comments on and curates exhibitions. This notion of shedding light on the concealed is continued in Good Vibrations, not only in terms of Yakovleva’s visual worlds, but also in a physical sense. This is especially evident in the final room of the gallery: repurposed as a black box, spotlights literally cast light onto the artist’s collaged narratives. Pornokino (2021), a monumental paper cut work depicting various sex-positive activists and sex workers (including Candida Royalle, Erika Lust and Annie Sprinkle) in black on a pink background is set against intimate portraits housed in two enclosed booths. This final room, darkened and fitted with carpet, functions as an extension of the presented images, while the narrow spaces within the space, separated by curtains, reinforce a sense of simultaneously revealing and concealing intimacy.

Yakovleva’s images at once arouse feelings of voyeurism and shame – something burned into the collective (female) memory. In Untenrum Frei, Stokowski states that there is still no widely accepted representation of the woman as a sexually active agent that isn’t associated with shame. The unusual thing about Yakovleva’s work, therefore, is not that women are depicted in a state of nakedness, but how this nudity is conspicuously presented in public. Social conventions have taught us that sex and nakedness are personal, private matters, things primarily associated with individual needs. In Good Vibrations, however, the idea that sex also has a societal component is up for discussion. Yakovleva’s pictorial landscapes are a radical attempt to place femininity at the center of the viewer’s attention and, by consciously exaggerating it, create a space in which the knowledge of and regard for female sexuality can be redefined.

Text: Sonja Borstner

2. Type / Cast / Thrill.

17 February – 28 March 2021
Sonja Yakovleva and Nicholas Grafia
Temnikova & Kasela Gallery, Tallinn

In Hollywood parlance, “typecasting” commonly describes the process by which particular actors are being cast for, and thus become increasingly identified with, a specific character. As a consequence, the respective actors are typically forced to repeatedly appear in similar roles, thus rendering it nearly impossible for them to perform any character of more complex nature. Driven by marketing strategies and commercial instincts, this institutional practice of typecasting also fuels the audience’s expectations informed by (sub)cultural codes, spectatorial experience, and inherent discourses. Through the creation of characters and— inevitably—stereotypes, the film industry becomes a realm in which prejudices, clichés and expectations become manifest and deeply embedded in the structures of the everyday.

Taking these processes as a starting point, the exhibition Type / Cast / Thrill. brings together new bodies of work by Germany-based artists Sonja Yakovleva and Nicholas Grafia who call into question the practice of typecasting within the expanded field of culture. Here too, visual artists are frequently confronted with supposedly fixed notions of identity inflected by gender, race, class, or national difference. An attempt to undermine these projections, Type / Cast / Thrill. stages a dramaturgy that radically rejects this idea, conjuring up utopic visions and transitional spaces in which the categories of the existing canon may be overcome and reconfigured.

While, etymologically, the noun “type” describes an emblem or general character of sorts, the verb “cast” bears multiple meanings, among them, that of pouring liquid material into the cavity of a mold—a process often considered one of the most esteemed acts of creation (far too often male-connoted) within dominant art history. Whereas sculpture, in its most classical form, has served the tradition of three-dimensional representation of forms in space, the bodies present in the works of Yakovleva and Grafia occupy and re-inscribe the two-dimensional surfaces of canvasses, aluminum sheets or paper and—rather than being cast or molded—emerge in the process of cutting or painting.

Take, for instance, Sonja Yakovleva’s monumental papercut Festival de Cannes (2020), displayed alongside three papercut-portraits of female nudes, which echoes the large dimensions of 19th-century historical paintings. Borrowing its imagery from porn movies and magazines, Festival de Cannes is a libidinous take on the tradition of the celebrated film festival that has been but one of many battlefields in women’s struggle against the misogyny and sexual violence at the heart of this industry. In the wake of the #MeToo movement in 2017, the Festival came to public attention amidst claims of sexual assaults taking place in Cannes and was exposed as complicit in the structural biases of the film industry. In Yakovleva’s very rendering of the festival, its headquarters were taken over by female protagonists and transformed into an orgy-like scene populated by a multitude of naked or scantily dressed women. In a palm-lined setting, the women give in to sensual pleasures celebrating what might be a victory over patriarchy—whose walls have been crumbling for years to ultimately collapse. The porosity of these walls is echoed in the materiality of the work resembling a field of debris: with layers of black paper punctured by meticulously cut holes that open a space for female struggles. Situated at the threshold of art and handicraft, Yakovleva’s work may be understood as an emancipatory play between the absence and hyper-presence of “femininity”, a utopic celebration of the yet unseen, and an alternative reality in which women are no longer subjected to the patriarchal stratification enforced by mainstream culture and discourse.

In a similar way, Nicholas Grafia’s work addresses the plight of women and people of color in the film industry through the means of painting and digital print. A prominent example of these struggles, and the main protagonist of Grafia’s new body of work, is the US-American actress Lisa Bonet, best known for her role in the seminal 1980s sitcom “The Cosby Show.” Co-created by and starring the comedian Bill Cosby (then celebrated as “Americas’ favorite dad”, later convicted of a number of sexual offenses in 2018 and incarcerated since), the show’s portrayal of a successful, black middle-class family was often praised for breaking racial stereotypes and introducing new perspectives on African American lives in mainstream culture. Loved by the audience for her role as Cosby’s TV daughter, Bonet was soon subject to criticism from both her character’s “creator,” Bill Cosby, as well as her audience for taking on new roles, more explicit in nature and supposedly jeopardizing her image—and that of the entire show. Translated by the artist into both canvas (Dead End Angel, 2021) and aluminum sheets (Gaze Face I and II, 2021), Bonet’s case seems symptomatic for the constraints sexualized and racialized bodies are subjected to within and beyond the entertainment industry. Digitally printed on aluminum sheets and hung on hinges attached to the gallery walls, the uncanny works Gaze Face I and II are reminiscent of doors or gateways, suggesting a space of transition between the intertwining realms of fact and fiction. Another case in point, the painting Cleavage Control(2021), is also exemplary of the artist’s inquiry into the limited narration and stereotypical representation of black masculinity perpetuated through mainstream culture. Inspired by a film still of Cosby’s TV son Theo, the protagonist’s body is touched and reached out for by ghostly hands and oversized arms—a monstruous manifestation of the audience’s controlling gaze, their unforgiving judgment and expectations.

Often drawing on a visual repertoire borrowed from pop culture, magazines, pornography or film, the works of Sonja Yakovleva and Nicholas Grafia find their commonalities in their continuous investigation of structural injustices and conventions informed by gender and race. By using the film industry as a blueprint for their works, the artists confront the viewer with dominant power relations and stereotypes often legitimized through the means of historicity or cultural production. Blurring the lines between “high” and “low culture,” fact and fiction, visibility and invisibility, Type / Cast / Thrill. reveals the fragility of these transitional spaces in which the undoing of stereotypes and tokenism may turn into a thrill of joy—or horror.

Text: Fanny Hauser

3. Hallöchen: Sonja Yakovleva

1 Februar – 14 März 2020
Robert Grunenberg Galerie, Berlin

„Where the fuck is she?“ – hallt es durch das Halbdunkel des Kinosaals, als Hugh Hefner sich in einer Folge von The Girls of the Playboy Mansionauf die Suche nach Kendra Wilkinson macht, die in einem der 29 Zimmer der Tudorgotik-Villa verschwunden zu sein scheint. Will man die Frage nach der Frau stellen, so muss man fragen, wo sie nicht ist, gerade deshalb, weil sie überall ist. Die in Frankfurt lebende Künstlerin Sonja Yakovleva konfrontiert dieses Moment der Abwesenheit als Umschlagpunkt eines Blicks vom Nirgendwo auf ein retrospektives weibliches Imaginäres. Glorreiche Vergangenheiten, ungefeierte Feste, Kitschepen, Gigolos und Frauenkämpfe werden zu Motiven einer Studie des Ungesagten, Ungesehenen und Ortlosen.

Die Playboy Mansion, die sich in ihrer Selbsterzählung als ein Ort sprudelnder Öffentlichkeit jenseits bürgerlicher Prüderie zeigte, lässt sich zugleich als Sinnbild einer Disneyland gewordenen Festung männlicher Exklusivität lesen. Denn trotz seines hyperpräsenten Kinos der „Weiblichkeit“ bleibt dieser Ort aus der Perspektive einer Frau ultimativ unzugänglich: Die einzige Chance auf Teilhabe ist die, halbnackt mit einem Bommel am Hintern Getränke zu servieren und im Bunny-Kostüm auf den Schößen erfolgreicher Männer herumzusitzen.

Yakovleva stülpt die Ökonomien der Sichtbarkeiten um. In Playgirl Mansionwird die Frau an den Punkt voyeuristischer Subjektivität gesetzt, an den Nullpunkt der Camera Obscura, von dem aus die Playboy Mansion zu einem imaginären Spielpark für Toyboys wird. Ein Szenario, in dem zugleich die Unmöglichkeit des weiblichen Blicks auf den männlichen Körper deutlich gemacht wird: Er ist in keinem Maße wie der weibliche als Lust-Schauplatz kodiert. Von wo aus schaut man also und auf was? Wie lässt sich die Position des erwähnten Nullpunkts, des blinden Flecks überhaupt beschreiben? Und mit welchen Mitteln lässt sie sich zur beobachtenden, erzählenden, schaffenden Position verkehren?

Das Format des Papierschnitts funktioniert für Yakovleva als vielschichtige Technik von Sicht- bzw. Unsichtbarkeit. Zunächst auf der banalsten Ebene: Man sieht das, was nicht da ist. Der Riss des Schattens besteht in der Linie, die das Dargestellte, den Körper umschreibt – eine der Grundfunktionsweisen erotischer Fotografie wie auch literarisches, künstlerisches Prinzip männlicher Umschmeichelung des weiblichen Gegenstands („Kurvenstars“), das die Künstlerin hier nicht nur in der Wahl der Motive, sondern vor allem mithilfe der Technik bricht: Während die gezeichnete Linie auf Papier beinahe unvermeidlich eine Signatur des Schöpferischen in sich trägt, kann das „Ausschneiden“ als produktive Praxis einer Auslöschung gelesen werden, die hier in einem Spannungsverhältnis zur vermuteten „Harmlosigkeit“ des Kunsthandwerks steht. Denn obwohl der Scherenschnitt eine jahrtausendelange Tradition im Chinesischen hat, haftet ihm in Europa der Ruf von Kindergarten- und Hausfrauenkunst an.

Die Schnitte, die unter großem Material- und Arbeitsaufwand entstehen, dienen Yakovleva so als filigrane Schlachtfelder umfassender Dekodierungen. Neben dem Spiel mit der Schere als konzeptioneller Kastrationsdrohung männlich kodierten Hochkulturjargons, bedient sich Yakovlva auch motivisch humorvoll an Kitsch, Trash und Social-Media-Welten. Zwischen Körpern, aufgeblasen wie Luftschlösser, und ausufernden Pool-Landschaften, schafft sie Bilder, die sich in den unabsprechbaren Reiz des Gefälligen fallen und darin ein freiheitliches Selbstverständnis spüren lassen.

Es sind Bildwelten einer pompös überformten Vergänglichkeit, die an Verschränkungen des auslaufenden Zarenreichs mit den Wohnzimmertempeln der Kardashians erinnern, die Yakovleva als Kulisse für ihre rückwärts gewandte Imagination einer glorreichen weiblichen Historie dienen. So lässt Yakovleva Figuren wie den „Cicisbeo“ oder den „Gigolo“ als historische Vertreter der italienischen Galanterie des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts wiederauferstehen, die hier zu Beispielen einer verschollenen Erzählung männlichen Kurtisanentums werden. Auf ähnliche Weise funktioniert auch die Figur der Piratin Anne Bonny, deren Geschichte nicht durch sie selbst, sondern mittels einer reichen Bildproduktion erotischer Männerphantasien als ungestümes Flintenweib in die Gegenwart getragen wurde. Die Künstlerin bringt die überformten Bilder selbst zum Sprechen, aus denen sich die Sprengkraft des Weiblichen als Kategorie der Auslassung hervordreht.

In Yakovlevas Arbeiten tritt Weiblichkeit jenseits ihrer figurativen, repräsentativen Darstellung in Erscheinung: als Funktionsprinzip einer schöpferischen Negativität. So wirkt die Verkehrung des Unmöglichen, Verschollenen, Ungesagten auch auf der Ebene der Rezeption: Das außerordentliche Maß an Arbeit und Material, das in den Arbeiten steckt, spielt mit Zuschreibungen von „Fleißarbeit“ und einem „Sich-Mühe-Geben“. Diese werden auf der Seite weiblicher, haushälterischer Arbeit oder strebsamer Schülerinnen gegen Erzählungen männlicher Künstlergenies gehalten. Bei Yakovleva wird der Fleiß zur Destruktion und das Medium zum Schauplatz des Exzessiven.

Die Bodenlosigkeit einer künstlerischen Produktion vom Nirgendwo mündet bei Yakovleva in einer Häufung von Ortlosigkeiten und Skurrilitäten, die den Blick auf die Gewaltgeschichte der Verhinderung weiblichen Schaffens mit Humor ad absurdum führen: Säbel schwingende Heroinen erheben sich über dionysischen Frauenpartys zu Pferd, Gladiatorinnen stürzen sich aufeinander und tragen inmitten der Unorte des Darstellbaren Faustkämpfe in vollbesetzten Arenen aus.

Yakovleva löst künstlerisch ein, was Hugh Hefner, nach der sich fortspinnenden vergeblichen Suche nach Wilksinson, schließlich erschöpft und wutentbrannt in die endlose Leere der Gänge ruft: „She’s fucking all over the place“.

Text: Anna Gien