Interview with Evija Laivina
by Chiara Pussetti
Evija Laivina (1978) is a Latvian photographer and artist (www.evijalaivina.com). She has studies Contemporary Art Practice at the University of Highlands and Islands in Scotland. Her work explores identity, body and beauty standards, particularly regarding women. This interview is the result of conversations around ethnography-based artistic practices and art-based research methods, initiated chatting online with Evija, who has immediately accepted this interchange with great availability and sympathy. She has agreed to cooperate with the EXCEL project, accepting the challenge of relating her artistic production to the theme of aesthetic enhancement.
Beauty Warriors, a project that was awarded the Lens Culture Student Spotlight Portrait Award in 2017, investigates women appearance and non-traditional beauty routines, staging body manipulation through cheap devices sold on online marketplaces. The results are striking portraits that blur the boundaries separating the odd and the straight, humor and grim, beauty and suffering.
We have interviewed Evija to know more about the project premises and to have a glimpse in the work behind the scene, both with the subjects that have given their bodies to the Beauty Warriors project and the feedbacks she has received from the exhibitions.
Pictures generously provided by Evija Laivina. All rights reserved to the artist. You can find the complete project here.
Looking to the Beauty Warriors photographs we feel that these women are victims of high social pressure. Why did you choose the title “Beauty Warriors” that focuses on the empowerment of these women?
The title ‘Beauty Warriors’ was chosen because I felt that women are often fighting with themselves and with nature to follow impossible beauty standards and social pressure. There is the profusion of cheap gadgets sold online that promise to uplift eyes, eliminate double-chins, and amplify smiles.
What do you think of the idea of promises to achieve aesthetic perfection and the amount of disposable and cheap devices available?
In my project, I used tools that are made of cheap plastic, promoting the ‘quick fix’ idea. If you look online, there are so many gadgets, in all imaginable forms, colors and uses. For example, the smile trainers, I remember I was reading the product descriptions and it said that it helps to maintain the fake smile if you are working in retail or costumer service. It really broke my heart. Is it so hard to give a real smile? …. We live in such a sad time.
Considering the various forms of aesthetic improvement through surgeries, digital interventions and devices to change our faces/bodies, what surprised you the most?
When I started the project, I found many strange objects. They all surprised me in some way but the most surprising was the fact, that we have such items on the market. And if we have them, does it mean we use them? If there is a market, that means there is a costumer. I haven’t met one, so this is mystery for me.
Some of the plastic devices used in your work look... painful.
They look painful and in some cases, they are painful. Beauty is pain, we suffer for the beauty.
Do you find a clear difference between the modifications of the body through devices and cosmetic surgeries?
I think that there is a very thin line between those two. Now cosmetic procedures like Botox and lip fillers are so popular, that you can receive the treatment in every town. The plastic surgeries are more available than ever and prices are also more affordable. Plastic surgeons are freely advertising online, there is no regulations or limitations. I think that using some strange devices is just a start on the way to some more extreme procedures.
Why did you not include men in your work?
The beauty ‘gadgets’ are marketed mainly towards female users. Not including men was not my goal. I haven’t found items intended to be uses only in men beauty routines.
If we do not perfectly fit society’s standards, we are not enough. Which photograph best translates the frustration of unattainable ideals of beauty?
I think this photograph illustrate the frustration of unattainable beauty ideals.
The girl in the photograph is very young and absolutely perfect. Young women are very vulnerable, sensitive and fragile. They see the world through this filter - society, cultural and virtual world’s created standards.
Can you tell us more about your engagement with these women?
I contacted local women online to participate in my art project. I was very lucky because there was a great interest in the project. Some of the women are my friends, some are family members.
I explained my idea right before the photo session. The participants didn’t know much about the project before they met me. I showed them my sketchbook, the project proposal, the beauty ‘gadgets’ and it seemed that the connection was instant. Women were keen to discuss the subject and were willing to pose with the ‘gadgets’.
Do you speak about your own experiences/ideas about beauty standards or have a discussion before the photo session?
During the sessions, we share our experiences and I noticed women love to share their own beauty tips and experiences.
What about the dialectical interchange between you, them, and the objects? Who choose the object to wear?
I placed the items on a table and I usually decided which item the participant would wear. If participants had their own preferences, I let them choose their favorite tool. The gadget had to fit the wearer and had to match the clothing that was chosen for the session. My goal was to create a harmony between the participant and the chosen beauty tool. I like to be in control of the process, but I let the participants to have their say.
Did the session generate an after-session life for the objects?
In my exhibitions, I displayed objects alongside photographs so people could touch them, try them and express their opinions. This is a great way to raise discussions and get viewers reactions, comments.
The project received LensCulture Portrait student spotlight award and had a great response over the world on media.
How do you think people interpret your work?
I noticed that people see the humorous and the shocking side of my work. It seems that my work rises some healthy discussions about beauty, and this is the perfect response.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
Once my work was displayed at the local gallery and nobody knew how I looked like. I mixed in the crowd and used my ‘invisibility’ to listen to the feedbacks. That was a great experience that inspired me for my next artworks.
Which kind of references (other artists, writers, philosopher etc...) have inspired you or broadened the boundaries of your artwork?
There are many artists who inspire me with their fantastic ability to achieve great results through hard work. For example, Louise Bourgeois, her work femininity and women’s place in society plays a very important part. Jenny Saville, I think her paintings changed the way how the world is looking at the female body. The Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow, who survived Holocaust and created amazing sculptures exploring femininity and beauty. I am inspired by theatrical film still style photographs by Cindy Sherman. But I try not to look too much to other artists’ work, I am afraid to suck too much influence from them.
On a different, more imaginary topic, if you were to depict subjects that underwent a more high-tech body transformation, whether it was a plastic surgery, a hormonal treatment or a body-hacking practice, what kind of difference would you anticipate in the setting of the photo-session?
I would love to document transformations during hormonal treatments, also bodies during and after plastic surgeries. I’d love to combine reality with imagination, would combine real bodies with sculptures and manikins. Experimenting and exploring with something new- this is what I love the most.
I hope that this intense dialogue will continue in new forms of collaboration whit Evija Laivina, according to the approach that I have elsewhere called art-based ethnography (Pussetti 2018). The main the purpose of this interview was not to propose her creative artistic practice as (beautiful) illustrations of our (scientific) ethnographic research. Rather, I interpret her artworks as constitutive of ethnographic knowledge.
A growing literature on the potential of intersections between ‘art’ and ‘anthropology’ has been reshaping in recent years the debate on knowledge production and ethnographic methods and practices. The adoption of experimental research methods clearly echoes the recent discussions on the transformation of the norm and form of fieldwork (Pussetti 2018). This first interview, that establishes a fruitful collaboration with a amazing artist, exposes some of the fundamental tensions of this debate and, in particular, the intricate relationship between content and form, claiming the fundamental importance of artistic collaborations and creative experimentation in anthropological enterprise.