TALLINN - They say it's the world's oldest profession. In fact, there's a lot of things they say about prostitution and its practitioners. Prostitutes, for example, are either pitiable victims of an uncaring society or happy, sex-obsessed opportunists, depending on which stereotype you believe.
It's exactly these kinds of myths, and the realities they hide, that's the subject of a bold exhibition entitled Kehaturg (Sex Market) currently running at the Tallinn Art Hall.
There is certainly a timeless aesthetic at play here. "If we look at the design of brothels in the 21st century, it's pretty much the same as in the 19th century," explained curator Reet Varblane. More than that though, she made clear, the exhibition turns an artist's eye on the sex industry as a whole, the fantasy that's being sold, society's double standard, the business' ugly side, and its human face.
Passing through a tacky red curtain and heading up to the main hall, visitors are faced with one of the exhibition's typically unsubtle works 's a pair of spread legs with a needlepoint "Welcome to Estonia" emblem resting between them. Surrounding it is a collection of souvenir-shop folk dolls in national dress, all with their bare legs spread equally wide.
The work, by the exhibition's designer Inessa Josing, bears the unwieldy title "Welcome to Estonia Souvenir for the Interior Decoration of the British Bachelor and other Sex Tourists." By using typical folk-art souvenirs and the famous Welcome to Estonia brand 's the images that the country consciously tries to project 's along with the feather boas and fish-net tights that are time-honored symbols of "ladies of the eve," it takes a jab at the mixed impression that the country gives its visitors.
Other works in the exhibition range from the cheeky to the thought-provoking to the deliberately disturbing.
They include Dagmar Kase's intentionally un-sexy, practical, military-style uniforms for prostitutes, utilitarian clothes they might wear if they weren't trying so hard to sell a fantasy.
There are beautiful photos of bordello interior design, right across from Chinese-born artist Diana Lui's photo presentation outlining the clich?s of different types of sex workers. "We must first be aware of and respect each human being as an individual," the work's accompanying text reads, otherwise "we will never be able to help and protect anyone, let alone a prostitute."
Along similar lines, an Israeli exhibition consists of one large photo showing the entrance to a secret, back-alley brothel. Along with it are some short, disturbing testimonials by women who were trafficked and forced to work there.
Of the exhibition's video installations, the most revealing might be artist Foxy Haze's candid, one-on-one interviews with prostitutes, a work that gives them a human face. Sadly, it's not subtitled in English.
Then there are the Dominatrix chocolates, which, appropriately, cost 800 kroons (51 euros) for Estonians and 1,000 kroons (64 euros) for foreigners.
The most elaborate, personal, touching and uncomfortable exhibit is a multi-layered installation called "My mother is a bitch" in which artist Bie Kari Erenurm tries to reconcile the fact that her mother, now deceased, was a prostitute. Among its many components are a mock bedroom, a shrine to her mother, an interview with a man who raped her, and an abstract video showing the artist, naked and seemingly lost, surrounded by pigs.
More than anything, visitors will come away from this exhibition with a view of the sex trade that's very different from the rumors and jokes, the Hollywood stereotypes, that most of us grew up with.
The exhibition runs until March 11.
Tallinn Art Hall,
Vabaduse valjak 8
Open: Wed 's Sun, 11 a.m. 's 6 p.m.
Tickets 25 kroons (2 euros) www.kunstihoone.ee