My Life as an Artist
I started my artistic career in high school by showing three landscape
paintings in a juried regional exhibition that was organized in the
Hämeenlinna Art Museum in 1976. Being accepted in the exhibition
affirmed my earlier decision about becoming an artist and moving to
Helsinki to pursue artistic studies. I had learned that the Ateneum
Art Museum provided artistic training, and so I applied to study there
after finishing my matriculation examination in the Hämeenlinna
Lyceum in 1977.
I was accepted to the Department of Art Education in the University
of Art and Design the same year, but I noticed that I had applied to
school: the Academy was actually situated in the upper floor
of the building.When I complained about this to my professor, he just
told me to “stay
here, this is a good place for you”. I soon realised that he
Instead of studying pedagogics and education, I focused my studies
more on photography, cinema, sculpture, painting, graphic arts, art
history and the philosophy of art. These studies became very useful
in the turn of the 1980's, when the art scene was engulfed by new media
and novel forms of contemporary art. As the barriers between different
art forms started to fade, I realized that I had received the perfect
education for the field.
Johannes s / das Mann
I participated in the 1981 youth exhibition with some paintings, and
I also took part in the annual exhibition of the Artists’ Association
of Finland. However, already in my very first private exhibition (Pain
Things 1983, the Vanha Gallery) the space itself and the materials
had acquired a central place in my work. My goal was to find a personal,
multisensory way of communicating with the audience. The aim was to
transcend language and proceed from extreme intimacy to the more general
and encouraging, from the control of others to unrestrained language.
In these days I drew my influences from Arte Povera, Josef Beuys and
Andrei Tarkovsky, for example. When reading commentaries of my works,
I stumbled upon the term “installation”, which I think
was an accurate depiction of what I was doing. The works in the exhibition
were not named individually. Rather, my aim was to create a poetic
synaesthesia of the space and the materials that would affect the audience
in a physical way. I thought that the body would be a purer, more direct
experiencer than the pre-filtered communication transmitted through
pictures and words that were corrupted by power. I also considered
it important that the works could not be bought or sold. Therefore,
I regarded my works as being free from commercial connections, which
gave me complete freedom to decide on the form and content of the works.
My preferred exhibition spaces included all kinds of alternative spaces,
which were devoid of previous meanings, such as buildings marked for
demolition, factories, intermediate spaces and non-places. The thought
of moving to conscious margins, away from the decadent centres of the
art scene, was very appealing to me.The body and physicality were central themes already in my paintings.
My triptych “Mirrors”, which I exhibited in the 1981 Youth
Exhibition, included three life-size male figures: a poet, a lover
and a warrior. It seemed like an easy decision to step out from the
painting and become a material among all other materials that I had
already used. Moreover, my body became a scene, and my skin became
a contact surface for the viewer. I hade read the writings of Michel
Foucault and Maurice Merleau-Ponty and was convinced that I am best
able to work as an artist and stay true to myself in the here-and-now,
the present, the contemporary reality.
I wanted to balance the universality of Modernism by turning towards
extreme subjectivity, and in this way discover language-external concepts.
I wished to get rid of the temporally bound factor, and so I developed
an alter ego for myself: “johannes s”, a person through whom
I could cover extremely painful issues, while at the same time be everybody
and anybody. Johannes s was a guide of sorts, a protector like Heurtebise
who was Orpheus’s guide in his journey to the Underworld.
Background to the body image of johannes
My father had been wounded during the retreat phase
of the Continuation War, which is why we spent our summer holidays in
the 1960’s in
a summer home for disabled soldiers in Nuutajärvi. The wounds my
father had suffered were not very serious; a machine gun bullet had penetrated
his right arm above the elbow and come to a stop in his side. For a child,
the bullet holes seemed very mysterious and interesting, and I often
asked the men in the summer home if I could put my finger into these
mystic holes. And indeed, my first night at the summer home’s sauna
proved to be significant for the rest of my life.
I had turned six earlier in the spring. I was sitting on the benches
of the sauna waiting for the sauna to warm up, while my father was adding
more wood to the stove. One by one, men started to come in, most of them
without a limb. One man had lost both his feet and used his hands to
climb up the benches. Some men had lost their sight, while others had
been sewn together in a way that made their skins look as tight as the
mouth of a bag. A man from the town of Forssa had lost both his feet
and his left arm, and others helped carry him to sit on the bench. One
of the men had a silver plate on the back of his head, and he had to
wear a wet towel around his head like a turban to cool down the plate.
The dressing room was full of limb replacements with leather strip fasteners.
Because of this experience, I believed for many years that the purpose
of the male body was to become mutilated and that it would not be perfect
without scars. The male body becomes holy only through sacrifice. This
belief was reinforced by pictures of the suffering Jesus on the cross.
The body of a man is not a place or a target for pleasure; its purpose
is to become mutilated. It is not a personal body; it belongs to the
government or whoever it is that performs the sacrifice.
In the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s
I made material installations and toured around different performance
festivals. However, I did not feel comfortable in these festivals. I
could not relate to the performance artists, nor could I connect with
the dramatised, theatre-like performances. For me, the picture and the
traditions of the visual arts served as the starting point for my works,
and indeed, I regarded myself more as a sculptor. When people asked me
about myself, I often told them that I was a sculptor who used 80 kilograms
of living male flesh as his material and connected the flesh with iron.
These iron, “minimalistic” and often rusty sculptures represented
masculinity to me, while the sensing skin was a representation of my
As pain was a central factor in my works, the excessive repetition of
them did not fit into my aesthetics either. And it was precisely with
pain that I was able to remove the element of performance from my works.
I strived for total personal presence and exclusion. This led to different
kinds of experimentations, which culminated in the work "das mann,
transparence/presence" (Gallery Kari Kenetti 2001). In this work,
I was pressed between sheets of acrylic glass in the basement of the
gallery. My intention was to lie there for half an hour, but the audience
started to loosen the clamps after about 20 minutes, as my muscles started
to cramp and shake due to impeded circulation.
Moreover, temporal duration has not been overly significant in my works,
as they are often “ready” when the audience arrives, and
there is not much going on during the works. Part of the audience watched
my works for 10 seconds only, while others stayed for their entire duration,
which varied from a few minutes to hours, depending on the work.
Still life, tragedy
Since the year 2000, I have been making performances, installations
and photographs together with my wife Heini Räsänen. One of
the starting points for the works was the much-researched and interpreted
painting ”Arnolfini’s Wedding”. I wanted to create
my own version of this depiction of profane happiness.
I had treated fear and shame in my earlier works, and these feelings
have not subsided as I have become older; they have merely acquired a
different shape. Bourgeoisification, prosperity, stagnation and waning
idealism are central themes in my still lifes.
I had literally cut samples, scenes, still pictures from our home. These
still lifes lasted for 1–3 hours as live shows.
The subtitle of the works, “tragedy”, came from another
couple that has had a huge influence on art; from Masaccio’s fresco “The
Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.” Man faces his destiny in a
tragic experience. In classical tragedies, this referred in particular
to a conflict or demarcation between man and gods. It was considered
to be heroic to accept one’s destiny
and to suffer due punishment.
The fact that God is dead does not only imply joy for unlimited freedom
but also concern about how much freedom one can endure. The concept
of freedom released from all chains is questioned,
as the goal of all aspirations – freedom, nothing – turns
into a source of misery. When there is no God, nothing is allowed any
more. Life without a significant Other (destiny, God) extends an abstract,
all-encompassing guilt inside the subject. There is no redeeming instance
that could deliver us from this guilt.
Art and working as an artist have also provided me with a significant
tool for thinking and understanding. They have enabled an intuitive presence
in the world and provided an opportunity for me to learn to receive and
share claims and questions about the world and being human through mistakes