Artist Riitta Ikonen traveled recently to Greenland to discover new artistic work that reflects interaction between humans and their natural environment. Her exhibition, “Glacial Reveries”, is on view at The Chimney Exhibition & Performance venue in Brooklyn until February 7th. Interestingly, the body of work touches directly a topic of glaciers and their fate in the age of the anthropocene. Reveries, then, as a form of day dreaming, means for the artist a human survival strategy during the end of the world scenario. The objects include; a ”wetsuit for the tip of an iceberg, a lifejacket for a brick, eroded stones tied back together with strings, a video hidden in a suit, stairs leading up to cinder block windows”. Few year ago, Riitta Ikonen captivated her audiences with a collaborative photography project, Eyes as Big as Plates, which embeds something remarkable of the elderly human portraits, characterizing people among their surroundings. In this interview, the artist discusses her exhibitions, travels, artistic practice and plans.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Could you tell about this ongoing project called ”Eyes as Big as Plates”, how did it start, develop, and so on?
Riitta Ikonen: Eyes as Big as Plates is an ongoing collaborative venture with Karoline Hjorth, a photographer with a journalism and tall-ship sailing background. We met in 2011 on an artist residency after I, in search of a collaborator, typed in: Norway+Grannies+Photographer into an Internet search engine and found Hjorth as the top search result. (She had just published a book on Norwegian grandmothers.) We met for the very first time on the doorstep of a 20 m² flat in the small town of Sandnes, southwest of Norway.
Starting out as a play on characters from Nordic folklore and the personifications of nature in the lore, Karoline and I wanted to find out what kind of connection the Norwegians had with their rocks, fjords and hills. Those hills hadn’t changed since the tales, but the people sure had. We figured that the older the local interviewee/model, the closer we would get to the talking rocks of the tales. Folktales often made complex natural and sociological issues understandable and accessible, with phenomena taking on forms and characteristics that even a mere mortal could have a dialogue with. Perhaps our Eyes as Big as Plates images aimed to discuss the contemporary human in the nature in a similarly approachable language. After interviewing in Sandnes for two weeks, our investigation started shifting more towards imagination and Eyes as Big as Plates has evolved into a search for modern human’s belonging to nature.
Much of the western society is unnecessarily confused when it comes to the ‘usefulness’ of older people. As the project continues to cross borders, it also aims to rediscover a demographic group too often labeled as marginalized and generate new perspectives on who we are and where we belong.
The series is produced in collaboration with retired farmers, fishermen, zoologists, plumbers, opera singers, housewives, artists, academics and ninety year old parachutists. These are people we meet through friends, relatives and newspaper ads, in hardware stores, noodle shops, indoor gardening society meetings, swimming pools, on the city streets etc.
The title Eyes as big as Plates refers to two Scandinavian folktales featuring respectively a goat and a dog with eyes the size of plates.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: It seems that the work was presented in multiple international places. Do you think that there were different receptions of your work that you find as constructive?
RI: I traveled to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the US last fall with Eyes as Big as Plates exhibition and was honored to witness the reactions to the photographs from of the large Finnish community. More people of Finnish descent live in the northwest part of the Upper Peninsula than anywhere else in the world outside of Finland. The images resonated with the crowd in a way that transcended borders, time and language. The Nordic spirit was redolent in the minds of the third generation Finns yearning to keep the connection to their heritage alive. Though the exhibition was small, it was one of the most moving and personal of the dozens of lectures and openings I attended last year.
After the opening of the Eyes as Big as Plates exhibition at the National Museum of Greenland, Karoline and I got to listen to Teitur from the Faroe Islands perform live at the Katuaq Center. His song ‘Home’ struck a cord in that moment and I realized there is a ‘home’ in each image for me, perhaps for others too, a universal anchoring point. Greenland was exceptional in many ways and I know that this was the first trip of many more to come.
I wish I could have attended the shows in Korea and Bogota too, but that would have required a body double. I have worked quite a bit with the Norwegians since 2011 and the Norwegian National Museum has been touring an Eyes as Big as Plates exhibition with a workshop for a couple of years now. At the opening of Fotogalleriet in Oslo, Karoline and I also got offered a chance to work on a public art commission by the Arctic Sea at Kirkkoniemi-Kirkenes, where we work on documentary portraits for a brand new hospital until 2017.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Readers of this blog are interested in the artistic language and process, are there any compelling features that make yours?
RI: The process is most often rooted in collaboration, with the current show in New York at The Chimney being a cheerful exception. The latest works consist mainly of interactive sculptures and video all of which bubbled from last October’s trip to Greenland. The pieces were produced after digesting the experiences of the spectacular land- and seascape near Nuuk, and filmed over the next three months in Finland, the Pacific Northwest and New York. The below piece of writing by Robert Smithson also accompanied me through the making process as a kind of fluid spine.
‘One’s mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion, mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason. Vast moving faculties occur in this geological miasma, and they move in the most physical way. This movement seems motionless, yet it crushes the landscape of logic under glacial reveries.’
Robert Smithson, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects”, 1968
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How do you see that artistic collaborations and working with curators have formed your artistic language? Are you able to pin down, or do you have a story about how a dialogue with the art field has forwarded your career?
RI: I collaborate with people (architects, artists, photographers, sculptors, writers, postal workers etc.) to catalyze the interaction that determines the direction and the work. Unpredictability feeds my practice and keeps the process interesting.
Working with courageous people is necessary for progress. My solo show ‘Glacial Reveries’ in NY is far wilder than I could have imagined with the fearless support and insight from the curator, Clara Darrason. She encouraged me to follow my initial plan of making the gallery goers walk under water, on the bottom of the ocean with the water level up in the ceiling. We also ended up installing a 25-foot tall iceberg in the show.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Are you currently based in New York City, and do you have specific plans for staying and working here?
RI: I am currently on an airplane, and spend a great deal of time in transit. I am based in Kouvola with restless feet. I just met up with Tiina Itkonen in Helsinki who has done a life’s work in Greenland and it is only a matter of time that I will return there! I was hoping to go to Mexico City, where I have works at the Material Art Fair, in March, there are also the RCA Secret exhibitions and sales in London and Dubai, but again- I am restrained by this one body only.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you consider yourself a Finnish artist, are there any particular ways to designate and identify with your country of origin?
RI: I am a Finnish artist and I feel it pulsates strongly in my work and me. I receive a tremendous amount of support from Finland, whether it is from the brilliant network of Finnish Cultural Institutes around the world, Consulate staff, Cultural foundations, or curators. Most often as a Finn, you are only two steps (at most) away from a fellow creative countryman. This network is incredibly loyal and operates on a penetrable scale- a truly privileged situation however you look at it.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: As mentioned, your current project and exhibition, Glacial Reveries is on display at The Chimney in Brooklyn. How did you find yourself going to Greenland to do a project there?
RI: It was a lifelong dream to go to Greenland; it was also the last Nordic country I hadn’t worked in. My collaborator Karoline Hjorth and I decided ‘it shall be done’, and we compiled a list of various Greenlandic institutions to reach out to. I called a few numbers and sent some emails. I received no reply. Eventually I got used to the ‘radio silence’, but made a habit of ringing one number or another every week. Most often no one replied, sometimes a receptionist or an answering machine picked up. A year went by stubbornly. We finally made the contact when Åsa Juslin from the Finnish-Norwegian Cultural Institute in Oslo, introduced us to Mats Bjerde and Mette Hein from NAPA (The Nordic Institute in Greenland), who were organizing Nuuk Nordisk Festival in the capital. After Åsa’s email, the ball started rolling.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Is a topic of climate change important to your work, and how about the nature as such?
RI: Climate change discussion and open dialogue is vital and art is a good communication tool. I am a bit hesitant to talk about nature as I am coming to think that there is no such thing. There are just us in our surroundings, whatever those may be. The idea of nature might be just as manmade as Shopkins. Either way, to acknowledge that you are not separated from your surroundings can be a way to get the most real picture of the world available to us. (Timothy Morton has written interestingly on that)
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Is art political to you and if so, how?
RI: ‘The personal is political’ as it was once aptly put.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Did you find your artistic medium early on, or did you master and explore various techniques?
RI: After the wish of becoming a conveyor belt worker in a confection factory faded a little, a career as an artist was an obvious second choice. I am still exploring various techniques, and am a happy amateur. As a fish farmer living by the Arctic Sea said it very nicely last year: ‘I am a charlatan and an amateur, a typical Finnmarking who has adapted to this county of contrasts. I love what I do (Latin Amator = lover, amare = to love), unlike a professional who does something not because he loves it but to earn money. There’s a big difference. (Oddbjørn Jerijærvi)
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you have specific plans for the future?
RI: Go work in the desert in the spring, complete a National Park Residency, exhibition at Pielisen Museo in Northern Karelia, continue the Time is a ship that never casts anchor project in Kirkenes, Exhibitions in Germany and the Douro Valley in Portugal, Mail Art- Art Mail Show at the Finnish Postal Museum until the end of February 2016, RCA Secret in London and Dubai, Material Art Fair in Mexico City this month, More Greenland, etc.
Artist website: http://www.riittaikonen.com/
The Chimney, New York: http://www.thechimneynyc.com/