Helsinki / Paris, Feb. 2014: It's quite strange meeting someone for the first time via Skype; I think it's something to do with the intimacy of being suddenly projected into a stranger's kitchen and they into your living room. This was how I met Elina Brotherus: we sat in Paris/Helsinki and shared a cup of tea. My intention was obviously for this to be an interview, however it seems like a conversation broke out, the outcome of which being that the questions aren't particularly well phrased. I'm sure you'll find the answers very interesting. Please excuse the occasional connection problems.
Elina Brotherus, La Saone 3, 2012, Pigment ink print on Museo Silver Rag paper, mounted on 2mm Dibond, framed, 80 × 100 cm; Courtesy of the artist.
James Loks: [Paris, France?] (I live in Paris)
Elina Brotherus: I quit Paris in 2007 but I love it. I only have a house in the countryside; I have a house in Bourgogne. I spend a lot of time there. Right now I'm in Helsinki in the spring; I'm going to Bourgogne for the whole summer I think.
But I like Paris, I even, you know, miss the smell of the metro...
JL: [Question about Finland - This is quite a moment for Finland is it not?]
EB: The Finns want to think that we're better known than perhaps we are, especially for photography. There is a story or a myth circulating in Finland that Finnish photography is world famous; we want to think this way, or we are being [skype glitch]
We want to imagine this Finnish miracle that is conquering the world, but to be honest, I travel a bit and I don't see Finnish photography everywhere. I do see it some some places, but it's not so huge; maybe it will be, or the phenomena will be over before it has time to.
JL: [It is phenomena - How did it happen?]
EB: The "Helsinki School". This was imagined and created by a teacher at the university of Art and Design, that's now a part of the Aalto university. The idea of the Helsinki School was based on the Düsseldorf School, and you know you take a name of a place and you call it a school, and you get more attention, and I think it worked; they've have become a brand, how well known I don't know, but Finnish photography is better known than it was before. I was just out from school when this thing had started to happen, and then I moved to Paris so I was a little outside of what was going on, but then they started to do lots of exhibitions called the Helsinki School and books and so on. I'm a little on the outskirts but I know all those people.
JL: [Who do we look at in Helsinki school?]
EB: People who I personally like? I would name Aino Kannisto, who went to school with me. She's partly responsible for me starting to make self portraits, because she was doing that first and she encouraged me. Aino is using herself as a model as well; I don't know if she would call them self portraits. She's kind of interested in the representation of cinema, how cinema represents female figure, kind of role playing, beautiful.
Then Ville Lenkkeri who is working a lot on landscape, large format film, but there's always some interesting story in this.
Elina Brotherus, La Chambre 10 (le coin), 2012, Pigment ink print on Museo Silver Rag paper, mounted on 2mm Dibond, framed, 80 × 101 cm; Courtesy of the artist.
JL: [Do you call your work self portrait?]
EB: Well I yeah, kind of, sometimes, I started to seriously work about fifteen years ago and in the beginning I did autobiographical self portraits, then I drifted further away from that because I felt like I'd exhausted the subject, and like I'd said everything I needed to say at that moment. Then I went into this more, let's say, art historical direction; I was looking into old painting and how an artist is looking at his model, the gaze of an artist on his model, that sort of thing. Then recently, let's say from 2009 onwards, I've gone much more back to the origins, the autobiographical self portrait again. My two recent series, 12 ans après, 12 years after, which I'm showing at ARCO, and then another series called Annonciation, they are purely talking about my life again. And then after I don't know what I'm doing next. I'm between series and I'm doing a little bit of video to fill my days; it's kind of easier because it's less personal.
JL: [Thought, had impression, it is the photography moment]
EB: Photography has, in a way, become mainstream contemporary art, so it's pretty much on the same field, or level, or the same status as any other art work. In that sense I feel it's a very equal and fair situation; it's a very nice medium and I love my medium – but it's just a medium. One really needs to know their medium of course; I'm so happy to have come to this kind of school where we were profoundly taught the techniques as well, not just the theoretical or artistic side or whatever, but also the technical side, learning different cameras. It was still the time when everything was film-based, in the dark room. I did my colour printing until I started to do inkjet prints, until then I was doing everything myself; I'd do the original prints that I'd take to the guy in the lab who was doing the exhibition prints. I was supervising everything myself.
JL: [painting and photography] connection between landscape. natural beauty + [sublime].
EB: I'm a little bit afraid of the sublime, I think I try to look for less sublime landscapes than... obviously I'm interested in light, but I like these kind of grey rainy day, foggy day, bad weather lights that people wouldn't maybe call sublime. I think I'm drawn to a little bit more like modest conditions than, you know the sun rays coming through the clouds that is becoming like kitschy. I'm aware of the danger of loving beautiful things, so I'm trying to [skype glitch], to use things that are less obviously beautiful.
Elina Brotherus, Nu aux bottes de randonnee, 2011, Pigment ink print on Museo Silver Rag paper, mounted on 2mm Dibond, framed, 90 × 110 cm; Courtesy of the artist.
JL: [Placement of figure in landscape]
EB: There are several reasons for the figure to be there: one is to give a scale, a human presence; [also] it's like an invitation to the spectator. It's easier to watch when someone's there; it's like an invitation to contemplate the same landscape together. Also the figure is often not facing us; they're looking into the landscape. If it were two people facing each other it would be like a confrontation, like almost agressive, but when they're like this... she's chosen the landscape to look at and then the other one joins in but they're not disturbing each other so it's this calm shared contemplation.
JL: [David Byrne quote from book Bicycle Diaries]
"[M]ore often the work is a kind of tool that brings to light that emotional muck"
EB: In my early work I could have turned that upside down, in the way that the emotional muck was the substance to create the work from or the work distilled the muck or maybe under pressure the muck became – I wouldn't say a diamond! – but something kind of beautiful. It converted the muck into something nice to look at... But the bicycle was or is an important tool, because I like to move around and discover things, and a car is too fast—you can't see things. I think the bike is a perfect speed: walking is maybe tedious, because it's perhaps too slow; on a bicycle is like being in a movie. Let me see again the quote, I don't know, maybe it's about writing songs or poetry is maybe different than making life into images; it's maybe going in the opposite direction.
Everybody has a different process but I believe that the emotional muck is absolutely essential in art making...
JL: [David Foster Wallace quote] Artist intention
Misquote "The intention behind a lot of mediocre art is the desire to be loved, but really, truly, great art comes from the ability to love."
EB: It makes one think. The love question was when I was younger because of my history, of being an orphan and not really dealing with it until going to art school; like growing up in this environment where love wasn't really present, and then, I think that kind of injured me because what happened was I married a guy who I shouldn't have married. I thought that if somebody, once in my lifetime wants to be with me and marry me then it's my destiny and can't... I just have to marry him, which I did. Which was a mistake; we stayed married for maybe a year. But that's why, you know, tackling these issues was the starting point for the first series Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe; it was a quote from a poem that Schubert used in his Winterreise.
Then after ten years period of art historical interests I think that more than being about love, at the moment it's about the passage of time and realising that so many years have already past and what has happened and what has not happened and where am I standing now compared to where I was in this scene just a short while ago. It's the forty years – that's kind of the turning point – as becoming forty I really started to, you know, puzzle me and work my brain, about this growing old thing, and obviously that I'm a woman and I don't have children; there are things that are irreversible, and I guess that's what my new work is about.
JL: [I mention Tracey Emin, with some preface about her potential unfashionability]
EB: I love Tracey Emin, I love Tracey Emin. I was in New York one and half years ago and I bought her book from this second hand bookshop; it was My life in a column about the column she wrote for the independent newspaper, and I feel like I'm her friend! I read her book and I feel like I understand her; I aways liked her work and especially after reading that book I really feel connected to her. I don't care, she's a great woman I think.
JL: [I mention trying to make an interview primarily out of quotation from other people while talking about the ambiguous sensation of getting work published]
EB: I think artists are always embarrassed by people being directly interested in them. I like Agnes Martin and I have great quotes from her and she said something like: Because art comes from somewhere that you don't really know, from outer space, and you kind of execute it, if it happens to be a good piece then we're kind of surprised ourselves; and then when people go crazy then you're kind of embarrassed and you don't see it as like, justified.
It's a definitive thing, you know, when you can't change it anymore. It's kind of scary but in the end I've had sometimes great experiences sharing somebody's work in an exhibition; for instance, really feeling priviledged to be there and to see this stuff, and if the artist is there it can [skype glitch] and also sometimes the public can be wonderful. It's not an easy relationship, but, you know, if it's a good day it can be wonderful.
JL: [J F Lyotard - avant garde and sublime] quotation
"The now is a stranger to consciousness"
EB: Traditionally photography is about now. I also like it when they try and stretch the concept of now in a photograph. To put it simply I've been interested in long exposure time in landscape work, to kind of let a lot of time flow through the lense while the image is made; and you can create interesting things: you can make people disappear; you can draw with lights or let things make their own drawings in the image; or with this series [12 ans après] I return to the same spot at my very beginning... In 1999, when I was really at the beginning of my career, I did this artist residency in France in Chalon-sur-Saône – it was Musee Nicéphore Niépce who invited me – and I stayed there for three or four months. I did this series that became rather important in my portfolio, in my very small and flat portfolio of the time, and still I've kept exhibiting that work because people like it and they ask for it. And then, twelve years later, I got the opportunity to go back to this place to work in a school – I did a workshop with a lycée – and I accepted with the condition that they put me in the same guest house where I stayed twelve years before (they were wondering a bit because it's not the nicest place to stay, not renovated since the sixties). I wanted to make the human experiment about myself, to see what happens when I put myself in the same situation: what has stayed the same, what has changed, how will I feel. So that's what I did; I didn't tell anyone I planned to make pictures, I just did. I showed the museum director, and said, "Look, I've been doing this little workshop of my own," and he got really interested and he invited me to come back and continue because he wanted to see what would happen. So I went there three or four times altogether, and kind of, I didn't re-do exactly what I did back then but I shot some photos exactly in the same room. I was learning French then, 1999, on post-its – you've probably seen some of these – and I was using them again but now I was writing long stories on them. It was like a position statement of me at the age of forty, compared to me at the age of twenty-seven, so that's also like a way of making the passage of time concretely visible. In photos, when you see two pictures next to each other, here's me at twenty-seven, here's me at forty, wearing the same coat; I think it's quite interesting.
I'm not showing all of it at ARCO as in the end it became a substantial series – there are forty-six pictures – and it's a small booth. One third are old and two thirds are from 2011/2012, so we're showing fifteen works, although I'll have them all there in a portfolio for people to look at.
JL: [Have you been to Madrid before?]
EB: I was in the festival Photo España; I was invited as a rather young artist to do a rather big exhibition. It was at the Royal Botanical garden, a big space, and it was opened by the Queen, so I got to shake hands with the Queen. They told me, the organisers, that the one thing you're never supposed to do is shake hands with the Queen because she's, you know, the Queen. But then she came to me with her hand like this [outstretched hand gesture] so what am I supposed to do? It's not like I could refuse her handshake is it? That was my first time in Madrid.
JL: [landscape and person in landscape. imagine or see, the relationship between the two] alienation?
EB: It's what I was looking into or trying to achieve with this series, with 12 years after. There's a lot of me in the landscape in the series because in the original series I was an alien in France. I didn't speak French; the landscape was very very different from what I was used to, living in Finland; I found the French landscape really exotic. And now it doesn't feel like this at all; now it is really familiar, and I feel like I kind of belong. Especially the landscape in Burgundy – because this was my introduction to France, and I feel like it's my home county in France – I kind of try and establish this belonging to the landscape, finding my place. Me as an adopted bourguignonne.
You know, things take place as a function of time; it's like a relationship being built with the landscape. For example I have this picture in my house in Burgundy, called Another home; I am as much belonging to that place as I am belonging to this place here in Helsinki, and I think it is a very fruitful condition for an artist to be between two cultures and between two countries. Not being totally in the new one, because I will never be a fluent French speaker, that they would not notice I come from somewhere else—they always say "Vous avez un charmant petit accent." They will always know this, that I am not from there, but they can't figure out where I'm from and this for me is already a compliment. The thing is I've been so much away from Finland for fifteen years now that I'm a little bit alienated from this place too. I don't quite fit in anymore; I'm not your average Finn anymore. And I don't know, I don't think it's a bad thing. I quite like it; it gives a fresh regard. You see things differently when you're not there or you come from somewhere else.
ArtSlant would like to thank Elina Brotherus for her assistance in making this interview possible.