Articles by Lars Saari and Liutauras Psibilskis.
CAPTURING SKY – BETWEEN EAST AND WEST
by Lars Saari, 2001
Skies Captured (2001), a new piece by Lehtonen, was shown for the first time in Budapest this year. The work took the form of a triptych and was thus linked to the tradition of altar paintings. Each of its three panels showed an evenly blue sky. It was like a minimalist and monochromatic painting. But it also distanced itself from painting because it was made with video projectors.
Contemporary monochromes tend to have a strong corporeal power. But Lehtonen´s work has closer affinity with an older, modernistic tradition that concentrates on the spirit and not on the body. Although Lehtonen is not the kind of artist who likes to site the history of art, the video projections are clearly linked to a series of modernist monochromes from Malevich to Rothko and Klein.
The minimalistic Skies Captured can be connected to Lehtonen´s series of images of desire. To long for heaven is to long for a place to which one still lacks access. It may also be just a place beyond the horizon. In a classic song of the melancholic Finnish brand of tango, the land of happiness is a place beyond the wide sea. An icon of Finnish rock music, Rauli Badding Somerjoki, sang about stars he could not reach. This deep longing for happiness is an integral part of Finnish popular culture.
Here in Istanbul – on the border between Europe and Asia – the work functions differently. It is a simultaneous , live recording of the east and the west skies over Istanbul, which are projected as a diptych on the floor of the exhibition space. Since the colour of the sky varies, the work takes distance from the monochromatic idea, and can thus be attributed new meanings, connected with the actual, multilayered questions of the Occident and the Orient.
DISTURBANCES IN PARADISE
by Lars Saari, 2000
Ever since her debut at the end of the 1980s, Henrietta Lehtonen has been attracting attention with works in which the role of women, partly using traditionally female picture-making techniques, have been at the centre. In Girls´ Needlework (1992) one theme was the embroidery technique itself, in Porcelain Tower (1993) it was porcelain painting. But, at the same time as Lehtonen´s personal interest has drawn her to the roots of handicraft, she also wanted to disrupt these traditions through pointing to the flawed or the repressed, often to the sexual defined as dirty.
The fascinating video installation The Dream (1992) shows a happy land: a summer garden where boys dream of girls, girls of children, and where the nightingale is never silent. But, perhaps happiness is only a ´televisual´ cliché? The summer garden is followed by a late winter in a series of sculpted Bambi images (The Return of Winter, 1995) The symbol of childhood innocence, Bambi, is menaced and sexually harassed, frozen to the ice and, in the end, brutally murdered. The installation is an image of the wrecked nursery, the paradise that is lost.
Now, Lehtonen herself says that, for her, the feminist label is a tired, over-simplified cliché. She tests out the possibility of subtly disconcerting the spectator, of disturbing the balance, of making the viewer’s hair stand on end!
Two works with the same title, Poisonous Skirt (1999), can be understood against this background. One of the skirts actually belonged to the artist. A closer inspection of the other is perplexing. It has an almost imperceptible bulge at the back, over the backside. Yet the hem of the skirt hangs down normally. It has thus been sewn to conceal an anomaly. What are our anomalies? Are they reflected in the physical deformations that involuntarily reveal our inherent wickedness and lack of solidarity, like the ugliness of the villains in TV films? Or is the toxicity of the skirts a parallel to the defence mechanisms of plants: the poisonous ones do not get eaten?
Lehtonen describes this quality with the potent expressions paha perse, bad ass. It can be described as a Barthesian punctum, a disquieting detail in a whole, a detail that affects, and perhaps frightens us. This brings to mind the nurse in the amazing TV animation South Park, who has a foetus growing out of her head.
The parallel with televisual reality is not so totally far-fetched. Lehtonen often speaks of important experiences that are projected onto us via TV entertainment. The poisoned nightshirt – which was intended to eat holes in a voluptuously beautiful body – was a theme that she remembered from the Angelika films of her childhood, a series that like so many others constructed an image of an ‘impossible’ woman’s role.
Henrietta Lehtonen´s father is a master tailor. One of his bravura works was actually a costume for a crippled person, which was sewn to concealed balance out the client’s physical deformities. In Ghost (1999) the master tailor’s daughter delights in the fine cloth and the beautiful way it hangs. But what is concealed beneath the cloth?
The starting point for this was quite simply a sighting of a woman, totally swathed in black cloth, gliding through the departure lounge at New Delhi airport a couple of paces behind her husband. It would be tempting to interpret Ghost as reflecting a political interest in the role of women in culture, and perhaps also a topical interest in Islam.
But these works also reflect Lehtonen´s interest in hidden or invisible knowledge. She expresses an admiration for a culture in which one can know without seeing. The work can be read as a counter symbol to western science’s method of laying bare, of unlocking and unravelling the mysteries in a way that parallels the strategies of pornography, which excites by showing everything, without finesse.
It is evident that a part of the impact of Henrietta Lehtonen´s work lies in the way that the private, the experienced, is contained in the work. But they do not have to be interpreted as images of the private. The individual becomes universal. What I have experienced, you have experienced, too. The subtle disturbance – Barthes´ punctum – in the transmission makes Lehtonen´s beautiful works thought-provoking. She applies a method that is reminiscent of Helene Schjerfbeck´s, adapted for the sociological climate at the beginning of the 21st century.
BEAUTY, DISORDER, SELF-UNDERSTANDING
by Lars Saari, 1997
Henrietta Lehtonen´s art is a multiple challenge to the spectator. Her production is truly diversified – her mere techniques have so many dimensions – yet harmonious. The harmony is partly explained by Lehtonen´s determined artistic search. Her project of learning to understand herself brings unity to her works. She possesses the admirable skill of achieving visual purity of expression without a formalistic straitjacket. Her art radiates life sustaining faith and optimism. Vanity is a central theme, balanced by desire to find or the prospect of finding a purpose.
These factors can be sensed in individual works, but most clearly when we look at her entire output.
Besides diverse categories of expression, Lehtonen´s art is characterized by multilayered thematic material. Her artistic thought is based on a supple strategy of acquiring information. Scientific, psychologic or even astrologic information seem to be equally valuable. The artist studies the biological layers of human genetics, evolution – or she may be intrigued by the information deposited in her hairbrush. She is fascinated by Rupert Sheldrake, the alternative scientist, whose restless curiosity leads him to experiment wild hypotheses. She seems to look for a fracture, a defective gene, anything that would help speed evolution and lead to something new. Art and the internal discourse of the art world do not seem to be major sources for Lehtonen´s thought.
Henrietta Lehtonen´s art has been characterized by her exceptional ability to address and delight the audience with beauty. Now Lehtonen wants to distance herself from beauty. She thinks beauty, as well as success, can be a “trap”. She has set out on a journey towards disorder, at times embarrassing. Still, her art seems to retain the power to touch the spectator. The artist’s own characterization of her work Light (1997), exhibited in St. John’s Chapel in Turku Cathedral: “It is a very simple work intended to move something inside the spectator.” This is a phrase that can be generalized to apply to the artist’s entire output, often playful, yet very serious.
As Lehtonen turns from general subjects into the theme of self-understanding, the study of conflict, dirtiness and ugliness becomes a dominant idea. Disorder coincidence, debris – she sees big potential in all these. She wants to show not only beauty and purity but also the reverse side – loss of “innocence” and “dirt”. The idea of Paradise seems to contain the inevitability of losing it. But perhaps this is already the beginning of something new.
Since her debut in the beginning of the 90s Henrietta Lehtonen has risen fast in Finnish and international world of art. In 1993 she was presented the fist award by the Urpo and Maija Lahtinen Foundation set up to support talented young artists. In the following year she had a private exhibition at the Amos Anderson Art Museum in Helsinki. At an exhibition called Prejudices at the Liljevalchs Art Gallery in Stockholm Lehtonen got plenty of positive attention. This led to further invitations, such as contribution to the Extra Muros exhibition curated by Bart de Baere at the Ghent Museum of Contemporary Art in 1994. In 1995 the artist was invited to the Istanbul Biennial of Contemporary Art. In L´enigma del Campo, a project organized by Markku Valkonen for the 1995 Biennial of Venice, Lehtonen was the focus of much attention.
One of the main strategies of Lehtonen´s early career was to deal with the fundamental questions of being a woman, which she approached from the feminist point of view. She commented on the tradition of “women’s handiwork” in her installations using various “techniques” such as embroidery (Girls´Needlework, 1992), porcelain painting (Porcelain Tower, 1993, Coffee Cups, 1994). But at that time already, the pure-white neorococo porcelain, though in itself erotically loaded, was soiled by “painting” on the surface with fingers and picturing the excretions and biological functions of the human body.
Galerie Kaj Forsblom´s exhibition Return of Winter in Helsinki in 1995 at first enticed you into childhood discourse by showing funny mouse figures. In the back room your feelings changed as you faced works such as Silly Bambi in the Forest, Frozen Bambi, Bambi being strangled and Bambi does a Blow Job. The icons and myths of innocence projected on childhood collided in a memorable way with sexual desire and even violence.
In the artist’s impressive installation Dream (1992) video already played a major role. Later, projected video images have become an increasingly important technique. A kind of culmination was represented by the artist’s video installation Infant displayed in San Giovanni in Bragora church in Venice in connection with the 1995 Biennial.
In the video installation Dream boys dream of girls and girls dream of babies. Child is also the theme of Infant. Ecclesiastical context gives the reading of the work several new dimensions. The newborn, of course, is associated with the child Jesus, but he is depicted alive, not dead as is conventionally done in traditional crucifix and Pietà images. There is an interesting analogy between fresco painting and the modern video-projected image.
In these works Lehtonen has created a visually alluring image of her idea of a kind of “state of happiness”. It is like a compact picture of our innermost goals – before we sink into cynicism. While she does not directly comment on the view of Finnish popular mythology of our collective national characteristics, it is true that search for an unattainable land of happiness does have a key role in the Finnish soul.
Besides conceptual dimensions, Henrietta Lehtonen´s works are united by a peculiar visual attraction. But she refuses easy triumphs. “Risks suit me.” She does not like to repeat a theme already used. She refuses to be unidimensional as an artist – to make a product out of herself. Here, she joins Marcel Duchamp who forced himself to overthrow himself “to avoid following his own taste.”
Lehtonen is very critical of her work. She is constantly looking for new ways of expressing herself and employing her often unusual artistic instruments. While she likes to distance herself from the modernistic requirement of instrumental purity, she adopts the modernistic trend of simplification, reduction, stripping down. And even if she in many ways fits under the broad concept of postmodernism, the artist is clearly connected with the modernistic tradition through avant-garde. Still, her works are never just studies of form, they always mean something.
A major theme has been “purity encrusted by dirt”. Human development and self-understanding seem to be growing in importance. Lehtonen´s subjects may be personal – but also general in a way to touch wider audiences.
Henrietta Lehtonen´s latest solo exhibition was staged at the Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova Museum in spring 1997. In autumn 1996 the undersigned had the first actual discussions with the artist about the contents of the show. I was impressed by the seemingly endless abundance of ideas of which Lehtonen´s notebooks are documents of. Some ideas survived. One exhibit was called Blanket Ghost (1997). A figure wrapped in a grey blanket was seen behind a misty panel of Plexiglas. It was a striking image of an unknown thought yet to be formed.
Henrietta Lehtonen thinks of an individual work and of its influence on the whole, both at the same time. Individual installations made up one big entity, an exhibition called Manuscript.
Focus – Studio – Transit (1997) was the biggest installation. The artist moved her whole workshop from Tampere to the museum in Turku. We saw old works of art, crates, building material and junk. A beam of light circled the room revealing constantly new spots for inspection. The meanings of the work are multilevel. While the room was a hidden miniretrospection, it also raised questions about reality and representation – and of the prospects and meanings of material: “What should I throw away? A poor work is not worth storing, the material has been wasted anyway. Good junk is better, it still has the whole life before it.
Biography, according to Lehtonen, embraces the satisfaction of exhibitionism to the author and that of voyeurism to the spectator. The artist reveals a part of herself and the audience can take a look at it. Hypnosis video (1997) was one of the key works at the exhibition. Lehtonen had been hypnotized and the hypnotist made her questions . She believes that we already know answers to all our questions even if we may not always be able to put them into words.
With this kind of works the artist tries to analyse herself – but also the possibilities of art. Finally, the exhibition was not “a manuscript for three-dimensional image”, as intended. Old ideas formed a basis on which new things were built. The Construction Site Video, a House is Demolished and a New is Built (1997) is a representation of this idea. The work can also be seen as an allegory of the evolution of human understanding.
Art work has been compared with alchemy, the pursuit of changing ordinary metals into gold. Henrietta Lehtonen reminds me of this comparison. Often, transmutation is simple, sometimes it is done just by adding immaterial, reflected light, as she did in her fascinatingly beautiful work called Light Phenomenon, in Fact a Work of Art without a Name (1997).
A BASIC IDEA OF PASSION
by Liutauras Psibilskis, 1996
Henrietta Lehtonen builds gardens of dreams
Unlike Helsinki, Tampere does not have railway station designed by Saarinen, a President’s palace, big, ambitious building projects or a huge Stockmann department store. Here, the setting is intimate; a peculiar balance of overriding natural purity and 19th century factories. Everything is simple and restrained, and, more often than not, there are three levels of contact with the world: Tampere. Helsinki. Elsewhere.
Tampere is typically reached by train. All distances in the town are measured from the railway station, says Henrietta Lehtonen, who lives in Tampere. Another way to communicate is by mail. This is how Henrietta got her first art lessons. She sent her own pictures to a famous artist in Helsinki, who, incidentally, painted portraits of Finland´s post-war presidents. He sent his valuable comments back in a letter. Since there was nowhere to study painting in Tampere, Henrietta also got any advice she could from books, which listed the correct recipes for painting. Following one of these rules, Henrietta arranged a still-life of yellow roses, her first installation. Time after time, she mailed her projects to the selection jury for the Young Finnish Artists´ exhibition. She was finally accepted for her first exhibition in Helsinki, and got her first reviews. She has continued in this way, living in Tampere, exhibiting in Helsinki and elsewhere.
Today, Henrietta Lehtonen´s visiting card is a video work containing the image of a child: The Infant (1995) from the L´enigma del Campo project, which was mounted during the 1995 Venice Biennale. The same work was taken to the Istanbul biennial, which was curated by René Block.
This work´s naiveté is truly inspiring in the context of today´s art. The associations with religious art in a religious environment, a church, and the “spiritual elusiveness” of the projected video image are used to their best advantage. Henrietta says that, already in her first video work This Girl (1990), which has now become a classic example of Finnish feminist art, she attempted to establish direct contact with the viewer, and that she wanted the emotional contact with the image to be stronger than the intellectual understanding of it.
As you look at the video of the child, you understand that the image carries within it personality, and that the division into object and observer is no more than an effect of the stance you assume. It should be noted that the observer tends to abuse the object of his observation. (In ancient mythology, to scrutinise meant to control.) Many of the infants of Renaissance Madonna´s – so similar to the child in Henrietta´s work of today – carry a red coral to protect them from the evil eye. The object is often invested with all the experience and longings of the observer, which have nothing to do with its own personality. It becomes a projection of the observer´s own experience, rather than a perception of reality. In the Infant however, the figure of the child is what makes the observer feel at ease, and helps him establish a direct contact with the image. Here, it is the observer, not the object, that is invested with an active impulse towards naive and positive reflex ion on the world. The emotional contact with this basic image makes it comprehensible to a very wide audience, and does not require special training in art theory. In Henrietta´s words, the idea of art will really be able to survive only if it is spread to as wide an audience as possible. Henrietta has staged several café installations; one at the group exhibition Extra muros at the Ghent Museum of Contemporary Art (1994), another in a Venice square (L´enigma, 1995). In Ghent, the given situation was thoroughly transformed. A wooden construction, tables, chairs, were installed in the exhibition hall. Coffee was served in Henrietta´s decorated cups, and visitors were invited to sit down, have a coffee, socialise, take part in the creative process. Without them, the work had no life.
Usually, the café is a place more for socialising and gatherings than for consumption. Unlike traditional closed communities, the crowd in a café usually has a relaxing effect on the visitor. The basic idea of the café is detrimental to control, and thus it also tolerates deviations. The friendly gathering is an act that requires an effort from all the participants. (It is also necessary even to maintain the position of neutral outsider.) These efforts make it possible for the participants to become equals, which is again necessary in order to eliminate any sense of compulsion. In the café, but not in the concert hall, everyone is both an observer and a performer. In these “café” works, communication is universal, and everyone assumes an active role.
The 1993 Prejudices exhibition included Henrietta Lehtonen´s video work, Dream (1992), Projected on a fluttering soft screen. This piece, from a series showing an idyllic garden and its inhabitants, transmitted a very subtle sense of place from one spatial situation to another. Highly fragile images, and undefined but evocatively real garden sounds. These were memories, as pure as in a dream. In this work, Henrietta´s contact with the image is not at all influenced by the cultural stereotypes gathered around it, and which usually affect our reflex ion on everything. it is, of course, an endlessly complex task to represent something that is genuinely pretty. Perhaps no category of reflex ion is so fenced in by prejudices and stereotypes as beauty. To experience it, a commentary is necessary, because the educated observer and critic is so suspicious. Beauty, like other sincere positivist categories, is too fragile and non-competitive. Regardless of this, however, Henrietta´s works are circulated widely, and are fully justifiable contextually. There is a place for her in exhibitions of contemporary art, where she often comes across as comparatively untouched by conflict in a conflicting environment. Essentially, her gardens of dreams and expectations are dulcet utopias, the ideal alternative to contemporary reality. Simply by existing, they help bridge the gap between reality and the observer´s dreams, they offer a possibility of trust and belief.
There is something homely and personal about Henrietta´s work. One of her latest is Nest (1995). Nests, built by a small person out of furniture and blankets, have stood in every family´s home. This is exactly what Henrietta´s recent piece looks like. She reconstructed the nest she built as a child. To create one’s “nest”, a space for activity and rest, Henrietta says, is a natural urge for every human being. And for children to build nests, where only good people are let in, is an archetypal act of construction and certainly an important stage in the development of the conscious personality.
Her figurines of small animals whit their autonomous little worlds also relate to this concept: the small lives of small people. There are strange comings and goings amidst the cardboard firs, next to the immense-looking schoolroom globes. Henrietta says she did not suffer emotionally as a child, and that she does not have any bad memories of childhood. She was under her mother’s protection all the time, and even if something unpleasant happened, the children were not told. “I was a small person protected by my mother, and I realised only later on that I have power too.” For Henrietta, her mother’s house means support, the foundation of a worldview, the garden of dreams where nothing negative can happen.
A series of Arabia cups (1993 – 1994) personally interpreted by Henrietta Lehtonen and usually arranged into a china pyramid, are covered with pretty but anarchic blotches of blue glaze. These almost look like natural fingerprints left behind on all the objects that our hands touch. Normally, only a detective could see that decoration, having applied a special powder. Henrietta glazed this porcelain with her own hands. Her fingerprints are there, reminding us of the author and of the work of her hands. In this case, the author is easily identified, even without the signature. The issue of whether the imprints make a beautiful ornament or a simply ruin “innocence” is determined only by the point of view we adopt. The act of creation starts with the will to change things, to intrude into the existence of the conditionally ideal. Mistakes and accident then exist with as much right as the conscious result. In Henrietta´s china sets, the results of random improvisation are there to be seen. Chance is part of the intention. The imprints are a side-effect of touch, but also part of the overall harmony. They signify remembrance, which is such an important aspect of existence, a whole individual world in itself, because it cannot even pretend to be objective.
Henrietta´s passions are about seeing, touching and thinking, about the longing for friendship, and about the imprints that remain after every touch, the results of which can never be anticipated in real life, but are fully controllable when things take place in thought or in art. In a dream or a daydream, a situation starts from the beginning, goes on and finishes. Sometimes it is interrupted, and disintegrates as the dream ends, or then a stronger impression, perhaps reality itself, intrudes upon it. In a dream, the outcome of a situation depends on the trust and belief encoded in every human being.
Henrietta Lehtonen´s work deal with what is seen from within, and it is oriented inwards. Even the social episodes, quite rare as it were, are dissociated from all theorising and objectification. The constantly reiterated subjects: table-cloths, a table and chair, pieces of china, all unite people for friendly intercourse, and yet they are also memories of childhood, family archetypes. In Henrietta´s work, the situation is positive from beginning to end. Even the residual imprints are everyday side-effects that carry no bitterness. This unity in her work between the technical side of life and the dream amounts to something more than just a creative stance. She is well aware of the wonderful privilege of being actively satisfied with what you are.