A sculpture posing as a painting
A discussion between Vesa-Pekka Rannikko and Jan Kaila
Kaila: You have been creating pieces that are sculptures and paintings at one and the same time for about four years now. Has combining different things always been characteristic of your work?
Rannikko: Yes, it has. I started creating painting-like sculptures when I was studying ceramics at the University of Art and Design, Helsinki. Later on, at the Academy of Fine Arts, I started working with performance art and videos. The relationship between the corporeal and the image became the common denominator in my work. I’m interested in the grey area between different media. I often strive to create works that are defined by multiple shades of meaning. The interesting thing is that a piece cannot be categorised in any specific pigeonhole; it can be defined as a photograph and an installation, or a painting and a sculpture at the same time.
Kaila: So these twenty-first century works of yours are sculptures, three-dimensional objects here and now, but at the same time they are illusory images that represent something other than what they are in a material sense.
Rannikko: I’m intrigued by the sense of ambiguity that is created by not being able to define whether it is a picture or an object you see when you look at the work. At the same time, the physical place of the piece and the situation that it represents are obscured.
Kaila: I find your art surprising and humorous, especially when one thinks about the presuppositions that observers might have about traditional sculpture. A figurative sculpture is, after all, usually an autonomous object that takes the place of the model.
Rannikko: I don’t think of myself as a sculptor but as a picture maker. The material I use does end up in three-dimensional form, of course, but the starting point is not three-dimensionality but two-dimensionality. I work from painting, drawing and photography.
Kaila: How does this process work in practice?
Rannikko: I experiment and test what happens when two-dimensional art traditions and genres are realised in three-dimensional form. I use working methods and models that are familiar from the history of painting, but the starting point may be something else, like a comic strip, for example. Sometimes I even categorise work in progress in a specific way: “this is a still life”, or “this is a landscape”, or “this is a portrait”.
For me, the key question has to do with the relationship between perception on the one hand and two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality on the other. So, it is quite clear that early twentieth-century art has been important to me.
Kaila: The pictures that you start with are, however, rather varied in their expressive qualities and techniques. They also belong to different historical eras – you have used both medieval miniature sculptures and contemporary news photographs as your models. What does the narrative content or subject of the model images that you choose mean to you?
Rannikko: Finding a subject is a complex process. Sometimes I find models to suit the subject. I became interested in the concept of a terrarium because of its artificial nature, and started searching for suitable imagery that I could use. But I often become interested in an image for its visual qualities. The subject is often defined by the inner dialogue between illustrative quality and its three-dimensionality. Many of my subjects come from photographs I have taken myself.
Kaila: Your first pieces, created in 2003, resemble traditional sculptures in the sense that they are full-length images of human beings.
Rannikko: In 2003, when I was experimenting with a new technique it felt right to start from the scale of the whole human body, which is an elementary issue in relation to image and space.
Kaila: These human figures were somewhat smaller than real-life human beings. Why was that?
Rannikko: It has to do with developing a picture. The idea was to create distance; a smaller ‘human being’ looks as if it is further away – thus the sculpture becomes an illusory picture of itself, seen from further away. Observers are put in a position where they can’t reach the work properly; the sculpture always remains at a distance. The human figure is also a recognizable marker of scale. A smaller-scale figure appears to enlarge the space it is placed in. This creates an experience on two levels for the observer, where the corporeally sensed space is smaller than the space experienced through the sculptures.
Kaila: You obviously used yourself as a model for your full-size works?
Rannikko: I used photographs of myself in various positions.
Kaila: How accurately did you reproduce the colours and light values of the model photographs in your pieces?
Rannikko: Photographs were then only a starting point. The lighting and colours of the pieces were created on new terms to refer to the specific situation of the actual work.
Kaila: Alongside your works depicting humans, your exhibitions in 2003 also included a number of still-life images representing various objects.
Rannikko: With one or two exceptions, I have tried to avoid too obvious themes for my exhibitions. I try to use unexpected comparisons to create additional meanings between pieces. These meanings have to do with scale and the relationship between the work and the space.
Kaila: In 2004, you created a series of busts, also on a somewhat smaller scale than real life.
Rannikko: They were explicitly smaller than real people – and they were also cropped and hung up on the wall. The idea was to highlight the picture qualities and approach the traditions of sculpting busts as well as the traditions of painting portraits. They are also some of the first pieces where I introduced cropping as a part of sculpture.
Kaila: What sort of models did you use when you were creating this series?
Rannikko: Some are modelled on photographs of myself, while some were initiated by films. I picked images for my own use from stills I made by stopping the film. The masking of the film remained as the cropping in my work. The Daughter series started out from my interest in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris and the sci-fi novel by Andrei Lem on which it was based. Lem’s novel depicts a kind of fictitious sculpture project, in which flawed copies of real people, alive or dead, are created through memories. In that way, the story is a type of image-making process. Thus, Tarkovsky’s film is fiction based on fiction. It’s a series of multi-layered, flawed reproductions, i.e. images, in the same way as in my work.
However, I could only find a single interesting shot in Solaris. It was a scene where the camera zooms in on a ten-year-old girl. The scene is left open in the film, and the girl’s identity is never revealed. The series of works based on that image was named Daughter, since the word refers to being a child. It brings to my mind similar questions of resembling and copying as in Lem’s book.
Kaila: Your works from 2004 and 2005 deal with the key problems of art in modern times, such as portraying movement and the borderline area between figurative and non- figurative art. Did your technique change too with these new works
Rannikko: To some extent: I work on a styrofoam structure reinforced with steel, using body-tinted plaster. The actual works consist of layers of body-tinted plaster on top of each other. I work on the colour and form of the piece at the same time. This simultaneousness sets parameters for the structure of the piece. Plaster dries quickly, and I only have a window of about five minutes to work each colour. After this, I mix a new colour and continue. The whole working process is rapid and sensitive. As the forms of my pieces become more disintegrated (they are sometimes meant to depict disintegration), they become more difficult to keep together physically. The structure of the work becomes more visible, and at the same time it becomes a factor that defines the content of the piece. This kind of disintegrating structure alters the observer’s experience of the piece to a less material rather than a solid sculpture. The boundary between the work, the space around it and the perception of it becomes more ambiguous.
Kaila: It’s as if you were seeking new aesthetic dimensions for modern art traditions with your experiments. Your rather rough style of working, which accentuates the marks left by the tools you use, differs from mainstream contemporary art, where artists often try to transfer meaning from the actual work to contextual issues, or create rather clinical objects that are refined in the extreme.
Rannikko: My working process is largely defined by the content demanded by the work. My pieces appear flat when perceived, despite their three-dimensionality, which is characteristic of my work. I strive to accentuate this contradiction between the object qualities of the piece and the picture qualities of perception with the physicality of my working method. I think that the work must retain its rough physical quality and be an interface that reaches out towards the observer, tempting him or her to make contact without any kind of exclusion.
Kaila: The titles of your works are very significant. With names you often bring interpretations or meanings to the works that the observer might not necessarily have come up with.
Rannikko: The titles of my works refer to the content behind them, which sometimes might not open up merely through the visual aspect. If we think, for instance, of the piece Rain cover, it could easily be just a yellow shape on the wall to the observer. The words ‘rain cover’, however, refer to different directions: they speak of protection, shell, and covering. The way the observer’s perception of the yellow shape relates to the knowledge that he is looking at a shelter from the rain is extremely interesting.
Kaila: On those occasions when the observer immediately realises what a piece of yours depicts, the title often has a tautologous, even an amusing meaning in relation to what is depicted (as clearly is the case with Balls, a work obviously depicting three balls). Sometimes, though, I at least cannot identify what I see in your work as anything based on an idea an object or a situation. For example, Setting remained purely nonfigurative to me until I saw its title on paper.
Rannikko: I often use the names or subjects of my model photographs for the finished works. The model photo for Setting is one of a house burning down, which was actually a film set. I moved so far away from the model photo, though, that the stage set could manifest itself as something completely different.
Kaila: Due to the tautologous titles, observers might think that your other pieces also depict something more or less familiar, and thus begin to concoct a subject or a story for those pieces that they find nonfigurative. Or they might begin to contemplate the nature of their own observations. How do you construct your exhibitions? What does an exhibition as a whole mean to you?
Rannikko: I don’t construct obviously thematic exhibitions, but I try to create networks within them for the observer to go backwards and forwards in. A certain piece might have such a unifying meaning that it covers the thematics of the exhibition in itself and links up with other pieces, like Gathering in the exhibition of the same name. My works might link up with each other through colour, contrast or scale. I feel that it is also interesting to leave some issues unresolved and question how the works could possibly relate to each other. I often think of my works as fragments – parts of a larger work, the exhibition.
Kaila: I feel that your latest works, from 2005 and 2006, relate to both objects and figures that are familiar from pictures, as well as to the strangeness and set-like quality of the representation, as in your work Hotel.
Rannikko: My works are stage-sets of a certain type. The sort of illusions created through set-design - they are shells, they are pictures. That is also why I have ended up with similar subjects – production situations, construction situations. I continue to build these up, layer upon layer, as Tarkovsky built up his film on the basis of Lem’s book.
Published in catalogue Terrarium, 2006. Parvs Publishing