Sudden changes from painting to sculpture and back to painting

Philosophical reflections on the three-dimensional works of Vesa-Pekka Rannikko
Veli-Matti Saarinen

Vesa-Pekka Rannikko's most recent three-dimensional works present 'typical' images, images that are recognisable in a completely different way; they are akin to sculpture - though it is sculpture that has a distinctly painterly character. He uses coloured plaster to achieve the same kind of sketchy effect that Rembrandt, for example, does in his later period. If you look closely, they appear to be unfinished sketches, because you can see traces of the way he has worked the thick masses of oil paint. Viewed from further away, Rembrandt's paintings look like perfectly refined illusions of reality.

If you look at Rannikko's three-dimensional works from a little further away, they seem to lose their three-dimensional quality: they become like unframed paintings. In this situation, the works are something other than either sculptures or paintings. They are like a genre of visual objects that are unknown to us, which make us strongly aware of the linguistics of visual presentation.

It is characteristic of Rannikko's art that the enjoyment attached to them does not seem to be associated with recognising the object that is the subject of the image; this would correspond to Aristotelean ideas about the usefulness and enjoyment of art. Classical art theory and Aristotelean ideas about art are really not the right context for looking at Rannikko's work. The enjoyment generated by his work is, on the other hand, connected with the fact that, in conjunction with them, we recognise the structure of our visual language: we can see how the language of art moulds our reality. And still more strongly, when I become suddenly aware of the limitations of presentation in painting and sculpture, I know immediately what can be brought out, generally speaking, by sculpture or by painting.

Looking at Rannikko's work arouses a certain amount of uncertainty about what one actually sees in them. At the trivial level we can see, for example, newsreel pictures of successful ice hockey players, or let's say the Sakari Topelius statue, where the man who is so familiar to us from Finnish banknotes appears with a group of children. We see images of everyday objects and other typical subjects. Our everyday life takes place in an endless flood of trivial images. Our everyday life in the world of images is deadened, dulled and stupefied.

It is precisely against this background that the power and significance of Rannikko's visual objects come to the fore: it is not a matter of depicting something already known, but rather a refined shift in the methods of presentation of sculpture and painting, which calls into question the rules of visual representation as a whole. Thus Rannikko's works raise a number of questions: what can we actually represent if two-dimensional and three-dimensional methods of representation are thought of as a matter of relativity? What can we actually imagine? At what point do we come up against the boundaries of our imaginative faculties? Are our mental pictures two-dimensional dreams from television or advertisements? How does our mind shape our imagination?

Behind Rannikko's work lies a philosophical question associated with modern - and postmodern - art: how do our different languages in general (different languages of art as much as languages operating with the aid of concepts) impart form to reality? How do all our different languages create everything that we differentiate as existing? Different languages create our reality in different ways. However, our languages are not immutable. We create, we change and we shape our languages all the time, with the result that what exists (for us) - our world, if you like - is in a constant state of flux.

Behind this question associated with the modern tradition, is the eighteenth-century philosophical discussion about the origin of language: does language have a divine, animal or human origin and in what way? From the point of view of later theory of art, one of the more interesting answers is the view put forward by Johann Gottfried Herder in his treatise Abhandlung Ÿber den Ursprung der Sprache, according to which humanity, linguistic ability and human rationality are all closely interlinked. Humans are thinking, language-creating beings who can recognise the characteristics on which concepts are based.

The thing that is fundamental about this position is that Herder thinks of language as 'developing', or to put it more precisely, changing continuously as a consequence of human activity. Herder took the view that the language of his own time had lost something essential in its capacity for expression. According to him "Our bourgeois way of life and our social mores have potentially dammed up, dried up and watered down the ocean of our passions." Nevertheless, if people really want to, it is always possible to change and develop language, as long as the idea that language is wholly the creation of the human race is taken seriously enough.

Soon after Herder's time, the early German Romantics applied the idea in the following way: art has its own language that can be and is developed, the instruments of presentation which are in the hands of the people and which are used to create images of the world. These languages are equivalent to our world.

When examining the 'development' of languages historically, Herder also shows how religious ideas are tied up with the capacity of language to differentiate. Religious ideas call for a linguistic history of their own, so that a certain language is able to differentiate things in a certain way. According to Herder, "All missionaries throughout the world complain about the difficulty of communicating Christian ideas to the uncivilised in their own language, although expressing them should not be a matter of scholastic dogma but shared ideas of common understanding." Herder thinks this is a particularly difficult problem because in some languages, the concept of 'Holy', for example, does not exist (as in certain South American languages) or there is no concept of 'spirit' (in the Hottentot language, for instance). According to Herder, there are also major difficulties in communicating Christian ideas in the context of certain European languages, and he gives the Lappish, Finnish and Estonian languages as examples.

Herder takes the view that civilization is precisely a matter of the development of language. Only by assiduously and unceasingly creating language do people make different things - things that are ever finer, more complex and more difficult to access - real or comprehensible to themselves. In Herder's thinking, the ability of language to differentiate, which is something that can be improved unceasingly, identifies with the diversity of the world. The things that we consider to be divine are entirely dependent on the kind of differentiation we can make using our language.

When the modern concept of art came into being in the projects of the early German Romantics, Herder's demand for civilisation - the development of language - was interpreted above all as a demand for reflecting on and developing the nature of the language of art. Friedrich Schlegel, for example, called for the development of a language of Romantic poetry because there are things associated with our reality that cannot be expressed with sufficient spirit in any other way. As examples, Schlegel gives the miracle of birth, sudden metamorphoses of form and God. In order for these things to be made real or comprehensible at the intellectual level, we have to bring together all previous written forms of expression and on top of this, we have to interlink them with, for example, literature, philosophy, criticism and life.

Another interesting thing about the advent of the modern concept of art is that as the new language of literature develops, the importance of illustration comes very strongly to the fore. It becomes a fundamental issue that we can use images - not only in visual art but in literature, too - to present things that become divorced from other aspects of our language in a wholly unique manner.

In Rannikko's work it is not a matter of creating a visual language from a vacuum, but rather a playfulness in ways associated with seeing that seem unquestionable in our culture. At different stages in Rannikko's work we can sense an opportunity to see something else. Perhaps a two-dimensional figure in a familiar painting can come to life as an entirely new entity in a three-dimensional reality.

Veli-Matti Saarinen is an academic who specialises in the theory of art and has written a doctoral thesis on Friedrich Schlegel and his ideas about Romantic literature.

Published in book: Vesa-Pekka Rannikko:Terrarium, 2007