Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Vivi-Mari Carpelan: "Waiting for the Russian Cargo Train I", 2010

I woke up early from a dream that seemed incredibly sad to me. I recall chasing a Shaolin monk somewhere in a rocky area, he kept disappearing behind the rocks. I wanted his attention and wisdom. It was such a telling dream about the frustrations I feel in regards to trying to promote my art. My art should have a life of its own, like it used to. It should speak to people because it has something that people want. Yet this set up isn't working any more. Not only do I have to work on staying motivated in the face of so much indifference, I also have to justify my practice and try and get my art noticed by people who matter. I'm sure it's something that appears perfectly normal to a lot of people. But deep inside my spiritual self is rebelling against something that seems to push me into a very egocentric mode. In other words, I find it very hard to retain an empowered and confident state of mind without slipping into ways of enhancing the ego. I see it as the the conflict between being driven and being ambitious.
A Shaolin monk - read this excellent article on practicing Shaolin qigong
I have slept an enormous lot since Christmas, first in response to extreme exhaustion and then in response to the surgery under general anaesthetics that left me in pretty deep recovery mode. I still had to take my medication at night but in the mornings I just slept and slept and had such a hard time getting up as my body felt incredibly heavy. One could really call it hibernation! And don't even get me started on how I am trying to pursue my exercise, as the lack of it really gives me pain and depresses the body. But now I'm woken up... the difficulties to sleep have kicked in and it's hardly surprising that my body had enough of all that rest and is now preparing for action. But this is where the trouble begin, because I have to re-motivate myself, find that strength of mind and focus that allows me to pursue my calling. Before Christmas it was high tide, now is low tide. It too will pass... but the trick is not to let it take over but allow for subconscious processing (see my blog post on this).

Vivi-Mari Carpelan: "Waiting for the Russian Cargo Train II", 2010

I admit that I got very discouraged yesterday for a variety of reasons. Martin is writing grant applications, and among other important concerns he's trying to emphasise a desire to get away from the glitzy world of digital art and only use it as a tool for making "proper" artwork in traditional media (mostly tempera and coloured pencils at this point in time). I saw some beautiful art online - Wangechi Mutu I already talked about. On Glossom I found a couple of collections with tantalizing images, Liz Huston and Audrey Smith. If you click on the names you will see the collections, hover over the parts and that way you'll see the whole images. I'm not sure whether the latter is altogether digitally produced, she says it's mixed media but really photomontages. The point is, these are rather simple yet strong compositions with vivid colours. That's what people will vote for if you ask them... they are very easy to like and the symbolism may be part of it but in a way that doesn't necessarily demand anything from the viewer. Again I'm thinking that it's a bit like what I was doing in the 1990s, only on paper - in my case my messages were definitely very strong but people didn't feel obliged to understand them literally. But now - not only are we are flooded with images, but we also don't have the attention span to spend on a single piece on the internet. It's in the nature of the media and I see it as a threat to real, physical art. I can only hope that people increasingly start wanting something that is less like fast food, as a call from the their souls and because glamorous art leaves you rather empty. Ok. well it's not entirely true because when I look around in my studio there are images on my walls that are present for aesthetic reasons more than anything else. It's my taste in colours and compositions. But I guess one thing does stand out and it's "history" and "life". These images convey something along these lines that stimulate me. And of course, if I had money I'd purchase real art that pleased my sense of the aesthetics. 

The point is however, that I feel I can't compete with all these people who are so talented with the digital media, or who are just damn good at creating intricate and amazing mixed media work. I don't want to make my condition into an excuse... yet the truth is that I have a lot of trouble making things by hand. Because it requires such physical and mental efforts I also get more attached to the pieces, yet there is always a sense of dissatisfaction because I feel I'm not able to push myself to the limits. By that I mean, that I know I could probably do even better if I had the stamina to work even harder. 

I know artists often feel their work isn't good enough. And to be honest, it's not that often that I am impressed by other people's work. Many people find a formula that sells, and stick with it - I'm afraid I can't really respect people who don't continue to evolve. Or their standards are too low for my liking. So my challenge is to try and continue to evolve, push myself to experiment a bit more, yet stick to my calling regarding the message I want to get across. Will anyone care? Will I ever be able to create a body of work that will really attract people to come and say "wow" but also contemplate the subject matter? Will they see something truly valuable in the real thing out there in real life that they aren't able to pick up on the internet? Right now I just don't know.

Vivi-Mari Carpelan: "Train Arriving", 2008

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Vivi-Mari Carpelan: "Primordial Chaos II", from experiments with ink at art college, 1994
There is a fine line between getting discouraged and wanting to give up, and deciding to try even harder. The art sector is a tough world and I am constantly aware of this tension within myself. Luckily I have reached an inner decision that helps me feel determined to keep going until I get proper acknowledgement for my artistic efforts.

Vivi-Mari Carpelan: "X - Surviving in the World of the Fitter"
I entered the Saatchi online showdown competition for collages and assemblages, with my collage "X - Surviving in the World of the Fitter". For those who do not know, Charles Saatchi is a rich patron of the arts who has set up a classy museum and gallery in the centre of London. He is known for having bought seminal pieces by Tracey Emin that got destroyed in a warehouse fire. The gallery space you get online is free and many use it as their website. In this online competition, only the top 300 advance to the juried voting round, and sadly my piece wasn't among them. Chances are not great as there are close to 2000 entries, but I'm trying to participate in as many things as possible, especially when they don't cost any money or require any great immediate efforts. I didn't quite realize though, that my efforts to advertise my artwork was mentally strenuous and so not making it to the second round left me feeling quite empty and distressed - today anyway. 

I'm not going to tear down the whole Saatchi emporium just because I didn't make it through the first voting round, but I will talk a bit about it because participating in it made me think about what it really is about and whether it works as a "phenomenon". Okay, well I will probably have to admit to some driving force behind the failure... yet I will try and be objective about it all nonetheless. The first thing to realize is that getting further into the competition is the result of pure chance. This is also my main objection! What is the point with a competition which is really in the hands of a fickle and totally random audience who sees your artwork on the screen on a minimal scale of about 3x5 cm? And of course, it's all set up so people won't be viewing the pieces for more than a couple of seconds if even that. It's like Martin put it, people are almost like subjects of some research where they are put in a dark room only to press a yes or no button as quickly as images pass them by, ten per second or so...

What I found on closer inspection was that I had many more views and likes than most of the pieces that ended up amongst the 300 that made it through the preliminary voting round! I was also trying to be nice and interactive by voting for others, but in reality the votes cast probably ended up counting against myself. I wonder who actually participates in the voting if it's not the participants themselves? I know I had quite a few votes but apparently not enough. What also worries me is that unassuming people see the paired up artworks which are being put up against each other, and click on the more complex one in order to see it better. This would take them away from the voting site altogether, unable to return to the piece they liked! At least when I did this, I was not able to vote for the artwork I was looking at because some other random pair came up instead. This hypothetical behaviour amongst the audience might very well have been the case with my piece, which was intricate and probably made people want to see it on a bigger scale.

On the other hand people who are voting are hardly looking for meaning, only whatever is instantly attractive to them. These are usually rather simple compositions with striking colours. This would be especially true for the collages. And who wants meaning anyway? All it does is it creates more brain work!

I was hoping that my collage would attract attention for its contents, especially as the main member of the jury, Wangechi Mutu, seemed like someone who might take an interest in social and political statements. "Her paintings and collages often feature writhing female forms, their skin an eruption of buboes, mutant appendices like gun shafts or machine gears sprouting from the sockets of joints, their bodies half human, half hyena. They offer a glimpse at the perversions of the body and the mind wrought by forces active in the oppression of women." (from the artist's statement at the Victoria Miro Gallery website). The images are very beautiful, so I will divert a bit from the subject here by presenting a couple of her pieces:

Wangechi Mutu: "Intertwined", 2003 (collage and watercolour)
Wangechi Mutu: untitled
The Artist says (on the Saatchi Gallery website):
“Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male.
Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.” 

Backlash Blues
Wangechi Mutu: "Blacklash Blues" 2004 (mixed media collage)
I recommend looking at pictures and reading more here
My only possible critique might be that there sometimes seems to be more in her words about the oppression of women than I am able to perceive in her art. There is always a problem with the tension between representation and interpretation, especially when it's subjective. If anything, often times the beauty of her expression suggests things far less socially corruptive than her feminist view seems to imply!

In fact I did similar experiments with ink and plastic film at art college but never took it further, yet it's something that has been on my mind ever since... now I have regrets! Well once I have a new scanner and ink jet printer things should take a turn... it has been hard to experiment with anything due to a lack of space, well my studio is not big but at least it's a studio and not just the corner of a bedroom! On the other hand I have to admit that I want to avoid using a lot of plastic and this would probably be another "criticism" of Wangechi's work.

Vivi-Mari Carpelan: "Primordial Chaos I", from experiments with ink at art college 1994
Back to the Saatchi showdown; of course I never got as far as being seen by a proper judge and art critic...  instead my piece was in the hands of a very random selection of disinterested voters... I don't know if I have misread the instructions but it sounded to me as if I cannot enter any other competitions on Saatchi once I have submitted one piece to one showdown. What's that all about?!

Another objection I have is that this particular competition but probably many others too, don't make a distinction between digital and handmade collages. Digital collages are created on a small computer screen and the colours tend to be quite vivid. Very often people borrow other people's photographs in doing this, which of course is especially objectionable. It's easy enough to create a flashy digital image, but how often do we see anything with any meaning attached to it? The digital image will obviously seem very attractive to people who are viewing it on their own computer screen. I really don't think this is a fair game.

Handmade collages often have a lot of other things going for them, for instance texture and meaning, but very often this is not that easily conveyed on a computer screen (which is backlit). It gets even worse when the collage is too big to be scanned (unless you pay a lot of money for that of course). I did see some appalling examples of badly photographed collages. I did my best with my Nikon D90 but in the winter the light is bad. I did two attempts, the second caption was incredibly poor. I had in fact forgotten that we do have a floodlight, when we bought it for our wedding I said I would use it for photography and so it was a good investment. Martin has taken it to the workshop for storage where he works sometimes, and I forgot all about it! It will surely help matters a great deal.

By the end of the day, I believe that the art work that receives attention in exhibitions are not the digitally constructed ones (it's not very easy or cheap to make decent print outs that have the same vividness about them), but the intricate and complex ones that people can get lost in. I am personally starting to see more reasons for doing real exhibitions and also for visiting them rather than restricting my perception by looking at a lot of art on the internet.

Before the Saatchi competition for collages, there was one for drawings. I did follow that a bit and there were certainly many attractive drawings on show. I was very disappointed with the winning pieces though. They were boring and minimalist, totally devoid of any meaning whatsoever. I was complaining to Martin, suggesting that "only empty, minimalist and boring artwork seems to be appreciated" His answer was, "... or only empty, minimalist and boring work seems to be understood ...!". 

This is indeed a very depressing prospect. Martin thinks that minimalism is on its way out. I can understand that the British are still entranced by functionalism and the minimalism that tends to go with it, since modernism has never really been a very strong style in a very conventional country where most people grew up in claustrophobic Victorian terrassed houses. One would think people would be good at creating the exact opposite to the complex language of forms that they are used to, but I don't see much evidence of this ever really working out here in the UK. I was thinking that maybe this was the secret to my success in the 1990s - I made opulent work that was something a lot of people in minimalist Finland were really craving for deep inside.

I remember the artists that were sought after in Finland in those days, they were very often rather badly drawn and painted figures of animals or stones surrounded by messy brush strokes in really dismal and depressing colours... Here is a collection of Finnish artists who have been popular between 1980 and 2006. When will the muddy colours give way for something a little less dismal and simplistic? I have seen the same preference for such colour schemes here in Wales and Martin who has seen more Welsh art than I says it really looks very similar. Muddy colours don't equal depth and meaning! And what's up with the repetitive compulsion for such static compositions, where there is often just one element, drawn as a side elevations? This suggests a rather conventional perspective. Anything to do with the climate...? Haha (the climate is what people always blame everything for but you would think people longed for colour in a grey climate!).

Leena Luostarinen "Tiger", 1980

Kimmo Kaivanto - unfortunately I don't have a date

Ulla Rantanen,  "Brief Life" 2006

Ulla Rantanen "Rock in the Water", 1980

Susanne Gottberg - I don't have a date, as far as I remember she came into fashion in about 2000

Nina Roos, "Positions and Reversals", "Not Yet Said Not Yet Done" 2007-2008
The artist was rewarded with the Carnegie Art Reward in 2004

Kuutti Lavonen, "Rafael" 2004

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Martin and Vivi-Mari at the Hanko Art Society Summer Exhibition 2010
My latest thoughts on how I'd like to develop my art is that I want to merge my photography with my collages. I will increase the use of the technology at hand and print images on the laser printer I got last spring. In order to pursue my ideas to the fullest I do however need a new scanner (the cheaper ones are nowadays absolute crap because they try and make them thin) as well as a large format ink jet printer. 

I will continue to pursue social possibly criticism and commentary. Art wise, it seems to me that collages have a tendency of being the medium for social and political commentaries, perhaps because artists often find material in newspapers and magazines, and the allusions to existing or historical political personalities can be made obvious. Recently, vintage collaging and scrap booking has become a popular craft not to be mistaken for art, as imagery is often stereotyped and lacking in any deeper meaning or purpose beyond being "pretty". See political and social collages here.

I was in surgery for the removal of a umbilical hernia last week and am not feeling to good. I'm having to postpone starting the collages I have in mind. I'm in a hurry to get going. One of them is aimed at the MOMA Wales open exhibition next summer, the theme being "movement". It's inspired by the (dreaded!) olympics but doesn't have to conform to the subject of sports. I have an idea which is meant to illustrate dysfunctional childhood... another idea I have is to illustrate what is really wrong with me in a very direct way, in the form of a piece of art. I decided that I could do that if I make sure only the right kind of audience will see it. The point is, it's not always easy for me to quickly sum up the health problems and other social challenges I've always struggled with, and it might be a good thing to just point at the artwork. 

I'm excited to be interacting with the Arts Council, as I found out through networking that there is a programme for artists who are in some way disadvantaged. It's quite ironic that I've spent my whole life trying to cover up the fact that I have so many health issues and can't function on the level of "normal" people, and now I have to unravel it all! For instance, I've heard people say that looking at my CV and the quality of my work, I seem very prolific and professional in my approach. I've had lots of exhibitions and so forth. 

What is not so obvious at first glance, is that I have been doing this for a long time (undisturbed by working life or children for the most part), and that the exhibitions started to be further apart as I got older. I pushed myself a lot when I was younger, had to literally carry my own artwork a lot of the time (as I didn't have a car nor knew anybody who had one), and only occasionally I had some help (which was usually by my mother). It just got too difficult as time went by and I was less able to whip myself into action. I've only had two grants, both of which came to me fairly easily and really due to family connections. I never had the energy to seek bigger grants, and when I did try for smaller ones a couple of times it became obvious that I didn't know quite what to ask for and how to state my case. I also felt that what I had to say was not very interesting to the authorities, who were often incredibly snotty people. Thanks to the first grant I had an exhibition in a commercial art gallery in central Helsinki, but after that I've shown in all sorts of places (libraries, cafes, culture centres) that didn't cost anything or asked for some art in return. 

I did quite well in the 1990s, as my world was appreciated by the audiences in Southern Finland. But after the turn of this Century things got more and more difficult. The reasons were that I was very preoccupied by relationship issues, that I didn't have a clear direction (I felt I had said it all, already), that I had trouble drawing and painting by hand, and that I didn't have the energy or the help to set up many meaningful exhibitions. On top of that the art market was going down. In fact I was about to give it all up when I met Martin. He has the motivation, ability to focus, and physical strength to help me. Yet I cannot rely on him alone, as he has to develop his own art and try and market it. 

Arriving in Wales was very daunting, as I was suddenly anonymous. How was I going to reinstate a career in the arts when I really don't have a lot of extra energy to spend? Luckily, I do have a track record, and hopefully things will sort themselves out gradually. In spite of feeling quite bewildered, I try and flip the coin as often as possible and see all the opportunities rather than all the competition. As a result of my relocation I've had to do lots of inner work and reinvent myself a little. You get so shaken up that elements of your inner self start floating around like debris in water, only to settle in new places. Decisions about sticking with the arts and focusing my vision have been made - now all I need to do is put it all in practice at my own pace, and hope the money and mentors comes to support my endeavours. I also have some more creative freedom thanks to digital aid (I have a colour laser printer for instance, purchased when we had a bit of money). Similar processes are going on with Martin, who seems to finally be getting somewhere. He's now having a much sharper approach to his own artistic expression, and is in the process of communicating with funders about it. It's looking up!

Some more photos from my studio:

"Archangel Michael", artwork by Finnish-Swedish artist Ester Helenius (1875-1955) in the background.

"Russian Revolutionary Art", a little booklet from way back in time in the background
This costume drawing for my grandmother by the famous Platonov is casually stuck behind this frame,
it will be properly framed one day...