Artist interview: Enni Suominen

Enni Suominen: Mortarium, 2020 (exhibition view) / Photo: HAM / Sonja Hyytiäinen

Mortarium by Enni Suominen is an exhibition at the HAM Gallery, the opening of which was planned for March. But things didn’t go as planned. The art museum’s coordinator Antti Kauppinen, who has had the opportunity to see the exhibition now waiting to be opened, discussed the artist’s works and the story of Mortarium with Enni Suominen. The discussion aims to open up the exhibition’s background, as well as Suominen’s work and thoughts on making art.

The HAM Gallery focuses on showcasing new modern art, and its operations are based on an open application process. Enni Suominen’s exhibition will open to the public when the museum opens. Admission to the HAM Gallery is free, and it is open during the museum’s opening hours, Tue–Sun 11 am–7 pm.

Antti Kauppinen: There’s a lyrical melancholy about an exhibition in a quiet and empty museum. How does that make you feel? What do you think about your exhibitions, in general? Do you get post-exhibition depression? Can you bear to look at your own exhibitions after they have been finished? Does the exhibition live on in you even after it’s ended?

Enni Suominen: I started installing the works when daily life in society was still completely normal. I spent an intensive week in the gallery, and the news changed day by day, until it was announced that museums would be closed. The installation is always an important stage for me, but I think installing this particular exhibition will stay with me forever. The installation stage is usually the last leg when creating an exhibition; you start to feel like you’re coming back to the world after having worked alone for months.

I spent most of the time installing the exhibition alone behind the gallery’s closed doors. It didn’t feel distressing to me; it was actually calming to focus on work in the middle of all the uncertainty and chaos. You could describe it as a kind of encapsulation. Of course, the subjects of my exhibition started gaining new aspects in my mind. The frescoes behind the closed doors create an extraordinary atmosphere in this situation. Towards the end of my installation process during the state of emergency, the amanuensis taking care of my exhibition (Jari Björklöv) remembered a powerful scene from Fellini’s Roma: where people drill through a wall and discover centuries-old frescoes that are quickly destroyed when subjected to oxygen-rich air.

It’s a common habit for me to feel a strange kind of curiosity towards my works after the installation. The exhibition feels so new it’s hard for me to fully understand it. My works are long-term processes that I concentrate on and feel shame over throughout the process. Fortunately, I’m able to remove myself from my works when installing them, to the extent that I feel like I’m arranging and wondering about objects that don’t belong to me. You start to lose the personal feeling, in a way.

Of course, I hope my works will endure through these exceptional times and it will be safe for people to come back to culture. But I believe this crisis will irrevocably change our view of the world.

AK: The exhibition includes works made with the fresco technique. This technique makes people think about sacred, ecclesiastical art. They also have a feeling of anciency: frescoes allow us to look across centuries, even millennia. What got you interested in them? Making frescoes is very challenging in terms of time; the drying base sets time and size limits for artistic intention. What does this particular method bring to you that you may feel you can’t get with other methods?

ES: These days, my artistic work involves a lot of reading and listening to lectures – searching for information. Still, the works involve physical action. Many parts of my works can be seen as displays of handicraft, but I’m also extremely interested in the relationship between the materials and my body and humans, in general. This means I approach my subjects by searching for information through various physical exercises. They can be observations of physical experiences, reactions, or even emotions, such as sadness.

I created my first fresco exactly three years ago when I participated in Malla Tallgren’s course on studying painting materials. I obtained my Master’s degree from the sculpture department of the Academy of Fine Arts, but my background is in painting. I worked for many years mainly priming canvases and painting with oil paints, until I grew a little irritated by it. I started reconsidering many things in my working methods. I thought about the smallest things, like the way the technical information of works is displayed: ‘oil on canvas’. I felt it doesn’t say anything about anything.

Frankly, I was horrified of making a fresco at first. It felt impossible! Making the base is hard work, the painting needs to be done fast, and you need to wait for several weeks for the results. Something in the technique appealed to me, but it took me a long time before I had the courage to come back to it. In the meantime, I learned to sculpt stone. After that, the threshold was probably low enough. I’ve regained my interest in painting, itself, after a long while. When finished, the works are stiff and hard as a rock, but as an artist, I’ve also experienced how the brush slightly sinks into the soft fresco base.

In frescoes, the history and the various timespans are fascinating. The materials are simple, in a sense: sand, lime paste and pigments. In addition to the art history related to fresco painting, I also think it’s essential to think about the materials’ history, past or journey.

AK: In the introduction text to Ham Gallery’s Mortarium exhibition, you mention the song The End of the World by Skeeter Davis. What kind of a role does environmental anxiety play in your work? Does it show in your choices of materials or subjects?

ES: Eco-anxiety has been a part of my life for a long time. I grew up in the city, but I’ve always had a connection to the countryside, forests, the archipelago, and the Eastern Gulf of Finland, in particular, through my grandparents. I’m extremely grateful for that. Many places still feel like safe havens that relieve anxiety, but naturally, the landscapes have changed even during my lifetime. As a teenager, my friends and I used to channel our energy into various protests. These days, I rarely participate in mass events. Instead, I process my concerns in different ways.

I see artistic work as broader than the work done in a studio, but it took me a long time to be able to think about environmental themes through art. I’ve had an urban agriculture patch with a small group of friends for 10 years. We’ve looked after it with varying success and skills. Regardless, it feels that at its best, these grounded experiences have been the source of all my thoughts.

Despite good deeds, being human is a kind of a burden and you can’t really wash your hands of it. However, I’ve tried to let go of most of my sorrow and directed my attention to the environment; I consider the involvement of ecologically problematic materials, such as plastic, in my works. I try to be responsibly curious and think about material, in general. It’s quite complex.

To me, the Skeeter Davis song represents sorrow, faith in that life will continue, and letting go of yourself. I don’t listen to it literally, but it’s primarily a song that relieves eco-anxiety for me. I think it’s important to also value the influences that enter your mind, even if they feel naive.

AK: With your exhibition, I started to wonder about the dialogue between organic form and industrial/mathematical form, the variation between an art object and ready-made objects. Your exhibition involves a fascinating dialogue between order, randomness, cracks, screw attachments that sink into glass pipes, etc. I’m not sure how to form a question about this, but maybe I could just banally ask: how far can imagination take a spectator? Are spectators lost if they are looking for metaphors or symbols in your art?

ES: I think it’s interesting how people are blind to their everyday surroundings, in a way. Then there are places where the surrounding materiality is present in a more powerful fashion. Many materials almost cheat us or give us messages or make promises of something. Different materials have different wills, and the intensities vary. This is reflected in us by how we value a specific substance or what kind of attention we give them.

When working on this exhibition, I visited the Juselius Mausoleum in Pori. As an environment, it’s very intense in terms of materials, and everything you see is symbolically charged. I spent a long while with the mausoleum guide. We discussed things such as the destruction of some of the frescoes there. The visit influenced me and this exhibition. When working on my art, I’m lost in such broad and complex thoughts, that I don’t think it’s bad if the spectators get sidetracked.

AK: Your exhibition is a full installation, a fascinating labyrinth of objects where you can spend hours just studying the details. Still, the rooms in the exhibition can also be seen at a single glance. All of the art is on the floor; the walls rising toward the ceiling are empty. This makes the space seem both grand and cosy. What do you want to say about viewing your art? What kind of path do you want visitors to take when the exhibition opens? Which observations from visitors are the most fascinating to you?

ES: It feels bewildering to even give direct advice on looking at the works. An installation that makes use of space is a challenging and exciting form even for the artist. I try to consider the gallery space when creating my works, but even I see the final work only when the installation is complete. I can console the visitors that even I’m slightly surprised by the views offered by the installation.

It’s important to me that visitors can move about in the space. I remember many interesting comments on my earlier works, both from people I know and strangers. I participated in the Kuvan kevät event of the Academy of Fine Arts in 2018. My work of art was placed in Amos Anderson’s old museum on Yrjönkatu. It spread to multiple levels in a wide space: from the balcony to the staircase and down to the lower landing, railings, walls and the floor. You could look at the installation from different perspectives. As they moved about in the exhibition, the visitors seemed to circle within my installation. I remember a spectator who told me they saw it as a dance. My other final project was displayed at the Project Room of the Academy of Fine Arts in December in the same year. There, I used two rooms, one of which I covered in white protective paper that would rise slightly towards the walls, making the corners look rounder. Many visitors felt slight disruptions to their sense of balance as they walked in the brightly lit white space. The other room was a kind of black box that I left completely dark. When people stepped for the light to the darkness, they reported sensing something strange in the air. Light often plays a role in my works. In the exhibition at HAM Gallery, I decided to keep the lighting very even and slightly cool. You may not pay much attention to it, but I think it will insidiously affect the atmosphere.

These are the aspects of a work of art that I can’t plan in advance. But I’m also not interested in creating calculated experiences. I find it fascinating how the sometimes surprising characteristics of the space or the works come to the surface only when the installation is complete.

AK: Where are you going next? Mortarium is a distinct entity and it seems it would be difficult to separate works from it. I’m sure there is a lot to work on and think about concerning these themes – or do you feel that this process was it for you? Is Mortarium an end to a specific process, or do you feel it’s still in progress within you and creating something new?

ES: I see my works as loose series of events that don’t end when the exhibition is finished. In a way, exhibitions are snapshots that open a dialogue with the outside world. Artistic work with themes is a slow kind of drift. For me, Mortarium is a continuation of my installations that have already been showcased. I don’t really have set future plans in my calendar right now, but the last few years have been extremely hectic. I feel this is a good time to comb through the experiences of these years. I believe that will show me the way.

Enni Suominen: Mortarium, 2020 (exhibition view) / Photo: HAM / Sonja Hyytiäinen