Artist interview: Inka Bell

Inka Bell / Photo: Paavo Lehtonen


The HAM gallery is running Inka Bell’s exhibition Passage, which was open to the public for a week before coronavirus restrictions shut down HAM in its entirety. In the meantime, curator Heli Harni from the Art Museum had a conversation with Inka Bell regarding her artistic work. The conversation sheds light on the background of the creation of the Passage exhibition. 

The HAM Gallery focuses on showcasing new modern art. Its exhibitions are selected annually through an open application process. Entry to the HAM gallery is free, and the gallery is open within the Museum’s opening hours (Tue–Sun 11.00–19.00).

Inka Bell, artist, and Heli Harni, curator at HAM

Heli Harni: Inka Bell, it’s been a long time since you submitted your exhibition application to HAM. Since then, almost the whole world has changed. In the last year, coronavirus restrictions have affected the times of your exhibitions on several occasions. Last autumn was a busy period for you, as you were putting together your MFA Degree Show for the Uniarts Helsinki’s Academy of Fine Arts and your HAM gallery exhibition back to back. However, HAM had to close its doors due to coronavirus restrictions in December 2020, causing your HAM gallery exhibition to have been closed for a long time now. How challenging is working as an artist for you in these times? 

Inka Bell: Even though uncertainty is always present in my work one way or another, the fear of possibly falling ill or being quarantined has taken a significant amount of resources from my actual artistic work in the last year. Luckily, nothing catastrophic has happened yet, however.

HH: In any case, you are now about to graduate from the subject area of printmaking of the Uniarts Helsinki’s Academy of Fine Arts as a visual artist (MFA). What kind of effects has the coronavirus had on the work situation and everyday life of a newly graduated artist?

IB: I would like to see more attention paid to basic income security for artists and other operators in the field of culture. However, I’ve been in a relatively fortunate position, as with the exception of last spring, my everyday life and work have continued as normally as is possible in this global situation.

HH: The basis of graphics lies in printing work, in which one printing plate can be used to create several prints. The essence of printmaking is in a constant state of change, and new themes, material processing methods and work phases have been introduced. You are working with printmaking on a broad scale and using a variety of methods. What does that mean? How can these new practices and processes be seen in your work and your art in general? What is your relationship with more conventional printmaking techniques like?

IB: I often say that I’m working in an expanded field of printmaking, which to me means having an open mind when it comes to the tools used, the materials and their presentation. With each work, I always think about what technique would be best suited for the work. I also like to combine new ways of creating images with more conventional printmaking.

The pieces for this exhibition were created primarily by utilising lithography and a laser cutter. These two techniques are far from one another in terms of both their history and their application.

HH: Could you tell us a little more about the roots of your creative process for your paper-based works? Where does the idea come from? What is the significance of handcrafting in the creation of your pieces?

IB: I’m constantly inspired by colours, materials and techniques. Consequently, my work often starts from the relationship between these elements.

I often use a computer to draft and work on my pieces, as it’s the most natural way for me to process different colour combinations and thoughts about the nature of the work. I’m endlessly fascinated by how the pieces sort of come to life and change as they find their physical form.

For the works presented in the exhibition, I chose lithography as the primary technique, as the technique mixes colours in a way that suits my work the best. Of conventional techniques, I’m the most adept at serigraphy, but due to the properties of the colours and the nature of printing, I couldn’t have made the pieces work like I wanted them to with that technique.

Even though I utilise a wide variety of machines in my work, I like to have the final look of the piece be determined by my own handiwork. It’s often in this phase in particular that the work starts going into directions that I couldn’t think of in advance. To me, that is the most important phase in my work.

HH: Colour prints have several layers, as surfaces of different colour require their own colour processing. In your works, two colour surfaces often meet. You also often name your works after two colours. How do the “clash of colours” and the layered nature of colour combinations affect to the final result? What do different colours mean to you?

IB: I experience and approach colours without any kind of symbolism. They serve as the starting point for my works, especially in this exhibition.

For example, when working on the lithographs, the printers and I adjusted and fine-tuned the intensity between the colours for quite a long time. While making the prints, I noticed that even small changes to the colour dynamics could completely change the nature of the work, turning it from calming to intense or vice versa, for example. I also noticed that the longer you look at the colour surfaces, the more they reveal about themselves.

Roma Auskalnyte helps with printing using an old offset printer in autumn 2020. Video: The artist’s archive. © Inka Bell

HH: What does the name of your exhibition, Passage, mean?

IB: To me, it means some kind of a passageway into the unknown. For example, the clash of two colour surfaces creates a third colour, which appears to almost change the longer you look at it.

HH: Some of your art works made from paper take a sculptural form or become part of the overall installation. Some of the works in the Passage exhibition are installed on the gallery room floor, or they have kind of “slid” off the wall towards the floor or been placed on the wall in a tensioned, layered formation. For example, when looking at your largest work, Black and Greyish White, you can feel its physical essence and how the work lives on the wall. How precisely according to your plans are your works built and spread in the room during the installation phase?

IB: When working on the large black and white prints, I didn’t want to design the work too meticulously, so as not to restrict the piece’s potential for change and growth in the installation phase. I performed small material experiments and made calculations in terms of aspects such as the piece’s attachment, but the whole work didn’t find its final form until it was installed. As a rule, I don’t want to plan the installation too meticulously, as I find it will change anyway when I get to experience the space and the works around me.

In this exhibition, even delicate paper pieces are nailed straight onto the wall or placed on the bare floor without a pedestal, as using additional elements such as glass would have distanced the viewer too much from experiencing the colour and the material. To me, a conventional ‘white cube’ of a gallery room often gives a much more experimental starting point for presenting the works than, for example, a room that wasn’t designed for presenting visual art. This may be because of the material I use, paper, which is highly susceptible to all external factors.

HH: The design language of your works exudes abstract minimalism. What do you find essential in an individual work? 

IB: I try to strip everything unnecessary from my works, leaving only what I find to be essential, whatever it may be to me at that given time. I also hope that the different surfaces displayed in my pieces and the tensions between them give the viewer room to reflect their own thoughts in the middle of today’s flood of imagery.

Personally, I find that my works kind of continue outside the image surface, serving as abstract observations of sorts and snapshots of something invisible.

HH: Some of your works exhibited at the HAM gallery were completed at the Tamarind Institute residence in New Mexico. What was working there like?

IB: I worked with three printers at the residence, which allowed me to focus solely on the visual aspects of the works without having to think too much about the technical challenges or my own limits. Especially with these works, my own abilities or patience wouldn’t have been enough to realise them at the level I wanted. In these prints, the printer’s handiwork and understanding of the nature of the colours also give the pieces their own visual layer.

During the residency, we made proofs of the prints first. The series themselves were edited over the course of the following year. The arrangement felt challenging at first, as I was used to making my own prints, but the experience ended up being really fruitful. In fact, I continued the whole with two more print series at Helsinki Litho in Finland.

The nature of New Mexico was gorgeous, giving me an entirely new perspective on the United States. Even though I only saw the place through a car window for the most part, it made the residence experience and the setting really impressive. I was lucky to have my residency just before the pandemic started to spread across the globe.

Valpuri Remling, Mike Feijen and Perry Obee working on proofs of the Passage series at the Tamarind Institute residence workshop in December 2019. Image: The artist’s archive. © Inka Bell 

HH: How has balancing your artistic work and family life been going for you?

IB: For a long time, I was afraid of the challenge of reconciling these two things, which are actually different identities. But I find that working is actually easier now that I can’t immerse myself in my work around the clock. Especially now that we’re in the final stretch of the little years, I can also bring my child with me to my studio.

Thank you for the interview, Inka Bell! Congratulations on your graduation, and we wish you success in your future exhibitions! 

Inka Bell / Photo: Paavo Lehtonen


Inka Bell: Passage