SECTION : TRANSFORMED IMAGES
Born in Helsinki in 1972, Elina Brotherus today shares her time between Finland and France. A graduate of the Helsinki University of Art and Design, the visual artist has developed a body of work of photographic and moving images, influenced by the history of art, literature and architecture. Experimenting with self-portraits, she questions the relation between the artist and the model, exploring the emotional landscape and the relations between the individual and the whole represented by others. Since 1997, her works have been regularly exhibited internationally and are found in several public collections: Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, or the Saatchi Collection in London. In the course of her career, Elina Brotherus has published nine monographs, and has received numerous awards (Prix Niépce, in 2005, la Carte Blanche PMU in 2017, among others).
“The glass ceiling and sexist discrimination in different forms are everyday life for women”
How did you become a photographer? Would you define yourself as a one?
My father was an amateur photographer. I remember him making black and white prints in the bathroom. He gave me my first camera when I was 7, and when he died, I inherited his Olympus. My mother became a widow at the age of 37 and went to art school. She had four fantastic years as an art student and painter. She took me to exhibitions and had a very contagious enthusiasm, before she passed away too. So one could say I’m a photographer thanks to my father, but I’m an artist thanks to my mother.
What drives you as a photographer?
In my new book Why not? that just came out (Hirmer Verlag and Weserburg Museum of Modern Art, Bremen 2020), museum director Janneke de Vries and curator Ingo Clauss talk about three important sources for my work: art history, literature and architecture.
Art history was already visible in an early series The New Painting (2000-2004). Then I got interested in the artist and the model and their intertwined relationship (especially in the case of self-portraiture). For five years now, I’ve been looking at more recent art history: Fluxus, John Baldessari, conceptual art of the 1960s and the 1970s. I use archival material like score sheets and other written instructions to trigger my photographs, or I invent my own scores in the same spirit. I love the lightness and the playfulness this approach has brought into my process.
My interest in literature manifested itself in a new body of work called Sebaldiana. Memento mori (2019). I took W.G. Sebald’s posthumously published fragmentary texts on Corsica as my guide when invited last year to work on the island by the Centre méditerranéen de la photographie. I went to places Sebald writes about, I stayed in the hotel he describes and I watched the sea from the beach where his narrator nearly drowns.
The third on-going chapter in my practice is architecture. I have been photographing in a number of iconic houses by architects such as Alvar Aalto, Michel Polak or Friedensreich Hundertwasser. It’s a different kind of architectural photography as I introduce a human presence in the space. I play different imaginary characters who could have lived in the house back in time or were perhaps friends or relatives on visit. The characters open up the house for the spectator and inspire possible storylines. I continue this series every time I get the opportunity.
Do you think there is such a thing as a ‘woman’s gaze’ in photography? Is this something you can relate to?
I think the concept of a women’s gaze has been more used in connection with film than photography. Ginette Vincendeau, Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London talks about “the reciprocity of the female gaze – or how it can counter the imbalance that is thought to corrupt the male gaze. There’s more of an equal power relation between the person depicted and the person depicting, which to me is a feminist gesture,” she says (Quote from The Guardian, Feb. 22 , 2020). To me this makes sense, so why not apply it to photography as well?
Nowadays it’s extremely rare for someone other than myself to appear in my images. What is striking about the way I show my model – my own figure – in the image, is that I don’t try to look good. I don’t need to please anybody’s gaze except my own aesthetic evaluation which has much more to do with the geometry of the picture plane than with being sexy.
Has being a woman influenced your work as an artist in any way?
Obviously women will never know how much their career would have taken off if they had been born male. In my native Finland, I believe an artist’s gender doesn’t play a big role in their status or ability to exercise their art. Our most famous contemporary artist is a woman: the video artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila. In many other countries the situation is very different. Last year I made a project in an Arab country and felt that the freedom of expression was often between the lines. There, women artists’ work is regularly censored, and women practice self-censorship too, anticipating what would or would not pass.
Between these two extremes is the gray area like France where women can do what they please but find it hard to be recognized and make a living from their art. Of course, it is also hard for men to break through, to get museum shows and great galleries. Still, and this is something no one can argue with, statistically it is easier for men than for women. There are loads of scientific studies that show it. The glass ceiling and sexist discrimination in different forms are everyday life for women. I love France but to tell you the truth, I find the male-female relationships in this country twisted. All those seduction games are disgusting and unprofessional.
I’m for anonymous candidacies in all sectors of life. It has been proven for instance that when orchestras hire new musicians, they hire a bigger proportion of women when the candidates play behind a curtain. Same should be done for applications of all kinds: from jobs to art prizes, residencies, grants… The jury should get the applications without seeing names or genders.
Do you live off your art?
I do, but it requires an international presence, working with several galleries, and not counting my hours. Occasionally I teach in workshops, but only if the workshop is short, located in a place where I want to go, and finally it has to be a hands-on workshop meaning I send the students out to work so I can do the same!
Which authors have inspired you? Are there any women photographers among them?
When I went to art school, I was, like everyone else, excited about Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin. They were the only two women photographers we had heard of. There was then –and still is today–, a lack of women in the canon of Western art. Art historians are now working to re-establish a more diverse and truthful history.
We need role models. We need to see women who are active artists – to project ourselves and to think: “If she did it, I can do it too”.
That’s why I wanted to take a picture of Valie Export who is now having a wonderful second coming. I want to show that there was a generation before ours. We should get to know these pioneer women of the feminist Avant-garde, and understand that there was not only Cindy Sherman. I admire them, and yet I almost suffocate when I think how hard it was for them. It may not be easy for us, but they were completely alone.
I would also like to mention two contemporary artists who work with moving images, photography and literature: Roni Horn and Tacita Dean. They are very inspiring. I’m particularly fond of the works they have done with other artists: You Are the Weather where Roni Horn photographs Margrét Blöndal in hot springs, and the films Tacita Dean made on Merce Cunningham performing John Cage’s 4’33”. They are brilliant, minimal yet beautiful works that never cease to touch me emotionally.