Why looking at dead horses might be good for you

‘Tis the time of sales, shopping and the sacred. Because of that, I’ve been thinking about an unexpected run-in with the sacred I had this past Autumn. It got me thinking – could the concept of sacred be useful for someone like me, at times like these?

I was visiting Toni R.Toivonen‘s exhibition at Galerie Forsblom. Toivonen labels his work as paintings, but they are made by placing animal carcasses on brass plates. The carcasses left to rot on the plates erode and stain the metal, leaving behind eerily beautiful shapes. The works are large, and the brass has a soft warm glow that’s very reassuring. It also brings to mind sacred art.

What is sacred and why?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists five meanings to the word sacred. One of them is “devoted exclusively to one service or use”. The animals Toivonen uses for his works could all be thought of this way. They are a source of company, food, raw materials.

Another meaning the dictionary lists is “entitled to reverence and respect”. Between production animals and pets there’s a vast difference of how much they are respected – at least in our Western society. My sister jokes her dogs eat better than she and her husband do. On the other hand, production animals are as often seen as little more than stuff food is made out of.

The last definition in the list is this: unassailable, inviolable. Sacred things are highly valued by those that hold them as such. The experience of sacred I had while looking at Toivonen’s work moved me deeply. Here these (not sacred) animals seem to be portrayed as such. Toivonen’s work made me think. Maybe they should be valued more.

The holy cow in the light of heaven

Compared to traditional christian sacred art, like icons, Toivonen’s work is very subdued. The only thing that drew me to make the connection was the warm glow of the brass reminding me of the haloes of saints long gone.

Cristo Morto, Pedro Américo, 1901, oil on canvas, 56×43 cm, Museu Casa de Pedro Américo

Icons are religious images which are meant to encourage the viewer in prayer and thought. They have strict rules about who and how should be depicted in them. Color has a strong meaning, and gold is the light of heaven. So, Toivonen’s animals might be seen basking in the eternal light of the heavenly kingdom.

A new sacred, maybe?

In a way, Toivonen’s works had a similar effect on me as icons are meant to have on their audience. They left me with a series of uncomfortable questions, and made me focus on my thoughts about my choices as a consumer. Looking at the vague imprints of these animals was a stark reminder that there are consequences to my choices; which clothes am I buying, what food am I eating? To be reminded of them by works of modern art was surprisingly welcome.

So what I’m proposing here is this: could pieces of art like Toivonen’s work as a kind of modern sacred image, encouraging us to reflect on our choices as consumers? After all, in the time of climate change and extinction, what could be more sacred than the lives and natural resources we’re so quickly running out of?

Article image: The only horse I ever rode, brass, original substances of a dead animal, 200 x 300cm, 2015, (original photo Jussi Tiainen)

The mouth of Helene – or why art is important

Like a lightning flash, I realised I had seen that mouth somewhere. Dads mouth was open, with a slightly confused and pained expression. Then it dawned on me: it was a self-portrait by a then 80-year old Helene Schjerfbeck, facing old age. Some six months ago I was standing next to a hospital bed in the ER, watching  helplessly as my dad fought for his life. Art is important in many ways, but here’s why it’s been important to me lately.

What is modern art?

Look, I get it. Modern art can be frustrating. Often it can seem like a puzzle to be solved, like some hidden message to be deciphered. Friends and family sometimes turn to me asking: “What’s the meaning of this artwork?” I share their frustration as I try to explain that there isn’t just one answer to that question.

Modern art – the kind that can consist of a single urinal – is about subjectivity. At the turn of the 19th century artists started making art based on their own experiences and feelings. Before this, art was made for rich people or the church – they paid, so they got to decide what went into the painting. Modern art changed that.

Challenging the notion that art must realistically depict the world, some artists experimented with the expressive use of color, non-traditional materials, and new techniques and mediums. Among these new mediums was photography, whose invention in 1839 offered radical possibilities for depicting and interpreting the world.

– MoMA, What is Modern Art? 

What this means for us, is that art after these trailblazers is much more subjective – there aren’t easy answers. That’s whats so great, and so frustrating about modern art: it makes you think. I can’t give you an absolute explanation of an artwork, because there isn’t just one.

Why is it important?

Great. So if we all see the urinal in a different way, what’s the point? Many of the early modern artists believed, that through depicting their individual experiences of the world and living in it, they could tap into something greater – a more universal, human experience of the world.

Even if our views of the mysterious urinal are different, we may be able to find some common ground  – and more importantly, we might recognize something familiar in the artwork that we can connect to. This way, art can help us face the universal questions of being human. This is the reason I wanted to research modern art. I noticed it often dealt with things I found hard to look at and to think of. Which is also why I think it’s important I think of and look at them consciously. Art can help with this.

What about Helene?

Thankfully, dad is better now. Even so, during these past months I have been thinking a lot about how fragile life is – and how final death is. For months I avoided thinking about those visits to the ER. If the image of my fathers helpless open mouth popped into my mind, I quickly pushed it away.

Some time later, I was leafing through a book, and came face to face with Helene’s mouth again. Maybe enough time had passed, but somehow it was easier to face those memories with her – looking at this self-portrait. I explore these thoughts in my PhD research – that maybe it’s easier for us to deal with painful experiences by facing them through art. After all, when looking at Helene’s self-portrait I realised I was not alone. Art is important, because it can help us find a connection with each other.

Posing with pulla – can self-portraits shed a light on our relationship with food?

Pulla is a traditional Finnish pastry similar to the world-famous cinnamon roll. In her self-portrait Symbioosi (2009) Finnish artist Iiu Susiraja (1975–) poses with pulla in a way reminiscent of the icons of Virgin Mary. In my previous post I wrote about art and its ability to offer perspective. Now I’d like to see what Susiraja’s self-portrait can show us about our relationship with our bodies and food.

First, let me introduce you to Susiraja. She’s a photographer known for her painfully honest and humorous self-portraits in which she often poses with food items. [1] What makes her self-portraits especially poignant is that she is overweight. In an interview with Kodin Kuvalehti-magazine (2014), she describes herself as “thick and happy” while recalling past shame about her weight and later overcoming it by becoming “openly fat” through her art.

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Why though?

We’ve probably all had to deal with that devil on the shoulder asking if whatever you’ve chosen as your professional career makes any sense – it’s not really worth anything, is it? Most of the time, there’s a relatively easy way out, something to validate the choices made: “I’m a nurse to help save lives” or “I’ll make myself a boatload of cash to have a comfy retirement”. But what if you’re an art historian?

I’ve now been working on my PhD in art history full time for six months, a year before that with a job on the side. Before getting into art history I studied to be a visual artist, and did my bachelor’s degree in art – oil painting, to be more precise. In a moment of weakness, I cried at the graduation dinner with my family, because I felt I’d chosen a useless field as my career. Why couldn’t I have just kept it as a hobby like so many others, and done something sensible, like… accounting? My father was furious. He wasn’t furious because of my choice, but because for a moment I’d lost my faith in myself. He’d supported me financially through studies and bought me paints and canvases since I was a kid. He’d worked his ass off at a stressful job so that I could do what I wanted. And it’s true, I really wanted to ‘do art’. But is it enough?

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Why do artists paint (gross) self-portraits?

You know the feeling. Accidentally flicking on the front-facing camera on your phone, and coming face to face with the horror: a double-chin and squinting eyes. So why would anyone deliberately waste time and energy to paint themselves looking, well – gross? There’s a reason this is an important question, and it’s not just about the looks.

I’ve painted self-portraits because I wanted to study the light and shadow on a face – any face – and mine was the easiest to study. I’ve painted self-portraits of myself when going through difficult stuff in my life. Technical study, examination of the outer and inner self – similar motives for painting self-portraits can be identified throughout their history.

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