Retreating from exceptional seasonal snowfall that has swept across Europe like a canvas blanket thrown over the world by Bulgarian artist ‘Christo’, Finnish photographers Tuomo Manninen, Milja Laurila and Saara Ekström are a diligent breed of stalwart artists, both in and outside of Helsinki, who have taken to the camera with a personal ambition and beautiful sensitivity that appears to shine a light into the darkness in this corner of Scandinavia. Given their isolation from the rest of Europe there is a clear polarity between the accomplished choreography of Tuomo Manninen’s portrait series, in which he worked in locations as culturally rich as Kathmandu and St. Petersburg and Milja Laurila’s work On the Way Home: a contemporary manuscript entrenched in in her local geography.
An emerging talent among her contemporaries, Milja Laurila appears to have pursued an interest in the ‘intentions and conditions’ of a photograph from its original conception to the moment of exposure as she engages with the apparatus of photography in order to understand personal episodes from her past. With her work On the Way Home the opportunity to photograph everything beyond her window is substituted for words that are collected onto paper as a narrative that punctuates the blankness of the sheets. Laurila recalls her history and delivers them as anecdotal sentences that run left to right just above the centre of the page as binary messages of moments from an illuminated past. In so doing Laurila is convinced that ‘it seems people need to comment on or put words next to a picture, literally, on the back of pictures. You can’t have them at the same time, but you can’t separate them either.’ Like a novel that reveals itself to the most intuitive part of an audience, her pieced together entries of information introduce a series of idle observations from time that have her recall family trips away:
Addis Ababa 1975, you and your brother and your father on the beach of Africana Hotel, a lot of savannah and smoke but nothing else and Nairobi. A little bit out of focus, you loved the shirt. You wore it always and for years November 16th, I have very read nails, there were no houses like this in Dar es Salaam.
The work of thirty eight pages reads like pictures in the sand that disappear as quickly as the tide jettisons over them. On the Way Home is a stark but very sobering work that recalls flashpoints from the artist’s life. At the centre of this work is her father, who when she was much younger, took her and her family to the cultural monsoon of Tanzania, Africa, from where she recalls their life and upon their return his subsequent death.
The oldest of the three, Saara Ekström is a photographer cut from a more conventional mould as she photographs compositional still-lives in the manner of the early Dutch masters. Yet these illuminated compositions of flowers flourishing against artificial light that are set against austere interiors make for works that capture a modern resilience that is quite staggeringly beautiful. Ekström appears capable of generating a version of reality that is rooted to the table at its most perfect point. From her If Inside Is Let In (2006, 2007) series the artist has composed perfectly defined domestic scenes in which objects and furniture are laid bare to the elements. Landing (2007) is a work that demonstrates Ekström’s will for beauty over the heavy hand of reality. Recalling locations of violence; the window ledge, the graffitied back wall and the cold spread of concrete might have been where a rape or murder occurred some time ago. By placing a bottle of ripe flowers towards the back wall, with the light catching it, Ekström replaces such notions of oppression with a greater good. St Petersburg 2007 is another stark work that is as much about the possibility for ambiguity as it is about a well considered composition. The contained flowers, the nectarine and the distinctively coloured pomegranate rest on top of and beside the blurred television as it transmits something worthy or otherwise across the airwaves.
Another archetypal work from Ekström’s portfolio is from the Necessities series from 2006 in which a light illuminating a table of tropical stems are threaded to a series of organic vessels that recall the perfectly balanced compositions of Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. Beside a globe light and small oranges resting in a bowl, this arrangement creates a scene of such pose and perfection, it is staggering to try and qualify the strength of this work. Like Morandi, Ekström appears to have generated a balanced vision of beauty with consummate ease.
Tuomo Manninen has succeeded at developing a strong body of works that have a very distinctive signature. Landscapes of collected figures are organised around the lens and identified by their professions and their distinctive locations for his Me/We project which Manninen began in early 1995. Crossing continents and recalling history, Manninen appears to have made a vocation of his profession; befriending his unsuspecting audience and making them his subject. The allure with which they collectively look upon him as he captured them for a moment with such ease is wholly inspiring. Manninen appears to have taken to travelling with such robustness that he might be looked upon as a travel photographer capturing reality as he witnesses it. Yet such a notion would be misplaced since rather than photograph the anatomy of these disparate landscapes and their inhabitants, Manninen intervenes upon the cultures and their working communities to reorganise reality as a stage from which he is able to choreograph the complexion of history in the making. Tellingly, Manninen contextualises his photo-works by declaring that in these images, ‘rather than trying to steal passing moments in order to preserve authenticity, I prefer to work visibly, with full consensus of the people photographed…I personally believe that by actively posing for the lens the people seem to reveal more of themselves; on top of the ‘normal’ situation, they tend to show another layer, namely their own perception of themselves (‘The mirror pose’) and in group portraits there’s another, third layer: people’s perception of their status in the group.’
Significantly Manninen sees the series Me/We as originating in the notion of early photography and the intention of gathering around a camera for posterity. For this entire decade Manninen has drawn together people of such diverse backgrounds, Catholic-Vietnamese Church Goers in Recklinghausen to office workers in Law Firm in Saigon, and in so doing Manninen appears to familiarize himself with his subjects as they appear reasonably at ease with one another and the moment at which they are asked to hesitate for the camera. There is great enterprise in what Manninen does because his subjects are so many that his ambition may well become a rewarding vocation.
By Rajesh Punj
Rajesh Punj is a London based art critic, correspondent, collector and curator, with a specialist interest in India, Pakistan, China and the Middle East. With an academic background in European and American art history and curating, he teaches art and architectural history and writes extensively on the emerging markets, for publications that include Deutsche Bank Art Mag, (Berlin), Flash Art International, (Milan), Asian Art newspaper, (London), and art&deal, (New Delhi), among others.