What kind of traces will we leave?
Finland is an ancient land but a relatively new nation. Its natural environments are timeless, its artistic heritage rich, its sense of identity fresh. For the Finnish artist Riitta Päiväläinen, the landscapes of her native country and the clothing and fabrics of those who live there come together in an unusual aesthetic and conceptual marriage. Climate also plays its part. With the Arctic Circle passing through the northern reaches of the country, ice becomes the improbable means by which discarded clothes take on a newly animated life. The ageless and the re-born weave open-ended stories, part myth, part speculation, in a form of image-creation that the artist has made her own.
For Riitta Päiväläinen, landscapes are more than physical environments, they suggest emotions. Clothing that has been worn carries with it the intimacy of close bodily contact, of lives lived and stories it could tell. Such intuitions are subjective and consequently uncertain. It is this ambiguity of interpretation that energises her work, asking that the viewer become actively engaged not just in looking but imagining.
What is it that attracts you to natural environments? These seem to be so much more than simply landscape photographs.
For me landscape is personal and subjective. I was born in a very small village in the middle of Finland. There were no supermarkets or cinemas, and few children of a similar age. I spent most of my time outside: wandering in the thick mossy forests, climbing trees, making huts and shelters, skiing in the nearby fields… I experienced the smell of rotting autumn leaves, fresh falling virgin snow, fog rising from the fields after the rain. I knew the change of the seasons by the flowers that bloomed and the sounds of migrating birds. All these existential moments, experienced through the eyes of a small child, remain vividly in my memory… the feeling of being part of nature. I think this is why I see landscapes as personal – subconscious mindscapes.
[Left] © Riitta Päiväläinen ‘Serene’ 2013 from the series ‘River Notes’
[Right] © Riitta Päiväläinen ‘Passageway’ 2014 from the series ‘River Notes’
What is it that attracts you to second-hand clothing and flea-market fabrics as materials of your art?
Fabrics connect me very closely to my mother. She used to make clothes for our whole family. But, beyond this, I am interested in the unwritten history which surrounds us in our everyday life. What kind of traces will we leave? What is remarkable enough to be remembered? I often look to the past. I like the past tense.
For me clothes are documents of individual personalities. They refer to the fact someone existed, how they lived. In the fading of colours and the wear and tear of fabrics they carry the traces of a life. And yet, an item of clothing without its owner also suggests absence, death. So the individual is both absent and present at the same time.
Of course, I never know the exact ‘truth’ of the person behind the clothing, but it always suggests something. Clothes are very close to us, next to our skin. I want to suggest potential stories – raise associations and memories – to evoke the humanity of feelings and emotions.
Bringing these textiles and landscapes together, what do you seek to express in your work?
I am interested in the dialogue between them. I like the definition that creating is a process of combining old familiar materials in a personal subjective way, in order to create something new. In the image, I am seeking something deeper than simply what it shows. This exists in viewers’ imaginations and will differ from one viewer to another, depending on their personal experiences and memories.
The images can have various emotional qualities: joy, sadness, melancholy, fear, confusion and so on. But I do not decide in advance which emotion it will be. I remain sensitive in the moment. Working with nature means that there is much that is unpredictable – rain, wind, changes in the light – which affects the whole atmosphere of a place. My guiding principle is very simple: trust intuition.
[Left] © Riitta Päiväläinen ‘Crack Willow’ 2019 from the series ‘Shelter’
[Right] © Riitta Päiväläinen ‘Camouflage 5’ 2005 from the series ‘Camouflage’
For me, there is a sense of narrative in your images, an intimation that something is there but not quite seen.
I wish to keep my imagery open; I do not want to restrict its interpretation too much. For instance, I do not use clothes that are associated with a religion or culture. They do not have commercial labels or brand slogans. I personally like the idea that the image just hints or suggests, leaving the viewer the freedom to imagine their own story. I want images that trigger a viewer’s mind so that narratives and allegories are born there. Indeed, to be successful, the image should make me wonder, feel, ask a question, or touch me in some way.
Do the images arise from the clothing for which you then seek a suitable landscape, or vice-versa?
I do not have just one way of working. Sometimes I have bought clothes or fabrics and then go looking for a location to suit them. Sometimes it is the other way around. I tend to work in three- to eight-week periods, with my car filled with the materials I have available at that time. So, my choice of garments and fabric is always limited to what is in the car. And, of course, the landscapes are different in different seasons and lightning. I cannot plan too far ahead.
[Left] © Riitta Päiväläinen ‘Alders’ 2019 from the series ‘Shelter’
[Right] © Riitta Päiväläinen ‘Vespertine 2’ 2002 from the series ‘Wind’
Do you think these images are particularly Finnish?
Finnish people, and especially people living in the northern areas, have a strong connection with nature. Compared with many other countries in Europe, our history and culture are fairly young, and we still have a close connection to nature. We are said to be melancholy people that appreciate solitude. I believe that our surroundings shape us even more than we recognise. When I was a child, I believed everything had a soul, even stones. As an adult, I still want to keep that childlike ability to personify everything. So, I guess my images have some very basic Finnish elements.
© Riitta Päiväläinen from the series ‘Imaginary Meeting’
[Left] ‘Imaginary Meeting 11’ 2005; [Centre] ‘Butterfly Red’ 2006; [Right] ‘Imaginary Meeting 9’ 2005
Ice brings another dimension to your images, allowing you to shape the clothing into three-dimensional forms that emphasise their figurative quality. How is this achieved?
Freezing clothes requires a bit of planning. It has to be at least minus ten degrees Celsius outside, so that the garments freeze firmly enough to stand by themselves. First, I soak them completely in the shower. Then I take the garments outside where I shape them by placing plastic material inside. At this stage, I often pour more water over them so that they freeze harder. In the morning, I check how they look and take them to the location in my car (not heated, otherwise they would melt!). I usually choose the place in advance. But one cannot tell beforehand exactly how things will look, so I always need to be able to change my plans.
Making these tableaux over the past two decades, what have you learned about yourself?
For me, the most important thing as an artist has been to listen to my inner voice, trust my intuition, and not to follow others. I often think that we each have our own private ‘undercurrent’ in which flows our basic self-knowledge: what makes us happy, sad, excited, fearful… This undercurrent never leaves us. We can always return to it, explore it, and make it more profound. Its constancy gives me stability and hope.
Riitta Päiväläinen was born in Maaninka in 1969. She has a Bachelor of Art (1998) and a Master of Arts (2002), both from the University of Art and Design in Helsinki. She has had over thirty solo shows and her work has featured in more than sixty group exhibitions across Europe and in Asia, Africa and North America. Her work is held in a number of important public and private collections including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Finnish Photography, both in Helsinki, and the State Art Council in Sweden. Her book ‘Imaginary Meetings’ was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2009. She lives and works in Helsinki.
photo: © Ari Saarto
This article was initially published in Chinese, in the August 2021 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.