Photographer Jaakko Heikkilä with Marja-Terttu Kivirinta
Jaakko Heikkilä: Writing an essay versus writing a review: How do you feel about them? Is the distinction clear to you?
Marja-Terttu Kivirinta: Well, there is a distinction, if I presume that the essay and the review represent different genres of writing. But a text is good or bad in spite of the genre. There are many common elements. A review can also be a good essay: it is factual but subjective and critical with a clear opinion. It is as demanding to write a good review as it is to write a critical essay—the language should have its verbal qualities. But it depends on framing. As a staff writer myself, I produced all kinds of articles for the newspaper. In that journalistic art reviews are different than essays, so too are books that I have written myself or with other critics, as in exhibition catalogues of the artists, museums, or galleries.
Heikkilä: It’s often heard that culture is getting more commercial and more entertaining. How do you feel about criticism? How has it developed during your time?
Kivirinta: I have written criticism for more than 30 years. Although the idea of art criticism is still the same—it should be analytical and critical—during that period the reviews have changed. And now I talk about newspaper journalism, my professional background. Today the texts are shorter and less analytical, in many cases just the description is left. The amount of reviews is fewer than before—than in the 1980s for instance. At least this is the situation in Finland. During my working period there was a demand for the review to be news. Journalism is commercialized in the small Nordic countries; newspapers and other media have to compete for the audience.
Heikkilä: Could you compare writing about the work or exhibition of an artist you know personally to that of an artist you do not know at all?
Kivirinta: It depends on the artist. Sometimes it is helpful to know the artist; sometimes it makes it impossible. The personal connection can be good or bad. At best, knowing the ideas of the artist helps me to understand the frame of the work. But there is always a cultural context, the conception of art. It is not just something that is in the head of the artist. It is a language and culture he or she is connected with. The contemporary tendency in the media to prefer interviewing artists instead of reviewing their work is very concerning to me.
Heikkilä: In November 2011, the New York Times published an ironic article [Julia Chaplin’s “Show of Hands. Please, Who Can Bye Art?”] dealing with contemporary art and the elite around it—who can afford to buy art today? Is contemporary art only for the elite, not for ordinary people?
Kivirinta: The publicity of art that concentrates on economic values and the art market also influences the conception of art. In many cases it is something for those for whom the meaning of art is money. As an academic I have studied Bourdieu and his ideas about how the taste of the elite influences the values of the lower classes. To my mind art belongs to everybody in spite of class, race, gender, or cultural background, and so there are several conceptions about the art.
Heikkilä: The question of globalism—localism versus the nationality of art. An artist can be from Finland, from Lapland, or from somewhere else—so is there national art? Is there local art in an international art scene?
Kivirinta: Art can be from Finland, from Sweden, or from ethnic groups of Sami people living in Lapland in Finland, Sweden, and Norway. However, art has no nationality. I say this, though I know that art in many cases is used in national or ethnic contexts. Nationalism obliges instrumental tasks for the art. But I see that art has always been featured by local as well as global art and visual cultures. So for me national art accentuating local traits is an important instrument to show the strength of different local cultures against the globalism of the art world.
Heikkilä: One of the common expressions of today is “community art.” What does that term mean to you?
Kivirinta: It is the work of the artist with other people. An artist can work methodically as an ethnographer or an educator or a social worker or a researcher, but in every case, the artist is a person who encourages people to concentrate on the problems they have in their local surroundings. Art may strengthen the multicultural community of the society in concern.
Heikkilä: One of my favorite artists, a writer and novelist Torgny Lindgren from Sweden writes about his relationship to writing: “I wanted to shout; I do not deal with the thing I am writing about! The content is a trivial footnote. Most important is the form. Form is sacred!” Political art, agenda, fanatism—what is your relationship to them? Can you describe the relationship between form and the message?
Kivirinta: Form is basic. It is the strength and capacity of an artwork. If I understand the idea of Lindgren—to influence, to wake, to irritate, and to move the viewer/reader/listener into a dialogue with a work. The audience makes its own interpretations. So, in that sense, an artwork is always political, it communicates or not. In the connection of political power, art is used instrumentally in many ways, and so it functions as an agenda that interests me (art) historically. Then I try to analyze the discourses and representations connected with power relations.
Heikkilä: It’s often heard that Finnish culture is more literary than visual, isn’t it?
Kivirinta: The concept of “Finnish” culture itself is discursive. Its meaning is in the context of nationalism, like in the nationalist movement of the 19th and early 20th century with the goal of ridding Finland of Russia by means of cultural politics. Finland as an independent nation state is young, nearly 100 years, and in that connection the Finnish language was a key element. That is why Finnish literature has been so preeminent to the other forms of culture, like music or visual arts, which were also important. For a long time in the field of visual arts, architecture and design have been more important than painting, for instance.
Heikkilä: As a critic, do you ever think about your audience? Is this important to think about?
Kivirinta: As a professional journalist I have had the basic idea that I write to the readers of the newspaper, not only to the artists. The general reader is the most important audience for me now.
Heikkilä: Can you describe good art? What is it?
Kivirinta: A difficult question. Good art for me personally is something that moves and touches, old or contemporary; at its best, it delights me and wakes me up to ask questions. But as a critic I take part in the meaning-making process—arguing, declaring, and pronouncing publicly the value of art. In that sense, art is always political but without the stamp “Political Art.”
Marja-Terttu Kivirinta is an art critic, journalist (freelancer 1976 - 80, 2009 - present) and academic writer, Ph.D. and author of non-fiction books. Kivirinta worked as a staff writer for 28 years in the cultural section of the daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (1980 - 2008). She has taught art history and art criticism since 1978 at the University of Theater, University of Helsinki, and University of Art and Design in Helsinki. She has published numerous articles on art history and contemporary art, and worked as a co-editor on editorial boards for a series of non-fiction art historical books. Kivirinta is currently a member of the Board in AICA-Finland (2010 - present), AICA-International (2011 - present) and the Membership Comission of AICA-International (2012 - present). She has also been a curator or co-curator in a several exhibitions.Jaakko Heikkilä
Jaakko Heikkilä is a photographer and artist living in Kukkola, Tornio in Lapland of Finland. The border between Finland and Sweden runs along the river Tornio near his house. On the Swedish side of the river live people speaking their dialect of Finnish language that they cannot read or write. Since the early 1990s the art of Heikkilä has concentrated on the themes of in-between, diaspora and margins, people and scenery in Russian Karelia and White Sea, Armenia; Venice, Italy; Serbia; Cuba; Brazil; Paris, France; and in the U.S.A., including Harlem, New York. His works have been shown often in Finland and other parts of the world, separately in the Venice Biennial in 2005 and in Belgium, Germany, England, France, Norway, Russia, Serbia, and Sweden. He has also worked and exhibited in New York, including the group show Bodies, Boarders, Crossings (Photography and Video Art from Finland on Governor’s Island in 2011 and now, in the spring 2014, in Lima, Peru), as well as in galleries including White Box, Page Digital Gallery, Korean Gallery, Sideshow Gallery and in Nash Gallery Minneapolis. www.studioblue.fi.