Notes from the Studio - Hanna Haaslahti by Claire Mander

Cover of Exh. cat., Serial/Portable Classic: The Greek Canon and Its Mutation, Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2015

Cover of Exh. cat., Serial/Portable Classic: The Greek Canon and Its Mutation, Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2015

An air of seriousness and enquiring quietness encompass the studio.  It is filled with materials: plastic sheets, a smoke machine, water, boards of frigolite, large paper cut outs of body shapes.

Hanna, sitting by the table with a book in her hand, looks at me with a secretive smile - as a magician about to reveal something extraordinary. The book she is perusing is about classicism, or more precisely, Greek sculpture.

A gestural cut out, photo by AK Purkiss

A gestural cut out, photo by AK Purkiss

"Did you know that Chiswick House once received a bequest of one of these sculptural bodies?", she says pointing at a very perfectly shaped Greek sculpture in the book, noticeably with missing arms.  She explains that copy after copy of the original sculptures were made by the Greeks and then the Romans, each society reflecting the ideals of its era in the human forms. Hanna speaks about her interest in Classicism and how she wants to know more about  this 'everywhere-underlying' element in western culture.

"We all think we know something about classicism", she says, "but in fact we know very little. Many of these sculptures, including the ones in Chiswick House, have lost limbs because of refurbishments, moving, wars, or other unfortunate accidents.”

What are the missing limbs? Their gestures and meanings of the missing limbs intrigue Hanna... and me.

She explains that she is not intending to make yet another copy of the sculptures that were housed at Chiswick House. But she will with use materials that can float, be transparent, and move, reflect what was once there ... like with a whisper from the past the artist or, as I feel tempted to call her, 'magician' gets to work...

Respectfully and with the serious approach of a Nordic Artist she will let us wander around the Ionic Temple at Chiswick House and its beauteous grounds, letting the whispers of the past meet the present, and bring us into yet new wonders and questions of the wonderfully ghostly magical uncertainties of the future and its forever changing ideals.

 Let us all be quiet, so that we can hear our thoughts and give space to these enchanting whispers.

Written by Nina Wisnia

Hanna Haaslahti Interviewed - Part 2 by Claire Mander

Hanna Haaslahti in the studio, photo by AK Purkiss

Hanna Haaslahti in the studio, photo by AK Purkiss

Ionic Temple, Chiswick House

Ionic Temple, Chiswick House

Collage of Gestures

Collage of Gestures

Chiswick House, photo by Anne Purkiss

Chiswick House, photo by Anne Purkiss

CM: How did you approach your Sculpture Shock residency and making the work?

HH: Not in front of a computer screen.  Chiswick House and English Heritage have been very supportive and I have spent many days at the Temple, in the archives and in the grounds. The history of the Ionic Temple is fascinating and many layered.  As with all historical research, as many things are hidden as are revealed. Just as the obelisk that stands in front of it, the Temple itself is a monument and monuments are selective in their statements about past deeds. 

Certain aspects of the Temple caught my imagination: the empty niches in the interior; the armless sculptures in the grounds and the idea of building a bridge between the past and present – of invigorating a space which is not open to the public. 

The two empty niches in the Temple once contained copies of classical sculptures now in the main house. Replicas of these stand in the gardens outside the Temple area. They have lost their arms and hands – their gestures – and without them the sculptures have lost their means of communication.  I wanted to study gestures of classical sculpture to link past and present by incorporating them into the installation. The concept of ‘heroic nudity’ invented during Archaic period resonates strongly with contemporary anxieties surrounding beauty and the toning of muscles.  These same gestures reappear again and again in sculpture over the millennia and now they float in their contemporary incarnation on the surface of the mirror pond. Certain visual effects just keep repeating themselves throughout history.  
Much of the apparent richness of the interiors of Chiswick House is due to its carefully gilded surfaces. This interested me as I primarily work with light which creates a similar type of surface effect.  Gilding, though, is a way of making materials look more desirable and expensive – creating this rift between the surface and the essence.  I decided to invert this treatment and re-cover the solid materials of the Temple with a contemporary non-precious, artificial looking material.  So much of the contemporary world is made up of cheap fake things mimicking old precious things – like cheap vinyl oak-looking floors or fake marble tiles which I wanted to make the viewer think about.  I wanted to create an installation which highlights the disjunct between the solidity of this grand building and the instability of the contemporary world. 

CM: How do you hope your Sculpture Shock intervention for the Ionic Temple at Chiswick House will be read by its audience and what impact do you hope it will have? 

HH:  The audience is the key link between the building and my work and between past and present. The interactive light work will ensure that visitors are in the spotlight, if only for a moment. They will be the fulcrum of the work – actually generating and moving the light.  The audience is not passive – they will not just stand and watch – their function is to challenge the border between installation, viewer and site.  I hope their perceptions will be altered and they will be animated by the space as much as they animate it themselves.

CM: How has Sculpture Shock assisted you in the development of you practice and what are your artistic ambitions? 

HH:  This program really opened a new perspective in my artistic practice. I had labeled myself as a media artist and now I have a broader sense of what I do.  Why do we have to have these divisions anyway?  As an artist I want to be able to always do whatever is necessary.

Written by Claire Mander

Hanna Haaslahti Interviewed - Part 1 by Claire Mander

CM: Who are the artists, thinkers, theorists from any field of endeavour that you most admire and which have had the greatest impact on your thinking and your work? 

HH:  Many people influence my work and thinking as research is an important part of my working process.  At the moment, Timothy Morton, an English philosopher who writes about object-oriented ontology (OOO) is of particular interest. The idea that objects comprise both surface and essence – the surface/appearance being easily comprehensible while the essence can never be seen or known is somehow magical and endlessly sought after.  
Discovering gestalt psychology was a revelation for me. It explains how brain processes our perceptions of the world by filling in missing gaps and creating whole forms, before our cognitive mind has a chance to intervene. Our minds are constantly produced by our brains.   I am also fascinated by studies around the psychology of the group and phenomena surrounding the ‘herd mentality’.  
Malevich is an artist whose work and manifestos, are for me an iconic turning point in thought and image.  The utopian architectural constructions of Haus Rucker-Co made in the 1970s at a time of increased fear of environmental issues incorporated plastics into their pneumatic air structures interest me for their use of material and for the way they wanted to provide creative solutions to environmental and social issues.  Today we do not have room for utopias – we are the generation that has to clean up the trash from the past and move on.  I also admire Bjőrk for her energy and her imagination. 

CM: You have created work which responds to historically important places in the past for example Sincere Lies, 2013 at Sinebrychoff Museum of Old Art in Helsinki.  What aspects of the historic appeal to you?

HH:  Certain ideas are associated with certain historical periods – there has always been a manipulation or control of what we know, what is passed down, what is revered and what is not discussed and in this sense history is a perceptual formula. I am interested in the ‘back streets of history’, not the official line.  Our age, the digital age, is characterised by a flow (or flood) of information stated quickly and simply – which does not describe a true or fair view of the complexity of an event. I am interested in presenting the possibilities of alternative narratives – not necessarily based on research or re-presenting facts – new information does not help – after all information is not communication. I am talking about different ways of perceiving the world.  The images you see every day in the media make you blind and powerless, but sometimes you catch a glimpse of something revealing. Take the image of the new Chief Executive of BMW who dramatically fainted at the conference – an image which went viral.  The pose is almost religious, the fall so out of place, it revealed human fragility so carefully hidden inside the machineries of power.  

CM: Tell me about the importance of digital technology and the possibilities it opens up in the visual world?

HH: Digital technology introduced instability as the unexpected side-effect of high-tech society.  Objects are no longer solid and enduring, buildings are made to last a decade rather than millennia, events seemingly take place here, on the other side of the world and on various platforms simultaneously as do images of ourselves.  Instantaneous, ephemeral, speeded up digital world – we are not sure how to understand this new dimension of immateriality.   Concepts of physical presence and absence have dissolved – now we are present all the time in different ways in different media – images of ourselves are on social media, sent back and forth, selfies everywhere.   Our paranoia about surveillance cameras seems to have disappeared and now we suffer from FOMO; we throw ourselves into the proliferation of images and now we live with our own digital images constantly.  Next year I am embarking on an art+science research project in Aalto University, Helsinki called ‘Life as an image’ to explore new technologies around image making and 3D sensing and their social reverberations.  The relationship between human perception and computer vision – how computers see the world - is fascinating.  3D sensing technology adds another element to the RGB of image creation - the D of Depth – also called point cloud - which dispenses with traditional perspectival systems of vision.  3D sensing moves around the object and builds up an image from all angles.  Liberating image making from the chains of perspective is exciting and contains many possibilities. 
I am positive about digital technology - we cannot turn back the clock and it is here to stay so there is no point being negative about it or yearning for analogue technology.  But we can and should try to take control of it.  We are in a honeymoon period of intense love with our social screens, creating a generation of young iPhone zombies as we say in Finland but I am hopeful that technology might lead ultimately to a new understanding of time, presence and materiality. 

Written by Claire Mander

Oase no 7, Fridericaianum, documenta 5, Kassel 1972. Photo: Hein Engelskirchen

Oase no 7, Fridericaianum, documenta 5, Kassel 1972. Photo: Hein Engelskirchen

 
Hanna Haaslahti,  Sincere Lies , Sinebrychoff Art Museum of old European Masters, 2013, image courtesy of the artist

Hanna Haaslahti, Sincere Lies, Sinebrychoff Art Museum of old European Masters, 2013, image courtesy of the artist