Katja Tukiainen and the Art of the Uncanny
Katja Tukiainen’s art transcends a recent description of it as a contemporary version of Pop.[i] While the affinity is arguably there, there is a confluence of sources in Tukiainen’s art that distinguishes it from a style half a century old. Tukiainen’s aesthetic is not the only thing that differentiates her work from the past, however; for her narratives set it apart from subject matter often associated with Pop. It may be the diversity of media in Tukiainen’s practice that first and foremost resists categorization; for her corpus is heterogeneous evinced in the numerous genres she works in: painting, work-on-paper, sculpture, video, comics, installation and a mixture of these. Tukiainen’s formal plurality is only equaled by her myriad themes; her subject matter is wide ranging but this essay proposes that it also resides, among other thematic loci, in a liminal space between the strange and the homey, or what Sigmund Freud coined the uncanny.[ii]
This term, which can be described with the complementary couplings of the familiarly strange and strangely familiar, Freud explicates in The Uncanny (1919) as deriving from the German word unheimliche. The inversion or opposite meaning of this term is heimliche and translates as “belonging to the home.” What underlies the translation of “belonging to the home” into the uncanny is, of course, not something literal as a kitchen, living room, or other amenity of domesticity. Rather, it is the personal, emotional, and historical tie to a place one lives in and identifies with, but that is also an extension of one’s self. It is this profound connection to home that Freud reconfigures, for further in his essay he cites a bevy of sources that use heimliche and unheimliche interchangeably. Consequently, Freud interprets their collapsing and attendant description of peculiar external phenomena that originates inwardly and projected outwardly, as arising from the subconscious. He succinctly conveys this by stating that
we can understand why the usage of speech has extended dasHeimliche
into its opposite dasUnheimliche for this uncanny is in reality nothing
new or foreign, but something familiar and old—established in the mind
that has been estranged only by the process of repression.[iii]
The dis/similar interplay of the familiarly strange and strangely familiar is intrinsic to the work of Katja Tukiainen. As early as 1999, Tukiainen began her Crochet Hook paintings where she introduced characters, diversions and assorted iconography identifiably connected with childhood: young girls, dolls, toys, games etc. With this early work the artist reminds us that the social universe of early life may have permeated our psyche more than we are aware of, and its signifiers thus become the vehicles by which our emotional and psychological development and conflicts are ciphered. This can be exemplified when a psychologist interviews a child and uses an anatomically correct doll for the victim to pinpoint subjected abuse. Tukiainen conceptually excavates childhood with allusions of their resurfacing in adult life as unresolved trauma. But her themes are more than psychosocial investigations when they are embodied with the aesthetic and transmuted into compelling works of art. Her ubiquitous childhood figures and associative imagery are not unlike Henry Darger whose work similarly revolved around the visual narratives of a young girl. Though Darger’s art focused on children of both genders, it was his eponymous Vivian Girls that was part of In the Realms of the Unreal that brought him the attention he merited. Both artists share affinities in employing young pristine naïfs as archetypes whose innocence are often tinged with a sinister pathos; that is, the dark, emotional nether world of pre-pubescence. Whereas Darger used his leitmotifs to exorcize his repression by presenting it as fantasy, Tukiainen extends similar tropes to address topical subject matter endemic to contemporary life. This is saliently highlighted in a body of work begun in 2007, particularly with the installation titled Henry Darger’s Wife (he never had one) (2007-2008).
In an exhibition at the Kunstalle Helsinki in 2007-2008, Tukiainen’s installation entailed a room-like environment. Variations of the artist’s female personage were drawn all over the makeshift interior. The structure’s décor feigned museum storage and this horror vacui was not unlike wallpaper or even an ersatz, transmogrified dollhouse or playroom designed by a child without parental supervision. Images on walls, doors, and practically any surface of the room created a visual engulfment from the process of their manufacture: meticulous draftsmanship and/or quasi obsessive/compulsive mark making. By creating an architectural intervention from what appeared to be museum storage space with attendant metaphors to a child’s recreational structure, the reified images incessantly repeated evoked a feeling of anxiety as well as familiarity; in other words, the uncanny indeed. The title, figures and installation setting operated in a way that seemed both familiar and strange, and rife with allusions to Darger by way of an absent presence. Darger was never married, but the title of Tukiainen’s installation implies that his preoccupation with children transcended artistic concerns. It may be that his questionable attachment to minors as a recurring theme was sign of arrested development rooted in lack of adult female figure in his life; or it could hint to an overbearing relationship Darger had with his mother or other maternal role model during his upbringing. What Tukiainen does with conceptual verve is to metaphorically use Darger’s anxieties of the opposite sex to frame the museum as matriarchal surrogate. Artists and philosophers alike have construed the museum as ideologically shaped and therefore never free from impartiality; nor is the “white cube” neutral or objective in displaying art; for all exhibitions are narratives in way or another. Some of the readings of museums as subliminally embedded with ideology include Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971), in which the artist revealed money donated to the Guggenheim Museum by Shapolsky who some considered a slum lord; Fred Wilson’s brilliant installation that exposed America’s racist past in Mining the Museum (1992-93); and Theodor Adorno’s famous remark that “Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are like the family sepulchers of works of art.”[iv] With Tukiainen’s installation, however, the exhibition space became metaphor of confinement vis-à-vis the hidden figures within museum enclosure, as if it paralleled Darger’ isolation leading to self-alienation and inability for social consummation. In this sense the installation would tie in well with Darger’s anxieties and neuroses that haunted his adult life. Tukiainen’s installations are often characterized by such idiosyncratic formal logic that underscores an artistic intelligence versed in the poetics of the visual. This is highlighted in other installations including the alluringly titled Mlle. Good Heavens bathes with Karl Marx (2010).
Tukiainen’s artistic mise-en-scène is uncanny for numerous reasons; it depicts the Communist Manifesto (1848) author within a large red and black wall drawing and reclining in bathtub garbed in antiquated bathing suit while blowing bubbles. Marx is easily identifiable via his distinctive beard and visage and is placed within trompe l’oeil curtains. Another element that propels the work into the strangely familiar is an exquisitely rendered girl “innocently” sprawled in the foreground and cuddling a doe. Combining political and social commentary via a stunning installation that culls together comics with a nod to Hello Kitty, children’s visual culture, advertisement, political art, as well as Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), Mlle. Good Heavens bathes with Karl Marx evinces Tukiainen’s ample ability to execute large-scale work. The installation’s palette is a reference to the red of communism and the black of anarchism; and while the installation emanates a playful cuteness, it’s also critically ironic in alluding to the ephemera and general propaganda aimed at youth in authoritarian states including the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China. The work ‘s effectiveness entails a benign and humorous juxtaposition of culturally disparate figures that echo with heady and subversive overtones that targets ideology, the cult of personality as well as promiscuity. Apart from the visual magnetism of the installation that uses the trope of innocence as artistic ruse, this format afforded the artist more literal and metaphorical room to work in subsequently offering multivalent themes to be realized. Tukiainen, however, is not only adept in maintaining a level of engagement in installation art but also in smaller and intimate works evidenced in her painting and sculpture.
From the onset of her career, Tukiainen’s painting has gradated to more elaborate and protean configurations. What unifies this trajectory is an assured, confident and masterful métier that graces her easels. In an exhibition at the Galleria Krista Mikkola in 2008, for example, we see the range of aesthetic complexity that coalesce around Tukiainen’s prepubescent girls staged in a variety of performances and narratives. A mainstay of this body of work includes young female protagonists in black harlequin masks. Their presence is wholly apparent in Milk (2007), Felt Mountain (2007), Sacre Coeur (2007), Pisama (2008), and Bambi was a Boy (2008). The use of the mask is both imperative and haunting, for there was even a painting of bird wearing one. Formally, the palette includes colors that are muted, diffused, washed-out, and pastel-like and offset by the deeply rich black of the facial concealment. Creating an uncanny tension between the overt playfulness of the masked figures with the hidden and opaque, a subtle psychological uneasiness is induced. This is not unlike the paintings of Kim Dingle, who was also known for exploring the traumas and anxieties of childhood. But whereas the young girls that populate Dingle’s paintings lean towards homogeneity due to their formal uniformity and corralled subject matter, Tukiainen’s canvases are more encompassing both aesthetically and thematically. In Bambi was a Boy (2008), Tukiainen depicts frontally what appears to be a young girl. All the hallmarks of her pictorial vocabularies converge here with exquisite ease: the limited yet lush range of soft pinks, oranges, and yellows are in counterpoint to the deep black that horizontally cuts across the lowest register of the painting. So delicate and “girlish” is the composition that even the black passage has a warm and inviting quality. The painterly execution runs the gamut of what seem to be bleeding, color field effects and rapid brushwork to hard edges around the girl’s eyes; for she, too, is wearing a mask. Included are images of bucks in the uppermost section of the painting articulated in a graphic, pencil-like manner. The textures between the visually diverse elements evince an artist who’s versatile in numerous modalities of painting techniques and their application. However, it is also the subtext of the work that gives it a conceptual complexity: though the feigned portrait hints of femininity, it’s not certain whether what’s depicted is either a boy or girl? Apart from the painting’s overall ambiance of presumed prepubescent femininity, there is a degree of gendered ambiguity in the triangulation of title, figure, and bucks; for the latter’s eyes are slightly androgynous which counteract the antlers and attendant masculinity thus making the composition’s subtle narrative all the more complicated.
Another painting with a similar sexual subtext but conveying iconoclasm is Marx Rides My Bambi (2009). Rendered in oil and alkyd on canvas, the materialist philosopher is now mounting the Disney icon while holding a candy cane as phallic symbol. This work was part of an exhibition in 2009 in which six paintings included a candy cane that had phallic connotations. The semantic strategy of using the adjective “my” in Marx Rides My Bambi, opens up the work’s narrative to include the animal in the painting as well the viewer who, ingeniously, is also body double for the artist. The decentering and lateral movement of Bambi, viewer and artist creates a complex triad where sexuality is the work’s epicenter underscored in the painting’s suggestive title. But sex, here, could also be metaphor for Marx taking liberty with an archetype of American culture and bastion of capitalism: the Disney corporation. Also possibly layered onto the work is the notion that those who adhere to Marxism are being ideologically duped. One could say colloquially, then, that followers of Marx and leaders in general regardless of political affiliation are being taken for a “ride.” The plethora of meaning in Marx Rides My Bambi is telltale sign of an artist with sophisticated and amply wide formal and narrative horizons. More recently, however, Tukiainen has expanded her painting’s aesthetic lexicon via the inclusion of three-dimensional objects including those that illuminate, and a display aesthetic that borrows from many different forms of visual culture. This is underscored in a recent solo exhibition at Galerie Forsblom.
With the ostensibly innocuous title of Such a Lovely Place (2011-2012), Tukiainen’s one-person show was an imaginative tour de force. The paintings exhibited were in various formats and sizes including rectangular, square, oval, and diamond shape. There was also a broad scope of painterly application and a cornucopia of colors that were visually luscious; but the polychromatic works were displayed with austerity and control, which could be attributed to the exhibition’s sublime design and installation. The paintings appeared to be presented in an orderly fashion yet there was a refined quirkiness that suggested everything from salon style display to showroom in IKEA, albeit with conceptual flair. What dovetailed the exhibition and the individual works collectively to another level was the use of lights that wrapped around the gallery’s interior. The lights strategically used were round light bulbs in soft red and white that were staggered and placed at the bottom and top of the exhibition space were the floor, ceiling and walls met. Because they were of low wattage, the emanating lights did not interfere with the paintings or the totality of the exhibition. The lighting did, however, create a kind of aura that was pinpointed and localized as slight illumination spilled directly near its source. What was challenging was to decipher the function of the light emitting bulbs that strung together like garlands: were they strictly a design component, did this mean that what was presented was one work since the lights went around the exhibition, and in doing so, was Such a Lovely Place a site-specific installation or exhibition? Like all engaging art that demands thought from its viewer, many questions were raised by Tukiainen’s solo show that left much room for interpretation. Indeed, what conceptually complicated things was the panoply of references evoked through the exhibition’s illuminated ambiance: the carnival, funhouse, as well as vernacular establishments were lowbrow illumination is used. Taken together, the presentation shifted between painting, sculpture, installation, and design. Such a Lovely Place was a strong exhibition for numerous reasons including the coalescing of multiple media with artistic and curatorial aplomb. More recently, Tukiainen has extended her practice into the register of sculpture proper, for three-dimensionality has always been one of her formal and conceptual concerns and investigations.
Not one to leave anything to happenstance, Tukiainen titles her sculptures individually though she has also referred to them as “mannequins.” As the term implies, they are mostly upright figurative works in the round based on her female protagonists. The sculptures convey playfulness, yet because they are slightly larger than human size they can have a threatening demeanor. This strategy is not unlike a sculpture by Charles Ray made in 1991 titled Mannequin Fall 1991. The title is a play on designer clothes for the sculpture is of a full woman wearing a pink dress suit with her arms akimbo. Adding to the assertive pose of a model in a fashion show is the sculpture’s aggressive Amazonian height: 8ft tall. There is a similar trope used by Tukiainen in her sculptures but her strategy is more affective. The reason being is that these “mannequins” have an air of innocence because they are recognizably like a toy, but are also subliminally intimidating in their monumentality. Their oversized dimension, plus their cute candy like hues, makes them compelling yet one can also feel dominated by them. It is this concomitant aspect of the sculptures that also encapsulates Freud’s psychoanalytical rubric derived from heimliche/unheimliche.
This essay has framed Katja Tukiainen’s art around the uncanny, but it is only one narrative among many that her work embodies. The sheer formal diversity and multivalent quality of her corpus underscores this: for Katja Tukiainen is an artist of imagination evinced in the genres she works in that are imbued with visual finesse and a sense of the poetic. Her oeuvre to date has established her as a formidable artist, thus it will be interesting to see what’s to come from one whose iconography evokes our lamented, irrecoverable childhood. And like one’s own past that one is never completely free of, it beckons us regardless that it may have been fraught both with joy and melancholy, comfort and terror, and the familiarly strange as well as the strangely familiar.
New York City 2013
[i]See Charlie Levine, “Did Pop Kill Art,“ Artfetch, http://www.artfetch.com/edition/054/didpop-kill-art/ accessed on July15, 2013.
[ii] Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,”  in The Uncanny, trans. David McClintock (London and New York: Penguin, 2003)
[iv] Theodor Adorno, "Valery Proust Museum in memory of Hermann von Grab,” in Prisms, ed. Theodor Adorno (London: Garden City Press), 175.
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