Captivating time: The art of Santeri TuoriJan-Erik Lundström
In a series of precisely articulated and captivating works, conceived and produced over the last ten years, renewing both the portrait and the landscape genres in contemporary visual culture, Santeri Tuori has with remarkable consistency maintained a gripping tension between a kind of repeated gentle excess or surplus and conceptually precise and aesthetically skilled methods of reduction or subtraction. Tuori’s works are lavish and minimal. He overloads and he trims. Tuori puts forth a refined aesthetics, but one embedded within highly charged image acts. Elements of compulsion or immoderation, even if expressed in mostly benevolent rather than aggressive tones, blend with condensation and concentration: The smile in Smile shifts from inviting or disarming, even if a bit bawdy, to annoying and disturbing, and even unbearable, to the viewer. And in the large body of works – Bogeyman, Karlotta, Kati, Céci, Posing Time, Dzoni/2 min 53 s – renegotiating the genre of portraiture, the strategies applied are those of a variety of hybrids of the still and the moving image, linked with methods of repetition, and multiplication, which altogether undermine most notions of any lay correlation between image and identity (not to mention questioning notions of a coherent or singular identity as such). Tuori’s portrait works join recognition with bewilderment. And, most current, in the ambitious Forest project, now orchestrated as a multi-room installation made up of amalgamations of single and moving imagery, including sound environments, omnipresence is matched with loss. Forest is a massive multi-sensory immersion into a singular motif, where repetition becomes transformation and permutation, and where the enthralled viewer’s gaze and desire is amiably short-circuited by the lack of a conclusive image to rest with. The forest is meticulously brought to the viewer and the forest is made to disappear; the forest is powerfully present and radically absent. Surplus forest, reduced forest.
Let’s try to say this again, from a slightly different angle or approach. If permanence and transience are two key properties throughout the variety of works realized by Santeri Tuori, they are not, however, to be described or experienced as polar entities or opposites. Rather, their combined presence signals a kind of mapping of the human spectrum, a response or a resulting quality made necessary when works of art touch such basic parameters of human experience, perception and life as time, space, and identity. The archetypal motifs in Tuori’s works speak of this very clearly: The face, the body, adult and child, with gestures, presences; the sea, the forest, with their signs, graphics, sounds, and movements. But, nonetheless, this mapping process always results in incomplete maps; there are unexplored territories and unresolved issues. And the viewer is not given a settled answer. The image – portrait or landscape – remains unresolved, in motion. Meeting the gaze of the viewer, it fluctuates, alters, mutates; the viewer is impelled to continuously renegotiate her/his experience of the image, the work, in front of her/him. The given anchor in time and space sometimes afforded by the still image is constantly overturned by the gentle unrest promoted by the moving image. Or vice versa.
Two genres, two classical genres in the history of visual representation, comply with the conceptual framework in most of Santeri Tuori’s works: The portrait and the landscape. The portrait as the genre of imagery aimed at the study and representation of human identity, the living and conducted identity of the individual human being, expressed and performed through, for example, images. Indeed, the work of Tuori recognizes the portrait not only as a reflection of identity but as a space of production of identity (including its refusal or unrepresentability). The landscape genre, on the other hand, accomplishes a kind of dual project. It is both the living environment of the human being, in short: the context of life. And it is the Other in relation to human existence. The landscape attends to nature, i.e. that which is not culture, that which is not human, even if nature is always already represented, and cannot be encountered except through imagery or other forms of representation. However, in both cases, portraiture and landscape, Tuori turns out as somewhat of an iconoclast, subverting or destabilizing both genres from within, all while honoring their traditions. When it comes to portraiture, works such as Karlotta, Bogeyman or Julia/3 min 36 s are instances of serious or rigorous doubt in the feasibility of the single image as the messenger of lived or performed identity. The play – and playfulness – enabled by Santeri Tuori, through his patented methods of allowing still and moving images to collide or collude, seems to repeatedly tell us viewers to forget the fantasy of the single image, the articulate single portrait, as an inroad towards individual’s identities, or, even, as a passage or path towards knowledge altogether. Santeri Tuori’s works are soft-spoken subversions of the portrait genre’s most stereotypical characteristics or practices. They destabilize or subvert the portrait’s authority when claiming to unproblematically identify identity or narrate or encompass subjectivity. But this genre sabotage is carried out with wit and generosity. The portrait works are funny, quirky, startling. And, no doubt, the young boy in Bogeyman is the bogeyman as well as himself and the eerie double-exposure effects generated by Tuori’s process, wonderfully replicates that oscillation between being and performance, actuality and potentiality that is the human condition.
In the Forest works in particular, there is a default mode of production and presentation, process and product, goes something like this. There is a still photograph. It represents a particular motif – a face, a person, a seascape, a forest panorama. It is a physical material image with tactile qualities. Proportions and size are decisive. In the Forest project, the prints are large scale, emphasizing the relationship between the viewer’s body and the image; some portrait works are smaller, emphasizing the image as object. Then there is a video, a moving image piece of a particular duration, framing the same represented space. I.e. the space photographed in the single image is repeated in the video take. Two sets or registers of images now exist: a single photograph and a moving image segment, both framing and rendering the same actual space. The final work superimposes these two sets of images; the video sequence is projected onto the single – physical – photograph, a superimposition – always realized with the fullest precision – which makes the two more or less inseparable or indistinguishable. In the case of several of the Forest works, the projection is rear-screen, technique and apparatus made invisible, meaning there is a framed photograph on the wall which is – magically – animated, brought alive, from within. But the end result may also be a video only, meaning, in for example other works from the Forest project, that the still photograph is incorporated into the moving image edit. There is no physical still photograph in the final work, but there is a still photograph ground in the final video.
The single photograph (regardless of if there is an actual physical photograph or not) might technically or formally be seen as the central gestalt upon (or through) which the transformations or modifications occasioned by the moving image are projected. And, yes, there is a potent photographic quality at bottom, of deep shadows and precise highlights, of sharpness and fullness. The total sensation or perception is nonetheless more one of multiple scenes, of variation and difference, of overlapping scenarios, of compound spaces, with time as a key element.
But is not the distinction between still and moving images then somewhat of an illusion or, even, a delusion? A projected moving image sequences is, formally and technically speaking, of course nothing but single still images organized and shown sequentially to be able to represent or create the sensation of time. The moving image sequences – to add more layers to this discussion – in Santeri Tuori’s works are at times filmed, i.e. realized through the actual use of standard film and video technology with the industry norm of 24 images per second (the Forest works were filmed this way). At other times they are produced by painstakingly exposing, one by one, manually, multiple images, which when put and presented together may become filmic sequences (this is how several of the portrait works were produced). But the distinctions here are fully and totally interchangeable. The multiple still images may also be organized as a still photograph grid or sequence on the wall – as in Karlotta or Julia/3 min 36 s, thus fabricating a spatial, rather than temporal, display of time. In fact, the works of Tuori facilitate visual experiences, modes of visual representation, where the differences between “film” or “video” and “photography” are dissolved or where their assumed or expected properties exchanged. As a consequence, the representation of time, in these works, is also liberated from its media-specific grip (always a historical construct in any case): the time of duration and the time of the decisive moment are no longer opposites. Indeed, we are close to something like a demonstration of Zeno’s arrow paradox: the flying arrow is motionless. The forest moves and it stands still.
Perhaps we might even venture that here, in the work of Santeri Tuori, is a photographic – or camera-based – practice which not only calls for an historical awareness of the formation and development of particular genres and the conception of specific media, but also for a more integrated history of image-making, one that might be more tuned to the Heideggerian question: What is the relation to the world that technology enables? How does technology – such as the camera-based technologies of visual communication – affect and alter human existence?
It is, of course, not the forest that we see in the Forest works of Tuori. We are not brought to the forest by Forest. Surely, the artist has been there. Innumerous times over a period of several years. Taking meticulous and methodical notes in order to be able to return to the same place, the same space, the same view. But the point of the work is not to bring us there.
Nor do we meet the persons posed in front of the camera in the portrait works, in for example Bogeyman or Karlotta. But we meet the noema of the forest, as the camera aims its attention to its – the forest’s – appearances and apparitions. Just like we, the viewers, meet these other persons as subjectivities – resisting one-dimensional representation – in the portrait works. This is as well the place of empathy in the work of Santeri Tuori: to approach, understand, and render another body, human body, as subjectivity. In phenomenology, empathy refers precisely to the experience of another human body as a particular and recognized subjectivity. The faces, the bodies, mutating, transforming in front of our eyes, do not simulate or mimic the real person posing in front of the camera, but they emphatically enable and share the encounter with another person’s subjectivity. Like the swaying tree trunks, leaves, branches in Forest.
Yet it has to be repeated that there is a powerful presence in all of these works. The smile in Smile is unnerving not because it is a shrewd graphic element, but because it links us with a particular human gesture and act. And the delightful victory exclaimed in Red Shirt is completely mesmerizing because of the emphatic contact with that struggling child. And the forest, the dance of trunks and branches against a light-grey wintery sky, graphic silhouetted creatures in silent cooperation. Or the denser choreography of foliage in chlorophyllic maturity, conversing quietly in the summer wind. In fact the Forest works cannot be described as images on the wall as they open a new live space in the gallery; they are spatial and temporal events to be perceived rather than image-objects, further supported by a soundtrack and thus a soundscape suggestive of both forest ambience and specific details or sound close-ups: A branch cracking? The rustle of a single leaf? Trees mingling?
Nonetheless, these works do not speak a language of naturalism. Their hypnotic force is not that of the illusionist. Is this important? Some of us might even think we are in the forest? Not fooled by the foxtrot of trees, but moved by the sensory force and elegance of Forest: Art says Rancière, is the reorganization of the universe of the sensible, that which is perceivable by the human senses. And Forest, as all works of Santeri Tuori, generates new images, new sensory experiences, and new registers of existence. We are and we are not in the forest. We have met Bogeyman and we will never meet him.
Time is one of the fundamental terms of all human discourse. Time is also possibly more intangible than anything else, exceedingly difficult to grasp, conceptually or perceptually. Indeed, as Derrida suggests, time is that to which we are blind. Or time is that which has to disappear in order to make anything appear – an event, an object, a thing, a process, a change or modification in the constitution of the world. Time, indeed, may be described as a recurring aspiration or common ingredient of all of Santeri Tuori’s works? In several portrait works, the method of production is to gather approximately 2000 portrait photos of the subject (while not in visual contact, the artist is stationed in an adjacent room, From this material, several different kinds of works are produced. Julia/3 min 36 s is both produced as a grid of single photographs, selected from the entire body of image and as a video using all the single images. Again, not only is time is given different shapes and sense – duration and montage – but also the distinctions between still and moving image representations are constantly reshuffled and upturned. How is lived time understood in relation to represented time? Can there be a meaningful relation between the two? What is offered by the excess of thousands of photographs in the quest for a portrait? The paradigm of the decisive moment, or any notion of the significant moment as the key to the subject, is efficiently unsettled by Tuori’s works.
In Forest, time is mostly fragmented, uncertain, and tentative. But still everywhere present, expressed or articulated in both spatial and temporal parameters. The movements and transformations orchestrated in each work: Are they in reference to seconds, minutes, days, or seasons? We do not know. And, in fact, the question appears irrelevant. For such measures of time seem less crucial than the fact that all of the Forest works, each singlehandedly, realize, as noted above, the powerful interdependency of permanence and impermanence, of stasis and change, of stability and transience. One work, Forest 12, takes us to yet other dimensions in the quest for time. Here, the forest is conceived and represented in a full annual cycle. Thick green summer foliage slowly shifts to the red and yellow autumn colours, replaced by the barren branches of winter, supplanted by snowfall and snow covering the ground, shifting slowly again to the bright green colors of the first foliage of spring. This cyclical and explicit rendering of time stand in a surprising contrast to most other works by Tuori, in particular the fellow works in the Forest series. “One of the ways that time disappear is into its representations”, says Elizabeth Grosz. Is Tuori able to so skillfully choreograph this disappearance over and again? And is it time that we are able to see in Forest, in Sea, in Posing Time?