TEXT FOR SANTERI TUORI’S CATALOGUE
Taru Elfving, 5.3.2004
Let’s boogie, bogey!
A little boy gazes seriously at the camera. Yet simultaneously he also shakes his head and grins revealing his tiny but undoubtedly sharp teeth. Two moments folded together, or an attempt to capture the whirlwind of being that only a child can embody? Not quite. Video image projected on a photograph, colour on top of black and white, movement on stillness – obvious play with opposites maybe, but here they seem to become more than just two. Or less, which is always more anyway. Spooky.
What turns a little boy into a bogeyman? Playing bogey comes probably rather naturally for him, like boogying. The inaudible screams and storms of hair do not, however, disturb here as much as the ghostly image that dis/appears behind it. Every so often the fast bounces make the boy nearly dissolve into fading streaks of colour and the frozen monochrome stare greets me unveiled. The next moment those same eyes come fleetingly alive with a striking red glow through the lightly orange hair. But then the face gains three eyes, the line of tightly closed lips draws a moustache above the others, and one of the many eyes pauses momentarily as a red button of a nose. The bogeyman emerges as a knot of features, gestures, expressions.
Grave melancholy entwines with incontrollable bursts of energy in Santeri Tuori’s images of children. In Bogeyman as well as in Liina and Karlotta the still black and white pictures create eerie shadows for the moving figures. Like old photographs or cinematic flash backs they allude to a past that haunts the present, and possibly the future as well. They may thus act as visualised memories, as shared property that hides within it the unarticulated and personal. As recollections or mementos they clash disturbingly with the lively children, who hence appear at once present and absent. There is necessarily a nostalgic dimension to this, a symbolic reference to the unstoppable flow of time and the loss of childhood immediacy. Significantly the works, however, problematise these very notions of temporal linearity and unmediated presence. The photographs do not succeed in capturing a moment gone, neither really mourning nor holding on to it. Frozen as they may seem, they actually appear as mobilising forces in the slow unfolding of the present, adding intricate depth to it.
In contrast to the dynamic video footage the photographs represent the children as unusually serious, giving them almost the gravity attached to adult subjects. But as both the still and the animated faces constantly blur and slip from our grasp due to this layering, they defy the expected coherence and unity of adult subjectivity. While Liina stares at me disconcertingly solemn she also keeps on flirting with the camera. This is highlighted in comparison with the two young women in the same series of works, Kati and Céci, who then again attempt to hold their composed pose throughout. Their boundaries become nevertheless porous, as if about to evaporate. And then a suppressed smile breaks through for a moment. Neither immediacy nor fixity endures unchallenged.
Red or dead?
Another little girl swings about in a bright red dress, as if dancing to music inaudible to me. She forgets the camera for a moment and then focuses on it again. A wide variety of emotions flicker on her face and gestures, but even though slowed down they still escape me. Karlotta’s colourful presence merges with the steady backdrop offered by her grey image. Against all odds the red negotiates constantly of visibility and clarity of form with its shadow. This extreme contrast seems to be just a matter of degree. The symbolically charged colour of passion and flesh resonates with(in) a number of senses and disrupts the exclusively visual field promoted by the detached and cool monochrome. Here red also launches an attack on the ideals of innocence and purity as captured in the nostalgic representations, which continue to frame contemporary understandings of childhood, especially that of girls. As the eyes of the monochrome girl flash red and the two images momentarily collide to form a doll-like figure with frightening hollow features, this romanticised icon gains unexpectedly new vitality.
So what is it with red? In the Red Shirt the boy from Bogeyman tackles the challenge posed by a T-shirt. Slowed down this process reveals its astonishing complexity of strategic moves and unanticipated tight corners concluding eventually in the satisfying finishing stretch. In this battle the red shirt is radically juxtaposed to the pale and stripped down scene, yet it also complements the pink skin and the golden orange hair of its opponent. As if another visual layer, the red could be seen – and felt – as matter the boy has to negotiate his own image with. It may be the veil of visibility he has to put on so as to achieve a pose.
From painting to cinema, and even documentary photography, red has served as a strategic point of both release and control of tensions. From its position in the 19th Century painting as the opposite of line, representative of everything dangerous and irrational, it has moved on to join forces with forms. It has been appropriated as powerful coloured drops that by their disruptive presence give the whole image desired dynamics and carefully staged harmony. Yet in some works, found from the history of painting and contemporary art alike, the careful composition gives way. Here the charged red stains acquire their own substance and rupture the surface of the image. In the Red Shirt the coloured field seems to also break free from its role in the service of the whole and gain significance of its own. It becomes something material I, the viewer, can hold onto – or maybe it grips hold of me.
Tangible, and even tactile, points of contact do not necessarily appear in red. In a series of photographs, as well as in a video installation Posing Time, Tuori asked the sitters to remain in front of the camera for an hour. The result is a collection of antiquated-looking images mapping the slow unfolding of time. The works make obvious references to photography used historically in scientific research, from Muybridge’s studies of movement to Charcot’s representations of hysteria, but they relate to portraiture tradition more generally as well. Warhol left his subjects similarly in front of a film camera alone, without any directions. Any life model for a painter would have also experienced the same excruciating palpability of time when posing.
Every so often the sitters drift from their conscious pose, from the time and space they are caught in. Elsewhere, where else. As a viewer I cannot follow them, but the instances that begin to draw me in are those that slip from visibility as well – sites, where shapes and boundaries momentarily lose their clarity and the figures fade to the back ground or get sucked into shadows. These points appear as bridges promising me an entry into the images, as fractures in their impenetrable solidity of forms. They are inarguably different yet not completely unlike those moments, when in a portrait the subject’s eyes or expression comes to life and s/he reaches towards the viewer. As clarity here gives way, the image seduces the viewer into leaps of imagination, with an invitation to lean across the gap between. Neither the flow of time, whether individual experience of duration or so-called clock-time, nor the capture of the subject in flux between presence and absence seem to be exclusively at stake here anymore. These portraits open into sites of encounters. They undo portraiture.
Tuori’s portraits of individuals extracted from their surroundings call to my mind annual school photographs, the cause of a trauma that many must share. These pictures never looked like me, or at least I wished they did not. They seemed to present me with a double, who was acting as me. Flat cutouts pasted on a neutral background. They gave emergence to a strange image that has followed me ever since. It faces me at times in the mirror, or a shop window and often takes my place in the changing rooms. Sometimes it even intrudes in the family photos and alienates me from those treasured memories of holidays and celebrations.
The painfully extended smile of Thirtyfive minute smile is an excruciating reminder of this slave labour of posing, of the never-ending attempts to fix my incoherent self into an image. Do flies disturb and annoy, the one in the video work or those in any moments of concentration, because they flounce their freedom and ability to fly off just as one is about to catch them? Is that also what makes Tuori’s portraits of children so fascinating yet somehow disconcerting? For example in Liina the still monochrome image with its piercing eyes unceasingly haunts the lively performance and even occupies the other fixing her for a brief moment. The figures in these works appear at times as if possessed. But possessed by what – their other selves or own images, past or future, life or death, coherence or dispersion? No answers. We are left suspended between, hovering together with the figures on the threshold that cannot be crossed nor closed. The works take us to the uncanny zone, the no-man’s land, where distinctions dissolve. It is inhabited by the mythical creatures from horror, dolls that come to life, bogeymen living underneath the beds, children with age-old wise eyes, ghosts that are both more than one and none.
These troubling figures materialise in Tuori’s works through extraction, extension and layering. Spatially extracting the models he places them in an abstract non-space, but this no longer makes the traditional truth claim. Instead of capturing the subjects in their immediacy, the images highlight how the sitters inevitably float ever further and become strange, possibly even to themselves. They seem to emphasise that the self unfolds always in relation to the world and others – with, not without. The images hint at the manifold processes that they do not have means to seize.
Temporal extension plays a similar role in the works. Stretching of a moment does not result in a denial of events nor in mere stylisation. From the initially annoying or simply aesthetic effect layers of thickness emerge and pull me in. As duration is slowed down attention focuses on what usually goes unnoticed in the fast flow and bombardment with stimulus. I cannot surf any more on the seductive waves of action and keep myself securely detached even while immersed into the cinematic illusion and identification. I sink, just like in moments of boredom, in waiting. The world exposes itself in new detail. The so-called secondary elements such as colours and the minutiae of expressions draw my thoughts into flight. Slowing down does therefore not aim to determine, but opens towards what lies beyond the habitual and the known. The sound in Karlotta turns into a classic horror film effect and her gestures attain unnerving force and ambiguity. Even the firm stability of the black and white photographs is unsettled as they are layered together with extended motion in e.g. Bogeyman or become part of a duration composed of frozen moments in Posing Time. With the power of suggestion less becomes more.
Ending in a Loop
The monstrous and the unknown lurk in unsuspected places. The duration of the Thirtyfive minute smile irritates first and eventually torments. Ending turns into another beginning, in a loop. Like the smile of the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland this seems to be of an everlasting kind, hovering around when the cat or the man has already vanished. With only a few cracks revealed every now and then, it functions as a polished mask or facade, behind which one can disappear. Yet now this frontal image has grown increasingly weird as well. I am left with aching facial muscles and stiff shoulders, like after another duel with my double that ended in a draw. I am, however, curiously satisfied this time with the non-result, sharing something with the little boy and his struggle with the red shirt, perhaps. The double does not merely threaten the coherent sense of self any longer, whether from within or without. Its persistence is somehow comforting, trustworthy in its unpredictable recurrences and stubborn unfamiliarity. The glimmering red eyes wink at me before growing cool as chrome again.