The above scene is from my videowork Aamu (Morning, 2013), which was shot in my home one Saturday morning in November 2011. The woman in the picture is me, the voice in the background belongs to my partner, Ari, and the children are our son Elias and our then as yet nameless daughter Tilda. They were all used to the presence of the camera, as it had been standing in the kitchen doorway for more than a week. I had set it up there so that I could film first thing in the morning, as soon as I had woken up, and so as not to spend time on arranging it. Since the camera was standing ready on its tripod, all I had to do was turn it on — like a coffee maker or dishwasher.
Mornings got chosen as my time for filming simply because I like them. They are splendid, bright moments of a new beginning. Perhaps the choice of subject was also influenced by the fact that morning is quite a common subject in the history of visual art. In any case, I decided to concentrate on morning activities, and to film them over a period of several weeks or months. Nevertheless, the material I got on that November Saturday was so perfect that I decided to stop the filming sessions there and then. It felt like I had in my hands an almost complete whole, one with a beginning, middle and end. Especially the end — when the boy bursts into tears — felt rare in its authenticity.
A CONTEMPORARY GENRE PICTURE
Before I had time to start editing the material, I reached a turning point in my research, one that affected both Morning and the way I see the whole of my way of being an artist. For this turning point I can thank two artistic-research events, at which I presented my works. The first was a seminar held at the Sibelius Academy in spring 2012. For the event, presentations were requested of works that were still in progress, and I showed a nine-minute excerpt from the raw material for Morning. The excerpt was from the second half of the tape, more or less the same footage that I described at the beginning of this text. My idea was to ask the audience’s help in analysing the video’s meanings and possibilities. What can be seen in the picture and what should be done with it? To me personally the only thing that was clear at that stage was that I wanted to turn the material into a piece of art — a beautiful, touching tableau, regardless of what its research significance might be.
The video’s painting-likeness and “beauty” were topics that were touched on in the discussion. One thing that particularly stayed in my mind was the artist and researcher Piia Rossi’s comment about the way that the details of the video were far too deliberate-looking to be true — right down to the colour of the underwear. “As a researcher I do not believe a word of what is said in the picture,” Rossi said, and added that the video reminded her of the paintings by the Dutchman Jan Vermeer (1632–1675).
A few months later, Vermeer’s name came up again, even though the material I was showing was quite different from Morning — in it a bunch of boisterous little lads were trying to stay in line at a dance lesson. On this occasion, the event at which I was showing my work was a Nordic Summer University (NSU) summer school in Denmark. I have been part of the NSU’s artistic research network since 2010, and it may be that the comment referred primarily to my works Room (2008) and Two Rooms and a Kitchen (2010), which I had previously shown in the study group. In any case, my work seemed to contain something that invited comparisons with the Dutch painting tradition.
As a consequence of these comments the idea began to smoulder in my mind of my videoworks as kinds of contemporary genre pictures, i.e. as “interior paintings” depicting everyday life. The term “genre picture” comes from the French word “genre”, which means category or type. It emerged in the 18th century, and was originally used to describe painters who specialized in specific subjects, such as flowers or animals. Since the mid-19th century, the term “genre picture” has referred to paintings that contain scenes from everyday life. These can equally be highly comical depictions of ordinary people, as well as the subdued interiors of middle-class homes. When I talk about the genre picture, I am thinking of the latter subgenre. Some of its most famous exponents are the 17th-century Dutch masters — apart from Vermeer, for example, Gerard ter Borch (1617–1681), Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–1678), Gabriel Metsu (1629–1667) and Pieter de Hooch (1629–1684). Their paintings often show a view of everyday life opening out behind a doorway or a curtain, the light comes from a side window, the colours are bright, the composition geometric, and the mood is harmonious… Just like in my works.
The genre-picture idea brought the realization that the context for my works is not video or film, but painting. This claim is a provocative one and some may disagree, but for me personally, right from the start, it has felt right and true, and downright self-evident. Being like a genre picture explains the aesthetic of my works — what they look like — but above all it describes how I think about pictures, how I construct them. Despite the fact that I make moving-image works, I actually think in static images. I make various kinds of moving still pictures. When I look through the camera’s viewfinder (or to be more precise, at the little screen on the digital video camera), I see my subject as “a painting”. I look at the light, the foreground and background of the space, the relationships between the objects. Just as Rossi suspected, I am particular about the colours, and I go in and adjust details. I am not a documentarist who attempts to portray reality as it is. I am a painter who constructs her pictures.
A SUSPECT IDYLL
The need to contextualize one’s work springs from the academic research tradition, but finding a context can also be inspiring for artistic work. When I was editing Morning, it was a relief to think that I was making not “a movie”, but a painting. It seemed to give me more room to manoeuvre in relation to the duration of the work, and to allow moments when nothing happens. Contrary to what is generally the case, the display context for the work was also known before I even had time to start the editing. This was the Nordic contemporary-art show at the Turku Biennial at the Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova Museum in summer 2013. The theme of the exhibition was the Idyll, and it seemed like I could not have got a more delicious display forum for my suspect genre picture!
For the exhibition I went through the one and a half hours of video material again and edited it down to a compilation about 22 minutes long. This is divided into seven episodes, separated by fade-through-black transitions. At the start of the work, the mother is sitting at the table eating porridge, the baby is sleeping in the sling, and the father is buttering bread at the sink unit. From out of shot we hear the boy’s voice: “Mum, I’ve got my very own superball!” Soon, the boy comes in to show off his ball. He remains standing in the doorway, his right hand raised. The arrangement is perfect: the boy in the foreground, the mother at the back, the hand holding the superball in a golden section. A moment later, the child starts bouncing the ball. He passes in and out of the frame made by the doorway. “A really fine day, have to go out…” the mother says in a barely audible voice. The father looks out onto the courtyard from the window in the side wall, which is hidden behind the doorframe.
In the next scene the boy is sitting on a chair at the head of the table. The father is reading a newspaper, and the mother suggests that she read to the boy Astrid Lindgren’s life story. “Let’s read the cow book first,” the boy says, “We’ve never read it.” The mother does not appear very enthusiastic: she lingers, takes another sip of coffee, glances at the newspaper over the father’s shoulder. Finally — when the boy is already quite breathless from repeatedly asking — the mother gets up. “Let’s see if I can find it,” she says and walks through the doorway out of shot. The boy goes after her. Still from behind the black rectangle we hear a clear voice: “Mum, I’m going with you.”
When mother and son are again sitting at the table, the “cow book” has turned into Cinderella-Timo, Mauri Kunnas’ version of the classic fairy tale. The mother reads patiently, even though the newspaper might be more tempting. The boy listens with only one ear. He turns around in his chair, then finds a metal tape measure on the table and makes a gun for himself out of it. From somewhere further off we hear the sound of a telephone. The mother goes to answer it, and the boy is left alone with his father. He points the gun at his father: “Hands up, don’t move!” The father lifts his gaze from the newspaper and smiles. It looks like he might be about to say something, but the scene ends before he does so. If it did not end there, the viewer would see that the man glances at the camera.
In the fourth episode, a space rocket made out of kitchen-roll tubes has appeared on the table. Once again, if viewers saw the edited-out material, they would know that the father has helped the boy to build it. Now, however, the father has returned to the newspaper, and the boy is sitting in his mother’s lap. “Look what I made,” the boy says and shows her the patterns he has drawn on the rocket. Then he announces that he is going to draw on his leg next. “Don’t,” the mother stops him. “OK,” the boy promises, but goes under the table with the pen. From there he asks whether the mother can see what he is doing. “Yes, I can see,” the mother replies. The boy says that, in that case, he is going under the bed, but, as he gets up, he bangs his head on the edge of the table. Momentarily the boy ends up right at the edge of the shot, almost outside it. The mother, too, steps out of frame. I remember well when this happened: I realized that I must be too far out, and took a step inwards. In so doing, of course, I got the boy to follow me.
At the start of the fifth episode, the boy is again drawing on the rocket. “This is Laika,” he says. “Oh, look, how lovely,” the mother praises him. “What do you mean lovely?” the boy asks. There follows a conversation about how a dog can fly in a rocket, even if it cannot steer, and about whether the story is true. The mother assures the boy that it is true, and the boy proposes that they, too, travel on a moon rocket one day. “You may get a chance,” the mother replies, “when you’re grown up.” The boy says that the mother will have to come with him. “Fine,” the mother grins (even though in fact the idea is no more imaginary than a dog flying in a rocket). At this point, the father, too, joins in the conversation: “You can go now if you have a few million.” “You can?” the mother says in surprize, and corrects him, saying surely you can’t go to the moon, but only into space.
When we next shift forward in time (via a fade-through-black transition), the father has gone and the mother has sat in her place to read the newspaper. The boy announces that he is finally going to eat the toast on the plate, but points out that there is no butter on the bread. The mother sighs and says (articulating extremely clearly) that the bread has been buttered, but you can’t see it, because it has melted. This reasoning does not convince the boy, and he demands that the mother put more butter on the bread. If the camera had not been on, at this point, I would very probably have snapped: That’s enough! But because the camera was on, I got up and took the butter dish out of the fridge. I was still annoyed enough to tell the boy to put the butter on himself. Or was it that I realized that the butter dish had some dramatic potential? In any case, the following sequence ensues, which always makes the audience laugh: first, the boy carefully takes some butter on the knife and, having made sure that the mother is not paying attention, puts the knife into his mouth.
The work’s seventh, i.e. last, episode is the one that I described at the beginning of this essay — the one that begins with the boy in tears and ends with the mother frozen into a tableau. When we look at the scene together with the other episodes, the boy’s tears take on the significance of a kind of climax or turning point. Before that, the work is filled with talk and action, but now the pace slows, until the motion stops almost completely. I believe that the association with Vermeer arises specifically here. Vermeer did not depict families, rather his metier was women sunk in thought. Contemplation and silence are otherwise among the most characteristic features of the Dutch genre picture of the 17th century.
A REAL GENRE PICTURE
When I was editing the video, I had the idea of juxtaposing the work in the exhibition with a “real” genre picture and, in the absence of any Vermeers, I began looking for a suitable painting in Finnish art history. The genre painting arrived in Finland via the Düsseldorf Academy of Art during the 1800s and was very popular until the end of the century. The first to catch my attention was Elin Danielson-Gambogi’s (1861–1919) After Breakfast from 1890. In it a young woman “slobs about” at the breakfast table smoking a cigarette. At the time the painting was made, a woman smoking was a provocation that was associated with the women’s movement and a bohemian lifestyle. In my mind I could already see that defiant feminist hanging on the museum wall opposite my family idyll, eyeing it suspiciously. Or perhaps she would simply be indifferent and say: “No thanks.” In any case the painting would contrast with my video and would bring in a critical note.
It was not, however, possible to get After Breakfast for the Biennial, since it was going to another exhibition at that same time. So, I carried on looking, and finally settled on a work by Adolf von Becker, A Mother's Joy (1868). I didn’t find it so interesting as a painting as After Breakfast, and nor did it contrast in any way with my video. On the contrary, the theme was exactly the same — a mother and son at the breakfast table — and the mood idyllic. Nevertheless, I thought that by juxtaposing them I would be able to convey to the audience my idea about the genre picture. The aim was to get the viewer to view my video through art history, as a painting. Von Becker was splendidly suited to this purpose, since he is known specifically as a genre painter, and A Mother's Joy clearly represents this type of picture.
In practice it was easy to bring the pictures together, since A Mother's Joy belongs to the Finnish National Gallery’s collections, and the painting was obtained for Turku under an inter-museum loan agreement. In the exhibition a small room on the museum’s upper floor was given over to the works. The walls of the room were painted bluish grey (this shade was picked out of the mother’s apron in von Becker’s painting) and the works were hung on opposite walls. The video was shown on a small flat screen, which accentuated its painting-like quality. The sound came from headphones. Also fixed to the wall in adhesive lettering were the words: “Morning is a video work and also a contemporary genre painting – an ‘interior painting’ depicting everyday life. Genre paintings had their roots in the Netherlands of the 17th century, but they were popular up until the end of the 19th century. In this exhibition Morning is paired with A Mother’s Joy, a genre painting by Adolf von Becker from 1868.”