Who: Katja Tukiainen (b. 1969) is an acclaimed Finnish painter and visual artist. Her works have been included in international exhibitions and public collections. Ever since the mid 90’s her paintings turned towards a pink color palette, representing the artist’s cute – but not powerless – girl characters. Since then her girls have appeared not only in her paintings but also in her murals, sculptures, graphic novels and even as tattoos on people’s skin. Tukiainen calls them her girl army.
Lives & Works: Helsinki, Finland
Article Image: Katja Tukiainen in her studio in Kaapelitehdas | Image by HKI Art Guide
Earlier this month I had the wonderful opportunity to visit artist Katja Tukiainen’s studio in Kaapelitehdas. Although we had been planning this atelier visit ever since Katja and I met at ArtHelsinki fair in September, it finally happened in a very spontaneous manner.
I was on my way to another meeting in Kaapelitehdas when I noticed that Katja had posted a studio snapshot of her latest works on Instagram. So I asked if I can pass by to see them.
The result is an insightful conversation about Katja Tukiainen’s art, with details about her childhood background and influences that the artist has never shared with the press before.
There is a wide array of media that you use in your work, from painting to comic strips, installation, video and performance. Is there one medium you feel most at home with?
I totally love working with my hands and with my whole body. Making large paintings fulfills this need. Stretching canvases, preparing them with primer and gesso, then painting with ample brush strokes is something I always return to. I also like to draw with very precise lines. I am quite active as a person, I really need my daily cycling to my studio and back home all year around, I do yoga and dance. When I was working with my latest big doll sculpture’s head with the saw and planer, I found it strangely satisfying to sweat in the sunny, hot atelier. But yes – painting, painting and drawing are the most cozy mediums for me.
Your characters are nearly always female. I liked to hear you call them “your army of girls”. Why so? What or who are they fighting against?
Oh yes, they are my goodhearted girl army (smiles). They fight against any injustice and unfairness in our world, for all genders and beyond. When I was young, during my upper comprehensive school before becoming an art student, I already had this need to express myself through my art.
I made comics influenced by Tintin where my clever hero was a girl. It was a very intuitive thing and I made those comics only for myself, never published them. Later, during the gymnasium, when I was still under 18, I hanged out with punker boys. I started to paint messages onto the backs of our leather jackets, on our combat boots, and our t-shirts. I drew a couple of single records’ covers and painted some underground tunnels. When I was 17 years old I drew an old-school Mickey Mouse and my boyfriend tattooed it onto my arm. He did it with butterfly pinning needles, because we didn’t have a real tattooing machine. For some reason, many of my friends were boys, and I didn’t just hang out with them, but they came to our house every day after school.
For a couple of years I looked like a boy myself, with my punk hair and punk clothes. My parents were very open-minded, highly-educated people, not openly political but a bit anarchistic. A priest and a pharmacist. I have a younger brother who also liked this kind of lifestyle. Our house was open to anyone. My granny lived with us, which was not a common thing in Finland in the mid 80’s. She was a strong old lady, lived through the war, when she worked as nurse on the battlefield. Strong as a stone and strong as the love like the poetic expression goes. After war she worked as a self-taught dressmaker and she raised her daughter, my mother, alone. It was year 1944 when my mother was born, and being a single mother back then was not common, nor easy. My granny was an awesome lion woman with a crazy sense of humor.
From very early on, creating images was my own way of expressing my thoughts. I had plenty of feelings about things that went on around me. I felt very strongly about injustice towards animals, human beings or towards anyone fragile, with less power.
What is your opinion on critiques related to feminism being too one-sided, polarizing or belligerent towards men?
Any kind of fanaticism leads to nothing but misery. We are all here together. For me feminism means being on someone’s side – someone who has less power in the society. This someone can very well be a man or a boy. Speaking of which – in Finland we still don’t have an official International Men’s day, unlike in many other countries. We should.
Tell me about your latest series of works “Sassy Sayings”. What is the concept behind the sayings and how do the texts relate to the imagery?
I have always felt confident working with pictures and words at the same time. Publishing my comics since I was a young art student was something that made me feel good because I could do it outside of the academic frame. Creating artistic underground comics was a natural consequence of my punker times. Even then I had clear visions about what I want to say. Although I was a bit of a shy teenager I was able to say things through my art and – back then – also through my hair and clothing style! Later on in my career, after having painted on canvases and drawn comics for years, I made my first painting series with sayings and slogans in 2010.
I started with pick-up lines, painting self-confident girls on the same canvas with those provocative lines. The combination makes the audience wonder who is actually talking and how are the girls reacting to such lines? Or are the girls themselves talking – how do they dare? At the same time, the viewer is facing her or his own reactions. Only one thing is sure – the viewer can clearly depict on the girls’ faces that these girls are not victims, nor objects.
Women have been objects in the history of visual art for a long time and the moment has come to really shake up this classical setting. Still, my works are playful and not too serious, even though the dialogue can lead to very deep and important matters.
After painting slogans, sentences and pick-up lines in English and French, I decided to try playing with traditional common sayings. I started with this: “Behind every great man there is a woman.” It just popped up in my mind and I started to think how old fashioned this saying really is. I changed it, just for my own pleasure, to my own form: “Behind every great girl there is a girl”.
At that time, I had just practiced my hand-standing on the beach because it was summer, so I painted two girls standing on their hands and leaning on each other with their heels up in the air. I looked at my painting and I thought that it works. A strong link appears between the picture and the text. And the best connection happens in the audience’s mind. So I continued on that route and I am still continuing nowadays.
I call them Katja’s Sassy Sayings because the art writer Nadja Sayed called earlier versions of these paintings “sassy” when she visited my studio years back. I think it’s OK to be sassy on canvas (smiles).
When I visited your atelier, you were in the middle of a process for your work “Girls Will Be Girls”. You wanted to draw a parallel between the Belgian Manneken Pis – the famous boy peeing statue and your feminine characters – to portray them peeing standing as well. As an image, it is rather bold and uncanny to see women or girls peeing standing. Why did you choose to do so in this particular work?
In my large painting from 2013 my girls had conquered a fountain. I was looking at it and I thought – OK, it’s a nice painting, but does my message come trough? Men climb on the fountain to piss down from there, and it’s a funny, boyish thing. I have dealt with pissing girls in my painting series back 1999, and now I felt that I want to do it again. A psychoanalyst might ask if I felt pissed after the USA presidential election result. If I felt bad that I couldn’t vote myself. The truth is that I was not so surprised by the outcome, I saw Mr. Trump coming.
I started to compare things in my mind, things that are boyish, and that girls should not do. And I started wondering why it is so. It’s a really interesting topic, especially if you can think and talk about it without getting too emotional. When your heart rate is over 120 you cannot think clearly, you just act. That always leads to polarized opinions and the dialogue is dead.
I googled “women pissing standing” and got results I really did not like – just a bunch of kinky images. My husband laughed at me. He was not so surprised by the results.
I started to think about the symbolism around this, and that was when I got the surprise visit from you at my studio. Most of my art was born in a very intuitive way, but some of my works need more research and dialogue. Talking to you, I ended up with the conclusion that if my intention as an artist was to show the underlying difference in the liberty of some men’s actions compared to those of women – then I should finalize my artwork the way I was planning to – as a portrait of girls peeing standing, like boys. Even if someone might find that it references some type of kinky behavior, I should not let that stop me. At least now I’m aware of these associations, and prepared to face them. That’s enough for me. A coward cannot win in art. So thank you Alexandra for a great discussion, dialogue is a powerful tool!
Well, it is a really interesting topic overall – what men can do and women cannot. It works equally the other way around. We so desperately want to fit in a box that has already been laid out for us that we forget to question things. So I’m grateful to have had this conversation with you.
Funny coincidence to stumble upon this, especially since the visit was in no way planned or booked beforehand. Probably the best things happen in a spontaneous manner.
When you decided to finish your painting you asked if I want to film – so here’s the live snapshot of it, for the pleasure of our readers. Granted, my team has played a bit with the editing.
Let’s continue talking about your work as a whole. Many critics have characterized it as pop art, post-pop art and you even mentioned the concept of micropop related to your works. Can you expand a little bit on this? What is micropop?
My personal influences are both in high culture and in popular culture. I have many beautiful memories from Italy, ever since I was a child. I was six when I saw Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.
During our travels with our Ford Escort ’69, I saw a lot of art around Italy. We went all the way from Finland to Italy and back many summers by car. We used to sleep in a tent and I used to read Mickey Mouse and other comics. Carl Barks’ stories were also really appreciated in our family. My mother received the very first issue of Aku Ankka (Donald Duck) magazine in 1951 from my grandmother. I also enjoyed reading the series of French comics Asterix, and I even found a classic masterpiece – the antique statue of Laocoön and His Sons – used as a composition model and reference for adult readers in one issue of Asterix. I saw the actual statue in Rome on one of my childhood trips. Highbrow (intellectual) and lowbrow (popular) shake hands.
Here is how I grew up in the middle of classic art and popular art. Although my father preferred classical music he and my mom had Jane Birkin’s Je t’aime in their records shelf. I was allowed to see the movie of the Swedish music group ABBA when I was seven, despite the fact that I had no ABBA records. I had ABBA clothes though, since my grandmother was a dressmaker. My grandmother also painted as a hobby and my father developed black and white photos in our bathroom. Many of his five siblings were artists, either full-time or part-time.
The mix of influences from both high and low culture came very naturally to me. There was no question whether it was more suitable to draw comics, paint with oil colors, or make small dolls when I was a child. Now I am still making dolls, I just make them much bigger. All mediums can be mixed and to me they are all equal. Perhaps this might get closer to the idea of my art being Micropop – a term often used to describe a way of living and aesthetics that combines fragments gathered from various places, without relying on institutional morals or major ideologies.
You share your atelier space with your husband, Matti Hagelberg, who is a well-known international comic artist. Do you often exchange thoughts on each other’s work? Are there any influences in terms of concepts or subjects you deal with?
Matti is an amazing studio critic and he always has interesting points of view. He reads a lot. When he is not working he mainly reads – art theory, literary theory and difficult, intellectual books. I remember how a few months ago he was reading the same book in both its original language as well as the Finnish translation, and he found interesting differences between the two. The book was Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.
I sometimes ask him to name my paintings. Last time, after I had painted a small, dreamy and foggy landscape with turquoise water and palm trees, Matti named it Brooke Shields Diving. That’s the title now. I would have just said Blue Lagoon.
At times, Matti can be cryptic in all his communication. I have to ask and I do ask. I hadn’t previously noticed that I am a person who asks things. Nobody told me. A few months ago I spent three weeks as an invited artist at the Museum of Drawings in Laholm Sweden together with an Icelandic artist – Sigga Björg Sigurðardottir. Sigga told me that I am a person who asks. So it seems that Matti and I make a good couple (smiles).
It’s easy to talk about art with Matti, because we have a common background and we go to exhibitions together. His popular culture influences are wider than mine, he watches many more movies than I do for instance. But at least I can follow the conversation about some superhero movie when he and our son are talking (laughs). We also have some old toys at the studio and home, as we both used to collect those kind of things when traveling.
How did your own artist room at Hotel Klaus K happen?
It was in 2012 when Klaus K’s owners Mia Cederberd-Skvorc and Marc Skvorc invited me to paint one Envy Suite to be Katja Tukiainen Art Suite. I had been dreaming about that possibility. During Easter, Matti and I spent a night in one of the hotel’s rooms and I could visualize how the space would work with my art and how I could work with the space.
I had the chance to choose between three different rooms. Because I was planning to create a cozy, dream-like atmosphere, I chose the one with smaller windows to enhance the role of my Tivoli lights. I use that type of lighting in my installations to create a magical feeling around my paintings.
I painted all the walls in the room, but I left the ceiling empty and white, for the eyes to wander. The painting process took one week in June 2012. Painting the hotel room walls was exciting in a different manner than painting museum or gallery walls, which I had done many times before. I painted a big, cute shepherd girl, a bird, flowers, and a sleepy young deer. I wrote a story of my art work on the wall and signed it, with the date when it was finalized – 14th of July. I also hanged one of my mini girl statuettes on a wall. She is like an art doll, but not one of my large-scale ones that I usually show in museums and galleries. A huge girl sculpture in the same room one goes to sleep in might be a bit too creepy for some guests (laughs).
I heard that there have been many nice evenings in that room. A few weeks ago I visited again with my goddaughters. My son also loves it there.
Two other artists have created installations and works for their own “art rooms” there – Jani Leinonen and Riiko Sakkinen. Is there a common context, or a parallel that you see between your works?
I feel that our works sprung out from the same family tree, we have some common roots. I think that there is also some type of fearless attitude in our working methods. I know both of them personally and I very much appreciate their work. We’ve also had some collaborations in the past – group shows with Jani, exhibitions and artist travels with Riiko. Throughout the years we had interesting chats about art.
Jani’s work in Klaus K is quite romantic – heart shaped tattoos containing the guests’ names. Tattoos really interest me as a form of micropop art. I also made a few drawings of my girls to serve as tattoo models. I have a huge respect for the people who carry a member of my goodhearted girl army on their own skin.