von Clara Bolin
Democratic Design, New Nordic and finnish photography are keywords concerning the European North and art in general. Especially the Helsinki School of Photography is a well-known term denoting a wide group of students and graduates of the Aalto University. norrøna met the art critic Martta Heikkilä to talk about her research regarding art with reference to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida and allow her to illustrate some of her findings with works by Jari Silomäki and Marja Pirilä.
norrøna: Do terms from Derrida’s linguistic theory such as traces, différance and deconstruction form a background for his theory of visual culture? Is there a comparable vocabulary?
Martta Heikkilä: Obviously, the greatest source of Derrida’s philosophy is based on the workings of language and linguistic signs, as well as the meanings which they have received in the history of philosophy on the one hand, and in the French climate of thought in the 1960s. It is natural that the influences and concepts composed by Derrida cannot be surpassed with speaking of his philosophy of art either. Therefore, what I am interested in is whether he, in a way, is still a philosopher of language based on structuralism when he is writing about the visual. What I am asking in my study is what kind of realm visuality is for him and what art means to Derrida. Can deconstruction be approached without taking notice of language, and if so, how does this happen?
norrøna: In the field of visual culture, Derrida talks about paintings, photographs and graphic art. What are you especially interested in? What offers the biggest différance?
Martta Heikkilä: Personally, what interests me most among the visual arts is painting. This is because painting seems to escape the vocabulary more than any other kind of art. The reason is, as I see it, the degree of singularity in the painterly gesture. In photography, at least Derrida finds many concepts which are common to his philosophical views: repetition, seriality, graphic character and the notion of the ‘trace’ or the trait. In a way, photography and the graphic arts come close to his media philosophy: they are the outcome of processes which create a sort of writing, or text, that includes the structure of signs and their iterability. They are the most difficult to apply to painting. I think it can be connected with medium philosophy. The medium is different in photography and graphic arts, where making series is kind of making art. Painting is more singular, with tones and textures.
norrøna: With Derrida’s theory of visual art, what does it mean to “deconstruct the image”?
Martta Heikkilä: Derrida deconstructs the aesthetics of representation. He also deconstructs the notion of mimetic art, that is the idea that art imitates or represents reality. Art cannot “represent” anything because there is, in fact, nothing to be imitated: When one thinks of the “real” object and the artistic image, the object or referent of the image is absent. It is not in the picture in itself, which is evident. It can be produced artistically, but in between there is always the domain of imagination, associations and memory.
norrøna: So the observer plays an active role? Like reading between the images?
Martta Heikkilä: Yes, the role of the observer is a crucial one. This, I think, can be said although the image is the source of its meanings in the same manner that a text is: Meanings emerge based on what is included in them. At the same time, a spectator is needed: He or she is where the event of art takes place. Derrida’s “aesthetics” is thus not subjective in the traditional sense, nor is it psychological.
norrøna: That means that there cannot be a single truth?
Martta Heikkilä: This is correct. Or there is at least not one single truth but countless truths, depending on the equally countless contexts in which a thing is or can be presented. I think that Derrida is after differences or how any text or culture produces differences and how these differences generate meanings. So I think one can understand how it’s comparable in both language and let’s say painting. They are both fields of creating differences.
norrøna: Would you say that Derrida has some kind of interpicturality in mind? Images refer to other images and, for an observer, looking at images has a reminding effect.
Martta Heikkilä: Yes, a picture, as such, is nothing. It always belongs to a network of other images and generates associations, thinking, theories, etc. This is something that he emphasises quite often: What is it that structures the emergence of meanings? As such, these points of view offer an interesting perspective on the traditionally “aesthetical” or art historical ones and can reveal things that otherwise remain hidden in the mind of the artist. Evidently, seriality is a feature that brings Derrida’s analyses of art close to his notions of writing, text and the sign: Everything refers to everything else.
norrøna: All this interference of text and image is something Jari Silomäki plays with in his series My weather diary. He shows us pictures featuring written texts.
Martta Heikkilä: I think that the work of both photographers, Jari Silomäki and Marja Pirilä, has something to do with creating spaces. In Silomäki’s case, I started thinking about the weather and the weather condition. There are very often people standing or doing something in his very large pictures. I started thinking about what modifies us from the outside and what it is that we really are, if anyone can really know this. So, what is our inner experience of ourselves and to what degree are we the end products of something that surrounds us?
norrøna: In his photographs, we get a sense of the daily weather and places, whereas the written text corresponds to world political news.
Martta Heikkilä: Yes, we are not alone in the world. Does it tell us something like our existence is being bound to a situation, being right in the middle of things, which are as uncontrollable and inexplicable as the weather? From one point of view, one’s entire life is like situationist aesthetics: there is nothing essential to it in any serious sense. Instead, you are at the mercy of what comes as a surprise. It can be both good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. When the weather or mood changes, the whole picture – let alone a photograph with its light conditions – is changed.
norrøna: What is the relation between text and picture? How are they put into context?
Martta Heikkilä: It is a visual part of the picture because it is included inside its frames. There are two levels in his photos, the pictorial and the linguistic. Maybe something happens between those two. Looking at the photos in the way that deconstruction would, we create the space between what is really happening in the image and what is written in the text. We produce something in between, like how this text and the image that it is written on react to one another. Our references are born. Numeral series can be created on the basis of what Jari Silomäki shows us.
norrøna: Would you say that it is less clear in the pictures by Marja Pirilä?
Martta Heikkilä: As far as I know, she has been working quite long with her series, which always plays with the elements of the inside and outside. Very often, there is a solitary person or two persons in an inner space, typically a room in an apartment, and something is reflected on the walls in the room and the face and the body of the person. So I would guess that the person is neither completely here nor there, but produces a third space kind of, which is neither inside nor outside. This – like in Derrida’s language – resists oppositions or categorizations.
norrøna: Many of them have their eyes closed or look away. Do you think the impression becomes stronger because there is no eye contact with the observer?
Martta Heikkilä: The persons are elements among all the others in the photos. One of Marja Pirilä’s most recent series is called Milavida. The name refers to a stately home in the Finnish city of Tampere, which now functions as a museum. In this series, there are only inner and outer spaces interlapping but no persons anymore. It’s like she has given up using persons.
norrøna: And the colours are toned down.
Martta Heikkilä: Yes, they are grey and blue, like at night. Speaking of photos, Derrida thinks they are always part of the ghost world. The world of ghosts is something that he connects to photos. The real thing is not in the picture, but it is not completely outside of it either, because we see something in the picture. The referent or the object is both with us and somewhere else.
norrøna: So not only the outer landscapes that are screened inside are the ghosts?
Martta Heikkilä: Yes, all of the pictures are some kind of world of ghosts. I think it has something to do with the meaning of the medium and the strong visual experience. Is the person the ghost or is the world a ghostlike experience to us? I think the pictures can evoke both meanings somehow.
For more information about Martta’s work with art philosophy, see Martta Heikkilä: At the Limits of Presentation: Coming-into-Presence and Its Aesthetic Relevance in Jean-Luc Nancy’s Philosophy,Frankfurt a. M: Peter Lang, 2008.