Art in the Construction of Identity Politics / Doctoral Thesis 2014 / Academy of Fine Art, University of the Arts, Helsinki
My artistic practice and research are both informed by postmodern per-spectivism. It is a philosophy that sees things and beings as cultural constructions shaped by power. Postmodern perspectivism accepts heterogeneous truths and different perspectives, but without losing the possibility for moral judgment. It respects difference and other value systems and political assessments.
The starting point of my textual research is the notion of mutual interaction between physical spaces, cultural places and the positions and identities of subjects. Identity production always occurs in a specific space, from a vantage point, and by individuals who occupy different subject positions. The agencies involved in the production of spaces, places, subject positions and identities include verbal, visual and spatial representations that operate either within discourses or challenge their established notions and practices from the outside.
The conceptual instruments in my research include Michel Foucault’s genealogy and analysis of power; Jean-François Lyotard’s ideas on paganism and his concept of différend; Stuart Hall’s ideas of identity; and Tuija Pulkkinen’s postmodern political philosophy. Ideas concerning the postmodern and identity presented by Steven Best and Douglas Kellner as well as Leena-Maija Rossi have also opened up important viewpoints and approaches for my research.
In Foucault’s thinking, postmodern politics implies a potential for breaking the universalising and totalising structures of society through the development of various forms of resistance. It pinpoints identities, institutions and discourses of exclusion that bolster hegemonic power, and supports identities and alternative modes of being that are based on a politics of difference. For Lyotard, the postmodern has close links to paganism, which implies giving room for experimentation and the emergence of new discourses and values. According to Lyotard, the postmodern condition challenges meta-narratives and their inherent modernist belief in progress by making room for various micro-politics and theories instead of universal values. For Pulkkinen, the postmodern is a way of thinking and a cultural attitude rather than the ideology of an age or an art-historical pe-riod. According to her, the postmodern presents the vision of a culturally constructed individual with a sense of responsible morals that do not rely on universalising assessments. In the theoretical chapter, I also discuss Stuart Hall’s view of cultural identity, which is constructed discursively as a result of the subject positions assumed by individuals.
In my documentary video about Finnish East Timor activists (East Timor Activists in the Peace Station, 2009), I showcase the contribution of Finnish activists to the decolonialisation of East Timor. The video exam-ines the activists’ efforts to bring the human rights violations in East Timor to the public eye, and documents their trip to monitor the 1999 independence referendum in East Timor. The identities of the East Timor activists were constructed in a certain place at a certain time as a result of the activists’ own actions and the discourses that had produced East Timor activism. The site of the activists’ moral judgments was also constructed thereby. The moral judgments of the East Timor activists were valid precisely because they were aware of their position and place and the discursive construction of their assessment. In postmodern thinking, however, a judgment that happens in a specific time and place is not regarded as more valid than a universal assessment.
In my research, I analyse Venny Soldan-Brofeldt’s painting Ateria savolaisessa talonpoikaistuvassa (‘Meal in a Peasant House in Savo’, 1892). As a representation of Finnishness, it has produced and shaped identities associated with a specific time and place. In the exhibition Nuo talonpoikaisolennot (‘Those Peasant Characters’) that I curated for the Ateneum Art Museum in 2009, I reflected upon the relationship between that particular painting by Soldan-Brofeldt and the construction of the identities of the nation. In my analysis, I seek to show how the production of Finnish identity is closely bound to Western discourses of colonialism and Orientalism as well as experiences of injustice. I link it to the art genre I call Karelian Orientalism, which I regard a form of Finnish nationalist colonialism and Orientalism.
In the fourth chapter, I discuss an opera production of Rigoletto whose sets and costumes I designed and its relationship to observatory architecture and to the claim made by Foucault in his analysis of power, about how visible power partly becomes faceless disciplinary power. I discuss the opera house as an institution that fashions and changes people’s behaviour and thinking through architectural spatial order and spatial representation. As an institution, the opera objectifies individuals and assigns them ei-ther inside or outside various discursive categories associated with gender and sexuality. It is my contention that the Rigoletto produced at Göteborg Opera not only led to some transformation of the representation of gender and sexuality in opera, but also disrupted the audience’s heteronormative simulation.
In the Ryokan Mother Tongue video installation (2002), I analyse the ellipsis, internal conflicts and ambiguous ordering principle in Alvar Aalto’s architecture and in the video installation itself as part of postmodern perspectivism. I discuss the link between identities and spaces/places, and the cultural and discursive positions of subjects. The stories of the people in the video work reflect subject positions and identities that lie beyond the heteronormative matrix. The stories also serve as identity work. Ryokan Mother Tongue questions the coercive power of heteronormativity by emphasising the subjects’ ambivalent sexual identities. The piece turns upon the idea of a gender identity that defies hegemonic gender divisions and existing notions of male and female.
My research and my works recognise the impossibility of positioning oneself outside power, which implies that power must be challenged by repeating differently. My practice involves a deliberate disruption of discourses, institutions and traditions, and acting in contravention to them. I consider this a relevant form of repeating differently, which may even confuse and alter the viewers’ simulation and identity construction.