||Alternative systems of belief|
Making pictures used to be an organic part of science and of research into the world we live in. Thus, drawers and painters have helped shape reality: our images of history, biology, our own country and of alien cultures, and so on. In the last century, one task performed by artists was illustrating works in the natural sciences.
Since then, the task of investigating the world and its diverse phenomena has been confined to a specialist group of professionals: research is carried on in universities and its rules are defined by the academic community.
It is frequently also the practice to say that an artist 'investigates' some theme or subject in their works. An artist's research work does not, however, meet academic criteria, nor does it even try to follow the rules. Nevertheless, many artists genuinely ponder and investigate their environment and the phenomena in it closely, analytically and critically, i.e. they do research. Pirkko Rantatorikka is undoubtedly one such artist.
While a (proper) researcher's research usually seeks to be objective and universally applicable, an artist generally starts off from a theme with which they have an affinity, from something that preoccupies them in their own life and immediate environment. In one of her series of paintings, Rantatorikka has dealt with the war period in Finnish history, and especially with how this bygone war is still with us and exists in the present: in memories, in place names, on maps and in stories. In another series, instead of the temporal dimension, the emphasis is on the organisation of space: the living environment, building construction and town planning.
Her subjects would surely qualify as research topics, but her way of dealing with them differs from that of the researcher. Instead of being systematic, there is more room for associativity and intuition; in place of reproducibility and provability comes interpretability. And here, in fact, is one of the crucial significances of art: in art you are free to do things differently - differently from a life bound by everyday rationality and utilitarian thinking, or from results dictated by academic qualification requirements and modes of presentation. In the laboratory of art there is room to play, to experiment and to come up with new ideas. In art there is freedom to present a different viewpoint, in a different way, using different methods, to different senses.
Pirkko Rantatorikka is an artist who lives powerfully in present day society, and who considers what this means. In a way that is perhaps rare for painters, this is also visible in her works. Rare because the content of her paintings is not in their actual treatment of forms, colours and picture elements or the expression of abstract emotions, which according to the modernist view are fundamental tasks of painting. The type of working method that she uses, which can with good reason be described as taking an investigative approach, usually seems to adopt as its medium some form of art-making other than painting.
Nevertheless, Rantatorikka's medium is specifically the painting, and her works function using the means and on the terms of painting. Their characteristic quality is formed out of the relationship between contentual themes and painterly treatments.
Rantatorikka's paintings have multiple ingredients and are multi-layered. In them each theme is dealt with on several levels, using several modes of depiction at the same time. A thing can be represented both as an image and as a sign, or a place can be viewed both as a perspectival image and as a ground plan. The same picture can combine realistic presentation and ornament, outline drawing and fields of colour, a photograph and a diagram, a geometrical pattern, a sign, a symbol, even text. The different elements in the picture are on different scales, details and broad perspectives, or interiors and exteriors are juxtaposed. The picture surface can further be divided into fields that partly function as a surface, and partly open onto the depths. Occasionally, it appears that from beneath one level of image there is revealed another one that has been hidden.
The different methods of depiction represent different degrees of reality
and different types of means of communication. A map is a different method
of conveying information from a portrayal based on visual perceptions.
They can both depict exactly the same place, but the information that
they convey is different and intended for a different purpose. They also
embody different assumptions both about the maker of the picture and about
the viewer. The mapmaker/reader conceives of the place as a whole, from
above; meanwhile the viewer of the perceived view and of the picture made
of it is somebody, in some place, in a physical relationship with what
is depicted: an 'area' becomes a meaningful 'place'.
Different modes of depiction are also associated with different presumptions about their veracity: a photograph is evidence of something that really exists (existed), a map or diagram is based on measurements, and so seems scientific and reliable, while a drawing relies more on observation and interpretation. The portrayal also reflects a conception of reality: the themes from 15th and 16th-century woodcuts used as parts of Rantatorikka's paintings come from a world that was static and based on the Divine Order; while the scientific plant drawings or pictures of rational Bauhaus architecture represent a faith in human reason and the development of science that carries us forward to something better. Abstract patterns too can belong to different meaning systems: a geometrical form is exact and universal, while a symbol is a crystallisation of some idea; a sign contains information, the task of an ornament is something else.
The parts of the paintings belonging to different systems embody assumptions from different ways of viewing or reading. Rantatorikka's paintings seem to point the viewer in different directions, to go and come back, to follow first this, then that story.
This diversity is linked together by the range of colours and surface treatment: a kind of distinctive handwriting, with picture properties that are specifically associated with painting. Many elements come together to form one.
What happens is that the different modes of presentation and themes merge: the human being is situated in a landscape, a diagram of the human body as part of a set of maps; one belief system is interleaved with another, a symbolic or magical account of the world with a rational, scientific one. The different levels of the picture visible on top of one another seem to tell of the continued effect of the temporal strata, while the juxtaposed elements tell of the simultaneous existence of alternative explanations.
One of the juxtapositions is the relationship between the human body and the machine, and a marking out of the boundaries between biology and technology more broadly. Comparing machine parts to human joints reveals how an invention is equally a means for good and evil: the machine makes work and everyday life easier, while, on the other hand, mechanistic thinking has a link with efficient instruments of torture (On the History of Physicality, Faith in Progress). In the suburban themes (Certain Neighbourhoods, some playgrounds and Bauhaus-Botanik) the focus of the comparison is on the built and unbuilt environment.
How do people control and shape the environment, and what is left outside of that control? The domesticated plants that appear in these and many other recent works are in a way an interface between nature and culture. In the end, the difference comes from the mode of depiction: a 'flower painting' can be a romantic painting for a wall or a scientific plant illustration. This same sphere, nature in the service of humanity, is represented by the theme Flowered Cattle, A Tribute to Domesticated Animals.
The relationship to what is depicted tells of a relationship with the environment: are cows 'heads of cattle' and raw material, or individuals worthy of a portrait, even outright human.
The themes of Pirkko Rantatorikka's paintings are equally knowledge, belief, story and myth - and the way they change into each other.
History is the way it is told and the world is the way it is depicted - whether this be old soldiers' tales, a relationship with the environment, the structure of the human mind, the blessedness of science and technology, or the nature of women and men.
Academic science tells one version, art another
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