[RESEARCH] Culturebase.net – Elina Brotherus
22 May 2017
Source: Based on artist statements and an artist’s interview with Jan Kaila in 2001, published in the monograph ‘Decisive Days’, Kustannus Pohjoinen, Oulu, 2002
Author: Diana Yeh, Visiting Arts
Elina Brotherus is a prolific photographer who was born in Helsinki in 1972 and now also spends much of her time in Paris.
She was trained in analytic chemistry before she decided to take up photography.
Her early works, rooted in the documentary tradition, involved self-portraiture but more recently her interests have been dominated by formal concerns.
Her practice continues to focus on the human body and landscape. While her works provoke conceptual questions, the artist insists that her interests are primarily visual.
In her ongoing series, ‘The New Painting,’ Brotherus uses a camera to investigate the dilemmas that have challenged painters for centuries.
The early works of Elina Brotherus mainly involve self-portraiture but as her practice has evolved, it has become almost devoid of all autobiographical elements. Still studying analytical chemistry when she decided to take up photography, Brotherus was at first resistant to the idea of investigating her own emotional life.
On completing her science degree, however, once freed from the rigours of the scientific thinking, she experienced ‘a tremendous burst of creativity’, which resulted in a series of self-portraits, ‘Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe’ conceived between 1997 and 1999.
Rooted in the documentary tradition, these photographs capture actual events and happenings in Brotherus’s life as they occurred.
She made ‘Wedding Portraits’ (1997) when she married, ‘Divorce Portrait’ (1998) when she divorced, and ‘I Hate Sex’ (1998) ‘when I felt that way’.
The connection between art and lived experience is key: ‘Creating images shakes me up; and when life is ‘shaky’, I get the urge to take photographs,’ she says.
Believing in the ‘profound sameness of human beings’, Brotherus’s early works are highly personal yet delivered in a formal language that is ascetic and subdued.
In 1999, she stated, ‘I provide viewers with a blank screen, a surface on which to project their own feelings and desires.’ Her early series often deal with love and its side effects, ‘the absence or presence of it in its different forms.’
In ‘Suite Françaises 1’, a series of landscape pictures, Brotherus’s approach becomes increasingly abstract as she captures vast, deserted landscapes, which she refers to as ‘commas’ or ‘breathing spaces’. She explains, ‘The world contains so much mess and visual noise – I have tried to mark off the interesting and significant fragments’. A bridge, a heavily symbolic image, appears throughout the series and is valued, according to Brotherus, because ‘you can’t see to the other side’. She says, ‘It is the same as with a curved hillside or the horizon, which we cannot see beyond because the earth is curved. I am interested I these kinds of views, in kinds of “edges of the world”’.
In ‘Suite Françaises 2’, Brotherus explores classical themes of photography – landscape, portraiture, interiors, still life and the study of the human figure. Yet the series is also a reflection on migration and the artist’s own relocation to France. Investigating her experience of being an‘outsider’, the work focuses on the ability to speak the host language as fundamental to a sense of belonging in any society. ‘When you do not understand the language spoken around you, you live in a strange state of instability. Language is essential in creating the feeling of basic security,’ she says. ‘Language is a way of creating order out of chaos. We give names to objects, classify and categorise things, analyse phenomena. Language makes thinking possible.’ When she first arrived in France, Brotherus was barely able to buy a train ticket.
Reflecting upon the difficulties of learning a new language, of becoming familiarised with a new country and culture, the series speaks of ‘outsiderness’, about ‘the incoherence between the person and his environment, and about the simple small means with which one tries to take his place in society’, says Brotherus. The process of art making is one way in which the artist herself makes sense of the world. ‘Taking photographs is,’ she says, ‘like naming things, a way of taking control of the world’.
Jan Kaila has pointed out that ‘Suite Françaises 2’raises fundamental questions at the heart of human experience, including ‘the existence or impossibility of purely visual non-verbal perception’. Brotherus, however, insists that her concerns are primarily visual rather than theoretical, stating, ‘I trust my eyes and my intuition’.
She continues to combine self-portraiture and landscape work. ‘When shown together they reflect on each other, and this cross-linking produces new kinds of contents in both genres. The land-scapes become charged with meanings, and the self-portraits become more peaceful.’
‘Photography is the new painting’, Edda Jonsdottir, director of i8 gallery in Reykjavik, once said to Brotherus. With this provocative statement in mind, the artist embarked on a new on-going series, ‘The New Painting’, in which she uses a camera to investigate the dilemmas that have challenged painters for centuries: ‘light, colour, composition, figures in space, projection of the three-dimensional into the two-dimensional’. Titling her pieces after well-known paintings such as ‘Les Baigneurs’ (The Bathers), 2000 and ‘Femme à sa toilette’ (Woman washing), 2001, she places herself firmly in the art-historical tradition.
As in earlier works, Brotherus uses herself as a model, yet these later photographs move beyond concerns of self-portraiture and the representation of the self. Instead, the artist is primarily interested in the problems posed by using the human figure as a model: ‘How do the figures interact with space and with each other? How does the light reveal the form? What happens if the direction of the gaze changes?’, asks Brotherus. ‘The human body in its beauty and its banality never stops to fascinate me,’ she admits.