Meet the Artist: Marja Viitahuhta
Marja Viitahuhta’s work moves from autobiographical elements to current environmental crises and political issues. However, she wants to focus on showing the glimmer of hope instead of sheer bleakness.
Marja Viitahuhta (born 1979) is a Finnish media artist and filmmaker whose works include short films, installations, photography and performances. Originally from Lapland, Viitahuhta has studied at TUAS Arts Academy in Turku, and lived and worked in Helsinki since 2003, where she graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in 2007.
Apart from the short period of time she lived at the Malmi airport in Helsinki, Viitahuhta spent most of her childhood in different towns in Lapland, where her interest in art and performance began at an early age with playing the piano. She later also took part in amateur theatre productions. “Although I eventually realised that theatre was not for me, it inspired me to create art that tells stories,” she explains. After exploring various media, her fascination with aesthetics, conceptual art and examining the relationship between text and performance eventually led her to media art.
Women’s biographies, experiences and various roles are strongly present in Viitahuhta’s art, and her works often feature autobiographical elements: “My father’s death and wanting to get to know his side of the family better are important themes in some of my work. I guess I have used the process of creating art as a way to explore the meaning of my own existence.”
Interviewing people with similar experiences and collecting their stories is an essential part of her working process. She then transforms these intimate experiences into emotionally powerful fictive stories that are both personal and universal. Her first short film, 99 Years of My Life (2003), which has been purchased for the collections of MoMA and the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, combines real stories into one fictional biography of a woman’s life. Themes of remembrance, absence and mortality are also present in many of her short films and installations.
Seas and other borders
In Viitahuhta’s latest works, these personal stories allow her to explore also larger social problems, environmental crises and political issues such as climate change and immigration. The Inland Sea (2017) tells the stories of a Finnish woman whose child almost drowns and a Kurd refugee woman who crosses the Mediterranean Sea on a smuggling boat with her child. In this installation, video footage of the sea is combined with voices of female narrators describing their feelings and surroundings during these moments:
“Larger social issues are mostly an undercurrent in my work,” Viitahuhta notes, “my focus is on how individuals experience these contemporary political and environmental conditions.” The sea is a prominent feature in Viitahuhta’s other works as well, most notably in the short film Rondo (2006) and in Bremer’s Nightmare (2017), an installation in which video images of a dark, stormy sea are projected onto a child’s bed. “The sea is both a symbolic as well as a literal border, and a powerful landscape,” Viitahuhta explains.
Bremer’s Nightmare was inspired by Robert Bremer, a Finnish alchemist, who incorrectly predicted that the city of Turku would be flooded in 1827. A similar kind of foreboding is present also in Predictions (2017), a short film that consists of short monologues, each monologue depicting a dystopian vision of the effects of climate change and their impact on individual lives. Although Viitahuhta is interested in thematising how global climate change is linked to issues such as the refugee crisis and racism that directly affect people’s everyday lives, she does not want to portray too bleak a vision of the future: “I do wish to show that there is a glimmer of hope.” Human effort may not be able to change the course of history, but it can change the future.
Collaboration instead of hierarchies
When discussing her working process and methods, Viitahuhta brings up her photograph collages and their influence on her audiovisual pieces. Her installations and films combine images and stories in a collage-like fashion, both on a visual and a narrative level, creating new meanings from fragments. As an installation artist, understanding and utilizing space plays a significant part in her work, not only in terms of exhibitions but already in the early stages of planning and writing. Many of her installations can be screened as short films, but they have been written for gallery spaces.
The Inland Sea, for example, can be viewed as a two-channel installation where the stories are projected side by side and the viewer can decide which one to see first, or as a single channel short film. Viitahuhta notes that even if the meaning of the piece does not change depending on the space where it is exhibited, the experience of the viewer does:
“Screening The Inland Sea as a short film creates a hierarchical relationship between the two stories by placing one after the other, whereas the installation version allows the viewer to decide the order, or to switch back and forth between them. That is why I prefer my installations to be exhibited in gallery spaces as they are intended.”
Viitahuhta is currently working on writing new pieces and she plans to continue exploring themes such as human rights issues and immigration, focusing on experiences and stories told by the people who have been affected by the current social and political environment. ”But I don’t want my art to be thought as me giving a voice to somebody. People already have a voice. Rather, when I collaborate with someone I get to hear their story,” Viitahuhta points out. She is also working on a piece for Forum Box, and she will participate in SUPERMARKET 2018 art fair with Galleria Huuto.
In addition to her work as an artist, Viitahuhta has also taught and lectured at various art schools, including the Academy of Fine Arts, TUAS Arts Academy, Espoo School of Art, and Art School Maa. She currently teaches at Aalto University.
For more information and requests on Marja Viitahuhta’s works, please contact AV-arkki’s programme coordinator Tytti Rantanen, email@example.com