Meet the Artist: Saara Ekström

Winner of the AVEK Award 2018, visual artist Saara Ekström, has moved towards more and more cinematic art during her career. Her latest works are inspired by deteriorating buildings with heavy culture-historical heritage – but also moving in time and space.

Saara Ekström (born in 1965) is a Finnish visual artist who lives and works in Turku. “Being an artist is such ludicrous choice of career, I still wonder why anyone would want to do this,” she jokes. “Of course I have wanted to be an artist ever since I can remember. Art chooses you, not vice versa.” She even applied to Turku Drawing School (now part of Turku Arts Academy) for the first time when she was still a minor. “I wasn’t accepted because I was too young: they had just raised the minimum age for applicants to 18, which was smart, of course,” Ekström laughs. She got in when she was old enough and graduated in 1986.

“I studied painting and quickly found out that it wasn’t a suitable medium for me. I struggled with it for a while and then moved on to try other things. I drew a lot, and did sculptural pieces.” She later studied photography and sculpture at Northern Arizona University in the US, and the combination of two- and three-dimensional elements has been at the centre of many of her exhibitions. “It has felt like a really meaningful and comprehensive way to produce an experience for the viewer and for myself,” she says, noting how she wanted to find a more immersive and evocative way to examine one subject from many different perspectives.

One of the major changes in her work has been moving to a more coherent narrative, Ekström says. “I was in no way a storyteller in the beginning. At least not a storyteller in the traditional sense. My work was often very meditative.” Narrative elements have always formed the core of her work, however, even when her exhibitions are comprised of fragmentary components. These fractions create associational routes for the viewer to follow, “as each person pastes together a story-collage of their own.” In Ekström’s films and series of photographs images are juxtaposed, evoking alternative, dreamlike reading methods for the visual elements.

Saara Ekström: The First Sigh (2003)

Saara Ekström: The First Sigh (2003)

Protecting the unrestricted creative processes

Ekström now works mostly with moving image. The transition from photography to video – and later to film – happened partly because of the artistic atmosphere of the mid-1990s. “I have always been really interested in experimental and avant-garde cinema and the possibilities it offers. When Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s films gained attention in Finland and internationally, it felt like there was something new that could be achieved with the medium.” Ekström’s love for photography still influences the way she works, and she is testing ways to fuse still and moving image together. “I want to have my cake and eat it, too,” she laughs.

Creating art that is increasingly more cinematic and working within the production structures that strongly affect filmmaking processes has also made Ekström examine her own artistic liberties. “I have started to think about the limitations of the medium and the compromises I might have to make. Can I still move freely, abandon parts of the work and then pick them up again if I want to? Does the so-called product have to be completely thought out before I can even begin?”

“I want to recognise and protect unrestricted creative processes and the freedom to control the outcome,” she continues. At the same time, Ekström says that she has almost naturally started to gravitate towards single channel works. Compared to installations, they offer different kinds of thrills and challenges. They are also easier to distribute, allowing communication with a wider public. She has also started to write scripts for experimental documentary films.

Her recent work, Amplifier (2017), is an experimental film about the Helsinki Olympic Stadium. Ekström rented a working space at the stadium for another project, and she had to leave because the building was emptied for a major renovation. “I understood that people were never again going to see the monumental building bruised by time, as it was before the renovations,” she explains. “It was opened in 1938, before the war, and it is a stunning symbol for a progressive time and blind utopian faith in the future, which catastrophically crashed into chaos. I want to ask whether we recognise these historical and ideological signs that surround us or do we rather ignore them.”

Saara Ekström: Amplifier (2017)

Saara Ekström: Amplifier (2017)

Perishing, temporality, and the stratification of history and time are themes that Ekström has explored throughout her career. Ekström is interested in examining “the interplay between the melancholic magnetism of ruins and the anxiety of the collapse”, especially in the context of architecture. Phantasma (2016), a three-channel video installation, was filmed in the first Nordic aquarium in Copenhagen, opened just months prior to the outbreak of World War II and Denmark’s occupation. It remained functional despite the war, but it was eventually closed in 2013, because sea water from the fish tanks had seeped into the concrete.

“The aquarium was a space where so many different aspirations came together: it was a place for research, entertainment, education, classification, and illusion. It showcased exotic creatures in seemingly ‘real’ but completely artificial surroundings. It became an important monument for endurance and life,” Ekström says. Like the Olympic Stadium, the aquarium is an ideologically loaded representation of history and the passing of time. “I have portrayed decaying flowers in my photographs, and I have always been interested in organic processes. My newer works are about the same thing, only in larger scale.”

Fight against private and collective amnesia

Decay and deterioration also connect to the concept of value. How and why do we assign value for things? These are questions Ekström asks in Inventory, an installation inspired by the Collyer brothers who lived in Harlem during the 1930s and ‘40s, and are now considered one of the earliest examples of hoarding as a psychological disorder. The installation plays with the tension between their extremely chaotic, compulsive hoarding habit and the more acceptable forms of collecting, such as museum collections. “The objects in their collection turned into worthless shit, but somewhere else their value could have increased,” Ekström points out.

“I realized that, in some ways, this work also represents a kind of self-portrait. I recognize myself in this compulsory hunting for images and impressions – collecting, preserving and recording things that often go unnoticed or awake a sense of urgency, like gathering objects or phenomena on the verge of disappearance and extinction. It’s a futile fight against private and collective loss and amnesia, but it makes me weirdly happy and perversely satisfied.”

Saara Ekström: Body All Eyes (2018)

Saara Ekström: Body All Eyes (2018)

Ekström’s latest work, Body All Eyes (2018), was inspired by another deteriorating, old building: the control tower at the Malmi Airport. The airport was closed recently. In addition to capturing the control tower with an 8-mm film camera, she is also filming airplanes, birds and bird masks that were used by Pacific Northwest Coast indigenous people. “The masks emit an overwhelmingly strong current of moving in time and space. Respecting this, the film will be about flying and the collision of technology and corporeality. A dancer is also involved.” The piece is exhibited at Galleria Sinne from September 8 – October 14.

For more information and requests on Saara Ekström’s works, please contact AV-arkki’s programme coordinator Tytti Rantanen,