Arja Kärkkäinen (b.1986) is a Helsinki based visual artist, who works mainly with sculpture and moving image. We sat down to talk about office work, communication issues specific to Finnish culture, and the ignorance related to consumerism.
Arja Kärkkäinen makes art with different media, but in moving image, she is intrigued by looping videos, works that run in an endless cycle. Many of her works include more than one channel, which enables the work to display multiple images and events at the same time. Her works explore questions of involvement, structures of society and social life.
On the job
Illusory Curtains (2014) is a three-channel video work depicting three office workers during the night. The stress from their day jobs seeps into their dreams, causing them to go over their issues over and over. Kärkkäinen was inspired by her own background in working in an office.
“An office worker’s job is never done. There’s always a new email, it always continues… The continuous state of stress is what I wanted to depict,” she explains. Some parts of the text come from Kärkkäinen’s personal experiences: “When I started at my job, there was one boss. But by the time I left, there were five bosses in between, and every message would go through six people to that first boss, who was still the same person. It was really inspiring how that message changed, it was like a game of telephone. The message was completely different by the time six people had sent it. It’s a nightmarish environment to get anything done.”
Cultural communication issues
Kärkkäinen points out that it is typical of Finns to have problems with communication. Her Love letter -series (2015) is about the difficulty of admitting one’s affection towards another: “I randomly thought about how easy it would be to just yell out positive things in the same way as you would yell things when you’re mad.” It is common for Finns to have issues with positive and sensitive things.
Kärkkäinen’s interest in issues with communication influenced her master’s work in the Academy of Fine Arts. Mother’s Nerves (2017) tells the story of a child growing up in a home in which their voice isn’t heard. It involves the same problems typical to Finnish culture. “Back then I was interested in war trauma, the type that moves on from one generation to the next. Inherited pain,” the artist clarifies. “I feel like Finnish war history has left a lump in the air that hasn’t been processed.” In Mother’s Nerves, the child cannot understand the atmosphere of negativity and turns it toward themself, wallowing in self-hatred.
“The story consists of different points of shame, different ages where there’s always something to be ashamed of: ‘I screwed this up, and this, and this…’ But towards the end, the mindset softens. It’s not as serious. The threat eases away.”
Consumerism and denial
Recently Kärkkäinen’s work Sleeping Beauty Ind. (2019-20) was included in Helsinki Fest. The 18-channel looping video is designed for advertising platforms, to interrupt the flow of advertisements and to raise questions related to the origins of the products we buy.
“I’ve been interested in consumer issues for a long time, especially legal issues. Also the futility of our work, like in Illusory Curtains, the way you might not have any concrete grasp on what you are actually accomplishing in your work,” Kärkkäinen tells us. “For example, a product designer could cause major ecological damage, just because they don’t know what they’re doing. Without even knowing it, they might use industrial methods that are actually terribly destructive or unethical.”
Kärkkäinen is interested in people’s relationships with material things. Often when one is unaware of the origins of the things they own, they do not become as attached to them. “I sometimes wonder, what if the endless sea of material things you’ve owned just followed you forever. That you’d never get rid of all those things. If you buy something, you keep it,” she contemplates.
“I think the biggest issue is that there is too much cheap stuff. Subcontracting, hiding the country of manufacture, thinking price first – I think it should be illegal. I can’t think of anything else besides obligating laws that would change the direction we’re going in.”
During the year 2021, Kärkkäinen will be working with a 1-year grant from the Arts Promotion Centre of Finland. In June, she will work on her new project in TextielLab, Netherlands. In August, she will be having an exhibition at Gallery Moletti in Forssa and in early 2022 in Gallery Sculptor, Helsinki.