Mervi Kytösalmi-Buhl (b.1948), one of the first Finnish media artists, works with video, performance and sculpture. She studied fine arts in Dusseldorf and has lived and worked in Germany for many years. Her video works are often portrait-like meditations on time, movement, and the body. We discussed repetition, her performative work, and playing with appearances.
Kytösalmi-Buhl (formerly Deylitz-Kytösalmi) studied at the Academy of Arts in Dusseldorf (Kunstakademie Dusseldorf). She wanted to apply for the school after hearing who was teaching there at the time: Klaus Rinke and Nam June Paik. “I got in, and ended up studying with Paik, even though I was one of Rinke’s students. We were some of the first students in a class with video art in the center. We shared our meals, Paik played the piano in his office, and we had a lot of discussions. At that time you were able to study contemporary art in Germany in a different way than in Finland,” she says.
Prior to Dusseldorf, Kytösalmi-Buhl had been studying at an art college in Cologne. She had always known she wanted to be an artist, and had been taking photographs of moving objects, doing visual experiments. Video was a completely new art form then. Kytösalmi-Buhl thinks back to some early encounters while presenting her works. “I was in Helsinki once, I was wearing a bright read cloak and doing an interview about my video work. And they were asking me what this ‘electricity art’ was. Someone came by and asked ‘where is the electricity artist?’”. People didn’t really understand how it could be an art, video was not fully accepted as an art form yet. People came to talk to me about what it was, what video art meant”, she recalls.
Kytösalmi continues: “The video artists were usually men then, there were only a few women. In my work I explored moods, the body and skin, what you feel, and concentrated on a specific movement, for example how long it takes for the head to move. I just wanted to concentrate on observing something closely, movement and time, that’s what interested me. It was also an era of experimentation and discovery.”
Mervi Kytösalmi-Buhl’s video works feature herself as she engages in a repetitive action, evoking a mood of loss, alienation, longing or irony.
In Eye (Silmä, 1978), Kytösalmi-Buhl is turning over her eyelid, using a small glass rod. The room where the video was displayed had dishes filled with ether, creating the atmosphere of an operating theatre: “I liked the idea of an image and a scent together, the sensation of the visuals becoming stronger when combined with a scent. It’s like how scent can be attached to a visual memory. My mother was a nurse and she had some rods, which were used to turn over the eyelid. I tried it once and thought it could work well in a video. It’s probably repugnant to the viewer. The action is repeated until the eye grows red.”
“This focus on repetition, I don’t know where it comes from,” Kytösalmi says. “My mind works well with repetition and the idea of a rhythm. Repetition also makes you look at something again, and notice details. If you watch the same movie twice, for example, you’ll see different things, new things. I often watch movies many times. I’m interested in what I’ll catch during a second or third viewing, something I hadn’t paid attention to. I prefer movies that move slowly, and I like images that in themselves contain a lot of information, that tell the story.”
In Kytösalmi-Buhl’s work, actions take place in water, mirrored reflections, or enmeshed with other objects, evoking a sense of embedding, or transformation.
In the work Kreisel (Spinning Top, 1978) there is a fidget spinner, gaining momentum and speed, while Kytösalmi-Buhl is spinning around, mimicking the movement of the object, the images occasionally overlaid. “I was thinking about the momentum of time, and the Sputnik. I made a skin coloured costume, pinned some wings on my back. It looks like I am inside the spinner. And you get a continuation, an entity of the spinner, the body, the sounds – they all mix together and become one.”
Playing with appearances
Kytösalmi-Buhl’s performances, some of which were also recorded, engage with themes similar to her videos. In one, Rosa, performed at the Academy of Arts in Dusseldorf, she is bathing in an old-fashioned bath tub, filled with water and glittering powder.
“The room was also filled with perfume. There was a rabbit on top of a pillar, and it couldn’t get down. The audience was standing at the doorway of the space, observing the performance.”
“It was meant to be ironic, that I was in bathwater full of glitter, as though what a woman always wants is diamonds and everything that glitters. There was also a video of a model playing on a monitor, where a cameraman (out of the shot) is dictating her movements: ‘turn here, stand still, smile now.’”
Kytösalmi-Buhl’s othervideo works also explore appearances. In PFLASTER/HAUT (1978), Kytösalmi-Buhl puts bandages on her face, then slowly rips them off. The process of external transformation is lost and un-done. “This performance was ironic, critical, it looks like I am ripping off my own skin. Nowadays some people perform many surgeries on their faces. Surgery is addictive, like a drug. In the 90’s in NYC, I saw these surgically-enhanced faces for the first time, faces so tight they could no longer smile.”
Kytösalmi-Buhl has recently been working on sculptural work with soft materials, imagined objects: “A professor once noticed how I use materials in my videos, and suggested I try sculpture. Clay, I just took it in my hand and started to mould it. I was interested in what it would look like coloured, so I painted it yellow. The sculptural work is intuitive, it has a shape, it can break. I made an embryo, put it on the back of a frog. The next thing I’m making is a mourning coat, to go with a cake cut in half, with fallen candles. I make something, and forget about it. I made a coat out of linen, with squirrels, foxes, animals from my childhood.”
Kytösalmi-Buhl thinks about what comes next. The sculptural work will continue, dream-like objects that shift from one mood to another. “For now, I’m concentrating on objects, exploring different ideas and materials. I think of these objects in a way that you could also film them. I like the sense that you don’t immediately see what you get, you think you see one thing, but then it changes from beautiful to ugly and from ugly to beautiful,” Kytösalmi-Buhl says.
“I often write texts; I imagine something, like a car full of white porcelain, and write it down, externalize it through writing. I also keep notebooks I fill with drawings; they are not necessarily beautiful. But I draw what I imagine could be in a film, surreal images. The surreal is fascinating for me, the things that you can see only in your dreams.”
Photo credit: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen