Meet the Artist – Oliver Whitehead

In his extensive career, Oliver Whitehead (b.1947) has worked with multiple forms of art – painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, sculpture and video, to name a few. We discussed a few of his video works and the themes he likes to work with.

Oliver Whitehead’s father was an amateur photographer and home movie maker. Ever so often, he’d get to hold the camera for his father to get in the shot, which initiated his interest in photography and moving image. In Hornsey College of Art, London, during the late 1960s, he met people who were interested in experimental film-making. Whitehead was inspired to buy his own movie camera and he began making short films. For many years, he concentrated on other forms of art, but in the 1990s Whitehead returned to moving image. He made a few films in the experimental film workshop Helsingin Elokuvapaja, after which he continued with his own video works.

Whitehead’s style of working is intuitive: “I film what appeals to me, and then see what comes out of it. It’s a bit like painting or drawing.” Recurring themes in his works include social and political subjects, such as urban life or war. “My subjects range from being specific – like interfaces between people in society, or buildings, or interactions – to being very abstract and just my own,” he tells us.

Urban space and society

Many of Whitehead’s works depict urban space, paying attention to specific details. The artist looks at the ways people exist in public spaces, often making critical commentary on urban spatial planning. Many of his video works focus on a brief moment or a mundane, everyday subject.

Oliver Whitehead: A Yard Full of Books (1993)

A Yard Full of Books (1993) was inspired when Whitehead was walking outside the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, when he saw an attic full of books being emptied from the neighbouring building. Books were being thrown out of the attic window five floors up. The artist was surprised: “I thought, my goodness! People are throwing books away! The whole yard was filling up with books. They were books of little or no value, editions of journals, technical journals and so forth. That inspired me a lot, reminding me of the burning of books and destruction of cultural artefacts.”

Mind’s Eye (1999) looks at graffiti art, and the role of the people who make it. A fast, continuous stream of images from the window of a train focus on graffiti, buildings and people moving in the landscape. As Whitehead explains: “It was about people who may feel like outsiders making statements in a milieu of grey and boring walls, creating their images of something to belong to, making it more agreeable.”

In H2O (2008), Whitehead filmed the watering of a cemetery on a hot summer day. This can be interpreted as a critique of the uneven distribution of water, and the ways people shape urban space.

Oliver Whitehead: H2O (2008)

“There’s undrinkable water for so many people in the world, and then we’re wasting this purely fresh drinking water on the dead. It’s preserving the dead, which is kind of symbolic for some structures in society. We preserve things we don’t need or want,” he contemplates.

Taught consumerism

A subject Whitehead has been interested in for a while has been the idea of fetishization, the abnormal interest in objects or materials: “People become attached to things or the ownership of objects. I’ve been interested in the idea of fetishization of things, of toys, adult toys – for example, luxury cars.” In his previous works he has examined fetishization through cars, but in Dreamless (2013), Whitehead shifts the focus towards toys, and how children are coerced into becoming attached to material things. The artist explains how he read about how the industry actively works on the aesthetics of objects, to persuade people to buy and need them. “Toys are made to feel good in children’s hands, almost like they’re something to eat,” he elaborates.

Oliver Whitehead: Dreamless (2013)

For Dreamless, a situation was set up where the children could act freely in an environment where they were given sweets and toys. “I just wanted to see what happened, and they behaved in an interesting, controlled way,” Whitehead recalls. “You could see the tensions, coming and going. It was not very explicit, but more like implicit violence, implicit greed.” The children didn’t behave aggressively towards each other, but once they realized that the cakes have toys hidden inside them, they begin destroying each cake in a barbaric manner. The film differs from Whitehead’s earlier short films in several ways – it was filmed with a crew, and the image is sharp compared to the film camera aesthetic seen in previous works.

Whitehead wanted to explore how toys and food are aesthetically fused to encourage children to buy and consume, how children interact with the objects and with each other through the objects. “It’s an anti-consumerist movie in a way, even if it’s about sweet things,” Whitehead explains. “And at the end of it, it’s total destruction.”

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

“Meet the artist” is AV-arkki’s monthly series of interviews with our artists. The interviews are conducted by Milla Jylänki who is doing an internship in AV-arkki from September to October 2020. Milla is completing her B.A. degree in Film and Television studies at University of Helsinki.