Recently awarded at the 8th Turku Biennial, Minna Rainio and Mark Roberts work on complex topics such as immigration, global capitalism, and climate change. In their installations and single channel works, they often look for new perspectives by drawing parallels between seemingly unconnected areas.
Minna Rainio (born in 1974 in Finland) and Mark Roberts (born in 1970 in England) have been working together as an artist duo ever since they met at the Surrey Institute of Art & Design, where they both studied photography. “We don’t agree on everything, but we are on a similar wavelength with art. The projects happen kind of organically. It’s an enriching way to work, sharing the ideas,” Rainio says.
Many of their large-scale installations and video works explore themes of migration and national identity from multiple different perspectives. Some we kept, some we threw back (2010), for example, is a piece about Finnish immigrants who moved to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the prejudice and oppression they faced, whereas Maamme (Our land, 2012) is a video installation in which non-native Finnish citizens sing the Finnish National Anthem.
Rainio and Roberts themselves have also lived in several countries, including three years in the US when Rainio worked as a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota. Has their own background in living abroad influenced their art? “It’s a bit risky to draw that kind of parallel because our living abroad has been very voluntary and very privileged, and we can always return,” Rainio says. “I’ve been kind of against thinking that our work has anything to do with my experiences. But on the other hand, I do think that at least you can share the experience of being in a strange place. Maybe it’s a part of larger questions of belonging, of inclusion and exclusion.”
Roberts says that his initial feelings about living in Finland might show in their earlier works, particularly in Borderlands (2003) and Angles of Incidence (2006), three-channel installations which both deal with Finnish borders and the people crossing them. “Some of that came out of some of the feeling which I had about living here and all the things I had seen happening here. But that was a long time ago now. Lots has happened since. Situations have changed and I’ve lived here long enough that I don’t feel like quite such an alien here myself.”
Refugees now and then, from near and far
Although they both have a background in photography, Rainio and Roberts’s major works together have been installations and short films. Their latest short film, They Came in Crowded Boats and Trains (2017), just won the 8th Turku Biennial prize. In the film asylum seekers who arrived to Finland from Iraq in 2015 play Finnish refugees who fled to Sweden in 1944.
Because they had been working with themes related to migration for a long time, Rainio and Roberts had thought about moving on to other subjects, but the arrival of refugees to Rovaniemi in 2015 changed their plans. “We were living in Rovaniemi at the time, so it was kind of unusually close to home.” The film started to take shape as they came across articles about Finnish refugees during World War II and discovered how similarly Finnish refugees had described their experiences 70 years ago. “It was word for word, almost. The same things were said by Finnish people in the Second World War and the Iraqis now. It just felt we have to do something which highlighted that,” Roberts explains.
Having been concerned about finding refugees who would want to cooperate with them, they soon found out that people were enthusiastic to participate. Roberts notes that one problem turned out to be the continuity of the film: “It took us an over year to film, through all the seasons, and during that time, some of the people in the earlier scenes had moved away from Rovaniemi or left Finland.” Their original plan for the ending – a scene with all the people who had participated together in the same room – had to be abandoned.
They Came in Crowded Boats and Trains also marks a change in the way Rainio and Roberts work. “Most of the works we have done were just the two of us or we’d have a producer or a cinematographer. A very small group, in any case. Now we wanted to do something bigger with a production company,” Rainio says. “Working with them allowed us to be more ambitious with planning and visualizing it. It was fantastic having a producer and production managers on board.” Among other things, a production company makes it easier to find a cow.
“We were talking to the producer that we would like to have a cow in the film, but it might be difficult, it’s okay if it doesn’t work out,” Rainio laughs as she recounts the story. “And the producer was just like, ‘no, that’s not a problem, of course we can find you a cow!’ And it was just this thing that we can think bigger because we don’t have to organize it. We can really focus on the creative work, the writing and directing. It was a very good experience.”
Visual ways for emotional connection
They are currently working on a piece that deals with issues connected to climate change. “We’re moving on to the lighter topics here,” Rainio jokes. “But we started this series of works already a couple of years ago, I think the first ones were in 2014. We did an installation on oceans and climate change, and then these smaller single screen works, which are more about consumerism and capitalism. But yeah, we’re continuing on that line now.”
“We’re in that early research phase, where we’re trying to locate the nugget of the idea that we want to explore,” Roberts adds. Climate change is such a huge and abstract theme that it presents a considerable challenge of representation, Rainio explains. “How can you find visual ways to create some kind of emotional connection?” Their decision to do several different works is partly to avoid getting overwhelmed with the vastness of the topic. When they are eventually put together in a space or in an exhibition venue, the connections and relationships between the different, seemingly unconnected areas become visible.
For more information and requests on Minna Rainio’s and Mark Roberts’s works, please contact AV-arkki’s programme coordinator Tytti Rantanen, firstname.lastname@example.org