Jenni Luhta, who first became known by her maiden name Jenni Markkanen, has had two very different artistic identities. It is as if the two names denote two separate persons and careers. Now after ten years of work Jenni reflects the different phases of her development, how she used to work as Jenni Markkanen and how she now works as Jenni Luhta with her husband Lauri. Despite the apparent duality of her career, there has also been a steady movement from early ambitious experiments of intentional emptiness to current heavily content-laden, detailed and lengthy works.
From the time Jenni Luhta (b. Jenni Markkanen, 1986) was a teenager growing up in suburban Riihimäki, she knew she was going to be an artist. After studying visual arts for a year in Oriveden Opisto she got into Finnish Academy of Fine Arts. The artist started with painting which led to three dimensional objects and installations before she found her interest in moving image. During graduation she started experimenting with performance on camera and making narrative films.
Luhta was intrigued by the 20th century avant-garde tradition, questioning the line between art and life: “I was interested in experimenting with what is real and what is not through my own life and character. That is because I felt like I had a certain insane hollowness in me that I was dealing with. This incompleteness that I felt in me and in my background didn’t convince me. I felt there was much more out there. I learned to work from that emptiness, so my works were in a way very honest, blank and sincere, because that was what how I really was, almost empty but with a huge urge for going beyond myself and doing something great.”
The many phases of Jenni
In the video Frame (Raami, 2013) Luhta aims to break the line between the real and the staged persona. “The video was kind of hyper-realistic. I made a character out of myself and although I am not exactly like that in real life, it was not so much a performance but a stylised depiction of the state I was in. The work also had an interactive, thrilling element in it: the performance ended with a request for anyone watching to directly contact the character – to contact me!” Luhta was inspired by 1970’s American comedian Andy Kaufman who also left his audience wondering what is real and what is not. “People did not always know which was first, Andy Kaufman the artist or the real Andy.”
Retrospectively, the artist recognizes three different eras in her career. The first era was when she was working as Jenni Markkanen. She describes her early works as rather romantic; “They have this strong longing for some missing half, the other person. In my video The Mystical Spouse (Mystinen puoliso, 2012) I perform a ritual attempting to find that missing piece.” The video is shot at an artistic residency in Utö island. It narrates the many stages and the motifs of the ritual and their transformation into the artist’s self-portrait character, a femininity goddess, the Mystical Spouse. “Funnily enough, when I got involved with my present husband, this artistic motive became obsolete.”
Jenni and Lauri Luhta began to live and work together in 2015. Their collaboration first mainly consisted of the couple having long discussions about everything under the sun and Jenni produced works based on joint ideas. Jenni explains that Lauri, whose education has not been in art, has studied various subjects such as theology, philosophy and general history and followed world politics and changes in society. Because of this, he has helped to expand the artist’s worldview and choice of subject matter beyond what comes naturally from an art school background.
Jenni Luhta started writing a lot of commentary and aphorisms as well as making performances and collages, which finally led to producing experimental short films. Luhta describes the early years of working together with Lauri as a somewhat politicised interphase, where she felt the need to wake people up; “I was still on social media and I was very opinionated in a naive way. I was still part of the whole social media culture, where everything is instantly published and shared, but eventually I realized that such immediacy does not make good art. So, in 2017, I deleted all my social media accounts and gave up using a smartphone for communication. It radically changed the way I work. Now I take my time with my art works and only publish them when they are finished to my final satisfaction.”
Luhta’s video Spirit of Finland (Suomen henki, 2017) was the culmination of this intermediate phase of her career. The work is an analysis of Finland’s history and the state of the nation at the time of the 100th anniversary of its independence. Writer Paavo Haavikko’s works had a big impact on the short film. Luhta feels that she in a way adapted Haavikko’s poetic method of narrating past and present. Haavikko’s way of interpreting Finland is something that she wishes to share. “Just like in Haavikko’s poems there are many historical figures, our films also include real people such as Olavi Paavolainen and Urho Kekkonen or Mannerheim and Tsar Nicholas II, all linked through poetic logic and visual language.”
The making of the first joint full-length film by Jenni and Lauri, The Deluge (Syndafloden, 2021), marked the beginning of the current phase of Jenni’s career, which means concentrating on major visual-cinematic works for a long period of time with Lauri’s full participation first in directing and then also in writing. The Deluge is based on Leonardo da Vinci’s prophecies and riddles, which are narrated in the film by Swedish-speaking Death, played by Jenni Luhta. The Deluge shows the present world and the images of contemporary culture through Leonardo’s words and visions. The Death character was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal (1957). Luhtas were also influenced by filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s works. Tarkovsky’s last film The Sacrifice (1986) was shot in Sweden and also included references to Leonardo.
Luhtas are currently working on their second full-length film Moses which is about both the Old Testament prophet and lawgiver Moses and Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Interestingly, Freud chose Moses as the subject of his last book Moses and Monotheism (1939), which presented some rather peculiar ideas about Moses and the birth of monotheism that the filmmakers feel reveal much more about Freud himself than his subject matter. The film takes an ambivalent stance on Freud’s character and personality in all its oddness in a critical yet empathic way.
“We try to avoid binary attitudes. We’re neither glorifying Freud nor putting him down”, Luhta says, adding that they aim to “give an interpretation of him, not a judgement”. Jenni herself plays Freud in the film. She feels she can connect with Freud from her own artistic mind and its bold arrogance; “I see Freud as an artist more than a scientist. I mean that certain audacity within oneself, combining things arbitrarily, in a way only an artist can do but a scientist can’t – let alone a therapist.”
For more information and requests on Jenni Luhta’s works, please contact AV-arkki’s programme coordinator Tytti Rantanen, email@example.com
“Meet the artist” is AV-arkki’s monthly series of interviews with our artists. The interviews are conducted by Vanessa Uhlbäck who is doing an internship in AV-arkki from August to December 2022. Vanessa is completing her Master’s degree in art history at University of Helsinki.