Marjo Levlin’s (b.1966) road to becoming the video artist that we see today has not been straightforward by any means. Slipping through the back door into art pedagogy and the museum industry the artist was from time to time unsure whether to stay there or to be an artist. Utilizing her own family history and combining it with historical research has become a defining theme in Levlin’s career. Now Levlin reflects how being bilingual has affected her working and pinpoints how she became a video artist.
“I feel like the decisive moment for me was a family tragedy at the age of fourteen which completely changed my mental direction and led me to view the world from a very different perspective. Then for some years I was looking for myself, being confused about what to do with life”, says artist Marjo Levlin when pinpointing the moment her mind was opened towards the field of creative work. Levlin had been painting already before this, as early as three years old, but she says that before it was more like a hobby.
Levlin’s road to becoming an artist was definitely not straightforward. At a young age, she began looking at the world differently which sparked something in her. Yet still for a long time, not being quite sure exactly what she wanted to do, the artist kept many options open for herself. “There were many times I was thinking about whether I should just be an art teacher or make art which felt much harder than teaching it”, the artist says, adding that eventually it did not feel right to teach art without having gone through that natural process herself. Levlin also worked in the museum field: “Perhaps I was kind of gambling by applying for jobs in the museum industry that would have affected my decision. I would have probably stayed in the museum world, had I gotten the job – maybe.”
Pieces of identity
Levlin was born in Graz, Austria, because her father was studying there at the moment and her mother went there to give birth. According to Levlin, being born in Austria was more of a coincidence that has not really affected her. “It is more like just an additional element that breaks my identity. It was not some cosmopolitan lifestyle but rather that I had a father who was gone for a long time, living out of the country when I was little.”
In her videos, Levlin often examines topics related to her own family history that also combine historical research and science as well as current phenomena. She makes videos in Finnish, Swedish and English. In fact, she is bilingual: her mother spoke Finnish and father speaks Swedish. Therefore, if the artist is making videos about her family history from her father’s side, she feels it is only natural to make them in Swedish. “But officially you can’t be bilingual, you have to determine what your mother tongue is. Mine is Swedish, which is quite funny because my mother’s language is finnish. I was sort of in between cultures and languages which perhaps had an impact on my work”, the artist describes. “If you have a very clear identity, it often determines your place in society in some way, but if you are not really either of two options or you are both, it kind of puts you on the borderline. It gives you a different perspective on life and what you do.”
Her installation video Dividual Individual (2017) discusses racial biology and research that was made in the Swedish speaking regions of Finland in 1914. Anthropological measurements were taken of all people aged 25-40 in Malax aiming to prove the Swedish-speaking population of Finland to be a superior “long-skulled German/Nordic race” compared to the Finns, who were assumed to be of a “short-skulled East Baltic race”. It is probable that the artist’s great grandparents were subjected to the measurements.
The starting point
A turning point for Levlin’s career was when she entered the Huuto collective which made it possible for her to explore different types of working without big financial risk. Her first exhibition in Huuto Gallery in 2005 was called The House of Mind and Memory which included an installation of 50 canvas napkins with images in different techniques and her first video work “Dinner with my Father”. Having studied in Art school MAA where she was introduced to many different art forms, video art was not completely new to Levlin. “Painting as an art form came to a dead end for me, I did not really know what to paint. I feel like I needed to have some kind of content and with painting I could not make it happen. That is when I started looking more at my own history.”
In her videos, Levlin often uses her own background and narrative as a starting point while also reflecting it on general history creating a dialogue between the history of her own and the surrounding world. “I have a very organic way to work, it is a combination of practice and coincidence.” The artist describes her works as a chain reaction because the topics are often linked together. For Levlin, it is very important that her works are historically accurate and that she has all the facts right which requires a lot of historical research from her. Gathering all the information is often a very slow process but once that is done, the rest comes quite quickly: “It is a very efficient process once I have all the material to make it, and it becomes clear what the work is going to be about. Usually about a couple of years from start to finish, at least with my latest works.”
In Levlin’s video Oblivion (2015) she explores the late 19th century migration from Finland to the USA and her own ancestors who were among those immigrants. The video deals with hope for a better future somewhere else which is what drove many people to migrate and how the stories of those ordinary people will quickly pass into oblivion. The project began when the artist started looking into her father’s grandparent’s story.
The artist explains that art can give alternative ways to think not only how to view the world but also on capitalist consumer society: “There is something about it, maybe it is the creative attitude that offers people other options and although the same capitalistic hierarchy is present in arts there is still the possibilities to use it well. It is very important to me that art offers alternative ways of thinking and operating which might give some inspiration to people.”
For more information and requests on Marjo Levlin’s works, please contact AV-arkki’s program coordinator Tytti Rantanen, firstname.lastname@example.org
“Meet the artist” is AV-arkki’s monthly series of interviews with our artists. The interviews are conducted by Vanessa Uhlbäck who was 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.