“The reason video and photography are so important to me is probably because they both have that special connection to reality”, says Minna Suoniemi, who has made an extensive career as an artist working with both video and photography but also as university lecturer. In her production, the artist has covered many different themes, the defining ones being the bodily experience and gender norms. We discussed Suoniemi’s works, interests and career as well as what she is up to next.
One could say that artist Minna Suoniemi (b. 1972) has two sides in her career: teaching and making art. Both of these elements have been running side by side throughout her career and are intertwined in her professional identity. The artist also has two degrees: She has studied art in Helsinki Academy of Fine Arts and art pedagogy in University of Art and Design Helsinki. Suoniemi, who has been both teaching and making art since before she graduated, says that she perceives them as two very different types of projects with different rhythms. According to her, making art requires much more free time and space to work on and explore whereas teaching is more about recognising and creating the space for others to recognise. “I consider teaching to be necessary for my own practice because it binds me to the art community and to a certain continuum but also because it is not a one way street. The discussions and collective thinking with my students and colleagues offer new perspectives also for my artistic practice,” she adds.
Toying with reality
Suoniemi started her studies originally as a painter but switched to photography during her studies, and by her graduation, she had moved on to moving image. Nowadays, she works mainly with video and photography as well as installations. The artist says she switched to moving image because she felt the need to continue a given moment captured in a photograph and because photographs cannot tell what she felt was necessary in her art. The thing that fascinates Suoniemi about photography and video is that they both have a connection to reality:
“Our brains think that photography on some level represents reality, but it is much more complicated than that. The reason video and photography are so important to me is probably because they have that special connection to reality. The way I see it, they are still always constructed in some way and not just pure reality. But photography and video as a form constantly toys with reality.”
What also fascinates Suoniemi in arts is the fine line between what is constructed and what is real. This is something Suoniemi explored in her video Game Boys (2003). The video shows men who are each trying to hold a heavy gun for as long as they can. As the video goes on, the gun starts to feel heavy and their hands start to shake. They cannot keep a straight face anymore as they struggle to hold the gun up any longer. That is when the line between acting and reality breaks. At the beginning, they have all adopted this macho gangsta role, a constructed representation of a man, but eventually that role breaks and we see them genuinely struggling as themselves.
“The idea came when we were at a party. There was this replica gun, the same one from the video, and we were all playing with it. At the time, I was very interested in roles written for different genders and representations of genders that we see in movies or commercials for example. I was also interested in performing and control: what is acting and where that performance breaks down. In addition, gangsta rap and gangsta battles were one material that inspired me.”
Recognising something familiar
During her extensive career, Suoniemi has covered many different topics ranging from motherhood to aging. Themes that are distinctive for the artist’s production are bodily experience and social settings. She has focused a lot on control and challenging norms, but has been working on transgenerationality and family lately. In her video I’ve been bad but I’ve been good too (2022), Suoniemi explores the aging body and transgenerational bodily experience of excessiveness. She is especially interested in what kind of role corporeality can have in thinking or in research, and how it affects them. The starting point for this was through her own micro-history, her grandmother’s story. For this project, she interviewed her relatives, shot footage and read a lot about menopause, early diagnoses on female hysteria from the 19th century and the controlling of the female body.
In the video I’ve been bad but I’ve been good too (2022), Suoniemi performs herself with clay on her face. The clay has many meanings: “I associated the clay with soil, and there are all those layers of history in the soil. And as I am making all these faces – or the character is because I don’t consider it to be me but a character that I am portraying – it somehow reminds me of those poor women diagnosed with hysteria in the early 19th century that I had read about. I think the clay in the face can work as a mirror for the viewer. It evokes associations to controlling and categorising women in the past. The viewer can then choose who is their own ‘grandmother’ to whom the video is directed at.”
Suoniemi’s video work Miss Kong (2008) also deals with the bodily experience. The artist reflects back on the project and notices that the same kinds of questions and themes have fascinated her throughout her career. She explains that she wanted to make a video about the heaviness of the body and its size and excessiveness. The project started from a need to capture the experience. “I think that the character of the video is like King Kong and this kind of Baywatch girl combined as one”, Suoniemi says. The video, shot on 16 mm film, shows a woman jumping rope in slow motion revealing the movements of the flesh of the body.
For Suoniemi, the important thing about making Miss Kong (2008) was that whoever is watching it could relate to the experience of the heaviness of the body. The artist says that she is often aiming to create works that people could somehow relate to or where they could recognise something familiar: “I also think that art is emerging in between the viewer and the work of art itself. So therefore my process with the work is completely different from that of the viewer.”
Suoniemi and her partner Petri Ala-Maunus are curators of Mänttä Art Festival 2023. Both of their works have been exhibited in Mänttä Art Festival previously and they have a close relationship with the festival. In the summer the artist will take part in the Finlayson Art Area 2023 held in Tampere. She is making a new video work for the event that will be screened at the Finlayson church. The new video piece Äitiä / Mothering continues her working process with the experience of the aging body and the generational continuum. Along with the new piece 3 older video works addressing this thematic framework, Lullaby (2012), Side / Bond (2022) and O (2022), will be shown as part of the exhibition.
Minna Suoniemi’s photo: Heidi Piiroinen
For more information and requests on Minna Suoniemi’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.