Meet the Artist – Pekka Sassi

Pekka Sassi has combined live music with video art, attempted to write a novel that became a short film, and found inspiration from outer space and forgotten stories of the Bible. We meet with Pekka Sassi and he explains how he became an artist, how music videos used to be different and what the relationship between narration and moving image means to him. 

Pekka Sassi (b. 1969) is a Helsinki-based artist whose body of work consists of experimental sound and video pieces, as well as short films and installations. He is considered one of the most significant media artists of his generation in Finland. Sassi has studied at Art School Maa and Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki and Slade School of Fine Arts in London. His works have been presented at several festivals and exhibitions and he has been awarded the AVEK audiovisual award in 2006 and the Maire Gullichsen award in 2020.

Love for music

Ever since he was a teenager, Sassi has been making music and sound. Music is something that he always comes back to, one way or another. If no instruments are nearby, he creates experimental music with a radio. Sassi recalls how music videos were a big thing at the beginning of his career. “For a couple of years music videos were the new and exciting thing in the art scene,” and this had an impact on him as well. He used to watch music videos on MTV in the 1990’s  but “that was before music videos became so industrial”, he adds. 

Sassi tells us that he used to go to video artist get-togethers, where artists previewed each other’s video pieces. That is where the artist found his place: “Probably in every person’s life there comes a moment when nothing physically different happens but you get the feeling that everything is going really well. You get the sense of belonging, like you are in the right place. I never had these feelings when painting. If I would have had I would have probably painted.”

The artist’s love for music has also manifested itself through his combination of live music and video installations. For instance, he has played guitar in his exhibition Moving Colours (2020, in Gallery Heino) and in his performance piece The Colour of Other (2019, Vuotalo). Sassi feels that without the video element, there would be more expectations from the audience and the whole performance would be more about his presence. Combining projected video to his live music results in something that reminds him more of a soundtrack, which is how he perceives his music. This results in a very liberating feeling: “If I play very poorly it is just because it’s meant to be played that way.”

In the presence of something greater

Pekka Sassi: Void (2004)

Sassi has always been mesmerized by outer space. In his works he is always trying to capture that sense of being in the presence of something greater. He aims at bringing depth to his works through storytelling, utilizing subjects like outer space, cosmology or religion. Void (2004) and The Doppler Effect (2004) are part of the artist’s series “Domestic Studies in Cosmology”. The Doppler Effect has been shot through a plastic cup and Void has been shot through a paper cup.

Many of Sassi’s works from 2005 and 2006 have biblical references. In Cane (2005), a preacher is reading aloud the 20th chapter of Leviticus, in which the punishments for sexual crimes are listed. There was a time when Sassi tried to read the entire Bible. Even though he didn’t manage to finish it, he did get very inspired by many of the stories. Especially the stories that he did not learn about in school. He became especially fascinated with the language, “how you can affect with words in a very specific way. Such an incredibly beautiful book”, he says, adding that he has Finnish translation from 1929.

After Everything

Writing and storytelling have always been present in Sassi’s career. He has even attempted to write a short story. However, it became a short film called After Everything (2014), which was a bigger production with a film crew and actors. Sassi got into an artist’s residency programme in the Netherlands and was asked if he had anything to work on, so the artist thought why not make his story into a short film: “it just kind of happened.”

Looking back Sassi has realized he prefers working alone rather than with a production company and bigger funding. It took about 2-3 years to finish the film After Everything. “Working with a film crew is a slow process, it takes time to adjust the lights and everything. I find the slowness unbearable”, the artist says. As Sassi likes immediacy, not being able to see his material right away felt frustrating to him. Having his background in visual arts instead of filmmaking, Sassi felt out of his comfort zone during the production of After Everything. Being a filmmaker also meant being a CEO, a team leader and a therapist and having to turn down a lot of suggestions while also being friendly. Working with a film crew also meant making some artistic compromises.

Sassi wrote multiple alternatives for the ending of After Everything. Eventually, in his own opinion, the film became okay: “And that’s the worst possible outcome”, doing something mediocre. If you are going to do something mediocre, you might as well just not do it at all.” That being said, it is obvious that Sassi is a passionate artist who is always striving to be the best he can be on his own terms.

Trust the process

Working on different sounds and kinetic videos is something that Sassi is constantly doing; trying new possibilities and techniques, testing what might work. Sometimes he overworks his pieces and has to start all over again. Sassi also uses a lot of slow motion video since he feels that it makes the works more mystical. Slow motion video also makes the audio and video match better, if necessary. 

The way Sassi sees it, there are two aspects in his body of work: there is the story, narrative and the non-story, abstraction. He has tried to combine the two but he believes that they come in different packages and work more as a counterbalance for each other. In his studio he has everything set up so that can start recording within 15 seconds. He likes immediacy and if he has to reshoot a video many times, he starts to wonder whether or not it is even worth making. However, if the idea is good enough, he will reshoot – if it is necessary. 

Watching the way his own child explored the world with a camera inspired Sassi. Children’s unfiltered and innocent way of perceiving the world is very similar to what experimental films are about, the artist explains. This is something he is aiming at as well: To explore the world through different materials. Therefore children’s compliments have a lot of value to him. That is when he knows that he has succeeded in his goal. 

For more information and requests on Pekka Sassi’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 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.