Aberystwyth, Photography and Facebook: An Interview with Artist Petri Virtanen By Jack Suckley – firstname.lastname@example.org
Petri Virtanen, 2011.
On a chilly November evening I met up with Petri Virtanen to interview the artist in residence about his work and his life in Aberystwyth. After a quick tour of Petri’s studio we sat in the warm Arts Centre café with a beer (Petri commented that Britain made the best beer!). He then showed me some of his latest surreal photographs, which were taken at locations in and around Aberystwyth.
So, how are you finding your residency in Aberystwyth? It’s been great, no complaints. I’ve been in a couple of residencies before and it’s the same kind of thing. You arrive with some kind of a plan but when you get here you try to adjust to the place and try to get people to know you. After that you start to change your plan so you can get something done. It’s a good 3 months for you to hone in on your art and just when things start to go the right way you have to leave!
Is that frustrating? Yeah, but in a way it gives you a lot of energy to continue. When you go back home it’s so much harder to do stuff because you have your normal life around you. So hopefully I can continue to get more shots and get an exhibition with the help of grants and art organisations.
Are the grants hard to get? I think Finland [Virtanen’s home country] is in a good position to give grants but times are getting tight so they are cutting down on the funding. It might take a year or so to set up an exhibition, and it costs a lot as you have all the framing, mounting and printing to do as well.
Do you find being an artist is a difficult career then? Finland is quite small so there are a lot of artists and it is rare for people to live with grants. Photography doesn’t really sell but with painting it is a lot easier to sell your work and make a living. Photographers usually have another job as well, such as teaching. I’ve been working at Kiasma, the contemporary art museum in Helsinki. Being an artist is not like you think it will be when you’re a kid. The hardest thing is marketing, and I’m not very good at selling myself.
So, why did you decide to take up a residency here in Aberystwyth? It was because of the exchange between the Finnish Artists’ Studio Foundation1 and the Arts Centre. From what I read and what I heard from another artist, the residency sounded good. I’d been to London before but I’d always wanted to see other parts of Britain. I didn’t really know anything about Wales so I was surprised how big the culture was, so that’s been very rewarding.
Have you noticed many differences between Welsh culture and Finnish culture? I think there are some similarities. Finnish people and Welsh people don’t like too much nonsense and small talk, they are both straight to business. The climate here is very hard but in Helsinki I also live by the sea so it’s kind of familiar to me – but it’s been really surprising how ever changing the weather is.
So, has Aberystwyth and Wales had much influence on your work? I can see Devil’s Bridge in your latest photographs here. If I’m somewhere I always try to check out the surroundings and slowly generate ideas from it. When I got here I immediately walked around and took some snapshots of places. As always, not every
photograph is useful and things lead down different roads, but you still have to start things that way. In the end things are always different, I do some planning but I like to let things happen.
Initially you were working on a project about myths, has this idea developed too? Yes, I had this grand idea of castles and knights but when I got here I totally forgot it because I found out I would have needed more resources. Then I thought about heroes and heroic things and from that I got people into action and the work happened somehow. The project still deals with horror, fantasy and surrealism; they are my favourite genres, as well as Rock n’ Roll. Keeping to those genres was the best way to get down to the work and get things done.
These latest photographs, and some of your previous ones, depict graphic images in a rather comical manner. What kind of reactions do you get from people? It’s either comical laughter or disgust. It’s hard to know what people think. The art world is a rather small world and usually the people who go to galleries know what sort of thing they can expect.
So, in your work, do you try to send out messages or do you prefer people to come to their own conclusions? I always want people to interpret the images themselves, I never want to send out messages. Sometimes a picture might come out with a clear message but I don’t want to give any messages to anybody. I try to keep the work obscure, with lots of dynamic action going on.
You’ve mentioned Surrealism, but are there any other art movements or artists that inspire you? When I was younger I wanted to be a comic book artist. In the ‘70s and ‘80s I used to read these American magazines called ‘Creepy’, ‘Eerie’ and ‘Vampirella’ by Warren Publishing. They came to the newsstand in my hometown every month which was weird because they were American magazines. I wanted to become an artist for something like that. Horror movies were a big influence on me as well.
Any particular horror movies? Oh there were so many! Halloween I, Texas Chainsaw Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/c/c0/ Creepy1.jpg
Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead II, Alien I.
It seems as though you’re more inspired by visual culture and material culture than by artists and art movements. Yes I am, but after a comic book artist I wanted to be a painter. Then I got to art schools and found a medium that I liked in photography. I liked the Brucke movement, German Expressionism. My favourite artist is Egon Schiele and I also like H R Giger.
What is it about photography that attracts you as a medium? I don’t know actually. I think it’s something you can do on your own, you can photograph yourself. It’s very free; it’s like drawing in that way. I also like to draw a lot, and in that you can do what you want. Nobody really has a say in it. In the age of photo shopping it can sometimes get a little boring, but if it’s done well who cares!
Do you only produce digital photographs now then? These new photographs are digital and the last exhibition I had was completely digital but in a more experimental style. I used a special scanner with Petri Virtanen, 2011.
tungsten light which allowed me to choose how fast the light would scan. Before that I only had film
exhibitions and I swore I would never touch a digital camera, but I had to for my work. Now I want to produce this kind of work- really raw digital exhibitions. It was the same for music – every musician used to hate the technology. It’s surprising how in the end everyone accepts technology. I’m probably the last person not on Facebook!
Can you ever see yourself on Facebook? I can’t say I’ll never go on it, I know one day I’ll regrettably join the Facebook army! I don’t like the monopoly of Facebook, it would be better if there were 3 websites in competition. In the end everyone goes on there for business, if you’re not on it you lose clients and customers.
You’ve mentioned music and you’re in a band, Aquasaurus, could you tell me more about that? Is it related to your art work or is it a separate part of your life? Yeah that’s totally separate. It’s made up of a few musicians I’ve met over the years. I had a few bands before then. I met an amazing guitarist in 1987 when I was studying photography and he wanted me to sing with him. We haven’t had much success there, you can’t get any success in
Finland unless you do the really commercial stuff. We’ve been together forever- Aquasaurus is a part of me and whatever happens happens, we’ll keep on doing it!
Have you performed in Aberystwyth? Yes, my neighbour at my studio had a blues band that played at Rummers and Scholars. I went there each night without any rehearsal and sang a song. We worked with the environment of the pubs and did a bar blues style.
Did you get a good reaction from the crowd? Yeah definitely, it was great. At the end they were all coming up to me shaking my hand. The musicians were great and the sound system was great so you couldn’t really fail. I’m not really a normal singer, I’m inspired more by singers like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, not this X-Factor stuff!
So, besides your music do you have any other hobbies or interests? Do any of them influence your art work? Yeah, well there are the comic books, movies and videos. I’m also a big tennis fan but that doesn’t make for good pictures. Tonight is a really important match: Federer and Nadal are playing against each other in the 02 Arena in London.
Were you tempted to go to London to watch the match? Yeah I was, it’s so expensive though- the seats are around £150. I could have bought cheaper seats last week but I really have to work. I’m going to London on Saturday though and I’ll walk around the 02 Arena – my friends told me all about it.
Have you been anywhere else in the UK besides London and Aberystwyth? The Arts Centre took me and the other Artists in Residence on two drives to North Wales and South Wales. We saw some galleries and museums there and the nice scenery too. I want to take this pilgrimage tour to Garnant (Amman Valley, South Wales) to the birthplace of John Cale, who founded the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed2. I saw Cale perform in Finland a few years ago – he must have been in his late sixties – he is a great musician.
Do you think you’ll still be performing at that age? Of course, yeah! I hope so!
Cale represented his nation in the 2009 Venice Biennale.
You’ve mentioned Rummers and Scholars, do you have any other favourite pubs or places you like to go to in Aberystwyth? Aberystwyth is full of pubs and each one has a different atmosphere. The Angel Inn was interesting – full of different kinds of people and the rock music there is good. Andy’s Record shop is always cool. I like to walk around and go to the Pier to watch the sea – things like that. The School of Art and the Old College are very photogenic. Borth was an amazing place.
Just one last question and I’ll let you go and watch the tennis! What will you take away from your residency in Aberystwyth? Wow that’s a big question; it’s not easy to answer! I’ve been thinking about that a lot these past few weeks. It’s been such a great opportunity because in 3 months you can concentrate on who you are as an artist: what your style is, what you like to do, what you don’t like to do. It’s been a pure rediscovery time. You analyse yourself and find out which direction you want to go in – which is hard to do at home in your normal life. It’s been very valuable.
Petri Virtanen’s website: http://www.puiestee.ee/virtanen/index.html