IIU SUSIRAJA on Keeping Control of the Gaze
iiu Susiraja started making self-portraits ten years ago. While her parents were away for the summer, iiu ordered a digital camera and arranged her first photo shoot in the family sauna. The early images—somewhat violent and not revealing her face—were the first steps in creating the unique language that negotiates the notions of gaze and control with such warmth and tenderness towards the self that it touches the universal.
After that summer, iiu began studies in photography at the Turku Art Academy in Finland. Since then, having also graduated from the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki, the Turku-based artist’s photographs and videos have been exhibited in major museums and galleries including the Stavanger Museum and found their way into numerous collections, including the prestigious Rubell Family Collection in Miami.
Having already had her first solo exhibition at Ramiken Crucible in New York in the Fall of 2016, iiu spent six months at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in Brooklyn the following Spring. A solo exhibition at Ghebaly Gallery in Los Angeles followed in 2018. Towards the end of her residency at ISCP, Kaarina Gould, the Executive Director of the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York, sat down with iiu to discuss her work for Collecteurs Magazine.
Kaarina Gould: How do you build your images? Is there a story or an idea you have in mind and then you search for the right setting and props to portray that idea?
iiu Susiraja: I work the other way around, always starting with the object. My craft is actually fairly mundane and methodical. I listen to music and make lists of objects, then process those lists through choice and elimination. When I decide to work with a certain object I see the upcoming image very clearly in my head.
I may feel that a certain object is funny, or violent, but I never think about a specific message I want to convey. I do understand that people find political and social, especially feminist meanings in my work, but I don’t build those associations in to my work intentionally. I make images, my job is not to articulate them verbally.
I’ve been mainly working on images and videos where I use one object. Now I’m planning images with two or more props. Like I wanted to do an image with a jumping rope but I found that idea alone a bit boring. Adding a sausage makes the photograph slightly provocative, bringing in a sexual undertone perhaps. Using one object keeps the image more focal, having more elements brings more narrative, yet the work ends up being more abstract and surreal.
KG: What is it that you look for in the images when you edit your work?
iS: I pay very little attention to the technical aspect of the image. The object I’ve chosen to use has to be recognizable, but the most important thing is that the image has to portray a strong emotion.
I never try to act out a specific feeling during the photo shoot. In the process of capturing either a still image or a video, there are so many practical details I need to focus on that it takes all of my energy. I often use edible things that don’t stay fresh for very long, so the process has to be very swift. Ice cream is a challenge to work with! I don’t believe in too much repetition. If the idea doesn’t work I move on. Usually my ideas work though, and I do sense it very clearly in the process if the image is going to be strong.
When the props are set and it’s time to take the picture I try to stay as emotionless and calm as possible, keeping my appearance as an empty canvas for emotions to come through. So it’s a lot about happenstance too.
KG: In your self-portraits you expose yourself for the viewer’s gaze, yet at the same time you are staring back at the viewer, always straight into the eye. It’s a bold gaze that breaks any idea of the viewer having a voyeuristic power over you.
iS: My art is about documenting emotions. When I look into the viewer, it’s about challenging the viewer, not letting them get away with watching me. I like to think I’m punishing the viewer a bit, in a tender manner. It’s like my pictures are saying – if you started watching you can’t get away with it, you have to watch now. This is me, and I bet you see a bit of yourself in me too.
KG: Your images negotiate topics of violence, sexuality, use of power, even abuse of power. You do that with such warmth, humor and humanity. You are self-aware and comfortable in your own skin, yet your work manages to touch the universal. I feel like your body of work is a love letter to the human kind.
iS: Power dynamics is a big theme for me. I think of my work as a ritual on the use of power. Through my photography I’m claiming the power back to myself. Taking space for myself. Humor is an important element in that process. I don’t believe in angry manifestations or revenge.
In the US, I find people focus more on the humor in my work. Maybe the laughter is a cultural thing. Or maybe it’s just a way of hiding the confusion my work creates.
KG: You mentioned the idea of using a living goldfish. The idea of another living creature in your images is fascinating. Another pair of eyes. One more gaze.
iS: The goldfish would be the first live creature I’ve ever had in my work. I’ve used fish before, partly because of the eyes, but they’ve always been dead. Organic but not alive.
In the picture, the goldfish would be captured into a plastic bag. I find it so absurd, so multilayered with meaning, portraying another living creature holding another in a plastic bag. Even if there’s water in it, which is the fish’s natural habitat, it is no place for a living being to be.
I’ve been wanting to use a bunny for a long time – even though it’s one of the most used symbols in art, but I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. The goldfish I’m going keep and take care of after I’m done photographing it.
KG: What about other people?
iS: I’ve thought about it a lot, but don’t have the courage to photograph other people. I’ve been told I’m bold in the way I expose myself in my art, but I think it’s the opposite. I maintain full control of what I show. Having that control is key and it’s even amplified when I choose and edit my own work.
If I would shoot other people they would lose control. I would surrender them to my own gaze. I have moral issues with that that I have not resolved.
KG: There’s a lot of forbidden elements in your work. Playing with food, doing things we’re thought to feel guilty about. I recall a video where you lick the memorabilia displayed in a cabinet in your parent’s home. You’ve told me you did that without telling them. Recently you’ve used hotel rooms as backdrops for your images.
iS: I never waste the food I use in my work. Recently I arranged a photo session in a hotel room in my home town and I had a friend help me out with preparations. In the actual process of taking the pictures I’m always alone, so I asked my friend to leave and only called her back to fetch the frozen chicken I used as a prop, so it wouldn’t go bad overnight. I do feel a little guilty about the hotel rooms; I always book the rooms through a normal booking process and stay the night to make it seem like a regular hotel stay.
KG: Where do you think your work is heading next?
iS: I want to use more color. So far I’ve been using existing spaces—my own home, my parent’s and my brother’s home, hotel rooms—in the condition they are. I like using interior spaces to keep the visual elements somewhat limited. I’ve been thinking of staging sets with more color, and even using lights.
KG: Do you think about your body of work in relation to your life span?
iS: I’ve recently started to and I think I will keep photographing myself as long as I can. I want to see the aging process. I’m a bit concerned about how to keep the work interesting, not only for the viewers but also for myself.
KG: I think your work is so unique that a series spanning your lifetime will be significant.
iS: A lot of people say that. Maybe there are not so many others doing what I do. Maybe other photographers who have taken pictures of themselves over a longer period of time, or even a lifetime, have a more documentary approach. My work has more of an Alice in Wonderland quality to it. I explore humanity through my art.
KG: Thinking about your work, the elements you use are fairly ageless. There are no signs of the latest technologies, for example. Yet it’s impossible to think of your work as being the creation of any other time than ours. It will be interesting to see how your work and its interpretations evolve over time when the media environment and culture changes.
iS: You can’t predict that. I’ve also thought a lot about what would happen if my body changed. How would it impact my work if, for example, I lost a lot of weight? I think it would be an artistic crisis for me. Now my body is not ordinary and I can use it to gain attention.
Text by Kaarina Gould
Photography by iiu Susiraja
Kaarina Gould is Executive Director of the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York. The Institute focuses on contemporary art, design and architecture, hosting residencies and fellowship programs for artists and curators. fciny.org