The art of Maria Pääkkönen concerns itself with a reciprocal relationship between drawing and place. On the one hand is the drawing of the place – that which is observed, recorded, remembered, evoked. On the other is the place of the drawing – its physical presence within the confines of the gallery. Somewhere in between the two is the human body.
In the worn old harbour warehouse of Helsinki’s Galleria Huuto, Pääkkönen has installed six new untitled drawings of varying scales, produced over the past six months. Revisiting Unknown Places is the artist’s first solo show. For the most part, the drawings focus on everyday natural objects: rocks or branches or fallen leaves lying crisp upon the ground. A dark tarpaulin, with a single hole, forms a rudimentary shelter – just big enough to curl within. Pääkkönen’s drawing style, however, casts a kind of enchantment over her subject matter. From a certain distance, the eye is fooled by the painstaking precision of her technique. There is something of the trompe-l’oeil ultra-realism here – a slow, rhythmic, monochrome beauty that draws you inexorably in.
But, as you look at these drawings up close, something unexpected occurs. Up close there is not a lack of precision (which would imply a technical shortcoming) but a lack of specificity. The birch branches, the rocks, the leaves: they are unique, but also generalised. A human-scale ‘portrait’ of two large boulders is beautifully textured, but just too pristine. Although Pääkkönen draws from life as part of her practice, the works in Revisiting Unknown Places do not bear all the hallmarks of close observational drawings. Instead, they are mostly drawn from memory – from memory of the thing itself and from the memory of that initial process of drawing it. As the title of the exhibition suggests, these final works therefore evoke places in paradox – hovering between the remembered and the imagined, the real and the unreal.
Philosopher Joseph Diekemper has recently written that, although “the subject of experience can be in a ‘present’ state of conscious awareness…, the objects of this awareness are experiences that are temporally extended, and which are therefore past.” What he means is that we, as thinking subjects, may be conscious in the present tense, but the objects of our consciousness have always already passed us by. Diekemper continues by arguing that “the temporally extended objects of our conscious awareness are all memories, even though the state of being aware of them is simultaneous with the present.” The implication, therefore, is that even the most rigorous of life-drawings is always also drawn from memory. And given what we know about memory, there are severe limitations on our ability to grasp the reality of the present – even as it stares us in the face. Pääkkönen’s work may therefore be seen as an embrace – not only of the fallibility of memory but also of its essential existence within what we understand as the present.
These drawings have not been insulated from the world; they are a part of the world.
Something of this is perhaps suggested by the way that Pääkkönen installs her work. This is the second point about the relationship between drawing and place: the physical presence of the work itself. For her drawings are not protected by the traditional paraphernalia of the art gallery: mounted and framed and sealed off behind glass. In fact, there is something almost alarmingly generous about the way some of the works are creased and wrinkled and rolled across the gallery floor. These drawings have not been insulated from the world; they are a part of the world.
This is an ongoing concern for Pääkkönen, whose previous works such as Entrance / No Entrance (2015) employed several strategies to foreground the physicality of the drawing and the paper upon which it exists. Here, in Galleria Huuto, the techniques employed to make this point are mostly quite straightforward: a drawing of fallen leaves curls at the corners like the leaves themselves; real rocks serve both as echoes of remembered drawings and, more prosaically, to keep the papers in place. Long spools of paper spill down the gallery walls and out across the floor.
Returning briefly to Diekemper, it is interesting to note the absence of the body in his theory of time. Experience seems to him only to exist as subjective consciousness or external objects. There is nothing in between. In Revisiting Unknown Places too, the body is absent. But it is a very different kind of absence – not something simply overlooked but evident everywhere in the traces of its former presence. Again, this has been an ongoing concern for Pääkkönen. Dancing on Ice (2014), for example, consisted of a collaborative mark-making performance with artist Eetu Huhtala. Installation Drawing Room (2012) charted the (real/imagined) movements of the artist within a confined space. The Builder (Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing) (2014) was a durational performance for which visitors could watch as Pääkkönen drew day after day within the gallery.
In Revisiting Unknown Places the body may be absent, but it is evident everywhere in the traces of its former presence.
Unlike The Builder, the drawings in Revisiting Unknown Places are presented as complete. By definition, therefore, the body of the artist is no longer literally present. But the traces still remain – in particular, in the way that several branches are drawn together, but then, near where they would meet a trunk or bole, instead they simply stop. As in Entrance / No Entrance, the resulting negative space clearly evokes the previous presence of the artist, standing or sitting or kneeling, holding a pencil up to the wall.
That same sensation is especially evident from the lushly textured pencil marks that form a two-foot diameter circle drawn on paper on the floor. It is hard to read the off-centre rhythm of the work without also picturing the artist at work – hunched over the work, as the viewer is now too. As with the clusters of branches, such evidence of a now departed presence both accentuates and collapses the division between the time of the drawing and the time of the viewing: Pääkkönen is not the only one returning to the unknown; the viewer is too.
However, unlike the rest of Revisiting Unknown Places, this dark disc is not a depiction of an absent object; it is not a thing. It is only itself, an image of itself, here on the gallery floor. Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to get lost in its swirling charcoal darkness. The hard part, one day, will be finding the way out.
Maria Pääkkönen – Revisiting Unknown Places is at Galleria Huuto, Helsinki until 28th February 2016.
Images (top to bottom):
1. Maria Pääkkönen, Revisiting Unknown Places, 2015. Photo: The Learned Pig
2. Maria Pääkkönen, Revisiting Unknown Places, 2015. Photo: The Learned Pig
3. Maria Pääkkönen, The Builder (Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing), 2014. Photo: Kari Pääkkönen