Interview Mia Dillemuth | Artworks Elina Brotherus | English Editor Julie Uusinarkaus

A selection of photographs and videos from Elina Brotherus’ series Règle du jeu (Rules of the game) is currently being exhibited at Galleria Heino in Helsinki. The series based on event scores, short scripts that set out the actions of the performance, was first exhibited at the photography gallery of the Pompidou Centre in Paris after Brotherus won the French Carte Blanche PMU prize in 2017. The competition brief was to analyze the world of games and to give it expression through the medium of images. The result is a collection of images that need to be read.

Can you tell us a little bit in your own words about the background and setup for your recent project Règle du jeu? You shot the whole series, more than sixty images, in four months. How did you come up with this idea, and how did the process of working eventually differ from your previous projects?

I have to start a bit further back. In 2016, I had started to work on what Hans-Ulrich Obrist calls “instruction art”, because I was nominated for another prize in Switzerland, called the Prix Elysée. So, the Swiss prize was the starting point for me for using this kind of method.

My relation to Fluxus is through one person, whose name is René Block. He is a legendary German curator who has a special relationship with Finland because he was asked to select the first winner of Ars Fennica in 1991 and has worked with Finnish artists ever since. Block had a gallery in Berlin, which was one the first places to show Fluxus art and to work with Joseph Beuys. He started collecting Fluxus art when he was working with them, and now in recent years, more has been happening, for example, this big exhibition, in late 2015–2016, on his collection and archive in Berlin that I went to see in early 2016. At that time, I was writing my application for the Swiss Prix Elysée photography prize. I was really impressed, especially about the archive part.

Of course, I knew about Fluxus beforehand, like anyone who went to art school, but I didn’t realize how much it was actually based on the idea of sharing and the idea of writing down things and then using those written ideas as a basis for an art piece. The concept of the event score was created by George Brecht, who was a student of John Cage. From the musical score Brecht sort of just drew a parallel with the non-musical or happening sort of thinking and then he called it an event score. It’s a kind of a description of what could happen. Anybody, anywhere, can do the piece anytime according to his or her interest or let’s say creative sensibility. After I wrote my application for the Elysée prize and I got nominated, this huge creative burst started, and it’s continuing using the same method.

I had to dig into the literature to find material, which wasn’t very easy because Fluxus has never been one of those hugely popular well documented movements of art. I found books, stuff online, and I visited Rene and his wife Ursula, who had a wonderful music shop in Berlin called Gelbe Musik specialized in experimental music from the same period of time. Many of the Fluxus artists came from a musical background. They were musicians or composers, and then they were kind of floating towards freer waters. A lot of Fluxus art was actually done for the stage. The early Fluxus evenings were often called concerts. And they had a concert program. But on stage they were not precisely playing the piano but something else was happening.

Anyway, I didn’t get the Elysée prize. After eight months of work, however, I had a big portfolio of stuff that I could start to show in exhibitions. But at the same time, I had applied for the Carte Blanche PMU prize competition I didn’t know if I would win the Elysée prize or not, and of course I could not apply with the same project twice, so I had to change something, and that’s why I invited the other protagonist, Vera Nevanlinna, who is there in every picture. Here I also opened up my practice to less classical Fluxus-based scores. Actually, anything can be a score. So, we were using, for instance, lines from the Finnish poet Tuomas Timonen, and we invented some scores of our own. I’ve also taken some titles of artworks and remade my own version with the same title, or I’ve taken a certain picture from Francesca Woodman, it’s recognizable clearly, the picture behind my picture, but I’ve re-enacted it my way, and because I acknowledge what my source is, then I think it’s fine. It’s also an homage to those people who have been an influence for me.

Elina Brotherus, Carry a person to another place, 2017, 80 x 106 cm, edition 6.

Carry a person to another place is not a score either in the classical sense. It’s a phrase I took from an interview of Merce Cunningham. He was working with John Cage pretty much the same way as I’ve been working with Antti Ikonen for my videos. Cunningham would do his choreography, Cage would do his music, and they only agreed on the duration. ‘Let’s do an eight-minute piece’, and then they would just put them together on stage. One wouldn’t see what the other was doing and the other wouldn’t hear what the other was doing. And it just works by a miracle. I really regret that I wasn’t living in New York in the 1960s. So, I did the same thing with Antti, who composed all the music for my videos: he was just fiddling around with a prepared piano and making tapes, and then we just put the music together with my videos.

Could your pictures be a score for something else, for example, for an object?

Sure, they could. Although I’m not an object maker, I’m an image maker. But in Fluxus you can create a chain. Somebody reacts to something and somebody else to that. That’s a nice idea too.

Elina Brotherus, Orange Event part 4, 2017, 60 x 86 cm, edition 3.
Elina Brotherus, Orange Event part 8, 2017, 60 x 86 cm, edition 3.

Are you still working with analogue cameras?

Less and less. All this is digital because with the four-month deadline, I just couldn’t use film. I couldn’t afford time-wise to do something badly and then have to redo it. Also, my other model Vera was very busy. The biggest challenge was to find appointments so that we both were available.

Did you shoot these pictures in Finland?

Yes, I would say it’s all within a five-kilometer distance from Vera’s home. That’s her backyard, this is my home, this is my studio, and that’s the Alexander Theatre. The picture titled Performance is cancelled due to illness is my score actually because she kept on cancelling on several occasions and I was getting gray hair. That’s my harpsicord and my dog in that picture. So, everything is really close. The idea of Fluxus is that you don’t have to travel thousands of kilometers to find your subject matter, it’s something quotidian, small stuff, ephemeral things like oranges, which I bought on my way to the studio from the supermarket. It’s very simple. I like that simplicity.

Elina Brotherus, Performance is cancelled due to illness, 2017, 90 x 120 cm, edition 6.

In Règle du jeu, you are joined in front of the camera by dancer and choreographer Vera Nevanlinna. Mirrors and reflections are a repetitive element in your work. A co-actress also enables the effect of doubling and symmetry, like a mirror. How was it to work with someone?

It’s so nice to work with someone. Because all my life I’ve been working alone. I get better ideas brainstorming together with someone. Her way of thinking is very intuitive and very much like mine. So, when you put us two together, we go through some possible scores that I’ve found, and then we go like: “OK, let’s do that.” It was the most fun project that I’ve ever done. We have been friends for a long time. We met through a mutual friend when I was studying photography and Vera was studying dance at the Theatre Academy. I started pretty soon taking stage photos for her and her classmates, and that’s how I made some pocket money. Vera is in some of my very early art photos from 1998, when I did a series called Self-portraits with a dancer. We are both wearing old horrible gym suits and doing dance positions. She’s doing them well and I’m trying to do them well, but you can clearly spot which one is the dancer and which one is not. We still have so many scores that we want to do, so when a tranquil moment comes, I think we are still going to do some Règle du jeu together.

Why do you prefer serial work instead of separate images?

I think working in series is a very photographic way of working. But in art photography the series can be much longer than, for example, in fashion. Four to five years is a very typical time for me to work on one series. Now I have had “subseries” that I’ve had to complete in a much shorter time, but the big project is still continuing. I don’t know if I will have a title for the big thing or if I will keep the titles for the subseries. Like this is called Règle du jeu, what I did during the Elysée period was called Meaningless Work, and now I’m doing a big show for the Serlachius museum in Mänttä next summer called Playground, which combines this and what I did for the Elysée, and some more.

It may happen that a viewer who is not familiar with your work does not recognize you, the artist, in which case the protagonist is unclear. Does it matter?

Especially in this kind of work I don’t think that it’s important. Règle du jeu doesn’t tell anything about my life. I’m a character, a performer. But then of course if you think of some of my older bodies of work which are autobiographical, then I think it’s fair for the spectator to know that the person in the picture is also the author. Then it gives a different reading when you know that if there’s something sad happening in the picture, it’s not social pornography: This is somebody reflecting upon her own state, meaning that she is above it at the same time because she’s capable of making it into an image. But I really consider that in my practice there’s two rather distinct parts, the autobiographical part and the non-autobiographical part, which very often actually has had something to do with art history. I did The New Painting in 2000–2004, that was about older art, and then I did the Model Studies, the Artist and her Model, which was more focused on how the artist is watching the model, about that relationship. And now this work about Fluxus, which is recent art history. I’m having this dialogue across time. I like to think that I’m collaborating with my colleagues from the past.

Elina Brotherus, About Being My Model, 2017, 90 x 120 cm, edition 6.

After so many years of also being the model in your pictures. How did the performative method affect the way of being in the pictures? Did Fluxus give you new ideas on posing?

Absolutely! That was like my big eureka moment. After twenty years in front of the camera, you have done all the poses. I was really short of ideas on what to do. I found the perfect spot, the camera was ready on the tripod, but then I didn’t know what to do. Now I don’t have to, I can just choose a score. ‘Hammer 250 nails’, ok! You bet!

What did you learn by working together with Vera Nevanlinna?

Well I think that the big lesson was that you don’t have to go far from home, you can just go to a friend’s backyard and you can always come back with a good picture, so there’s no excuse. Just overcome your laziness, get out, and you will come back with a picture. A couple of these scenes were shot in snow storm, such as Drummer 1–3. The most horrible thing about last year was that it started to snow in November and it was still snowing in the beginning of May. We wanted to have spring and flowers and green grass, and it was just so gray and cold and snowy. So that’s why so many of the pictures are either done in the interior or in bad weather. But that’s also one thing, that it can feel horrible but it looks good in the image.

Elina Brotherus, Drummer 1-3, 2017, HD video 8’13”, edition 6 + 2 AP.
Elina Brotherus, Drummer 1-3, 2017, HD video 8’13”, edition 6 + 2 AP.

When looking at an artwork, we easily dive into the image and do not concentrate on the signs that exist on the surface. The outfits play a significant role in the scenes of Règle du jeu. Clothes are the fastest way of knowing something about a stranger. Can a garment sometimes inspire a picture?

I’ve been asked a lot about nudity, especially in Catholic countries, and my answer always is that clothes always refer to something. Whereas nudity is kind of the basic state. Clothes also age. If you look at a picture from the eighties, it was contemporary when it was made and now it looks like the eighties. Nudity is a like a way of getting away from all that. But I love clothes and I like to play with them. Clothes are something in my tool box that I use for composing my image particularly color wise. I don’t have clothes only for making pictures. Everything I wear in the pictures I also wear in real life. So it’s all from my closet, and in this series also from Vera’s closet. When we made an appointment, knowing that we would be indoors or outdoors, I might have given instructions for Vera like bring something yellow or bring something neutral. But sometimes I ended up using something she was wearing when she just came as herself. And then I would also bring a lot of my stuff, and often she is actually wearing my clothes.

The only time I actually produced a garment was the t-shirts for Regardez-moi ça suffit. In the Circus horse video Vera is wearing a costume that Maria Duncker made for her for a stage role. And what she is performing is like a little reminiscence of a very early dance piece from when she was ten or eleven, they had this choreography called Circus horses, and she is performing what she remembers from that piece. And we didn’t have a horse’s tail for her so she found a wig from her children and she put on the wig as a tail, that’s why it’s curly. It’s really like taking what you have within an arm’s reach.

Elina Brotherus, Regardez moi ça suffit, 2017, 70 x 95 cm edition 6.

Does what you wear in a picture have to be a part of your style?

I have so many styles. My style can be very casual or then it can be a dress. I love wearing colors, that’s something that I enjoy, but then for example for the purpose of this picture, Falling event, I had to wear black so that the flour would be visible. If I shoot when I’m travelling, before I go, I kind of imagine what colors would suit that place. I cannot bring enormous amounts, because I’m always walking, very often I have to hike to some location and I already have two cameras, one for the stills and one for video, and then I have the tripod, there’s not so much space for clothing. It’s kind of good luck often if I find something in the landscape that suits the colors that I happen to have in the bag. It’s like composing, like building a puzzle, so that all the pieces fit and there’s no recipe, it’s just the eye.

In which ways do you think living partly in France has influenced you as an artist?

As a human being it has influenced me a lot. I don’t know how much it has influenced my art. The French mentality suits me because I’m impatient, like they are as well. I mean I love contemplation, but I can’t afford to contemplate all the time because I need to get things done. There’s a lot of talking in France but there’s a lot of doing as well. They have this saying: “On est speed. Je suis speed.” That’s me. Of course, art is very appreciated in French society. Maybe it’s considered more like a normal thing to also have art at home. If you have some spare money then you can start collecting art. Encouraging collecting would have a beneficial snowball effect in Finland as well, for the whole art scene.

Elina Brotherus, Falling event, 2017, 80 x 56 cm edition 6.
Elina Brotherus, Drip music, 2017, 80 x 56 cm edition 6.

What’s next?

I have a big exhibition coming in KunstHausWien in Austria in the middle of March. They saw my exhibition at Pompidou, and in addition to existing work they wanted me to do a similar project to what I’ve done with Vera, with Austrian artists Erwin Wurm and Valie Export, using their works as a starting point. I have also been invited to continue my work at Museum Kunst der Westküste on the German island of Föhr where I was in residence last November. In June 2018 the Serlachius Museums in Finland are producing a large solo exhibition Playground that focuses on my event score–based photographs and video works. The exhibition is curated by Dr. Susan Bright. Finally, I have just started a two-year project for Sorlandets Kunstmuseum and Nicolai Tangen Collection in Kristiansand, Norway. They let me come over as much as I have time, to work in and around the city, free hands, do what you want. So it’s busy, but it’s fun.

Elina Brotherus

Règle du jeu

Galleria Heino