How did you end up working as an artist? What is your professional background?
I began making art in high school, but I was 22 when I started my full time art studies. I thought I was the oldest person in the school. After graduating from Wimbledon School of Art I moved back to Finland and started working as a technician at the Design museum in Helsinki. For several years I was a technician in the daytime and painter in the evening. In hindsight, these years of “double shift” were actually good, as I learned building and other practical skills. Eventually, I also worked as a museum’s photographer for few years and without this experience I definitely would not work the way I do now.
This idea of a narrative in your exhibition is very thrilling. It’s almost like reading a fantasy story. Each picture is connected to another in some way but still work as an individual painting. Is this sort of serial painting typical for you?
For a long time I thought painting should be totally devoid of narratives. I think it was essentially because I studied in the 90’s and narratives weren’t so much on the agenda at the time. About ten years ago I finally gave up this way of thinking and my current body of work is some sort of culmination of this process. This time I intentionally built a narrative that runs through paintings. There is a background story, disappeared adults, as well as a loose storyline in the paintings. The narrative is not very specific and it can be read in various ways. I think an individual painting has a limited capacity to tell a story and so they have to be able to stand on their own. Yet, when I was making these paintings, I did get pure pleasure from creating stories of the fictitious children.
The concept behind your current We were promised to be taken care of exhibition at Heino gallery has a melancholic feel to it since the children, the subjects in the paintings, have been left to their own devices. On the other hand, the atmosphere is full of hope because they have taken power in their own hands and started to build their own truth. How did you come up with the idea?
A few years back, I read Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiographical novel My Struggle. There is a scene in the book where children are playing hide-and-seek in the semi-dark forest. The image of this scene stuck with me and then one day I combined it with my childhood fantasy, where I was left alone in the world. This was a happy fantasy, one where I could go to the supermarket and eat all the sweets and basically live without restrictions. After a while I had a kind of eureka moment: While listening music of my teen years the title of the exhibition popped out of my subconscious. At that moment it was very clear that these three things, the equivocal title, kids in the forest and my childhood fantasy had a potential to be developed as a series of paintings.
So the beginning of the process was very personal, but it started to develop on a more general level after reading Alan Weisman’s book World without us and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. I think many people struggle with life’s complexities, such as what can I do to prevent climate change or will artificial intelligence and robots render humans irrelevant. I think these complexities are part of why dystopic films and books are so popular. In these fictions, life has become simple again; it is bare survival against hordes of zombies. So in ‘We were promised to be taken care of’, kids are in this survival setting, but they are also juvenile and have a hunger for exploration and knowledge and also there are no zombies. So in my mind it is like a happy apocalypse and the survivors are there to create a better world.
It seems like this ‘façade-like’ fantasy world comments the current state of the world we live in and human intervention in the nature. Do you feel that contemporary art is doing its share in trying to change things and make people open their eyes? Or is escapism more what we need right now?
I think contemporary art definitively has a role in society, although smaller than literature or film. I think contemporary art will never reach the masses, perhaps large audiences, but not the masses. Art can and should be many things, even escapism.
I think we have enough information to have our eyes wide open. Now we have to digest the information and learn to live with the fact that our lifestyles are too much for this planet. Art cannot be the eye-opener, but it could envision possible futures and in that way help us to make better decisions towards a more sustainable world for future generations.
Your minimalistic artworks are extremely well detailed. Is it a way of enforcing the reality effect?
I have a twofold relationship with the details. I really would prefer to have less detail, but then again each painting requires a certain amount of them. I simply cannot say no. Sometimes some unimportant part in the painting, for example pattern of the shirt in Gerhard Richter’s Betty, becomes vital part of the painting when it is well painted.
What I like about photorealistic paintings is that I know the artist has put a lot of effort in order to make the painting. It does not only require skill, but also lot a of patience. Making a photorealistic painting is actually tedious and boring, but looking at it gives me great pleasure.
“The children in the paintings have to come up with new narratives and concepts to create conditions for their survival together.” This is something that we all need to learn soon. How worried are you about our footprint in this world?
We are living interesting times, already one big change has occurred in my lifetime, digitalization, but another one is looming in the horizon: artificial intelligence and robotization. Most of the time humans have lived in a world where things didn’t change, or they changed so slowly that the effect in people’s lives was tiny. People didn’t even believe that things could change. Only after scientific and industrial revolution people started to think that they could change their lives for the better and that society could develop. In our time, change seems to be constant, we can barely adapt to one thing when another replaces it. Of course, this might be an illusion. Anyhow, it is interesting that human beigns haven’t changed for 60000 years, but that might not be the case in 50 years time. With gene technology, human race might disappear, or more precisely evolve into something else.
The process of building miniatures of each content and then capturing the set through a lens gives the painting a new layer, a new depth. The light has also a leading role in your works. Your background is in photography, do you feel that it effects your painting?
In the late nineties, I was more inspired by photographers, like Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky, rather than other painters. But I never fully committed myself to photography. Every time I have serious issues with painting I make a photography series. I never really exhibit them, but that process helps me get back to painting. I have used photographs as a starting point for my work for over fifteen years and also worked as a museum photographer, but I would not dare to call myself a photographer. It has given a lot to my paintings and the camera is as important a tool as the brushes and paints.
How do you know when work is finished? Do you ever give up on a subject that you have started, throw a painting away?
It is fairly easy for me to say when the painting is finished. I have the photograph of the model and I often know how the painting is going to look like even before I have started to paint it. Of course, once in a while things take unintended turns and the painting turns out to be different than the photograph (in a good way!) or that it is so bad that I have to get rid of it. I probably destroy 10% of my paintings.
You also document other artist paintings, which is a very specific type of photography.
More and more people are now getting interested in visual arts since it is possible to see artworks in digital form (to follow museums, artists, art blogs and magazines). Do you see this as evolution, as art moving forward?
Before the internet, my knowledge about art was mostly based on what I had seen in books or magazines. Now I see art mostly digitally. Of course I see a lot of exhibitions too, and I am always happy to see some artists work in real life that I have previously admired on the internet. Ok, not always happy, sometimes the work fails, when you actually see it. Anyway, most of the art we see is a reproduction and the way it is reproduced has a lot of effect on how it is valued. Photography prefers a particular kind of work, some very good paintings look awful when photographed and naturally vice versa. It will be interesting times for the artists who are active in social media. We are so fond for praises, so I think the amount of Instagram likes will have an effect what kind of works to produce.
You are also a part of an ‘art house collective’. What are the advantages in being in contact with other artists? Do you share ideas and knowledge?
Having colleagues working next door is good for both work and mental health. Making art is often quite a struggle, so it’s good that you can whine about it to someone trustworthy who happens to know what you are talking about. And it doesn’t hurt that there is someone to share the best moments with!
Erno Enkenberg: We Were Promised to be Taken Care Of
Until the 21st of May 2017