Interview by Mia Dillemuth | English Editor Julie Uusinarkaus | Photographs by Aro Mielonen

Aro Mielonen is an activist come art student, a fashion and secondhand shopping enthusiast, job refuser, anarchist and wonderer. Mielonen’s photo series Born into this body is now on display at the Young Artists exhibition in Kunsthalle Helsinki. The main idea behind the artwork is to criticize the trans narrative in mainstream media and the often used phrase “born in the wrong body”. Ultimately what motivates Mielonen’s creative work, is the need and search for freedom.

Who is Aro Mielonen? 

I am an activist come art student, a fashion and secondhand shopping  enthusiast, job refuser, anarchist and wonderer. I was born in 1992, I live in Helsinki, and I study photography at Pekka Halonen Academy and creative writing at Kriittinen korkeakoulu (Critical Academy). I am about to graduate, and I’m in the process of applying to art uni to continue studying photography but also contemporary arts more broadly.

Can you introduce us to the ideas behind your photo series Born into this body at the Young Artists exhibition at Kunsthalle Helsinki?

My main idea behind the work is to criticize the trans narrative in mainstream media and the often used phrase “born in the wrong body”. Why is it that trans bodies are so often described to be “wrong”? Is it simply because it’s an easy way to explain the trans experience, or is it because trans bodies are, in fact, seen as “wrong”? I also wanted to point out that often when illustrating the multiplicity and diversity of gender, it is done by combining masculine and feminine elements, but more often than not, the masculine part is inborn and natural (for example, beard or leg hair), and the feminine part is something added and unnatural like lipstick, fishnet tights or high heels. I wanted to highlight that masculinity is just as constructed and natural or unnatural as femininity. I wanted to make beautiful pictures and give more space for femininity and add the masculinity in the form of a helmet and boxing gloves to raise questions of freedom; is there freedom from gender or society’s expectations based on gender? What if I had been born as a cisgender man, what would I look like now? In what ways would my life and childhood have been different? Would have I been allowed to play both ice hockey and at being a princess?

Aro Mielonen, Born into this body, 2018. Pigment print, 100 x 150 cm.

In your artistic work you are searching for new ways to combine image and words. Through photographs, as through words, we make certain things visible and leave others unmentioned. What is your message to the world? What motivates you as an artist?

Before my creative work I was involved in a lot of activism for various causes, for example animal rights, the rights of kids living in foster care, LGBT rights etc., and slowly my activism turned to creative projects about those same issues, so I became an artist kind of by accident. I have performed in a documentary theatre piece about transmasculinity (directed by Teemu Mäki), created a poetry installation advocating against the corporal punishment of children and created a photography series about LGBT issues, so my messages are still the same as in my activism, but now I just work through art.  In my poetry my main focus has always been in telling my story and what I’ve been through, but in my photography work I leave a lot more to be interpreted by the viewer. Overall for me, art is a way to take part in conversations and political discussions, make statements and share my experiences.

Ultimately what motivates my creative work (and also what all of my work is about) is my need and search for freedom. Are we free? Can we be free? What does it even mean to be free in a patriarchal and capitalist society? Is there a freedom from gender or class? So I guess my message is to just keep looking for freedom.

How did photography become your medium? Do you still remember the first pictures that you took? How would you describe your style of photography?

For a long time I thought I wasn’t creative, simply because I didn’t like drawing or painting. So I thought that instead of creating, I could document, and I began writing poetry and taking photos. In the Pekka Halonen Academy I learned to plan my photos, and I have learned to love the process of making photos slowly one step at a time: planning, researching, writing, collecting props, deciding on clothing and make up, trying out lighting options and then finally taking the photos. And I have changed my mind about my creativity; I now see that I have a lot of ideas and I am creative after all – I have learned that creativity isn’t limited just to drawing or painting, but it took me a long time to figure that out. I don’t know how to describe my style of photography because I always have a sense of humour in them and a strong message behind my photos, but I’m not sure how apparent either of those are to other people seeing my photos. And for me photography is not really about “immortalizing fleeting moments” because my photographs are very much made instead of taken.

Photography became everyone’s medium with the invention of social media. To which direction did this development, in your opinion, push professional photography?

Digital art galleries and auctions are becoming more popular. Has Instagram made the art world more democratic? In a way it offers a short cut to fame for people with talent and a personal approach. 

I’ll answer both questions together here:

Social media gives people a platform to promote themselves, and I think that, especially in commercial photography, it is a great opportunity to find clients and make yourself known. So in that aspect it is great, but on the other hand, when it comes to art, it’s not that great. Mostly because I don’t want art to be consumed in half a second in an Instagram feed in the middle of selfies and brunch pictures, and I don’t want to feel the pressure that I have to offer my art to be consumed in that way. It took a long process to make that picture so, in my opinion, it deserves more focus and time when looking at it. Also most people look at Instagram on their phones, and the screen isn’t that big and the pictures on the screen are even smaller, so that makes it more suitable for simple and minimalistic photos, so I don’t like the idea that photos should be made with this in mind. Like when Instagram first became a thing and you could only post square pictures; I don’t like that type of unnecessary limitation. So overall I think it’s a process to find the balance: how to have a presence in social media to promote yourself and your art but not to give away all of your hard work for free. In the end, artists need to make a living as well. For some artists social media platforms are a vital part of their work and art, and for example the performance art taking place in social media is a great thing, but that’s not for everyone and shouldn’t be expected from everyone.

Aro Mielonen, Born into this body, 2018. Pigment print, 100 x 150 cm.

This phygital era that we are living in makes a certain play with identity, facts and fiction more possible. What are your thoughts on this?

I think it’s really fascinating! I have changed my name legally three times, but in social media you can change your name, pronouns and identity labels whenever you want and however many times you want without going through the hassle and struggle of, for example, changing your legal documents. So in this way it works as a way to “try out” new identities and explore in an easy and safe way before coming out IRL. Also social media gives you total control over how you want to present yourself and how much or little you want to share about yourself, and I think that’s also fascinating, especially with the different approaches we take to these opportunities and how much of us and our personal lives are now public. For example, writing your mental health diagnosis on your profile text could be totally normal to some and extreme to others. For me, the most boring and sad thing about all of this is that so many people take this magnificent opportunity just to create a “perfect” or ideal image of themselves and their lives, and everyone starts to present themselves in the exact same ways when we could instead, for example, have a different gender on every social media platform or just have more fun with all of this in general and try things out. It’s a cliché, but perfection truly is boring. 

Who do you admire? Your biggest inspiration?

I admire photographers like Tim Walker and Iiu Susiraja, who have created instantly recognizable and very unique visual worlds of their own. My biggest sources of inspiration are my own life and personal experiences and struggles, current events and politics, and last but not least, fashion. Clothing and styling plays a huge role in my photography. 

What are your dreams for the future?

My dreams for the future are to continue studying the arts and find new ways to communicate issues close to my heart. 

Young Artists 2019 exhibitionat Kunsthalle Helsinki from the 30th of March until the 26th of May.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Young Artists exhibition, which had its debut at Kunsthalle Helsinki in 1939. Young Artists 2019 exhibition is co-produced by the Artists’ Association of Finland and Kunsthalle Helsinki and it is based on an open call, with a shortlist of 25 artists and one artist group selected for the show out of a total of 500 applications. The four-member jury chaired by artist Jaana Kokko consisted of Kunsthalle Senior Curator Kiira Miesmaa and student representatives Aleksandra Kiskonen from Helsinki’s Academy of Fine Arts and Miia Varis from the Turku Arts Academy.

All the artists featured this year are Elina Autio, Siiri Haarla, Jussi Haro, Venla Helenius & Anna-Sofia Nylund, Maiju Hukkanen, Hermanni Keko, Nadiye Koçak, Komugi Ando, Sini Kähönen, Arja Kärkkäinen, Jenni Luhta, Anna Matveinen, Aro Mielonen, Milja-Liina Moilanen, Anne Naukkarinen, Rosaliina Paavilainen, Leena Pukki, Eeva-Maija Pulkkinen, Salome Rajanti, Mira Roivainen, Raimo Saarinen, Kristina Sedlerova, Astrid Strömberg, Pekko Vasantola, Maria Viirros and Niina Villanueva.

Around Journal presents a series of interviews of some of the artists exhibited at Kunsthalle. Previous interview of visual artist Kristina Sedlerova here.