Heli Hiltunen

Ars Fennica 2001

Born 1960 in Heinola, Finland. Lives and works in Helsinki.

The Ars Fennica prize, an annual award for the visual arts given by the Henna and Pertti Niemistö Art Foundation, was awarded to Finnish pictorial artist Heli Hiltunen in April 2001. The winner was chosen from among five Finnish artists. The choice was made by Gijs van Tuyl, director of the Wolfsburg art museum. The award comprises a cash prize of FIM 200 000, exhibitions in Helsinki and Oulu and a publication on the winning artist’s oeuvre.

Heli Hiltunen works primarily with series of works, where smaller works of art are combined into larger entities. Hiltunen’s subjects are often connected with memory, love and sensual closeness. The works represent documentation of her own life and her family history, but are also the means for storytelling. In her most recent paintings, Hiltunen focuses on landscapes. The works may originate from a childhood memory or a photograph of a seemingly in-consequential puddle. In the hands of the artist, things change, become fragmented and distanced from their originals. Heli Hiltunen’s brush-strokes have a fascinating ambivalent nature: while they are physical and sensual, they also have an airy, disembodied quality, something which is further emphasized by many different shades of a distinguished grey. The result is a timeless landscape glowing with a matt, intense light, as though seen through a veil.

Mr. Gijs van Tuyl, the selector of the Ars Fennica prize 2001 and the director of Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg in Germany, made the following statement for the winner:

Heli Hiltunen has been awarded the Ars Fennica Prize 2001 for the authenticity of her work in painting and photography, which is firmly rooted in an organic unity of art and life. Within contemporary art, she occupies a very special place of her own. Her chosen position is up-to-date without being fashionable. Her development, from A Try for One Biography, in Other Words A Story of How She Learned (Slowly) the Names of Things, a series of twenty small paintings and photographs (1991-93) to the fourteen-piece Unnamed – the Melody I Recognized from Someone Humming (2000), reveals the endurance and integrity with which she pursues her leitmotif, which is the (re-) construction and processing of memory through the media of painting and photography.

She has a conscious, even conceptual approach to the use of these two very different media, but there is much more to her work than a formal investigation into the interaction between them. She produces work in series, often using combinations of small-scale paintings and photographs. It is not her aim to impress through the use of large formats, but – with an un-modern combination of modesty and intensity – to make her point through a content and a form that are both derived from daily life.

Photography is used to endow memory with a matter-of-fact character; painting, with its radiance of light and colour, has the more evocative function of evoking and stirring thoughts, emotions, and dreams. The combination of these two modes of expression lends the work its personal dimension, in which handmade traces of paint appear close to the mechanical surfaces of photographs. A small painting shows, in shadow, a bed with covers folded back; nearby in a row of images is a photograph of a ball, looking like a soap bubble.

Hiltunen loves to smear paint on the canvas, like ‘sandwich spread or marmalade’. In that sense, painting, unlike photography, is a primitive gesture. In her work, the density and intensity of painting go hand-in-hand with the superficial and mechanical quality of photography. Beneath the skin of her paintings, something is burning. A red, green or purple background glows through the gloom. It is as if there were holes in the surface: as if paint had been removed to allow memory, and its chorus of images, to speak. As an afterglow.

There is something convincing and compelling in the way Hiltunen’s images appear on the canvas or paper, as if projected on a screen, only to glow bright and fade from view. Images of things or fragments remembered: trees, a pillow, a house, a flower, a graveyard, a bed, a bucket, a glove, an old envelope, a river, or even paint itself. Memory never stays with a single image but is in constant flux. Hence the inner logic that Hiltunen pursues, cinematically, through loosely connected series of images that surface, as it were, in the river of time. The effect is like that of the couple in her film Slow Valse for Two, who dance in semidarkness, appearing and disappearing as illuminated figures on stage, meeting and parting again and again. These images are seen not in full daylight but at dawn or twilight, in dreamtime; they come and go in the mind. This is not so much a mystery as a miracle. It is like magic.

The art of Heli Hiltunen has rich sources in life, and its roots lie in her ancestral homeland of Karelia, which used to be part of Finland. The landscape there must be wonderful. The objects preserved in the wooden house of her youth in Heinola appear in her photographs as concrete things – as opposed to the painted landscapes, which came to her through idealized representations in illustrated books.

Hiltunen’s paintings and photographs shift between different levels of imagery, between art and photography, between present and past, between reality and memory; they leave the door open for multiple interpretations, and for the evocation of all kinds of thoughts and feelings.

Gijs van Tuyl
Wolfsburg, 21 March 2001