Heli Rekula

Ars Fennica 2002

Heli Rekula was born in Helsinki in 1963, and still lives and works there, having graduated from the Lahti Institute of Design in 1991. Rekula works mainly with video and photography, often posed photographs.

The subject is often the female body and women’s different roles, women both collectively and as individuals. Frequent themes include innocence and the loss of innocence, purity and impurity, and the boundaries between. Rekula views people as cultured animals. She questions the impact of culture on natural sexuality and aggression.

Rekula also uses pure landscapes as subjects, however. Her landscape photographs have an almost religious character, altars of an unknown faith. The landscapes may be natural, devoid of signs of human presence, or they may contain mounds of car tyres or foundered ships. Her landscape photographs expand on shape and matter.

Rekula has taken part in many group exhibitions abroad and her video works have been shown at numerous film festivals in Finland and elsewhere.

Artist and critic
Senior Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Robert Storr’s Statement

Heli Rekula is an artist of uncertainties. The simple elegance of her photographs and videos captures places or states of being in which the viewer is made acutely aware of the world around them – the gusting wind and changing light on the sea and the island beyond, in the case of LANDSCAPES – work in process or the presence of another being in front of them in that of IN BETWEEN WORLDS, yet increasingly unsure of and quietly uneasy about having any access to that desired place or any real contact with that vivid observed person.

Rekula is by that token an artist of distances that introduces the possibility of communication between people and nature or people and other people, but whose subtle calibration of her medium – the steady focus from a single point in an immobile landscape or the equally steady gaze on an agitated figure who fidgets under the camera eye and then disappears from it only to re-enter the frame and then leave it again – all serve to isolate the individual viewer in his or her own space and make them alert to their own movement, their own powers of concentration, to their ability to simply ‘be’ in time and space, and to their own capacity for self-possession.

In that sense Rekula uses the technology of vision to instil a sculptural awareness in the viewer, where the viewer’s body becomes a difficult to locate object in relation to the things the eye sees but cannot quite grasp in a room where diffused illumination, muted wall tones, slightly grainy photographs, and slightly grainy video imagery create an almost floating reality that breathes like the winds off the water and offers partial access to other occupied spaces, that of the distracted young man, but which in its oddly dematerialized qualities and ambiance includes no other body than that of the viewer, no other tangible thing than the mechanical equipment that creates the video illusion.

Thus, the effect achieved is at once contemplative – to the point of subdued romanticism – and gently but insistently disturbing as one comes to terms with the fact that that there is no way to ‘settle’ into a relation with nature by means of these images which incidentally include pictures of cars lined up on a beach in full view of sublime vistas as it they were at a phalanx of vehicles each with its own parking lot slot at a drive-in movie and no way to break through to the autistic man on the screen since one is trapped in the autism of the spectator watching him from a darkened room.

Strikingly unsentimental given their subject matter, the photographs and videos of Rekula are simultaneously evocative and challenging. For even as they beckon us, they make it hard to know where one can stand in relation to them. And even as they seem to invite an empathetic engagement with the context they portray, they inhibit any such self-projection, throwing the viewer back on his or her own resources and returning them to a consideration of what makes them want so much to identify with images that are, by definition, the likeness of situations that are forever beyond their reach. Rekula recognizes these trade-offs between longing and disconnection, looking and involvement held at bay as a basic condition of making images, and she incorporates that knowledge into the experience she conveys in ways that are formally strict and genuinely poignant yet implicitly conscious and even critical of the very means she employs to create the illusion of ‘being there’ and ‘being with’.