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Antti Laitinen - Bare Necessities

Updated: Sep 23, 2023

A Foundation Liverpool

67 Greenland Street





One of the most refreshingly lively, and also, perhaps, most critical things about Antti Latinen’s work is its humour, a feature that is not so much a deliberately concocted part of it, as something that is implicit within the form of the work itself. There is something absurd, for example, about producing a self portrait in which all that may be seen of the “sitter” is his arm protruding from a swamp.

The decision to visit the swamp in the first place might be regarded as a somewhat silly, even imbecilic thing to do, it being in the nature of swamps to literally drag you down into oblivion. Yet making a self portrait is an act of preservation, so that appearing to possibly lose one’s life in the process of doing this carries its own comic – yet also somewhat melancholic – thread. Other instances of the emergence of an amusing angle within Laitinen’s practice come out of the very type of tasks he sets himself. Building his own micro island paradise (or rather, the visual stereotype of such a thing) is a case in point; the labour involved in this task being potentially immense, and the choice of sandbags as a key component of the structure’s physical construction adds to the silliness of the project. "Will the sandbags hold back the water?"

The project is doomed to failure from the start, yet there is also something heroic, noble, and possibly a little selfish about manufacturing your own island. One is, however, also brought in mind of notions such as perseverance and self-sufficiency. In another version of the use of island imagery Laitinen turns what is normally a permanent place of escape or withdrawal into a vehicle, shifting the conditions we usually associate with islands (isolation, idiosyncrasy, withdrawal or even imprisonment) into their very opposite: transience, travel, placelessness, drift. So Laitinen’s comedic acts of commitment and technical inventiveness have a very humorous side to what may look at first sight as a good and seriously practical idea: want an island of your own but can’t afford to buy one? Well, just build one yourself!

Laitinen has remarked upon how one of the things he feels has most influenced his work was his watching, during childhood, of the British television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, an early version of the bringing of a Dada-like “aesthetic” into popular culture. [4] In utilising humour within his work, letting it emerge when and where it will, without fear of it somehow spoiling or tainting his practice, Laitinen reverses this move from high into low culture (insofar as these distinctions between genres still hold). Despite operating within the field of art Laitinen’s amusing escapades do much to disengage the traditionally serious from that considered light and merely entertaining.

This artist makes humour work for him, recognising its potential as a device to expand the work, open it up to what might otherwise remain alienated or indifferent audiences and concomitantly novel ways of reading. It is not, in any case, that humour and meaningfulness cannot coincide. Although Laitinen’s background is that of photography, that curiously fluid category “performance art” is where he most directly involves himself today. Much of the Monty Python’s humour mirrored the kind of performance art activities that were developing around the same period (1960s and 1970s), wherein what were ostensibly very ordinary actions or events were turned, often by only a fairly small twist or alteration, into far-reaching parodies of domestic or quotidian forms of life. In Laitinen’s work, and in relation to his being from a later generation of artists than those involved in performance in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, it is performance art itself which is alluded to. Whereas an audience for a work by Stuart Brisley or Joseph Beuys would have tried, twenty or thirty years ago, to participate in the work through a studied, thoroughly serious engagement with the work unfolding before them, today things are much more knowing and relaxed.

This “knowingness” is a condition of culture now, and it is in a sense a starting point for Laitinen, a given structure of perception which repositions once-obscure activities such as those to be found within earlier performance art, so that they become the first order referential content of a sophisticated, second order practice of art. This is to suggest that the metalinguistic components of Laitinen’s practice are both necessary and productive. Humour and irony are not strange companions, but part of the same condition of reflexivity or introspection in and through which contemporary culture exists.

But seeing the funny side of something is not merely amusing. To laugh at a tradition or network of unquestioned conventions is, in effect, to raise serious questions about what it is possible to mean and do as an artist today. In Umberto Eco’s murder mystery novel The Name of the Rose the murderer is finally revealed to be someone who is viciously keen to prevent a certain book in the monastery library, of which he is the custodian, from being consulted. The volume turns out to be a “lost” treatise by Aristotle in which is detailed the subversive power of laughter. Laughter destroys complicity and faith, showing a different angle of perception to that established by those in power. It is a refutation of authority, a “quiet” refusal to think along the lines one has been conditioned to comply with. Thus Laitinen’s practice is paradoxical: the artist produces a body of work that problematises the very conditions (i.e. earlier performance) upon which its existence is based. It playfully bites the hand that feeds it, refusing to hold to the insufferable pomposity of much that falls under the designation “high art”.

Nevertheless, Laitinen retains in his work a number of attributes of earlier performance art. Foremost amongst these is an interest in process, wherein the making of the work can take on as much importance as the final result. In Untitled (2004) the artist spent seven days digging a large hole, an action which “exists” in the form of documentation but which is essentially pointless. One thinks of Keith Arnatt’s self-burial performance piece (1969) but, references aside, what is taking place is a planned series of operations, the result being not quite known from the start, the artist having decided to accept as the piece whatever it is that emerges within its making.

A second “classic” performance art theme is that of endurance. In this category of work the artist subjects his or her body to various physical unpleasantnesses, often of considerable chronological duration. Once again, Brisley and Beuys would serve as examples, as would Marina Abramovic and Chris Burden. It is a matter not only of enduring pain, but of finding a way of coping with it for long periods of time. In this regard, Laitinen has referred to how he tries to trick himself, during his own periods of endurance, into thinking that he isn’t really feeling the pain he is in fact suffering greatly from. [6] With such pain, irrespective of it being self-imposed, one undergoes a heightened recognition of one’s own physicality, and perhaps mortality too. But this existential engagement does not, as Laitinen himself points out, guarantee the success of the work, nor what might be called its authenticity. This separation between a sense of “the authentic” and certain activities which have hitherto been claimed to be connected with it is one thing that clearly distinguishes Laitinen from the earlier generation of artist to which I have above referred.

The term “authentic” is so deeply embedded in the ideology of the artist that to suggest Laitinen moves away from the special world that this word implies may seem to some a heretical assertion. It is, rather, a point of criticality to raise questions around received ideas about art and the special status of the artist, and in this respect Laitinin’s work is, surprisingly, a type of realism. The more absurd it looks, the more real, in a certain sense, it is, a man like any other man carrying out in a painstaking fashion extremely demanding tasks. Laitinen’s takes on the role of a human being struggling to achieve something that should be impossible (the building of an island, for example). He is, in a sense “everyman”, an odd but likeable figure who refuses to be defeated, whatever the cost. In considering his work we are invited to think about the general absurdity of human desires and demands, and the extent to which an individual will go to achieve an “impossible” end.

There’s a calmly heroic tone to Laitinen’s attitude or stance, but it is not the heroism of a special person. The form that authenticity here takes is that of someone recognising the limits of received model of practice, debunking these so as to make something new that is convincing within a contemporary context. Laitinen is also well aware of the roles fakery and clever documentation have played for the generation of artists that preceded him; this too is a question of what is and is not authentic. For Laitinen, the fact that what we conventionally call documentation of a work is in fact part of the work itself is, from the start, an important part of the picture.

Laitinen may have begun employing performance actions and strategies without much of an awareness of what is now virtually a tradition of art that directly incorporates the body, but aside from those practitioners already mentioned one can see echoes of other artists’ works within his practice.

Building one’s own island in the Baltic Sea has some common properties with Robert Smithson’s constructing his Spiral Jetty in America’s Great Salt Lake in 1970, and Smithson also designed an island with the intention of towing it around Manhattan. Christo too produced his own artificial islands. The point is not so much that other artists have made “similar” works (in fact each of these pieces is very distinctive); it is that Laitinen’s practice moves things into another state, one of allusion and reconfiguration, playing with the tropes of early Conceptualism so as to show that it is possible to read what has already become canonical against the grain of its “established” meaning.

Meaning is always open to reinterpretation: this is one of the things Laitinen’s work makes very clear, and not just to “experts” on contemporary art.


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