Perttu Saksa’s third solo exhibition at Helsinki Contemporary is showing a new series of photographs and alongside them a new departure for the artist: bronze sculptures.
These new works are the outcome of a working process spanning several years, during which Saksa made repeated, extended photographing trips to the Benin and Togo region. There he became interested in the numerous petrol stalls selling low-quality petrol (essence in French) distilled from oil stolen from multinational corporations – a pirated product. The trade was widespread and its impact so great that the local infrastructure would collapse without it.
Saksa was interested in the concrete nature of this phenomenon. Not so much in West Africa’s petrol trade, as in our relationship with energy and in what it means to people. Oil and energy as a structural component of society were localized as a physical element, on the human level. Saksa illuminated the petrol canisters from behind, and had the light filter through the layer of mud covering the containers and the cloudy petrol, creating an intense effect that has generated a series of abstract works. Despite this reductive approach, the images’ abstract subject matter, petrol, began to seem individual and tangible.
The artist has called the images maps – Maps of Essence. They are like nameless places, untouched by humankind, “no man’s lands” that glow in shades of red, urging us to check our relationship with energy and what it means to people. A central plotline is an observation that oil, seen as a positive material that transmits power, produces more waste and destruction than energy, inherently working against humanity.
Among the photographic works is a series of still lifes: pictures of petrol canisters and recycled liquor bottles reminiscent of Dutch Vanitas paintings of the baroque. The recurrent symbols in these still lifes, such as power, the cycle of life, and death, are echoed in the mental images linked with oil. The frontal compositions and dim lighting of the pictures are consciously constructed to accentuate that connection.
The light and the still-life-likeness are also references to Christian imagery. A single symbolically charged image is the only one of these works in which a human being is present. It shows people washing their hands with petrol. This sacral image is simultaneously brutal and sensitive. The oil and the petrol only become concrete through their tangibility, it is their physicality that situates the subject on the human scale.
Also in the exhibition are bronze sculptures based on fetish-market pythons that Saksa photographed in West Africa. These Vodun-religion fetishes are charged with energy and power, with a fuel capable of changing the course of life. Petrol and oil, too, can be thought of as religiously tinged power and energy.
Perttu Saksa (b. 1977) is a photographic and video artist who won the 2014 Fotofinlandia Prize. Having studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, Helsinki, he is now pursuing artistic doctoral studies at Aalto University. His works have been shown in galleries and museums around Europe, including Stadt Galleri Kiel, Felleshus Berlin, Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki Art Museum, HAM, and most recently the Ars Fennica candidates’ exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. Saksa’s works are in public collections including EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma and the Henna and Pertti Niemistö Contemporary Art Collection. In 2018, his proposal won the design competition for a memorial to President Mauno Koivisto, which will be unveiled on 25.11.2018.