The colour red binds the works in Perttu Saksa’s new exhibition together into an integrated visual whole. Once again, Saksa directs his gaze to the status of animals in our culture, looking through the animal at the human being and at humanity.
In the videowork Silence as a Phrase a tranquilly rolling sea slowly turns crimson amid a pared-down landscape. This subject is an iconic reference both to apocalyptic visions of water that has turned to blood, and to the images of the mass slaughter of whales and dolphins that have appeared in the media. The series of photographs of cactuses in this body of works also invokes references to the colour red and to the history of art. Crushing the scale insects (Dactylopius coccus) that live on these plants produces the crimson pigment – “flies’ blood” or cochineal – that William Turner used to paint his red seascapes.
The focal point of the series of photographs Presence is the horse – an animal with which our culture has a contradictory and ambiguous relationship. Saksa has photographed horses in a slaughterhouse, bearing witness to the moment when the animal loses its life at the hand of man, turning from subject into meat. “Life is connected with the face and with eye contact. For as long as the horse’s head remained untouched, there was still something present.” Saksa draws a comparison with his namesake saint, Bartholomew, who is often depicted in Christian art carrying his own flayed skin. In the hands of this saint, who symbolically carries on living, the flesh is literally dead matter. Viewers are shown how in human beings the soul wins out over our bodily existence. Saksa creates a powerful tension in the photograph by attaching the face of the dead animal to its living body, taking his picture from documentary towards fiction.
“The face is the soul of the body. Covering over the face makes the subject of the portrait vague and precarious, but the desire to look, to see behind the mask, remains. Again, as a gesture, removing the face is a highly macabre and nightmarish thing to do. I wanted to construct the image in the in-between space where the subject is still present, but no longer something that we can look behind. The situation changes and the gaze returns. The meat looks at us.”
The title of the exhibition refers to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s idea of how language and shared narratives are no longer adequate for delineating right and wrong – for a universal ethical frame of reference. In this state of affairs feelings are the only viable means of communication, free of the limitations of language and culture. “Feelings as a phrase for what cannot now be phrased.”
Saksa has discovered a literary variant on this same idea in Stanislaw Lem’s science-fiction novel, in which the ocean-covered planet Solaris makes contact with the scientists who have come to explore it, by reflecting back to them their own memories, and through that their feelings. Without words and the means of communication familiar to human beings, it remains unclear what and why the planet is communicating, and whether its reality is comparable to our own. Something is also reflected in the gaze of the animal depicted by Saksa:
“When I look at the picture I project my feelings over the animal’s body, and I see how the light traces in the image a cold reflection from the dead horse’s still-open eye. There was something dreadful in this, but still the kind of thing that I wanted to look at again, so that I could understand what it might be about.”
The photographer and visual artist Perttu Saksa (b. 1977) graduated with a Master’s degree in Fine Arts from the Academy of Fine Arts, Helsinki, and is now a doctoral student at Aalto University. Saksa’s works have been shown in numerous solo and collective exhibitions, and have been acquired for public collections in Finland and abroad. His previous solo exhibition at the Gallery, A Kind of You, was seen in autumn 2013. In 2014, Saksa’s earlier work Echo won the Fotofinlandia award.