Gaze from asphalt pavements up to the mountains: Tanja Koljonen

This is a follow-up for my series of interviews with young Finnish photographers: after meeting Anni Leppälä and Saana Wang, I’m introducing Tanja Koljonen and Maanantai Collective, an artistic collaboration she belongs to. Represented by gallery Taik Persons, her photography makes daydream with its combination of Nordic aesthetics and everyday presence, while questioning the notion of authorship and traditional concepts of making art.

A very beautiful challenge: Courtesy of Tanja Koljonen
A very beautiful challenge: Courtesy of Tanja Koljonen

Found playing cards, receipts, notes… You mainly work with objects discovered on the street, what intrigues you about this idea? When working, do you create a whole story in your mind, a plot based on these everyday objects with people around them?

A photograph has an amazing, alchemistic like ability to transform something petty into visible and valuable. Like a chocolate paper can transform into a piece of gold. A photograph has ability to distance from itself; it softens the voice of the object by locking it on its surface. Words, which are an essential part of my work, get more space this way. Finally, the object in the photograph becomes a picture in the picture, its texture and echo disappear, like the rust of iron transforms into a color. All of a sudden, you can’t shuffle a deck of cards or close a cigarette box. As a comfort, the suppressed voice is compensated with words and a new image, throughout which the object gets a new way to express itself.

I collect objects and phrases from different contexts, which I finally photograph. My materials don’t take too much place: if there’s a need, I can always slip them into an envelope and continue my journey. This lightness is, at the same time, a pleasure and a challenge: the real content and the material, the whole story, is always outside the picture, attached to the reality. This puzzle is completed only when it reaches the eyes of the spectator, who makes up the final significance of the composition I’ve proposed.

When did you try photography for the first time, was your decision to pursue studies in that field something natural for you?

Before photography I was studying visual arts. This background as a drawer is transmitted through my work: it’s two-dimensional, outlines being graphic-like. I started studying photography in 2006: I had already tried it before, but not in the same scale. At that time, I was intrigued to know about the contents of that world, which was so rapidly changing, becoming digitalized. The studies helped me to understand the logic of that medium and to respect it. This was a prerequisite, so that I could find my proper ways to express myself and use that medium. Photography has helped me to simplify and eliminate.

A very beautiful challenge: Courtesy of Tanja Koljonen
A very beautiful challenge: Courtesy of Tanja Koljonen

Even though you photograph objects instead of people, do you feel like, in the end, this is precisely what you’re aiming to mirror? Would you say that this is how you give more space for you and the spectator?

The pieces I employ have signs of life and human presence on them. My work deals with the opposites of human life, such as rules and coincidence, reason and instinct. For instance, a deck of cards is a reference to the gesture of playing, with yourself and the opponent.

Photography is a medium, which manifests the world around us, it shows my reactions after observing it. A human being, represented in a photograph offers the viewer an instant possibility to be identified. In that sense, objects, literary material and their emphasis give more space, both for the interpretation and the abstract concepts that the viewer needs in order to attach them to reality. We might ask, where is the final picture, in the eyes of the viewer or somewhere else?

You have mentioned that your appeal towards words and phrases is explained by your love for poetry. Is it a medium for you to transmit a message, or does it have its own, independent place in the picture? How do you create a dialogue between the text and the object in photography?

I feel like I have the right to speak about poetry when it comes to my work: this poetic side is visible when a phrase or an object is detached from its original context. Poetry belongs to the world of metaphors and symbols, and provides an opportunity to think otherwise, as counterbalance for a more logical way of thinking. It lightens, the words can appear as majestic, humoristic, or even as sinister and tragic. However, it does stem from somewhere, the bond with the reality remains. Poetry provides me a good medium to detach myself from the reality and its observation. The attempt to create a dialogue between words and visual content has obviously its risks. But that’s exactly what makes it interesting. The key moment is the instant when a word, phrase or title finds its place alongside the object.

A very beautiful challenge: Courtesy of Tanja Koljonen
A very beautiful challenge: Courtesy of Tanja Koljonen

There is often certain plainness present in your work. Would you say that this feeling of emptiness reflects something of a society in which we’re living today, do you take a stand on something when highlighting a certain object?

Austerity, or ascetic look isn’t a message in itself. It is a form of aesthetic language that I’ve chosen. The proper message comes from the play between the word and the object, which serve as a basis for the associations in the mind of the spectator. Photography is efficient when it comes to fading out the signature of the artist. I am there, when editing and organizing the material for the picture. However, this composition, it is only a suggestion, it doesn’t reveal itself as it is, this is my way of taking a stand. Otherwise, I wouldn’t say that I try to speak out through my work, for me they’re representing a poetic form, distanced from the reality.

The theme of humanity is present and it reflects also the values of our culture. Ideals, ideologies, customs and habits. Do we remember our freedom in order to stay faithful and honest to ourselves? Are the motivations the same ones after all: to stay alive, to realize one’s self and needs, to be loved? Instincts, desires and senses keep this machine going on, round after round. Among these questions without answers, my work is like illogic research. This escape of definitions gets a poetic form in my work.

How do you see the situation of artistic photography in Finland nowadays?

The professional level in Finland is quite good I’d say: Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture where I’ve studied, allows students to work independently right from the beginning. This is a good basis for this profession, for the solitary work that is waiting behind the corner. The scholarship system allows a lot, but doesn’t guarantee anything: we need to be prepared for hard work! Being an artist, that’s choosing a whole way of life, where one needs to tolerate uncertainty. For me, the Berlin-based Gallery Taik Persons has allowed a unique, professional experience, and to meet some interesting people. However, much is depending on one’s own activity and initiatives. For example our collective Maanantai, has worked independently, and has succeeded in having an international breakthrough. Last year showed us how everything is possible once you put your energy together, and believe in what you do.

Do you remember: Courtesy of Tanja Koljonen
Do you remember: Courtesy of Tanja Koljonen

The latest exhibition where you participated in was the Paris Photo’13. Can you tell us something about your upcoming projects?

The beginning of this year I’ve spent mostly writing. After February’s ARCO (Madrid), organized through Gallery Taik Persons, I will have the occasion for a six-month residency in Berlin (International Studio Programme) in Künstlerhaus Bethanien. I’m so glad that I will have the possibility to work in a new, stimulating context, which allows me to meet some new people: artists, curators and other art professionals.

The year 2013 I spent pretty densely with our collective Maanantai’s exhibition and book projects, which led us to France, Switzerland and Germany… After that hectic period, it is so nice to have the peace to concentrate on my personal work. My intention is to continue with the same kind of material, however, photography itself is not a terminus for me, I’m curious about other possibilities as well.

You belong to the Maanantai (Monday) Collective, could you tell us something about this?

Maanantai Collective was set up in 2011. All the eight members of this group has got to know each other at Aalto University, through the MA of photography. Our philosophy is based on the idea to dilute the mythic like notion of authorship in the field of arts, and to find some other ways to approach photography as a way of self-expression. We produce all the material as anonymous, under one signature, which is Maanantai.

The first project of this collective, Nine Nameless Mountains, was a result of a road trip in Northern Norway, Lofoten in August 2012. “With the mountain as a “leitmotif”, the escaping horizon as a metaphor for life and the impossibility to reach an absolute goal, revisits the genre of the road-trip with an impish attitude and curiosity towards the unknown. On the way North, we explored the surroundings: stones, waves, fog and light, created a playful story – the motive for the celebration of friendship, photography and chance.” (Maanantai Collective, 2012.)

Collective and individual ways to work differ a lot, and they take periodic turns in my life. Obviously, individual work is more introverted, and demands a perfect peace and concentration. Collective work is intense as well, but differently: it’s funnier and also more challenging somehow. The richness is when sharing the ideas: when you’re brave, or silly enough to get loose, you might find something unexpected. Spontaneity, playfulness and excitement get highlighted in a group, when even the most stupid of ideas gets support: this is how surprising results come about.

Courtesy of Maanantai Collective
Courtesy of Maanantai Collective

What are your dreams and inspirations besides photography?

In this profession, I can’t separate work and free time. The ideas can spring from the most ordinary of moments, which can be really surprising. However, when making art, I try to leave the comfort zone in order to keep my development in motion. I do a lot of travelling, sometimes only for to see an exhibition: this is important, to go and see, to ‘consume’ art instead of creating that all the time. My artistic profile and personality are slowly shaping, creating their solid basis, which is a good objective I guess. Other dreams have something to do with travelling, my dream is to see the Redwoods in the West Coast, and Turrel’s Rode Crater, or even Lighting Field of Walter de Maria! And obviously, alongside of all this, to create a new project.

Tanja Koljonen

Maanantai Collective

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