Saturday the 8th of November 2008 could have had a better start. I had suffered through a restless night in bed, staring at the non-descript, clinically clean hotel room. The night before I had decided to have a few glasses of wine with a couple of good friends instead of having an early night to be in good form for my big day. We would go through my speech, lectio, that I would be giving the following day at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, where I would be defending publicly my doctoral thesis. I had thought the wine would help me sleep, but instead I lay twisting in my bed the whole night trying to remember names of philosophers, architects and theorists that I would need to be able to answer questions that the two opponents would be putting to me.
In the morning I’m so tired that I skip the hotel breakfast and doze in the hotel bed to gather my strength. I’m thinking back in time, some 10–15 years, when in a discussion with colleagues I said that artists shouldn’t waste their time studying for doctorates or doing research on themselves.
Even further back in time, in the beginning of the 1980s, I studied art history at the Åbo Academi University under the internationally acclaimed Kandinsky scholar Sixten Ringbom who categorically forbade all research closer in time than 20 years. Ringbom too would turn as restlessly in his grave as I in my bed if he knew that artists are now studying ‘themselves, in real time’.
I remember feeling at the time that research and artistic practice were totally divergent activities. I had given up studies in organic chemistry, biology and botany that I had pursued for six years, even taking a degree, in order to study art; my reason was that natural sciences seemed altogether too exact and mathematical. I wanted instead to study and give expression to the instinctive, emotion-based energies within myself.
My thoughts drift to Immanuel Kant, who distinguished natural sciences from art by claiming that discoveries in science must be verifiable by other researchers, who should be able to duplicate the process in exact detail. A work of art was, according to Kant, a unique original and impossible to be verified in the same way; perhaps even the artist him/herself does not quite know how it came about. A masterpiece cannot be copied, nor can the master explain how he/she created it. A work of art is created through a kind of ‘divine inspiration’. How could one be able to study such inspiration?
Today, more than 200 years after Kant, artistic creativity and the role of art in society have been demystified for the most part. And yet, much of art education, as well as the art market, continues to rely on the notion of the unique artwork or the unique concept. Art is still expected to represent an act that is ‘free from all other interests’. The modernist idea, according to which every artistic discipline has its own unique ‘essence’ that must be attained without the interference of lay people or other disciplines, is alive and well, particularly in Finland. As a consequence, there is still in 2008 extremely little contact between the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts and the Department of Architecture at Helsinki University of Technology. From the perspective of art, architecture is not free!
Students of art seem to perceive themselves as observers, social critics and commentators, whereas students at HUT are from the beginning trained to build society and wield power. But are we as artists really willing to relinquish the role of arbiters of good taste and aesthetics that architects and designers are exercising in society today? Does society seem visually better today for us, a hundred years after the symbiotic relationship between architects and artists ceased to function? Is there any point in producing “free” artworks that are – at best – kept in the storage facilities of art museums? If we answer in the negative, should we not try to reclaim our influence over the visual in contemporary society?
My thoughts roll further along these paths that also have a bearing on my doctoral research. But I still make one more excursion back in time: why did I change my attitude towards the artist as a researcher?
It happened after a number of my colleagues whom I regard very highly as artists began their postgraduate doctoral studies in art in 1997. I read their research plans and discovered how different their projects were, and that in this early phase artists were given a relatively free hand to develop and try to find a model for what artistic research might be.
Although my curiosity was aroused, I did not have any motivation to study my own artistic processes until my house project. In 1999, I approached the City of Turku with the idea of building a leaf-shaped house as a total work of art. The house, called Life on a Leaf, is a joint project between myself and the architect Erkki Pitkäranta. I felt that the house was radically different from my other artistic endeavours in that, for example, it will serve as a dwelling for my family and also because in another way it is socially provocative. Today it is admissible to do practically anything within the general framework of art without raising any eyebrows, whereas in the world of architecture, which aesthetically affects us in a significantly more ubiquitous way than art can ever do, there are very strict rules as to what is considered architecture.
I even thought that the house would have a much greater social impact than any of my public artworks, not to mention those works that are hidden away in museums. I convinced myself that that I would be able to remain more ‘objective’ towards this house, this object that I have placed in the world, than towards those that I otherwise make as art. An illusion, of course, but it kept me going. I wanted to study how society would react to my house, how the house would react, and how I myself would react. And how I would react towards the collaboration with Pitkäranta. The house was accepted as a doctoral research project in 2000.
Although I had an aversion to academic research before, I have simultaneously had an interest in gaining a deeper insight into what Architecture is all about, and what the role of art is in relation to architecture: why do we not build hat-houses, except in the fairy tales of Elsa Beskow? Why are there no ornamental, fantastical and surrealist elements in contemporary buildings? My doctoral studies motivated me to study the theory of architecture, something that I normally would never have considered doing.
The most rewarding aspect of my research was the opportunity it gave me to invite architects, philosophers and other artists to discuss the Life on a Leaf house. Without this collective process the house would be very different, or it may actually never have happened at all! One reason that the City of Turku gave a building permit for the house in such a central location was that it was part of my doctoral research. In this way the house became something more than just an artist’s dream.
Although a number of conflicts and complicating problems arise when artists begin to research the way they practise art themselves, it also befits quite well our post-modern society, where different cultures interweave, high culture blends into low culture, and boundaries are broken, both physical and mental. I feel such conflicts even in my own doctoral research: how can an artist who is not trained as an architect have anything of value to contribute to architectural discourse? And what is the situation in art? Are we willing to accept criticism from other disciplines? Juhani Pallasmaa, one of my two opponents and a distinguished architect and architectural theorist, wrote in his statement on my doctoral project that he would not have hesitated to accept the Life on a Leaf house if I had only labelled it as a total work of art. However, since I had called it an architectural work of art, problems set in. But that was precisely the idea behind my and (SAFA architect!) Pitkäranta’s house: to let it be regarded as architecture, precisely to see where the limits of architecture lie! It was interesting to learn that a member of the public at the examination, a doctor of nuclear physics, was quite surprised about the gridlock position between art and architecture that was revealed; in his discipline there is no hesitation to cross borders.
I am of course personally disqualified to decide whether my work can be considered science or not, but I am quite convinced that it is a case of artistic research as defined by the philosopher Tuomas Nevanlinna. He has described how the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts is seeking to find a ‘third way’ to develop doctoral studies as a method for producing new knowledge about a very specific area.
But no matter how the day began, progressed and ended, it was nevertheless one of the most important and charged days of my life.
At exactly 1.15 pm on Saturday, 8 November 2008, I am standing in front of an audience of a hundred people, the culmination of nearly ten years of study. My lectio seems to be going well and I’m looking forward to a rewarding discussion about the questions and claims that I have set forth. But I am rather taken aback after the opponents’ addresses. My main theses, such as the central role that artworks, detailing and ornamentation play in making a building Architecture, are not discussed at all. But I have been told not to ask any counter-questions, only to answer. I have a strong mind to violate the order and protest wildly, but I restrain myself. I suddenly feel very tired and I even forget the name of a theorist whom I want to quote.
Afterwards everything feels rather strange and hazy, not as if it were a failure, but an anticlimax. It’s going to be a while before I want to open another book on architecture, perhaps it is best to confine myself to the safe world of ‘free’ art in galleries and museums. Artist colleagues give me a few consoling pats on the back, telling me it was okay, because I ‘was myself’. Perhaps that’s a result of 30 years’ work as an artist, to be able to be yourself in the face of conflicts, ambitions and restrictions. Perhaps it is my own essence that I am looking for and even researching. But as we all know, we do not have just one, but many different personalities…