Riiko SakkinenBy Jari Tamminen
Riiko Sakkinen – who lives with his family in Spain – has built his identity as an artist on being always in disagreement and in contradiction. In his own words, he "disagrees always, and is always wrong."
In his works Sakkinen plays mischievously with the imagery of advertising and propaganda. For example, he unexpectedly reveals the links between issues as seemingly disparate as junk food, militarism, and pornography.
In the style he's dubbed "turborealism" Sakkinen's own position is ambiguous. He himself asks: "Is there any sense in attempting fully comprehensible art?".
Sakkinen clearly understands how a public discourse can be created through provocation. In his public statements Sakkinen has favored offering absurdly extravagant and inflammatory opinions. He has been accused of being either an insincere capitalist or a flashy communist – and even of distributing child pornography. Threats on his life have been made on the Finnish nationalistic on-line forum "Homma". Sakkinen has stated that his vision of utopia is a dictatorship that aims to maximize the number of happy people.
"We will not be able to get the ecological disaster under control without coercion. As a dictator, I would make sure that fewer people die in my concentration camps than Western democracies currently kill with hunger and disease – not to mention with their wars."
Sakkinen shrugs off all horrified retorts based on the necessity of freedom. By talking contradictorily of freedom Sakkinen challenges the listener to reflect upon the very concept of the term: "Is the freedom of expression more important than the right to own a big car or to buy cheap food?". And while it's natural to hope that one might be able to clarify the real meanings of Sakkinen's statements by examining his art directly, this too is rather useless.
Part of Sakkinen's point must be that the line between provocation and sincerity is hard – even impossible – to locate. Maybe there is no line at all: every lie has a hint of truth in it and the truth is always covered with lies.
In 2011 Sakkinen got a teaching gig in Aleppo, Syria and a residency at the Finnish Art Institute in Damascus. In summer 2012, he organized an exhibition of his own work in Damascus.
Two visits to Syria, which was then on the brink of civil war, demolished the artist's carefully constructed image of pseudo-cynicism. The artist that has seen all and who plays with propaganda imagery for a living was shocked by the sheer volume of international propaganda relating to Syria.
"The first time I went to Damascus, I relied solely on the information that the Western media provided. After I got to know some locals I had to question everything I thought I knew about media. So at least my media literacy has developed."
When the simplistic good-versus-evil narrative provided by the media turned out to be nothing but propaganda, Sakkinen started to follow the propaganda of the opposing side. If you have to build your opinion of the world based on propaganda – as nothing else is available – then at least you should pay attention to both sides of the story.
Among other things, Sakkinen gives praise to the Syrian girl who has posted numerous videos on YouTube.
"A lovely girl, who makes propaganda videos in support of the Syrian government. By the way, many Syrians I know think that there's no such thing as the Western free media. Of course not all Western media is corrupt, it's just that the journalists are lazy and build their stories on the propaganda they prefer."
In Syria the government forces have undoubtedly participated in human rights violations and crimes against humanity. Yet, many of the allegations are ridiculous.
"In the summer of 2012, the international media reported that the government had made a formal decision to torture children. Of course they are not that stupid. The generals are pragmatic.", Sakkinen says.
Before the Gulf War in 1991 allegations were made that Saddam's forces ripped babies from their incubators. Those allegations were believed because they were something people wanted to believe. Later, the alleged incident turned out to be nothing but propaganda used to justify the war.
"We don't recognize propaganda that is targeted at us. A Syrian friend of mine showed me some pictures he had taken in New York's Times Square. They showed that between consumer ad's were ad's that targeted Iran. My friend pointed out that it's always quite crazy to visit the West, as public spaces, and the media generally, are filled with propaganda."
In the heart of the Times Square there has also been, since 1946, an army recruiting office. Today its walls are covered with an American flag made out of neon lights, and giant screens playing recruiting videos of all branches of the military service. This might not seen strange to those who know that the USA is the "Land of the Free" and the "Home of the Brave".
In Finland, the national hockey team has been presented in advertisements as soldiers on their way to the front lines. The main sponsor of the tournament connected to these advertisements was Karjala beer. Karjala (Carelia in English) was a region of eastern Finland lost to the Soviets in the Second World War – the return of which has been a dream for many Finns. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Finnish nationalists have taken up the return of Karjala as one of their primary goals.
In the national hockey team's advertisements the tournament was juxtaposed with the Winter War – a part of the Second World War in which the Finnish troops stopped the Soviet army from advancing deeper into Finland. The fact that this comparison between ice hockey and war didn't create a scandal says a lot – it is quite possible that non-Finns might have seen it quite differently. From the outside, it might seem a rather bizarre piece of nationalistic and militaristic propaganda.
In the case of Syria, it's not a choice between dictatorship and democracy.
"Of course the Syrian government has been corrupt. Still, we don't seem to demand its toppling because of that. We haven't toppled even our own governments because of it."
The Syrian government has been deemed a dictatorship because, among other things, it hasn't allowed religious parties in the parliament.
"To my Syrian friends even the idea of a religious party in the parliament is absurd. In Finland we have a near-fundamentalist Christian party in the Government. I can't demonize the Syrian government endlessly."
To Sakkinen, and to many others, the biggest insanity in the Syrian crisis is that the Western countries are fighting against the government – practically on the same side as Al-Qaeda. Sakkinen's greatest fear is that religious extremists will rise to power. In an absurdly ironic twist he has been praised for this opinion on the Homma Forum – the same nationalistic forum where his life has been threatened.
Sakkinen claims that the demands made of the Syrian government have been contradictory.
"Now they say that the rebellion is a result of the opening of the economy and the income gap resulting from this. My God! That is exactly what the West has been demanding the whole time, so that we would be rid of socialism", the frustrated artist exclaims.
A few years ago the world's heads of state were lining up to visit Syria. At the same time the President's wife Asma was portrayed in women's magazines around the globe as a delightful jet set diva. Since then, a series of "scandalous" revelations have been made in the press: she has, for example, bought luxury items even though there are poor people in her country.
"Would it trigger widespread indignation if the Italian Prime Minister's wife bought a new Louis Vuitton bag? Like: 'Outrageous, outrageous as we have this economic crisis and all.' Hardly."
Sakkinen states that he supports Syrian civil society and that he is committed to sharing the perspectives of the people he has met in Syria.
"Of course, they don't represent the whole Syrian society. Their perspective is that of the educated cultural intelligentsia. Still, their view of the situation differs so greatly from the image presented to us by the media that I can't ignore it."
How his experiences in Syria will affect Sakkinen remains to be seen.
"I most definitely don't know how this will change me as an artist. As an artist it's my duty to make visible what people think. Maybe I've been brainwashed and am doing propaganda for a totally insane dictator. Yet, it would be a worse thing to not say anything."
In 2010 Kunsthalle Helsinki featured an exhibition titled Riiko Sakkinen's Encyclopedia (Revised and Updated). It consisted of a video projection and a wall a few meters high. The wall was constructed of cardboard boxes found in the dumpster of a neighboring restaurant. Onto the side of this wall three video projectors in random order projected hundreds of pictures of candy and junk food wrappings, and prostitution advertisements.
Sakkinen has since continued to collect images for this continuing project.
Sakkinen's work owes much to the mid-1700s publication, Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie. Diderot's book was at its time of publication more than just an encyclopedia: in the spirit of the Enlightenment it was intended as a complete world view, contained in a single volume.
Sakkinen's series similarly reflects it's own time – and is likewise on a mission of enlightenment.
"Advertisements are everywhere. And what could be more important topics than food and sex? Everyone buys food – and I mean everyone. Foodstuffs comprise the biggest industry on Earth, and prostitution isn't small potatoes either", Sakkinen points out.
Present consumerist culture is concentrated and amplified in candy and junk food wrappers, and quite similarly in prostitution advertisements. Sakkinen's Turborealism is intended as a reflection of this reality. The Enlightenment aspect, however, is perhaps less obvious.
Sakkinen has amassed his encyclopedic material over the years from supermarket isles, newsstands and phone booths around the world. Advertisements have a universal language no matter where they are found.
In this sense, the language of advertising has become the first true Lingua Franca.
Jari Tamminen is a Helsinki based curator specializing in cultural jamming.
Originally published in Finnish in the book Häiriköt - Kulttuurihäirinnän aakkoset, 2013.