18 Apr 2019
KAROLIINA HELLBERG ON REINVENTING HERSELF IN SUOMENLINNA
Karoliina Hellberg graduated from the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts in 2015 and has been working at HIAP since October 2018 as part of the residency programme offered for Finnish artists. Karoliina works mainly with painting and drawing, in addition to other materials such as glass, textiles and ceramics. In her work, Karoliina tries to draw or paint the unseen; to capture or represent aesthetic ghosts. However, her current work is perhaps about to take a new turn. What the new era will bring, remains a mystery.
The residency period at HIAP is not Karoliina’s first time working away from her own studio. In the past, she has worked in artists’ residencies in Berlin and also in Paris at the Finnish Cité Internationale des Arts Foundation, where she worked for three months during her final year at the Academy of Fine Arts. While in Paris, she wrote her dissertation and discovered the themes she has been working on for the past four years. Perhaps the new environment was favourable for the discovery of new ideas.
Autumn in Suomenlinna and some good news
Karoliina has now spent approximately six months in Suomenlinna, with another six months still remaining. Mid-way through her residency, she has started to question her approach to the new environment she found herself in last October. When Karoliina first arrived in Suomenlinna, she had a plan. She was going to slowly take in the environment, with time to read, reflect and research. She planned to get to know her fellow residents and participate in many of HIAP’s events.
But the life of an artist comes with unpredictability, and Karoliina found out in October that she had been selected for a major exhibition in Didrichsen Art Museum. Suddenly, she had only a few months to prepare both the exhibition and its catalogue, and her time of quiet reflection was turned into a very busy time of adjusting to a new workspace while being pulled towards two directions. This pull resulted in Karoliina having difficulties adjusting to life and work on the island. While she had wanted to position herself on the island slowly and at her own pace, she found herself suddenly very busy, albeit excited. Although she felt extremely honoured to be collaborating with Didrichsen, she was a little too busy to participate in social events as much as she would have wanted, and while the events are at HIAP by no means mandatory, she felt as if she was letting herself down by not making the most of the opportunity. The exhibition opened on the 25th of January, and while it has been a success, Karoliina found to her surprise that it is now April and she’s already in her second half of her residency.
It’s been a long cold winter
After a very busy autumn came a fairly challenging winter. Karoliina felt a need to reorganise her thinking and perhaps discover new ideas and methods of making. She found herself fighting the imagery and the ways of working that she had become accustomed to. The end of a cycle in her work perhaps, and the start of a new one. The process has not been easy, and it has intensified due to the new, unfamiliar working environment.
Here comes the sun
Spring is a good time to rearrange oneself, and Karoliina has been trying to work out her next moves. She has been spending time working on her upcoming solo exhibition in Galerie Anhava in May, but at the same time she has also been questioning and redefining her work patterns. A residency is not a separate entity, but an artist has to adapt to it while everything else in their life keeps moving forward. At first, she thought that the best way to deal with the pressure was to shut down and resign from social obligations. However, this may not have been the best policy, and now Karoliina is trying to be more welcoming and open. She has invited her fellow residents to her studio for coffee, and she is looking forward to participating in HIAP’s open studio event. HIAP is such a friendly, welcoming space, that opening oneself up to new experiences and new people is easy and safe.
Another thing that Karoliina has now decided to do differently is that she now works on the island every day. During the first months of her residency, she sometimes found it challenging to travel to the island from the mainland daily. There are only so many hours in a day and traveling back and forthtakes its time.
However, recently Karoliina has noticed how much she has gained from travelling to the island every day. The hustle and bustle of the Market Square, the Old Market Hall, the time to read on the ferry, the walk by the beach towards the Suomenlinna studios, these are experiences which are valuable to her and have opened up her thinking to new ideas. These days Karoliina goes to her Suomenlinna studio every day, even if it is only for a couple of hours each evening. Some days she doesn’t paint, she just goes to the studio to think. She has found that even seeing her work every day keeps the process ongoing, and the new ideas coming.
Painting is a language in its own right, Karoliina says. By thinking or talking one can perhaps actively focus on the problems within the work, but as active as such conceptualising can be, it does not solve the problems. For that, one must paint and by painting figure out the answers. Karoliina never plans her paintings. She has an idea, which then finds its form through the process and the language of painting. Occasionally, she will find that she needs to paint some images in order to move on; and this is the stage in which she has found herself this spring. There are paintings and topics she must address, before she can figure out her next steps. The ghosts of the previous era are sitting with her in the studio space in Suomenlinna, and as much as she wishes them away, she feels that she must paint them in order to free her thinking.
Current work and summer plans
Karoliina’s current work consists of little geometric experiments, glass sculptures, some Rococo-inspired small works on paper and a series of paintings focusing on the theme of spaces. Karoliina claims her research focusing on the Rococo age to be personal and shallow; what interests and excites her is the arrogant, almost brash attitude that describes the era. The attitude is something she wishes she could also find in her own work, especially in her own relationship with her paintings. She would like to be less scared of her own paintings, bolder in her movements towards them. There has been something blocking her relationship with her work which needs to be now boldly pushed away.
During the second half of her residency, Karoliina is looking forward to having the time not only to participate in more HIAP activities, but also to stroll around Suomenlinna more, giving herself a better opportunity to gain from the unique surroundings. It is a bizarre experience, working on the island for a whole year. It is almost like one lives in two realities; the reality of the island, and the reality of the mainland. The reality of the island starts slowly kicking in already on the ferry, to fully embrace the visitor upon arriving. It is a special feeling and a very special place. To fully experience the uniqueness and also in order to open herself to change, Karoliina has decided to embrace the bizarre and the awkward.
Currently Karoliina is making a new body of work, which will be partly exhibited in May 2019 at Galerie Anhava, Helsinki. She is focusing on these paintings, yet she feels the need to think of her working process as a continuum, not as separate projects. Each exhibition is a waypoint. Perseverance in relation to artistic work sometimes means focusing beyond these waypoints, taking the time to read, write, talk to people and update ideas. “Do these themes still interest me?” Karoliina asks. “Do I still believe in this?”
In June, Karoliina is hoping to have the time to calmly focus even more on reflecting, gathering her thoughts, and asking herself these questions. She is not yet sure what the answers are, but Suomenlinna will be the perfect place to figure them out.
AA: Dear Karoliina, can you tell us a bit more about the subjects of your recent paintings?
KH: Yes, of course, nice of you to ask! These past months I have been basically working with three broad themes, with paintings both on paper and on canvas: the erotic or suggestive rococo-imagery, free geometrical studies and the theme of places. All of these themes are very broad, especially the places. I tend to let myself move freely and spontaneously with different subject-matters and “genres”- for an exhibition, for example, I like to bring in all the material from a specific time of working and build new narratives and concepts by arranging them in a specific way or choosing to include or leave out certain elements. Installing the works is an essential part of the process that figures itself out whilst doing it. As I don’t really plan the works beforehand, I also tend to understand some themes and subjects after a bit of time…
AA: What has inspired you recently?
KH: I just found an amazing book on “knots” from the Hagelstam Anktikvariat in Helsinki yesterday, I find it super inspiring! The idea of knots is fascinating!
AA: Who are your favourite artists, visual or other?
KH: I try to look for and follow as many different visual artists, contemporary and older, as possible. It varies which artists or works I might be “digging” at a specific moment, but the first names to come to my mind now are Jockum Nordström, Sophie Von Hellerman, Charlie Billingham, Jean-Baptiste Chardin and Pierre Bonnard! I read as much as I can (and have found the ferry ride a wonderful moment to read) and the last titles I’ve read and found inspiring are Frankenstein by Shelley, L’Amant by Duras and A Bigger Message by Hockney.