ABOUT THE DIRECTIONS OF THE GAZE
A long time ago I pursued university studies in anthropology. I never graduated but did learn something quite insightful: the more you study about others, the better you understand your own selfhood. This is the method artists in western countries have used since way back when, some by collecting African masks, and others by travelling to Tahiti or exploring the Caucasus Mountains. Their activities, however, have been characterized by a lack of any kind of critical judgment. Thus, the function of exotic cultures has primarily been to provide the artist with visual inspiration. In his diaries, Paul Klee (1879-1940), for example, writes that he did not understand the significance of light before visiting Africa.
The graphic artist Anita Jensen (born in Finland, 1957) has for years studied the ways cultural contacts and encounters affect the direction and meaning of the viewer’s gaze. For more than fifteen years she has travelled to Japan for extended visits. The material for her art works consists of old photographs and old scientific books that introduce different ways of classifying human bodies. Jensen combines these images with other photographic material, adding a touch of surrealism to her works. She likes to deal with “big narratives,” myths, and systems of thought and knowledge; yet, instead of illustrating these ideas, she scrutinizes them with a critical eye. Her curiosity focuses on the ways people have tried to label, categorize, organize and evaluate phenomena in an attempt to gain power and control over the world around them.
However, Jensen’s works do not represent any form of straightforward postcolonial criticism. Her surrealistic aesthetics, the meaning of which always remains slightly inscrutable, evolve during the process of deliberating upon and working on the images. There is something dream-like about her art, or perhaps something strangely beautiful that arises from the obscure emotional state of being neither asleep nor fully awake. The images are not pretty; rather, they evoke something bizarre, even sinister.
Jensen’s art works seem to capture something typically Japanese. I have visited Japan only once, but what I still most vividly remember was the extreme orderliness on the surface conflicting with the forces of chaos underneath. This stark conflict seemed to mark everybody brought up in Japanese culture to the extent of appearing, to western sensitivity, not quite healthy. So, too, Jensen’s works appear superbly delicate and beautiful, partly due to her virtuoso technical skill, yet at the same time they produce ominous afterimages, which make a powerful imprint on the viewer’s consciousness, making the experience of looking hardly entertaining or pleasing.
While studying representational traditions, Jensen not only highlights “innocent” art-historical facts, but she wants to pay attention to the way we tend to construct our image of the world and of various unknown “others,” otherness also referring to the images of women constructed by men. Thus, the artist, idealistically perhaps, participates in the ongoing discourse on “reality” through a dialectic of constructing and deconstructing the representations of it. Jensen believes that “poetry and imagination could function as a liberating force against the narrow constraints of reason.” If the viewer has the courage to respond to subtle stirrings from inside, Jensen’s art may well succeed in this mission.
By Otso Kantokorpi, “Uusi Suomi” 2008. Trans. Asta Kuusinen.