Jukka Korkeila On The Finnish Art Scene And The Relationship Between Art and Life

By Kitty Jackson - Monday, May 18, 2020
Jukka Korkeila On The Finnish Art Scene And The Relationship Between Art and Life

Finnish artist Jukka Korkeila uses installation, drawing, and most commonly painting to convey his unique perspective on a fragile but harsh world. In 1999 he was named Young Artist of the Year in Finland he took part in the Prague Biennale in 2003 and 2007 as well as the Sao Paulo Art Biennale in 2004. He has exhibited in major galleries and exhibitions around the world.

Image: "Why do I get a hard-on when I see a black hole" 2019, 201x127cm


Finnish artist Jukka Korkeila uses installation, drawing, and most commonly painting to convey his unique perspective on a fragile but harsh world. In 1999 he was named Young Artist of the Year in Finland he took part in the Prague Biennale in 2003 and 2007 as well as the Sao Paulo Art Biennale in 2004. He has exhibited in major galleries and exhibitions around the world.

Here, Korkeila tells us a about his pathway into painting and the many events that have inspired his work and life. 

ArtDependence (AD): Can you tell us a bit about the Finnish contemporary artscene and your role within it?

Jukka Korkeila (JK): Finnish culture itself is old, but the idea of Finnish art is pretty young compared to somewhere like BeNeLux. The first easel paintings painted in Finland were military portraits, that were painted in the Suomenlinna (Sveaborgin Swedish) military fortress towards the end of 18th century,during the time when Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom. Suomenlinna is located on an island in front of Helsinki, which is also the current status of Finland within the EU too. We are surrounded by water and Russia. I could also say, that I am partly Russian, since my grandfather was born in Russia, when Finland was part of Russia before it became independent in 1917. We are between the east and the west and this can be sensed in Finnish contemporary art too. One important feature of Finnish art is that we have not completely lost our connection to nature, like what has happened in Central European countries, where everything in nature is thoroughly cultivated, touched by the human hand. We still have highly original artists like Ilkka-JuhaniTakalo-Eskola (b. 1937), who is literally diving into nature with his Swamp Academy and After Sauna Art.Takalo-Eskola was one of my teachers at the Academy of Fine Arts along with Henry Wuorila-Stenberg (b. 1949), who is a spiritual painter and my mentor and friend for many years.

Before globalization kick-started everything, the advantages of Finland were the cultural differences to other cultures and countries, now the differences are rapidly disappearing into the jaws of globalization and digitalization. Finland is one of those small countries that is obsessively concerned with what other countries think of them. The disappearance of our unique cultural features is well advanced and this is being celebrated by the official cultural export institutions in Finland as victories in the internationalization of Finnish visual arts. Finland is protected largely, because Finnish art has not been corrupted by money. The art market is very thin in Finland: there are very few collectors and museums have very limited funds for buying art. I could also say Finland lacks the tradition of collecting art. For many artists in Finland all this means that you have to have a burning passion for making art instead of trying to succeed and make it commercially. For some uncompromising artists this also means a conscious invitation to material poverty.

Finnish art critic and artist Erkki Pirtola once called me an insider-outsider, which I find to be a very accurate description of my position within the Finnish art scene in many ways. This was accidentally repeated in 2018 at the press conference at the Luc Tuymans SANGUINE, BLOEDROOD, Luc Tuymans exhibition at M HKA. When Tuymans was talking to the press about my works, he called me ”an underground artist”, which I don´t mind at all, since underground is a good place to grow and develop. I did get recognition for my work at the end of 2019 when I was awarded the state prize for the visual arts in Finland. The last time a painter got the prize was in 2008. My work has also been fully funded by Finland for the last 11 years. This kind of funding is one of the reasons for the strength of the contemporary Finnish art scene. The Finnish Arts Promotion Centre of Finland is a good example.

AD: You studied architecture. What was it that led you to become an artist?

JK: During my high school days I happened to see two simultaneous and exceptional exhibitions in the Tampere museum of contemporary art and in the Sara Hildén art museum, both in Tampere. In 1986 I saw Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol exhibitions, which planted the love of contemporary art in me. In 1988, when I was starting my studies, I did not really know what I wanted to do with my life.

I applied to study architecture at the Polytechnic university of Helsinki and I was accepted. The first two years of the studies were more or less general studies about visualising and planning, which later turned out be useful while I was applying painterly notions to space. For me, architecture was the door to painting, because there for the first time I really painted, with acrylics. We had nude painting classes in a classical sense and something clicked there, while I was painting. I slowly started realizing that maybe this was the thing that I wanted to do with my life. I had a slow drift towards painting and fine arts that took about four years, all while I was still studying architecture and design. Because I started dealing with spaces first, this became an integral part of my work before painting. Villu Jaanisoo, an Estonian sculptor friend said of my work that even though I am using photographic material with my paintings, I still make them look three dimensional. At a certain point, while I was studying architecture, I came to realize that the work of an architect consists of huge artistic compromises, largely because of the financial pressures and ever expanding building codes. Also, I was not so interested in the functionality of the buildings, but the ideas and visuals of the buildings themselves. In a housing planning exercise I planed an apartment with an open toilet in the hallway, where you would be entering the apartment. It was an absolute no-go for the architecture teacher and I got reprimanded for submitting a plan of that kind. If I would ever have been able to realize a building, it would have been visually striking!


Juke Korkeila and below was a fiery lake, 30 x 24 cm, oil on canvas 2011


During the years of my studies I finally came to realize, that I had to do art. I felt that I had no other choice available to me. In 1997, after the last year at the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki (our Finnish art University), I was in a situation where I really had nothing to loose: I only had my talent and very little money in my pocket. Luckily I was still able to continue with the ERASMUS-exchange program. So, I left for Berlin to HaDeKa (Hochschule der Künste Berlin), where I landed in the class of German expressionist painter Bernd Koberling. I did not see him much during my exchange period of 1997-98 and I wasn´t much involved in his teaching, but this was my ticket to Berlin. Through some existing connections of mine I was lucky enough to get a solo show in a substantial Berlin gallery, Galerie Gebauer, in September and October 1998. At that time the gallery was located in Torstrasse in Mitte, on the eastside of Berlin. There I also met Luc Tuymans for the second time, when he was also showing his Architect-exhibition in the same gallery. During 1999 I was also awarded the Young Artist of the Year -prize in Finland, together with two other Finnish painters from my class from the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki: Janne Kaitalaand Janne Räisänen. So, I had a pole position to the world of art after my studies.

AD: You paint your male figures in a way that is, lets say, oversized. Is it meant to be humorous, or is it some kind of criticism?

JK: I could start with arguments provided by the by the National Council for the Visual Arts: ”The language of Korkeila’s paintings is personal. In his works, he explores the familiar notions of beauty and norms, the central themes being tolerance, acceptance and pluralism. In his recent works, Korkeila creates symbolism with images of recognisable Catholic popes and world political leaders. These works are full of worldviews, gender identities and political themes, yet the overriding impression is of gentleness and humor. ”There is always humour in my work. This is a kind of family heritage, because my parents worked a big part of their lives in the local mental hospital in my birth town Hämeenlinna and they used their own idiosyncratic humour as a kind of vehicle for dealing with difficult matters in a constructive manner.

But a different kind of male body is in crisis here despite the humour,because my work also displays an example of a body, that has been liberated from the norm, the bodily ideals, which are still hailed for example by the worlds of advertising and fashion. Paradoxically the body has chosen to become fat. Now you would have to call this body positivity or fat acceptance, which are conceptsthat I did not even know existed during those pre-internet days when I was starting up alone with this theme and topic in 1995. The triggering event that made me wake up and come out with my larger than life male figures was the suicide of my preadolescent crush, Pekka, who was the first boy I was very fond of. Pekka remained in the military after the compulsory military service in Finland and worked as a military trainer. Until the end of the 1990´s, Finland was very homophobic and this must have been one of the reasons why he ended up in serious trouble with his homosexual identity within the military and Finnish society. Pekka ended up shooting himself after confessing openly about his sexuality. After this heart-breaking event I knew I had to come out with my work.

My early work in particular deals with the male gaze, especially the male gaze within the gay community, where there was no place for larger men in the 1990´s. Here is my artistic coming out-painting from 1995: Toivo, which means hope and is alsoa Finnish man´s name. It is often said that an artist possesses just one idea. Maybe this is mine, my idée fixe, a bit like Richard Hambleton´sidea of painting his shadow figures?


Jukka Korkeila, Toivo 1995, 165 x 460 cm, oil on canvas


I also had another watershed in my life that divided my timeline in two. I lost my long time partner Mikko Pursiainen to suicide at the end of May 2011. We were together for 19 years, since 1992 when I was this sweet and innocent 23 year old art student. Coming out of this personal catastrophe took me almost five years and it opened up my dormant spiritual side. When Mikko left this earthly plane I felt like the time started looping, running backwards. My whole perspective on time became different within the context of eternity. My friend Henry Wuorila-Stenberg was able to guide me towards the eastern orthodoxy, which was, and still is, one of my guiding lights. I also came to understand that love does not die, even when the physical body is gone. I was able to get out of this devastating sorrow with painting, but there was only one condition: I could only paint him, my late partner Mikko. For about four years I could not stop painting him and I had no other choice. I made a remembrance exhibition for him in 2014 titled In Exile – I look for the life of the world to come. I did this without explaining the circumstances publicly at the time, only those closest to me knew the full story. Since then, I have also been dealing with spiritual ideas in my work, and along with my previous body of work, that will follow me into the future.

The year 2015 turned another page in my life, when I met German actor and director Markus Karger and I shifted the focus of my life to Oberhessen, where we now live most of the time. Markus’ main character is called Frau Kraft aus Stockholm and the funny thing is that I was not looking for another drag queen nor a female impersonator in my life, but I found one, the second one in the row, because my previous partner Mikko was also a drag queen. Like I was painting Mikko, I also started painting Markus and I have already showed a number of paintings based on his personal and professional characters. Even though we are coming from different artistic disciplines, we still have artistic common ground where we can operate, discuss and interact together. For example, in 2019 we organized IN SITU, a big international show with over 35 artists from 15 different European countries in the old factory buildings in Oberhessen. The not so funny thing was, that we and the exhibition got attacked by the local Nazis. They mobilized a nation wide Facebook-shit storm against us with the German far right and animal rights supporters. We and the exhibition ended up on German and French tabloids and TV, which was triggered by a single photo by Finnish photographer Kenneth Bamberg, which was initially placed on our Facebook and Instagram-pages. These far right supporters regard us, the visual artists, as their enemies. Nevertheless we are determined to pursue with the second edition of IN SITU for the summer of 2021.

AD: How is the current pandemic affecting your work?

JK: Well, I have had a bunch of shows postponed. So, this is a good time for work even though my energy levels are not the same as they used to be before the corona-crisis broke out. I can feel the weight of the world more clearly now. I had to reduce traveling to minimum. I have been peddling between our three homes in Helsinki, Berlin and Glauburg-Stockheim for some years now. Now I am stuck in Glauburg-Stockheim in the beautiful Hessen, the Tuscany of Germany, where I have my main studio, which is not so bad at all. I can still bicycle to my studio five days a week and continue my practice of painting as before. I have done some teaching via Skype, phone and e-mail, which is a poor substitute for real interaction, but it works well enough. Especially with painting, digital images can be very deceiving.

I have had so many experiences with digital images of art works that I have first seen on-line and then live in the actual exhibition. Seeing the actual physical art works has sometimes turned my opinions to the opposite opinions that I had from the initial digital experience. I can’t stress strongly enough that art, and especially paintings, should still be seen live. In general, people do not understand the illusory quality of photography as a medium these days, but they perceive it as a reality. Even though we are entering into a time which is becoming increasingly visual, the ability to read and concentrate on paintings is deteriorating. To have a person sit and meditate with a painting for 10 minutes is already becoming impossible. For example the paintings of Raoul de Keyser take time to open up and you just can’t grasp them in 10 seconds. Perhaps this is not becoming so immediately evident in Belgium, where the tradition of painting is so strong and vibrant. I see Belgium as a secret centre and depositary of painting in Europe.


"Why do I get a hard-on when I see a black hole" 2019, 201x127cm


AD: What is your future schedule?

JK: There are some museum group shows coming up, for example in Kiasma (museum of contemporary art, Helsinki) and Turku art museum in Finland, but they are halted now, waiting to be opened and re-opened again, because of the corona crisis. There is also a museum group show in Germany postponed till next year together with the German artist group called Karoshi. Currently, I am also preparing for two solo shows for galleries in Malmö in April 2021 and in Helsinki in August 2022. There is a new fun-project coming up, a book titled Bad Reviews, which is supposed to be published soon by The Kitchen in New York and edited by Swedish artist Aleksandra Mir. I have had my fair share of bad reviews, especially during the early days of my career, which are now going to be republished with this book. So, it is going to be great fun, a collection of bad reviews with more than a hundred internationally known artists. Keep your eyes and ears open for this event! Apparently museums and galleries will be opening in Finland again on the 2nd of June and we can start enjoying works of art with certain restrictions. Before this, I shall take part in Helgi Þorgils Friðjónssons Corridor Gallery’s 40th anniversary exhibition in Reykjavik at the end of May.

Kitty Jackson has worked as an arts journalist and writer for more than 10 years. She began her career as an Editorial Assistant at WhatsOnStage.com before moving to IdeasTap to become Assistant Editor. After four years Kitty moved towards digital content and began working with leading PR firm PHA Media, helping them to establish a digital department before moving to iProspect, where she was embedded within the digital content team creating content for leading brands including The Body Shop, Thomas Cook and British Gas. Kitty is now excited to return to the world of arts journalism at ArtDependence.

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Anna Melnykova, "Palace of Labor (palats praci), architector I. Pretro, 1916", shot with analog Canon camera, 35 mm Fuji film in March 2022.

Anna Melnykova, "Palace of Labor (palats praci), architector I. Pretro, 1916", shot with analog Canon camera, 35 mm Fuji film in March 2022.


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