By Juha-Heikki Tihinen
This text is an interview, and I don’t like doing interviews, not one bit. Why have I agreed to do one, then? It has something to do with how Jani Leinonen (1978) and Riiko Sakkinen (1976) deal with people. They have a way of making people do surprising things for them, and surprising people do things for them. The interview takes place in Leinonen, who I’ll henceforth refer to as Jani, and Riiko’s studio. A former shop has served as a gallery space for Jani and his associate for a year now. Now these two prepare an exhibition in this large space, where a great number of assorted people appear during this interview. They include Riiko’s daughter and mother, Jani and Riiko’s ex-professor, and friends and acquaintances.
The art critic Jonni Roos has described Riiko and Jani’s collaborative work with the term “YYA-treaty”, which evokes positive associations in their minds. Previous collaborations include a series of articles (2002–2003) in (the Finnish art magazine) Taide and joint exhibitions in the Kluuvi gallery (2002), Test Site in Austin and the Bower in San Antonio (2004).The collaborative exhibition presented in the Amos Anderson Art Museum is, according to the artists, basically about how two corporations have a common brand. On the other hand, there are similarities to the way McDonalds operates: the head office dictates the standards and the entrepreneur accommodates them to regional tastes. This show contains standards set by both artists, such as Jani’s printed canvases and Riiko’s encyclopaedia. Both work on the other’s pieces and apply each other’s techniques, so the nature of the work really is collaborative. According to the artists this means that artistic differences have been put aside for the duration of this exhibition. Riiko’s artistic standard demands that his art deals with the world and life and does not, for instance, exclusively examine itself.
Andy Warhol has stated that there is no need for you to invent anything yourself, and both artists find this idea superb. Warhol’s statement is of course meant to provoke, and make people react. Jani and Riiko sometimes apply the technique of good cop (Jani) vs. bad cop (Riiko). At times the subject can feel a tad confused as the artists pummel along in an at times over-the-top warholian performance. This performance is made believable partly due to the gaps that appear, and that allow the “real” Jani and Riiko to emerge, further underlining the division between the “self” and the “role”.
Jani (artist, 31 years old)
Riiko (artist, 32 years old)
Juha-Heikki (art historian, 36 years old)
Henry Wuorila-Stenberg (artist, ex-professor to both Jani and Riiko, 60 years old)
Eero-Pekka Rislakki (editor, publisher and curator, 52 years old)
Riiko’s daughter (3 ½ years old)
”In a perfect world there would be no need for art.”
Riiko: People need to be made to throw up.
Jani: At times we are so dumbfounded that all we can do is giggle at people’s reactions.
Riiko: Their initial reaction is laughter, and then they start to cry.
Riiko: The essence of art is in the attitude.
Jani: We don’t do performance.
Riiko: On the other hand, the nature of the artist emerges. The artist is separate from the private person. An artistic strategy can vary considerably from the ideas of the private person.
Riiko: I was still enthusiastic about the art world during my student days. Now I’m not interested. I certainly do not use it in my work, not consciously, at least. I also usually reject an idea if it refers to art too much. I am a realistic artist. I am a political artist, because my works say something about the world. Jani, in turn, is Finland’s most loved artist.
Jani: To us, referential art is an abstract and elitist form of decorativeness, and should be avoided.
Riiko: Say no to populism! If I remember correctly, Santiago Serra has stated that art is a weapon that targets the proprietary classes.
Jani: Riiko is an elitist, I’m a populist.
Jani: Art is not a Coca-Cola bottle, because its value increases in relation to a certain amount of publicity. A bottle costs one euro and is sold to millions of people, whereas an artwork is unique and it can cost a million and can be bought by one person.
Riiko: It is possible to make a name for yourself in the art world without talent or too much effort.
Jani: Art is a nice job.
Riiko: Why don’t you commentate or participate in any way in our discussion, Juha-Heikki?
Juha-Heikki: You commissioned me to write an interview, which I don’t usually do, but I agreed. If you wanted a discussion, then you should have commissioned one.
“(The gallerist) Krista Mikkola baked us a cake.”
Jani: When I first saw Riiko in school, he was really bohemian and superskinny. I hated him.
Riiko: Jani was just another jock off the bus…
Henry Wuorila-Stenberg: Riiko and Jani studied at a good time, because the school had resources and the Department of Painting was the most liberal. Their approach hasn’t changed a great deal, mostly because both were very aware of the governing rules of the art world from a very early stage. Riiko is a craftsman and a traditional painter.
Jani: I’d love to be a painter, but I’m not.
Henry Wuorila-Stenberg: Jani has the money, Riiko does the work and Jani creates the scene…
Riiko: When we graduated, Henry said to us: “Isn’t it great that you graduated; now we can be colleagues.”
Riiko: My parents were cultural communists and they placed Picasso postcards at crawling level as I was learning to walk. Jani comes from a working class background, his father is a policeman and his mother is a nurse. If my parents went to a demonstration against the U.S.A, Jani’s father would beat them with a nightstick and then his mother would patch them up.
Riiko’s Mother: Riiko was five years old when we took him to a Sam Vanni exhibition, and already then he understood that Vanni’s paintings were three dimensional spaces, which some people never understand.
Jani: We are friends, but every time that we work together…
Riiko: … we think that this is the last time. We have completely different ways of working.
Jani: Riiko prepares everything meticulously and on schedule.
Riiko: Jani has a talent for working fast, he is some kind of de Kooning-superman of painting. He never loses his nerves or gets stressed about things. The best thing about this collaborative work is that we can envision things together and the pace of working gets faster.
“We’re not envious of anything the other one is or has”
Riiko: If I’m not rich and famous in ten years, I’ll start doing something else. I either want to be an artist 100 per cent or then go work in McDonald’s.
Jani: I have no definite plans for the next ten years, but if I’m doing the Venice Biennale now, then the Documenta would be nice progression. And two kids and a wife are also on the cards. I’ll also need two apartments, one in Helsinki and one elsewhere. For me to able to work in both addresses I’ll need to have the same books in both. And I also have a dream that copies will be made in Schenzhen of a piece of mine that was stolen from a museum… And hopefully a whole school of bootleg painting will emerge.
Riiko and Jani: Our own perfume would also be pretty cool.
Riiko: If Jani would be going through a rough patch, I’d hire him as my assistant.
Jani: I hate Duchamp these days . Modernism is a tough one as well, because in it art is simultaneously universal and self-referential.
Jani and Riiko: We advocate the kind of Socialism where everyone has an expensive car and silicone breasts.
Jani: (Finance Minister Jyrki) Katainen recently said that caring cannot be delegated to the state. That is a poetic expression, which in reality means the destruction of the welfare state. During the previous elections the communists wanted me to run as a candidate and the conservatives asked if wanted to donate works to be sold to fund their campaign.
Jani: My art is not political, at least not in a party political sense.
Riiko: What is political art, really? Is it something along the lines of what Hans Haacke does, when he uncovers conspiracies? Political art doesn’t participate in change, it triggers it.
Henry Wuorila-Stenberg: There are no political alternatives in Finland
Jani: The artist suggests and provokes. In an ideal situation, he has no responsibility. He doesn’t have to stand for what he says and he doesn’t have to think about the consequences. In addition, you can react fast with art. Political art doesn’t serve anything, except through negation. Politics is a tool.
Riiko: When I get enough money, I’ll start my own liberation army, which will operate internationally and be a deployable in an instant. It would go where I send it and clear out any problems.
Jani: Riiko’s daughter wants to be an artist when she grows up, don’t you?
Riiko (to his daughter): Do you want to be an artist?
Riiko’s daughter: YES!
“Goya is pretty sweet”
Eero-Pekka Rislakki: Jani and Riiko will go far, certainly as far as Porvoo (Translator’s note: 20 miles east of Helsinki, Porvoo is not very far geographically, but then again, it is a upper middle-class heaven of money and wealth, so…). I’ve seen some things in my time and I know which horses to bet on. It is a sad thing to watch great works pass through my hands due to a chronic lack of funds, but I’m lucky to get hand-outs. What I find great about Jani and Riiko is open theft. The other has an idea and the other executes it. Picasso comes in third.
Jani ja Riiko: We’re both fans of Robbie Williams, but we also like the Beastie Boys. We sometimes ponder which we’d rather be. At one point, Jani was interested in Slavoj Žižek but then he couldn’t bother with reading the texts, so that was that.
Epilogue, or what can be said about all this?
The question of what it is that these two partners actually do is at the centre of their art. Is the essence of their art in the attitude, or does it have to do with objects produced? In the Amos exhibition a series of bootleg sneakers, pimped up by the artists, will be on display. The fact that these sneakers are bootleg copies is a political message in itself, which directly links with the name of the exhibition “Towards a free world”. The market economy defines itself through its freedom.
Jani and Riiko’s collaborative work also shows how the artists work in an area between the art world and the greater public, demonstrated for instance by Jani’s idea of hiring a marketing agency to further his career, or Riiko’s past crime of masquerading as the Danish artist Tal R. These examples show how artistic and societal activity bleeds into one another, and shows how art exists in relation to its community.
The protagonists of this exhibition are figures that have been collected by Jani and Riiko. They include cute Hello Kitty -figures, and pornographic imagery. Their basis is often polemic, because the relation between consuming and childhood is culturally charged, as is the world of porn. The pornographic images Jani has chosen to use are the most banal and worn.
Riiko presents us with his Enclyclopaedia, in which his visual world is ever present. The piece has been executed as a video installation, and thus brings another element into the pair’s artistic vocabulary. Jani, for one, has systematically studied the multiplicity of the work of art, whether it be in the context of the Art Supermarket or art pimping, whereas Riiko has meticulously presented mostly paintings and drawings. On the other hand, Riiko’s statement that he ‘doesn’t do performance’ has to be taken with a grain of salt, as many of his actions are comments on the art world.
The most overtly political message in this exhibition has to do with the window text banners. They proclaim in three languages how you can walk up to the till and ask how to make a lot of money without working. The dream of effortless riches lives on in all lotteries and in the rituals that makes people gather round TV sets to watch balls circle around. The way that Jani and Riiko present it, wealth seems to be simultaneously a sign of success and a critique of consumerist culture.
Jani and Riiko’s free world shows us rather accurately in what a personal way these artists work. They provide us with a chance to peek within the capitalist reality of which they’ve created their own version. Riiko and Jani’s capitalist world is an example of how artists create complete realities. Their world is by nature postmodern, because it doesn’t clearly reveal if the artists are serious or if whether this is a parody.
The free world appears in a deliberately provocative form. The artists seem to adhere to the notion that the spectator is responsible of what he interprets. In this, Jani and Riiko are distant relatives of the French realist painter Gustave Courbet, whose artistic modus operandi was to portray only what he saw. Jani and Riiko have created a world into which the spectator can enter, either to admire or be terrified.
Juha-Heikki Tihinen is an art critic based in Helsinki.
Originally published in "Jani and Riiko's Free World" exhibition catalog, Amos Anderson Art Museum, Helsinki, 2009.