By James Casey
Some like it hot. An enigmatic emigré artist goes west.
No one ever said interviewing artists was easy, not least the artist himself. “A good artist disagrees always and is always wrong,” types Riiko Sakkinen. “It kinda explains everything.” Conducting said interview on Instant Messenger, separated by thousands of miles and several time zones, the artist punctuates the screen intermittently, abstract truism following abstract truism. “The world’s favourite cocktail is Molotov cocktail, popular also in Islamic countries.” Right then. Let’s rewind.
Riiko Sakkinen was raised in Helsinki and currently resides in a small village a few miles from Madrid. On why he crossed from the cold to the warm side of Europe, he replies, “Easy answer: My wife is Spanish.” That said, Sakkinen admits to having previously fallen for Spain after seeing every Almodovar film, twice, during a retrospective back home. “It was then easy to fall in love with a Spanish girl, too.”
Though he works in a variety of mediums, a large part of Sakkinen’s output consists of drawings on A4 paper. The content, while stemming from seemingly innocuous sources, makes a rich commentary on the insidiousness of corporate influence, globalization, nationalism and migration. For example, take his work The West Will Save The World. The drawing consists of the words “We Promise Milk & Ketchup The West Will Save The World” cheerily wrought above a blonde cartoon kid sheriff. As with many of his other works, the cutesy character has been lifted from the realm of fast food; in this case, the sheriff’s previous place of abode was a Milkybar chocolate wrapper. “I try to make you first laugh—then cry,” he explains.
“Do you know the cannibal mascots in some products?” he asks, then offers an explanatory observation. “Happy pigs eating sausages, it’s amazing… so much of the cute little piggies seems to take our attention away from the bad stuff—wage slavery, nationalism, et cetera.” Sakkinen figures Hello Kitty is the ecstasy of mascots, theorizing that the image of the kitty entirely overrides the given value of the content. He wryly notes, “In Japan, only Louis Vuitton can compete with Hello Kitty.” What makes Sakkinen’s work so effective is this co-option of corporate cheer, sardonically exposing the murky shadows lurking out back. “Tomato ketchup and mustard gas,” he types cryptically, making more sense by the minute. Where cultural theorist Paul Virilio speaks of a global civil war, Sakkinen’s take is more precise—it’s all about döner kebab versus Big Mac.
Again and unprompted, Sakkinen introduces another one of his self-described “food things,” the “Sudan Diet.” As he explains, “There are really funny names of diets; it’s like the “Jesus Saves Diet” or something like that.” He adds, “That’s of course very American, all these diets. Here, nobody does diets.” True or not, the actual national diet of Finland couldn’t be further removed from that of his adopted homeland—a fact not lost on Sakkinen’s father-in-law, who is currently preparing for his first visit to Finland. “He is afraid of what he can eat, he asks if there’s wine and that he can’t eat boiled potatoes—as they’re for animals only.” More succinctly put: “He wants to drink beer before lunch,” something entirely foreign in the old country. “My grandmother thinks that alcohol comes from the devil—she has never tasted it, and she’s a more or less normal 85-year-old bourgeois lady.” Sakkinen concedes that he has managed to export two Finnish customs to warmer climes—rye bread (eaten by his wife “with strawberry jam”) and drinking vodka during the family lunch, something they’ve apparently learnt to love.
Truly the confounded expatriate, Sakkinen explains his complex relationship with his former home. “In Spain, I say only good things about Finland, and in Finland I say only bad things about Finland.” For one, he describes Finland as a somewhat artificially created idea, brought into existence in the past century and shaped by its former colonial masters Sweden and Russia. “People accept anything imported, the imported is always better than our own thing,” he decries. Madrid’s energy is certainly his preference. “Artists in Finland, they’re so spoiled that if they don’t get 10,000 Euros they don’t move their ass. In Madrid people struggle and do things with their mala leche. It’s like the Soviet Union—everything comes from a higher level, and if you don’t have economic support, you stay home and you get money for staying home.”
Pausing to reflect, Sakkinen offers the concession that while he might not like Finland, he doesn’t really like anywhere else, either. Sporadic trips to Helsinki lead him back to the old haunts. “I don’t want to try anything new,” he types, adding that he only visits places where he can shake the waiter’s hand and kiss the waitresses, Spanish-style. In line with this merging of two differing cultures is Sakkinen’s “Gazpacho Finlandia” recipe, spontaneously offered up on screen.
“To prepare gazpacho: mix tomatoes (canned give better color, with the liquid), cucumber, onion, garlic, carrot, Spanish extra virgin olive oil, salt. Then add 2 cl of gazpacho to 1 cl Finlandia vodka, serve in a shot glass.”
Sakkinen has proven himself the king’s jester, or as he puts it, “a special figure whose role it is to express that which could not be said.” The screen flickers, a new message pops up. “I’ve heard that the most important businesses in the world are weapons, drugs and prostitution. I can’t believe it. I know people who don’t have guns, who don’t take drugs and I even know somebody who doesn’t like sex, but I don’t know anybody who doesn’t eat.” With statements like that, Sakkinen is readily proving his maxim wrong as some good artists can often have a habit of being right more often than they would like to admit.
James Casey is the editor of Swallow Magazine.
Originally published in Swallow Magazine - The Nordic Issue. New York, 2008.