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On The Consumerist Realism Of Riiko Sakkinen

On the consumerist realism of Riiko Sakkinen

By Julio César Abad Vidal

Even from the title of his current show, Escribid a Papá Noel y Pedid Libertad (Write to Santa Claus and Ask for Freedom,) Riiko Sakkinen announces the mischievous and sharp irony that distinguishes his work and his intentions. A manipulator of iconic and verbal landmarks in advertising and package designs of a wide range of products, Sakkinen calls into question our dilapidating society with a sardonic sense of humour.

Sakkinen’s iconographic repertoire is colossal, not in vain his starting point for each of his drawings is always the motifs that appear on the packaging of an extraordinary number of products, and particularly, food products, coming from a wide variety of landscapes. However, the appropriation that Sakkinen submits his models to is not limited to a crude visual reproduction, but it is accompanied by texts and modifications in the attitudes of the figures represented on the packaging or in the scenes they are represented in. Likewise, his works frequently contain written elements that contribute to a reading directed towards social criticism, for which he makes use of a variety of information sources, such as what he takes from images of manifestations he sees on television (some of which are not exempt from the dementia of this world of ours,) advertising campaigns that people are subjected to and personal ads in newspapers, the latter being according to Sakkinen a kind of diagnosis of society as regards to the fickleness of the sexual services offered there.

Sakkinen defines himself as a realist artist. And he does so as if asking permission or as if he were expecting to be told off after doing some mischief. However, this term is entirely applicable to the contemplation and analysis of his works. Realism cannot be unequivocally defined as a stylistic procedure that implies the artist’s search for greater representational fidelity. This is not precisely what the grotesque nature of Sakkinen’s depictions is aiming for—although the iconographic elements he uses are figurative, they are unnatural. A glance at his motifs, largely taken from the wrappers of food products, and we encounter a proliferation of humanised animals (which are so common in children’s foods packaging) and even humanoids that Sakkinen creates by giving legs, arms and heads to representations of products such as a bowl of instant noodles. To then understand the application of this term to the work of Sakkinen it should suffice to remember that since the very concept of Realism was popularised to refer particularly to the analysis of the works of Gustave Courvet (Du Réalisme is what he called his Paris exhibition of 1855; Champfleury would publish a monograph two years later), the word has constituted an aesthetic imperative directed towards reflecting on the very society in which it is practiced and is, consequently, an instrument of affirmation of the public value of art. Realism supposes, all in all, the vocation of provoking in the centre of an artistic or literary piece an understanding of the society in which the author creates. From this point of view and by manipulating consumer products, Sakkinen offers a view of contemporary society which is as sharp as it is harsh.

From a technical point of view, Sakkinen’s main support medium is DIN A4 paper, although he also paints on medium or large format paper and canvases (for such occasions he has often formed artistic duos, for example with Jani Leinonen or Judas Arrieta.) The fundamental element that allows Sakkinen a critical stance in his work is the presence of written word in his works, particularly English. This presence of writing has exclusively occupied an entire series of works, recently exhibited in his home town, that is circumscribed solely to the creation of lists on paper, free of any pictorial representation. Lists that are presented as confessions of the personal tastes of the artist, but that are not to be interpreted as literal confessions as they are charged with sarcasm.

Everything seems to have a place in his peculiar cataloguing. In this subtle representation of the state of the world, Sakkinen offers a grotesque mirror of the atrocity of militarism, or the poverty of an incomprehensible world. In one of his works on large scale paper included in the exhibition, Sakkinen has created a list of My Favorite Genocides, that accompanies an enormous red stain identified as ketchup—a recurring element in his work—thus establishing distance from the blood but still evoking its presence in the mind of the spectator.

Sakkinen has begun a sound series of his lists on vertical Chinese rolls that serve as calligraphy frames. His lists refer exclusively in these cases to his experiences during his two-month stay in Beijing in 2009, and up until now they refer to the military vehicles that participated in a parade (My Favorite Parade,) to the situation of China’s immersion in Capitalism with its enormous shopping centres or banks (My Favorite Shopping Malls and My Favorite Banks) and, as it happens every time sex appears in his work, to onanism and prostitution (Women I Think About When I Masturbate in Beijing and My Escort Girls in the People’s Republic), that is, pleasure in solitude or the commercialisation of sexual pleasure. In this sense, we might remember that “Riiko Sakkinen Image Club” is the subheading of the present exhibition, and of the corresponding publication, “image club”(imçjikurabu) being the designation of a sort of thematic outlet of Japanese sexual commerce. As with his residency in China, of which we have already spoken, Sakkinen obtained in 2007 a residency in a workshop in Tokyo, which also lasted two months. Since then there are frequent quotes from Japanese food products or some icons of Japanese culture, particularly those of the kawaii aesthetics (or the aesthetics of “the cute,”) such as the anthropomorphic female kitten Hello Kitty (Harô Kiti,) whose image is inserted in Sakkinen’s work in much less innocent representations. Thus, one of the large format works on paper of the present exhibition is a list of My Favorite Prostitutes in London, which alongside the telephone numbers and sexual services they offer, includes a recycled woman on a table receiving the lashings of a whip on her naked buttocks. For the occasion, Sakkinen has appropriated a publicity icon of London prostitution that he had already used in 2006 in one of his works on DIN A4, Bizcochos Mexicanos and much more.

For his works, the artist often uses paper he takes from hotel rooms where he has stayed. In the majority of cases, Sakkinen uses this paper as support medium for his work back in the studio; he rarely paints on site because he does not usually travel with his painting supplies. However, the representation often evokes the place of his trip. This is what happens on the paper whose header denotes it was taken from a Beijing hotel where he stayed during the 798 Beijing Biennale 2009, in which he participated, and that he remembers as the most luxurious hotel he has ever visited. The upper part reproduces the humanised head of a pig that shows symptoms of intoxication and serves as announcement for some Chinese karaoke bars. Under the figure is one of Sakkinen’s most poignant phrases: My Ideology is as Red as My Ferrari. With an acrylic pigment also in red that gives volume to the letters, the phrase diagnoses in its aphoristic style the cynicism of those who make their fragmented social conscience the make-up with which they hide their hypocritical collaborationism.

The advertisement slogans can be appropriated to deviate their sense even if they serve in the same way as an intentional message for a potential consumer. This happens more clearly with the use of the letters of the commercial brand Chupa Chups, whose design is the work of a great propagandist, Salvador Dalí, to write under the first two syllables, “chupa” and adding an ‘r’ to denote the infinitive of an action,) the price of “20 euros.” Instead of a lollypop, the advertisement offers a service where a humorous relationship is established in the similarities and differences with the merchandise originally advertised.

Interestingly, the majority of wrappers that Sakkinen makes use of come from processed food products. Materials he collects but whose contents, as it happens with certain products destined to child consumers, he throws in the bin for considering them harmful. Perhaps this fixation is due to the fact that Sakkinen is a keen chef. In fact, one of the most loved projects is having obtained permission to temporarily direct a restaurant in Helsinki during the celebration of its World Capital of Design in 2012, when Sakkinen will prepare some dishes of his own creation. Dishes that do not attempt to please taste buds (contrary to the ones he cooks at home,) but that aim for a surprising and memorable effect. Dishes that, citing his own words, are “poisonous and insalubrious.” If ugliness in art can be powerful, asks Sakkinen, why does new cuisine continue to aim for exquisite taste to please the clients at these luxury venues?

However, the reason why he mainly refers to processed food products lies behind something else that informs Sakkinen’s imaginary: the ascertainment of the hypocrisy in approaching the ‘foreign’ through the consumption of exotic products of the same countries whose citizens are otherwise treated in a xenophobic way, as it reads in a 2008 piece by Sakkinen on DIN A4 that imitates the packaging of a well-known brand of Mexican tacos, I Love Mexican Food but I Hate Mexican Immigrants. The same happens with sexual commerce, that often makes the exotic nature of the prostitute’s nationality their main selling point, and thus in the works on this theme produced by Sakkinen there is a proliferation of mentions to the Latino, Asian and African, whether as a globalising term or specifying names of countries of these geographies.

Finally, consumer products also serve Sakkinen in a group of works defined as ready-made. The iconic power of some companies has reached such a level that some of them accept personalisation by commission of their products’ labels or packaging. Sakkinen has managed to make these companies themselves be the authors of messages charged with violent and scandalous connotations (and this achievement lies in having undermined them, perhaps due to the negligence of the responsible staff, because their policies reject the use of rude words or insults.) Mustard gas is read on a label of a bottle of tomato ketchup of the company Heinz (ketchup and mustard together are a common condiment for fast food products, but the mustard Sakkinen is alluding to is evidently another) or has managed to personalise a bottle of Moët & Chandon with the name Molotov, written with incrustations of Swarovski crystals. The allusion to a Molotov cocktail on the surface of a personalised luxury product, (and by commission of the company, with advance payment for the artist,) in an equally expensive way, instantly evokes an artefact charged with fury in a world saturated to death in advertisements that demand the consumption of inane merchandise that shamelessly enrich the heads of multinational corporations.

As in his intervention on the Champaign bottle, the collection of Sakkinen’s work uses humour as a form of distancing that consists in the deviation of a quote from a product or service with the purpose of denouncing the order of injustice in which its offer is based. In this way Sakkinen proceeds through his graphic gestures to the criticism of a horrifying society.

Julio César Abad Vidal is a Bachelor in Art History and PhD in Philosophy (specialising in Aesthetics and Art Theory) with a dissertation on "Appropriation in contemporary Spanish painting".

Originally published in the catalog "Riiko Sakkinen Image Club", 2010.