By Richie Frieman
An artist truly changing the way we think
One of the best parts about PensEyeView.com is getting to meet people from all over the world. Today’s feature finds home in Cervera de los Montes, a tiny village in the province of Toledo, Spain. Nestled in the woods of this small town is artist, Riiko Sakkinen, whose humorous take on art and pop culture has quickly put him on the map. Sakkinen has put on several solo shows in Europe and the United States since 1996. His work has been displayed at numerous group shows around the world and is included in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Helsinki City Art Museum. His work has been called controversial, fascinating, genius and even hilarious… regardless you have to realize that Sakkinen is changing the way we think. His paintings show images of hamburgers, cocker spaniels, plastic polar bears, cocktails, to name a few, with sayings that make you realize how today’s advertisements can be interpreted in several different ways.
I have to say, I truly enjoyed getting to know Sakkinen; his work forces you to have an open mind about what exactly you look at on a daily basis. After you see his work, you’ll never look at a hamburger package, KFC and other pop culture favourites, the same ever again. Enjoy his XXQs.
XXQs: Riiko Sakkinen (The following interview took place on May 4, 2007)
PensEyeView.com (PEV): How and when did you first get involved in art?
Riiko Sakkinen (RS): When I was a crawling, my mother hung Picasso postcards on my eye level.
PEV: Was there a certain event or moment when you realized that art was going to be your career?
RS: When I was teenager, I wanted to change the world and be a guerrilla like Che Guevara. I entered the army when I was 18 to learn to fight but after three days I had to give back my AK-47 and I was sent back home. They thought I was insane. Maybe they were right. After this episode, I decided to be artist, though I don’t believe that art can really change the world.
PEV: You have shown paintings, objects, videos, actions, interventions, texts, and concepts. What is your preferred medium to work with?
RS: Drawing is fast, direct and beautiful. But the galleries prefer big paintings. I think my real medium is the attitude. You should look the larger perspective of the oeuvre and not the single works.
PEV: Born in Helsinki and now living in Spain, when did you first come to the United States and how did growing up in Helsinki impact your work?
RS: Helsinki is the safest place on the Earth and the most boring. I of course love it like I love my mother. I studied there and moved then to Spain – my wife is Spanish. Now I live in a tiny village (population 383). Maybe the bigger change was to move to countryside, not from one country to another.
RS: The first time I went to New York was when I had a show there three years ago. I think that in Europe my art in absurd and excessive but in America it’s more realistic. And in Japan it’s hyper-realistic.
PEV: What do you find to be a major difference in the US and the European art communities?
RS: The gallerist I worked with in New York didn’t let me show a drawing that had a text “Warm beds for wetbacks”. She said that she couldn’t show anything politically incorrect. I think this wouldn’t happen in Europe. Warm bed means a bed used in shifts and wetback is a Mexican immigrant. If you write a book where somebody says Heil Hitler nobody thinks that you are Nazi but in visual arts the work is seen often autobiographical. I don’t know why.
PEV: Describe your creative process.
RS: I look for material in supermarkets and streets: snack, candy or ice-cream wrappings with nice mascots. I read the newspaper and collect slogans from demonstrations and prostitution advertisement. Then I go to the studio and do drawings mixing all that up.
PEV: What has been the hardest part for breaking into the art community?
RS: I live in a total periphery that makes it a bit hard. Curators and galleries don’t come to the countryside.
PEV: Having traveled all over the world, which city has the best environment/appreciation for artists? Also, do you find one in particular place that works best for you?
RS: If you think your career, you should live in New York, Berlin, London or Shanghai but I like to be in the countryside close to the nature that has nothing to do with my art. And I have a big house and studio, I know that many artists live and work in shabby places in the big cities. I want to be rich and famous but I don’t compromise, the family is the most important.
PEV: When you are not working, what can we find you doing?
RS: Walking in the forest with my daughter and picking wild mushrooms or wild asparagus. Or watching football on TV. I support Real Madrid.
PEV: What is a normal day like for you?
RS: I like every day to be the same. I hate adventures. I wake up around 7.30. My wife and daughter leave 8.00. I work in my second floor studio until 14.00. I cook lunch and we eat when my wife and daughter come back around 15.00. I read the newspaper until my daughter wakes up from siesta and then we go walking and play together. In the evening I work a little bit more before having dinner with my wife around 22.00. I go to bed 23.30.
PEV: Describe the feeling of seeing your work in a gallery for the first time?
RS: A gallerist found me in the street carrying a painting when I was 19. So I had a show in this small gallery in Helsinki. I was in hubris and thought that I was a big artist. I had no idea how much struggle there was ahead.
PEV: What is one thing people would be surprised to hear about you?
RS: That I’m sometimes lazy.
PEV: A lot of artists listen to music while they work. Do you? And what are you listening to now?
RS: I listen to the Finnish national radio on internet – talk shows about everything from agriculture to aeronautics and from politics to pop.
PEV: In your opinion, what other artist, right now is making the biggest impact on the art world?
RS: At the moment, I like Misaki Kawai, Jani Leinonen, Michael Sailstorfer, Cecilia Stenbom, Judas Arrieta, Suzanne Dery, Alexandre da Cunha, Manuela Moscoso, Herman van Ingelgem, Mikko Ijäs, Mari Ishiwata, Anthony White and Erkka Nissinen.
PEV: If you could sit down for dinner with one artist, alive or deceased, who would it be? Why?
RS: No doubt, Martin Kippenberger, my idol. Maybe with him it would be more heavy drinking than eating dinner. I’ve been blamed to copy his work but I think I’m just updating it.
PEV: How do you feel when people say they “don’t get” modern art?
RS: It’s natural, because art is difficult. I don’t get opera, cricket or quantum mechanics.
PEV: If we were to walk into your studio right now, what would we see?
RS: A big painting with a super cute bunny biking and a text saying, “Cold War was cool”. People see now the times of the Cold War with nostalgia but when I was kid, I was all the time scared of the nuclear war. Then I have on the table a just finished series of replicas of used panties sold in Japanese sex shops. The dirt is acrylic color so you can see them in the context of painting.
PEV: Explain what you mean when you say, “I do drawings, but cannot draw. I do paintings, but cannot paint. I do other things, too, but cannot do that either. It is a tragedy, but tragedies are appreciated in Arts.”
RS: A tragedy is an event with a sad and unfortunate outcome. A Greek tragedy is a form of drama characterized by seriousness and dignity, and involving a great person whose downfall is brought about by either a character flaw or a conflict with some higher power such as the law, the gods, fate, or society.
PEV: How have all your friends and family reacted to your success?
RS: The people in my village think that success is driving a BMW or having a swimming pool. I drive a small French car and dream of having a true Finnish sauna one day.
PEV: So, what is next for Riiko Sakkinen?
RS: Now I go to cook some cute rabbit with vegetables for lunch. Then I pack, I fly tomorrow to Helsinki for an animal theme group show at Gallery Anhava.
Richie Frieman is a Baltimore-based children's book author, journalist and former professional wrestler.
Originally published on Pens Eye View website, 2007.