By Julian Satterthwaite
"I like things I don't understand," says Finnish artist Riiko Sakkinen -which should have made his past three months in Japan a blast.
Sakkinen is now coming to the end of a three month stint as artist-in-residence at Arts Initiative Tokyo - a nonprofit organization in the city's Daikanyama district - and a quick read of his blog reveals that continuous bafflement actually wasn't so much fun.
"I'm tired of not understanding anything. I'm tired of the otherness," reads a dejected entry from Jan. 6.
In person, however, Sakkinen is at pains to emphasize that the overall experience has been enjoyable and productive. That's as it should be for an artist fascinated by commercial imagery--something for which Tokyo might just be the world capital.
"In that sense, Japan is so rich," says Sakkinen, 30, in an interview with The Daily Yomiuri. "I'm interested in things that seem to be innocent at first, like all the advertisements and products for kids...somehow when you look at them closer, the images and the companies that produce them, it's not any more that nice and innocent."
Tokyo certainly seems to have been a fertile source of inspiration. By the time of our interview in early January the artist had churned out 25 works featuring his characteristic subversion of the commercial world.
In Radioactive Sushi for Traitors, a cute character advertising a raw fish restaurant is connected to the recent murder by radiation poisoning in London. In The Margarine Man Destroys Your Local Superhero, a grinning superman becomes a symbol for the perils of globalization.
Rich watercolors on cheap and rumpled A4 paper, Sakkinen's works are also littered with stickers from fast food joints and erratically copied promotional slogans for everything from candy to prostitution services. It's an engaging blend of the sublime and the ridiculous, and suggests the artist's own ambivalent relationship with his subjects.
"Sometimes I don't know if I do art about something because I like it, or is it because I do art about it that I like it," Sakkinen says with a laugh.
One standard element is missing from the artist's Tokyo works, however--the use of hotel stationery as his canvas. A Japanese-style inn that he stayed at before moving to rented accommodation lacked any custom stationery, he laments. That denied him a technique that he first developed out of necessity, back when he was a nomadic and cash-strapped young artist, in need of a cheap and portable medium for his work.
Earlier works that Sakkinen did get to complete on stationery bring to mind the similar practice of Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997), and that's no accident. The Finn describes the German artist, drunkard and provocateur as his "idol," and is happy if people see his work as Kippenberger updated.
As with his idol, Sakkinen's stationery is also evocative of a man alone on his travels, and the artist certainly seems to have wrestled with his solitude while in Japan. "Nobody really needs me [in Tokyo]," he says mournfully, conceding that the extended break from his usual domestic routine has been both liberating and unsettling.
The absence of hotel stationery from his latest works shifts the comparison to another obvious influence on Sakkinen - Japanese pop-art superstar Yoshitomo Nara.
Both men combine the sweet and the sinister. Both want us to question the underlying message of everyday imagery. The big differences are Nara's much greater control - Sakkinen revels in the random effects created by his cheap, nonabsorbent paper - and the fact that the Finn literally doesn't understand some of the images he uses, not least the Japanese characters that he incorporates into many works.
Looking at one of his Tokyo creations, I tell him that the katakana script appears to be the price list for a hairdresser. But when he says he copied it off a board in the red light district of Shinjuku, Tokyo, I start to wonder if the menu items aren't euphemisms for something else altogether.
The more I look, the less certain I am, and that seems to suit Sakkinen just fine.
Julian Satterthwaite is Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer.
Originally published in The Daily Yomiuri January 20, 2007.