What’s in an Image?

August 2016

We spoke to Tarja Pitkänen-Walter, a professor of Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts Helsinki and a practising fine artist. For her, images are not necessarily pictorial but arise from the sensory experience. They operate as motifs, echoes or reflections of what we have been exposed to or imagined.

Why did you become an artist?

I wanted to do something creative as well as be able to define my own working hours and the agenda, as much as humanly possible.


What inspires you ?

Different things at different parts of the process, from materials – such as textiles and paint substances – to fashion and design, sensory experiences, naps, walking, music, or conversations about works of art.


Describe the differences between teaching art and making art.

The most interesting part about teaching art is witnessing the very special encounter between a student and a piece of unfinished work: they tune in with something unknown. When this is a success, it’s hugely revitalising. It reminds me of my own « flow », but a teacher’s role is to also keep the situation under control. Your own artistic aims and the student’s goals are usually different. When teaching, I make room for my student’s pursuits and support them in it.


What’s the most important aim for your students ?

I want every single one of them to develop and aim to master their own kind of art.


Let’s talk a little about the process of art. 
Is there one?

There’s definitely a process with varying stages, from the initial feeling of complete pointlessness and emptiness to [the art] coming to life and finding meaning as the work progresses. If you have an exhibition coming up, you have to roll up your sleeves – no matter what – the inspiration will come while you’re at it, just follow the material. Working as an artist means constantly breaking and rebuilding images.


What is your opinion on art following 
or creating trends ?

Artists do create trends that relate to their time and cultural phenomena, in general, but at the same time they also challenge them. It’s the curators, however, who have a bigger impact on trends. They control which artists get visibility and contextualise the work aligned with their own, often trendy, theorisations.


Art is often referred to as « to encounter something ». How do you perceive this verb and how does one actually encounter a painting?

One encounters a painting usually by looking at it. But you can you encounter or look at a painting in many different ways: peacefully, slowly, quickly, lying on the sofa, going through different emotions or briefly, while occupied by something else. You can also use a painting to mirror your own thoughts and feelings, or as an aid for thinking or encountering yourself. It’s important to be open to yourself and to the world. You can’t « know » a painting by one look, that’s impossible. It’s a long-term commodity, as the age-old paintings in museums prove.


What was the main inspiration for your doctoral thesis « Too Fragile to Turn it into Representation – on the Sensuous Materiality of Painting »?

For my doctorate, the starting point was a question of an image and how it is formulated in artistic practice. In their essence, images are fragile and constantly evolving. Artists deliberately seek to rework them. If images are not renewed, our interpretations of reality and experience become repetitious.


Explain arts’ different research process.

One can study art from a theoretical perspective, from outside, as art history has traditionally done. Or, an artist can study art via their own artistic process. These different approaches produce very different understandings. To me, the making of art is also like doing research into existence and perceptions of the world around us.


Aesthetics is traditionally associated with the concepts of beauty and harmony. What does the term « aesthetic » mean to you?

The etymology of aesthetics refers to our senses. So, to me, aesthetics has to do with our sensory relationship with the world. Beauty can become to mean sensory experiences that have a meaning.


Describe the linguistics of art.

Just as with words, one can use the language of a painting in various ways. For example, poetic verbalism differs from the rational and logical discourse-based verbalism. Similarly, a painting can operate, for example, based on linguistic metaphors. Pictures and words intertwine.


You’ve previously lectured about cell biology and brain technology. How does science play a growing part in art?

Art and science don’t necessarily stand in opposite corners, both map reality. Perhaps, art plays a growing role in science instead.


We live in an increasingly digital world, where images are manipulated, the speed of technological innovation is exponential and the consumption of material goods ever growing. How does art survive and what can it offer?

The expressions, tools and forms of art are alive and change alongside our observations, sensory experiences and culture, in general. On the other hand, art can offer alternative ways of understanding and experiencing – via the most traditional as well as untraditional of means.