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There is a devastating, extreme presence of physicality in the works of Fanni Niemi-Junkola. Physicality that is very real, something that you must be able to recognize, sense and feel. A sensation that does not let you be or pass it up. Whether the moments of gripping, shouting and perspiration make you bleed, burn or blossom depends how close and on what terms are you getting in connection with them.
The notion of direct and deeply touching physicality is most self-evidently apparent in her series of video-installations based on the act of fighting. Giants is actually a third part of an unplanned trilogy of video works, which are all focused on different close-ups of people fighting. Despite the same starting point, works that have evolved between 1993 and 1998, they are by their character tellingly different. Whereas the first work, she was boxing and getting literally smashed by a male boxer, the two later ones project a much more even and balanced physically aggressive relationship between two women. The steps leading from the highly personal and tragical misery into realms of very nuance articulations of the various aspects of violence of everyday physical contacts are quite astonishing.
The scene of the Giants (1998), shot on 16 mm film but showed as a loop of a large video projection of circa 2.5. x 4.5 meters, is both unfamiliar and familiar. It is explicitly non-place, but a site which in its anonymity is recognized very easily. Standing on the rocks of a tiny uninhabited island outside of Helsinki, there are two women wrestling and hitting one another.
The most curious aspect of the act is its disturbing timelessness. The video shapes a physical presence for itself, not unlike the three-dimensional substance of traditional sculptures- a direct reference to her background as a student beginning with sculptures. Besides the stressed non-linearity and open-ended structure of the narrative, she has achieved the effect with a delicate and dangerous but successful technical trick. The pictures of fighting women, their gruffed sounds and the ubiquitous waves of the sea are all in slow motion.
The result is the age-old but lucrative strategy of flirting with fiction and reality: alienation. When dealing with physicality, Fanni Niemi-Junkola knows that she needs to get close, but not too close to it. In other words, she is fully aware of the dangers with the images she is using. The attitude goes back to the first fighting video, after which she decided, instead of accumulating violence and self-destruction, to move to the other side of the street.
The last thing she wants to do is shock. The trouble with her, and other artists working in similar fashion, is how to face and confront matters and questions, which are so difficult and emotionally loaded in themselves. Thus, one of her main aims is to deal with violence, but also to distance herself from it. It starts with the choice of people she works with. The partner in Giants is her long time friend with whom she has been training karate together for many years.
She is not a documentarist. The typical comments that, for example, in Giants, the women are either a) not fighting hard enough, or b) the work is too filled with ugly and unnecessary violence, are widely off the mark. It is exactly in-between these opposite poles that she wants and definitely needs to operate in order to be able to break the circle. To distance herself and get away from re-producing violence, taking it completely to another level. It is a level in which she connects the private with the public, the general topic of common violence with personally experienced hate, fear and aggression.
It cannot be a surprise that Fanni Niemi-Junkola views her works as distinctly political. It is political in a sense of personal decisions, values, wants and wishes. It is through her works that she tries to figure and re-describe her own relationship to herself and to her surroundings. A constant and never-ending process which must be self experienced and thought through to have any weight or legitimacy for others. And this is the very credo of her artistic approach. She has no choice. Art is part of everyday struggle, and for her it is a means to come to terms with the daily demands and chances. Thus, what we see, in the end, are political sculptures done in video installation format. Works which do not ask but take and claim their own individual space.
Significantly the physicality of her works is also very much present in her other types of video installations. It is important to stress that for her, and for the audience, I claim, the aching physical presence and being-in-there is the starting point in works based on interviews. It all comes down to the process of meeting and confronting the other. His or her views, needs and troubles.
A work she did while in Berlin, titled Ingrid/Irmgard (1999), aptly underlines her basic approach. She was not deliberately seeking for a political theme, but ended up- again- dealing with questions that are highly political and politicized. The work in question, first shown in the "Signs of Life", Melbourne International Biennial this spring, is about two women telling their stories. Women of same age but different backgrounds who are connected by a shared event: the Holocaust. One woman being a surviving prisoner of the Auschwitz and Ravensbrück camps, and the other one having a mother who survived those camps. Essentially, the stories are about liberation. Descriptions of how, on the other hand, the camps were freed and what the daughter thought when she saw and met her mother after a long period.
Niemi-Junkola´s motivation is to get to know people, to realize what kind of persons and personalities are behind the bare cold facts of which an outsider cannot have any comprehension. The relationship can only be achieved through personal connection and commitment. A strong presence and attitude which she shares on with another Finnish artist, the photographer Esko Männikkö. And this commitment, being-in-there, trying to meet the other, is where the physicality of the approach is so perplexingly present. She is sure that if she would use actors and stage herself as a director, the necessary and deeply felt involvement would never happen.
However, the involvement is not easy or elegant- on the contrary. It is always a collision, a stormy meeting of various unrelated convictions and expectations. Often it involves a conflict, a situation which can be underlined well by the background scene of the stripper work, titled Pauliina (1998). It is bewildering in its uncanny intimacy. A mutual and reciprocal involvement that was not possible without a huge fight and a serious discussion. It was filmed at Fanni´s home and she needed to go through all the details of the whole setup with the professional stripper. There was a point when the dancer felt she was being set up for a private show. The conflict and clarification of the situation opened the atmosphere, and brought the being-in-there physicality to the core. A disturbing effect of being so very close to what you as a viewer cannot place or relate yourself without personal commitment. Who is, actually, looking at whom?