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Hannu Väisänen:
Only aging gets you there


"I don't know whether emphasising individualism in a creative event is important and whether it is a basic requirement. It is a moral-ethical question and I find it right that it occasionally crosses the minds of those who do this work for a living," says Hannu Väisänen.

Something that occupies his mind is the burden that has been placed on the shoulders of artists in the western world ever since the Renaissance. It is premised on a perception of the artist as a heroic exceptional personality who, alone in his studio, creates unique pictures that have been conceived in his own head. But this idea of the heroic artist only adds to the sense of separateness that goes with the job anyway, and the collective memory of humankind as the source from which works spring is relegated to the background.

When we discuss the artist's work, Hannu Väisänen uses the phrase "sense of separateness" several times. It and the complete loneliness of the work he finds onerous. A childhood illusion that he cherished, that making a picture can be a form of communication, has been shattered many times.

The idea that making a picture could be a form of interaction came to him during his first week at elementary school. He suggested to his teacher, whom he adored, that he do a portrait of her. And he did.

"It may be that then something fundamental remained in my mind, about how making a picture can be a form of communication or of dazzling together. Then when I was able to take it up as a profession, I realised that it just means being alone in a studio month after month. It's lonely work in a very hard way, and I have felt it quite dramatically," he says.

Seeking company to shine in

"Plato said that one of the most tragic problems of the human creature is that he desperately seeks company in which to be dazzling. I think I know what he meant. I do not act out of any inspiration, but rather I dig out, if I may dare put it that way, material from our collective genetic memory and use it for my work. That is perhaps virtual interaction with other people because there is no direct contact in this kind of work."

Hannu Väisänen has a reputation as an industrious and disciplined artist. He is distrustful not only of inspiration, but also of sheer talent.

"This field of the visual arts is so broad that there is every reason to do a lot of work. Talent on its own is not enough; a lot of capabilities are needed to get it to steam out, and then one has to stick with the work. Getting the hand and the eye to cooperate calls for practice. Getting down to concrete everyday work, no matter how mundane it is, is a kind of sensitivity training. Some call it concentration, I call it presence. I can't establish that sense of presence if I'm thinking that now I'm here for the first time creating something. I consciously seek some kind of contact, company in which to consult.

"All artists have a terribly critical time, when to end the work. When doing it, one has to be strongly linked to it and see that it achieves an optimal position. But I feel it should be left in a state where it is still evolving. There has to be something to it that is still going on, that it is still alive, emerging."

Over the barracks fence

Hannu Väisänen was born in Oulu, a coastal city in northern Finland, and grew up on an army base as one of the five children of his non-commissioned officer father. His mother died when he was five and his father remarried three times after that. "My garrison childhood is a big mental inheritance, which, however, I do not acknowledge in my work. As I experienced it there then, it was depressing and poor. Even a child knows to ask: 'Is this everything?' I remember wondering as a child whether I'd ever grow over that barracks fence."

What his father hoped for was something quite different from an artistic career for his son. The two fought a "stalemated war" for years until finally a compromised was worked out. At 16, Hannu went to an art secondary school in another town and his father believed that this would soon get the bug out of his system. He was wrong, and Hannu went on to an art academy in Helsinki.

Hannu Väisänen's father lived to see his son's first exhibition. "He was very interested in seeing what kind of nonsense this was and asked the teachers at the academy whether this poor wretch had any hope of making a go of it. Of course, it could be argued that this industriousness of mine results from a need to show what I can do."

Music under the skin

At some stage Hannu realised that he liked singing and began seriously studying it in his final years at the academy. It nearly led to a radical change of course, because his singing teacher suggested he give up doing pictures altogether and change over to music.

"Cutting out pictures entirely would have been very awkward and I didn't dare contemplate such a big change. And there was nothing in between, because then I was really either going to paint or sing. I suppose that was when the knowledge rose up out of my sub-conscious that singing was more being part of a shared experience, without the sense of isolation that comes from making a picture.

"Yet I am glad that music really got under my skin, because otherwise it would never have been so close to me. Music is in some way or other an everyday element for me. I begin my working day by listening to Bach and in the afternoons I sing. Now and then I listen to contrapuntal layers in choral preludes and sometimes try to achieve a similar layered effect in some of my paintings."

Hannu Väisänen closely follows events in the world of music. Indeed, he suspects that he does so too closely, because he goes to more concerts than art exhibitions.

Without Paris no painting

Hannu Väisänen has lived in Paris since 1989. He was familiar with the city, having spent many months working there in the past, so he had no illusions of the place as some kind of Mecca of art. He did not storm out of Finland banging the door behind him and his relations with his home country are good. He has a permanent arrangement with a gallery in Helsinki and his "best friends in life" live there.

"Everything began to seem so terribly clear and perhaps even threatening - the whole rut in which people are supposed to live, and that is why I wanted to leave Finland. It was a pattern in which I was far from any kind of Odyssey, because I was in Ithaca the whole time. Another decisive reason was directly connected with work. In Finland, there is an awful tendency to categorise artists as painters, sculptors, graphic artists and so on. If you're a graphic artist, you're that until they put you in the grave. I was classed as a graphic artist and I'd never have begun painting if I hadn't left Finland. Paris was a beckoning wilderness, but also a place without advance pressures, so I dared to begin from nothing."

Still a journeyman

Hannu Väisänen, 48, believes that the best years of his career still lie ahead. He quotes the Japanese artist Utamaro, who says an artist can do nothing before he is 73. Then the real, central output emerges in a very short time. Utamaro's own period of flourishing began just when he was 73 and lasted ten years.

"Fortunately I chose this occupation; as a singer I would have had to give up so early. I have the strong feeling that I am still only a journeyman. Utamaro's idea is very consoling; I suppose I have to plod on until then and just keep doing this work. I believe that what seems like a problem at this stage will have been cleared up by that time. Terribly many central questions are still open and unresolved and will need time and application. A lot will have to be done so that matters now on the level of mystery will become clear, such as this individuality that is so schismatic for me, a sense of separateness, togetherness. For all of that one has to be able to age and that is certainly very much a blessing."

Hannu Väisänen - Recreating the Kalevala