Anni Puolakka

Anni Puolakka – Degradia

Exhibition open 9 December, 2018–6 January, 2019

+ Music performance by ITU (Anni Puolakka & Miša Skalskis) at the opening on 8 Dec at 7 pm

Anni Puolakka’s solo show Degradia unites work that spans the last two years with an on-site installation. The works form a kinship with one another as shape-shifting, emitting and craving bodies.

Anni (born in Oulu, Finland), who is based in Helsinki and Rotterdam, makes performances, videos, installations, images and texts in which situation-specific or documentary materials are incorporated into fictional worlds. The works play with the boundaries and potential of human animals as they seek meaningful and vibrant, or drowsy and dirty, involvement with other beings, objects and surroundings. They experiment with cinematic and dramaturgical methods. Anni co-organizes a sex-positive, feminist festival Wonderlust in Helsinki.

We interviewed Anni via email about her practice and her upcoming show at Sorbus.


Sorbus: What you will be showing in Sorbus?

Anni Puolakka: I will show videos, paintings, mixed media works and a collaborative sound piece. There will also be a few elements that I create on-site at Sorbus. Most of the pieces are from the past two years but the exhibition will also include a painting I made when I was 18. A lot of the work springs from different relations and situations my body is part of, sometimes more directly, sometimes in a more mediated manner. I am presenting, for example, work that deals with a body feeling horny, feeling embarrassed and getting older, nipples as interfaces, bodies entwined with new technology and relations with non-human animals.

S: What is degradia and how does it relate to what you are showing in the exhibition?

AP: Degradia is a word I invented for English and it derives from ‘degrading’, which means breaking down or deteriorating chemically, or treating or regarding someone with contempt or disrespect. I look at both situations through my work. I got the idea for the name when reading (I’m still reading it, very slowly) Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1965). Bakhtin uses the word degradation when describing what was significant for him in medieval folk culture of humour and subsequently in Rabelais’ work. He writes:

“Degradation here means coming down to earth, the contact with earth as an element that swallows up and gives birth at the same time. To degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously […]. To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth. Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one.”

I found this exciting because I’m also drawn towards the lower body and the material cycles of life and death, as well as the humour and intimacy we can generate from our bodily, mortal condition. More recently I bumped into Atrophy Portraits II (Four Chambers, 2018), a feminist porn film by Lina Bembe, Vex Ashley and María Riot which is about consensual degradation. It’s inspiring to me in the sense that it’s critical of the misinformed, patriarchal ideas about female-identifying people’s sexuality and at the same time celebrates the power of degradation in a rough and caring way. I also wish to make work that is shameless and sensitive, at the same time.

The word also plays with a form that I’ve used in earlier names of works or projects, such as Rumina or Penetralia.

S: You work on many different mediums, and also do collaborative projects alongside your individual practice. Can you tell us a little bit about your working process?

AP: I follow my gut feeling when it comes to what I work on and with whom I collaborate. Certain experiences I’ve had or things I’ve observed or beings I’ve met draw me towards them and then I want to engage with them through performance or video making, or other mediums. Some collaborations are short, some longer, some indefinite. And my practice is quite adaptable – it’s shaped a lot by specific collaborations and circumstances. It makes me feel funny when people say that they have really precise visions, that they know exactly how they want things to be. My experience of art making and life in general is different: I often let things unfold, wander around aimlessly and try out proposals made by my collaborators even if they wouldn’t immediately feel, say, stylistically right or familiar. I can do that because I trust that I share values and deeper goals with the people I work with. I find it thrilling and valuable when my ideas, processes and outcomes mix with those of others. With collaborations I’m able to care less, in a positive way, if others like the work or not, because it already means something to someone else, rather than to me alone. I feel like it’s more possible to exist in and build a world of our own where external pressures and at least my own neuroses lose power. It’s also important for me to have my solitary practice for having moments of not having to negotiate with other artists and for working with silence and aloneness, which also bring about fears that I want to face. I’ve drawn since I was small and I like doing that alone. But I also enjoy drawing in the same room with other people.

S: Earlier this year, in your interview with AQNB, you talk about shapeshifting and character building in your work and mention that ‘’sometimes the characters are quite realistic but more often they are half-me, half-someone else, half-human, half-non-human-animal”. What sort of meaning does shapeshifting have for you in your work as an artist?

AP: I grew up in a relatively conservative environment in the Finnish provinces, and I think the possibility of breaking out of the requirement to have a solid identity or way of being only occurred to me concretely a bit later on in life. Art making has been important for me in that process. Writing, being on stage, making music or videos allows the identity to get messy or diffuse; it allows me to play with who I am and create new characters that partially originate in me, partially not. Through semi-fictional characters I’m able to say, show or do things that I would not be able to, as readily. It also feels meaningful for me to describe or show the shape-shifting process – for example during the Amor fati play I made recently (with Anna-Mari Karvonen and a work group), Brad Pitt melts into earth through a specific course of events.

S: It feels that many artists of our (Y-)generation are putting the myth of the solitary individual artist into test by simply just not fitting into the dichotomy of representing either ‘only’ themselves alone, or their collective/community. We can very much identify with how you describe your process with collaborating as letting go of control and thru that lifting off the pressure from the working solitary artist – but also not having have to choose one from the other.

AP: I agree, it’s strange how the structures are pushing people into the solo mode. Collaborations have supported and enable me to be an artist to an extent that it, in fact, feels a bit odd and scary to do a solo show. I’ve only had one before at Alkovi, also in Helsinki. And as I mentioned in the beginning there will also be a straightforward collaboration with another artist called Miša Skalskis. We have a band together called ITU and we’re going to perform at the opening. This performance will then transform into a sound piece where our sounds are amongst others in an artificial forest. Miša also made music for the videos in the show.

S: After finishing your studies (at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam) and working extensively abroad, how do you feel about and what are your expectations for showing your solo work in Helsinki?  

AP: Yes, I’ve been abroad but I’ve also all the time kept one foot in Helsinki, as the art community here means a lot to me. But since I haven’t exhibited much solo work in Finland, I want to show some older works that haven’t been properly on display here. I feel excited and nervous. And I don’t really have any expectations, maybe just a wish that someone would give a response if they see the work and it touches them – that would be great. (You can write to me at annipuolakka’at’ I feel sad about the fact that you, the Sorbus people, will not be there because I’d like to spend time with you! When Sorbus opened five years ago I didn’t know any of you but was so fascinated and hoping to work with you one day. I also feel sad that I’ll only be around for one day after the exhibition opens, as that means that I won’t be able to organise an event other than the opening. That’s something I would otherwise like to do. For different reasons I’ve been recently thinking hard about time and how to divide it, about committing to fewer things versus spreading myself thin. I have a problem with that and I know it’s also a systemic issue. Do you have this problem?

S: Yes, definitely. Managing your time and setting boundaries for yourself in how you use your time and energy feels absolutely super tricky. It’s an issue that we sense many people have when they are involved in several overlapping projects in which they feel an urgency to commit to. On the other hand, we are also working under very precarious working conditions which also doesn’t make it any easier to say no to new projects, even if their timing is not really right for you.

From its beginning, the idea with Sorbus has been that we can define our own working conditions and procedures, and that we are kind of not responsible for anyone else. And still we keep finding ourselves in the same overworked state and swamp of obligations as so many others working in the creative field today. It’s a trap from which we keep trying to escape. But of course it’s a fortunate trouble: having many things going on that you want to do – like making this exhibition with you! And perhaps having the curiosity to throw yourself into different kinds of new and unforeseeable situations is the reason why we are involved with arts in the first place. Speaking of which: we hadn’t heard about your musical practice before! What kind of band is ITU?

AP:  ITU (itu is a Finnish word for ‘sprout’) is a new pop band we started recently. We’ve had one gig in Vilnius so this will be our second one. I don’t know how to define what we do accurately but ITU has strong links to what we’ve worked with before: animalism, sexuality, folk songs and EDM.


The exhibition is supported by Kone Foundation.


Anni Puolakka – Degradia

Näyttely avoinna 9.12.2018–6.1.2019

+ ITU-bändin (Anni Puolakka & Miša Skalskis) live-keikka avajaisiltana 8.12. klo 19

Anni Puolakan soolonäyttely Degradia muodostuu vanhemmista, viimeaikaisista ja paikan päällä valmistettavista teoksista. Ne muodostavat himoavien, muotoaan muuttavien ja päästelevien kehojen yhteisön.

Anni Puolakka (s. Oulussa) on Helsingissä ja Rotterdamissa asuva taiteilija, joka työskentelee videon, esityksen, installaation, kuvan ja tekstin keinoin. Hänen teoksissaan dokumentaarinen ja omaelämäkerrallinen materiaali sulautuu fiktioon. Teokset leikkivät ihmiseläinten rajoilla ja potentiaaleilla, kun nämä yrittävät löytää merkityksellisiä ja eläväisiä – toisinaan raukeita tai likaisia – yhteyksiä omiin ja toisiin kehoihin. Puolakka testaa töissään elokuvallisia ja dramaturgian metodeja. Hän on yksi feministisen ja seksipositiivisen Wonderlust-festivaalin järjestäjistä.

Haastattelimme Annia sähköpostitse marraskuussa hänen työskentelystään ja tulevasta näyttelystä. Haastattelu on luettavissa kokonaisuudessaan tiedotteen englanninkielisestä osiosta.

Näyttelyä on tukenut Koneen Säätiö.