If artists are lauded for seeing the beauty in the world that goes amiss for the rest of us, then Esko Männikkö is the one-eyed man in the house of the blind.
Long after the sweet frustration has worn off (from trying to decipher the objects and beings in the photographs), far beyond the wistful melancholy of decaying stone statues, it’s likely that Finnish photographer Esko Männikkö is still laughing at his audience. Männikkö is recognized for his series of macro-scale investigations of animals, carefully staged portraits of rural Finns in their traditional dwellings and his haunting close-ups of Renaissance sculptures tinged a sickly bluish-green with moisture damage and bird droppings. His first museum retrospective, Time Flies, at the Kunsthalle Helsinki only serves to reinforce a simple fact: Männikkö sees something we don’t.
Born in the northern Finnish town Pudasjärvi in 1959, Männikkö (whose name literally translates to ‘pine grove’ in English) rose to prominence with his intimate portraits of bachelors living in rural areas near his home. The bright wooden homes (stacked with rose-gold clocks and mariner’s paraphenalia) served as frames for the photographer’s subjects: with the quietest technical gestures, Männikkö turned these lonely men into aristocratic portraits. The same could be said for a slew of domestic animals he captured for his 2005 series Harmony Sisters; a camera placed as closely to their bodies as possible resulted in pelts, tongues, hooves and rumps becoming surreal landscapes.
The unmanipulated photograph is markedly rare in an increasingly malleable digital age, but Männikkö bucks this trend with restraint as he initiates little to no editing throughout the entire production process. Immediacy and intimacy reach their peak in Männikkö’s oeuvre around 2008-2010, during which time he produced Blues Brothers: a documentation of stone statues having experienced advanced stages of natural decay. Oxidation and overgrowth morph these once triumphant faces into visages of wistfulness, melancholy or pure anguish. They are radiant players in Classical portraits that were never painted, actors on a stage that was never lit.
If artists are lauded for seeing the beauty in the world that goes amiss for the rest of us, then Männikkö is the one-eyed man in the house of the blind. Details garnered at the macro-level remind the viewer that objects, in and of themselves, experience no hierarchy, no judgment. It is our experiences, our prejudices and our imaginations that warp objects into subjects. That which is carefully seen, rather than carefully orchestrated, lies at the heart of Männikkö’s practice. His bachelors, animals, statues, interiors demand consideration as active environments versus an itemized catalogue of elements. This balance was achieved on a constant basis during the Renaissance, Mannerist and Neo-Classical periods, in the sense of entire paintings and sculptures proposing greater ideals than the sum of their parts. Modernism sharply ended the charade of mythic and moral versimilitude, but it came at the cost of an inherent mistrust of the harmonic image. Männikkö’s work offers striking proof that Classicism is very much healthy even to Postmodern eyes, and has an array of international exhibitions to that end. Best of all, his name ‘pine grove’ seems enitrely appropriate for an artist who captures the tremulous, hidden energy of the natural world.
Esko Männikkö: Time Flies
18 January–2 March