Ateneum Art Museum
Academician Outi Heiskanen (b. 1937, Mikkeli) is one of the most successful and famous artists in Finland. She is not only a virtuoso printmaker but also an experimenter who challenges rules and breaks boundaries.
Heiskanen’s pictures refuse to remain in their frames. They can just as well arrange themselves into installations, flutter in the air, turn into playing cards or join others to create unexpected combinations that Outi calls companion pieces or “compieces”.
Heiskanen loves performing. In the 1970s she played a key role in Record Singers, a pioneering performance group in Finland. She and her friends were also trailblazers in the area of land art and environmental art.
Outi Heiskanen’s most important teacher was Pentti Kaskipuro, commonly known as Master K., but she herself has had an enormous influence on countless colleagues and students.
This exhibition illustrates the many new paths in art that were opened by Heiskanen. It includes prints, drawings, paintings and installations, as well as performance documentations from a period of over 50 years. The trajectory of this prolific artist is illustrated by numerous photographs and moving images.
The show is curated by Dr Tuula Karjalainen, a long-time friend of Heiskanen’s and an expert on her art, together with Ateneum curator Sointu Fritze. The wall texts are based on Tuula Karjalainen’s new biography Outi Heiskanen, taiteilija kuin shamaani (Siltala Publishing 2021).
Birth of an image
As an artist, Outi Heiskanen has never been a preacher. She has not sought inspiration and motivation from outside but from within.
The birth of an image has been an intimate experience for her, an almost mystical event – something she has often wondered about herself. She has felt like images exist inside herself long before they decide to become images. They are like protoimages, pictures of a world we can sense even before we are born.
Outi’s art is also quite physical. She has often talked about giving birth to images. The birth of an image, its passage through me, is always a tremendous experience, like an orgasm. It often involves a feeling of love or deep compassion.
A woman’s life
A key theme in Outi’s art is the exploration of a woman’s life. She has examined marriage as an institution, her own in particular, and its ultimate purpose and justification. She has also imagined alternative family configurations that would be easier than traditional marriage. Even the deck of cards she created has all sorts of families and social worlds. According to her, it has indistinct families, as failed and broken marriages as you can imagine. But when you keep on playing, a new family will eventually start to form.
Rape is an indelible trauma in Outi’s life. Over the decades she has often talked about how the rapist ruined her. She recalled the traumatic event:
I was brutally raped before I had slept with any man. The event left me in a state of permanent virginity, so that although I later became a mother and an adulterer, I had become incapable of losing my innocence, and I made the transition from childhood to grandmotherhood directly, without ever experiencing adulthood.
The twig line
As a young, aspiring artist, Outi realised the beauty of the living line – the twig line. It is organic, like blood vessels, veins on a leaf, and of course twigs.
Twigs have always been her favourite material. For decades she would build huts from them wherever she lived. In conjunction with her exhibitions, she would encourage people to build huts of their own, including two shows at Helsinki City Art Museum in Meilahti: Movable Tuonela (1983) and Houses (1996). She also used twig huts as motifs in her prints.
Human and animal
Outi has studied and drawn animals, people and hybrids throughout her entire career: Mrs beaver, donkey woman, cat baby and many others. Her early, close and natural relationship with animals has stayed with her, taking on new forms.
In 1977 she wrote in her diary: As the animal is the most humanistic thing we have, I use it as a link in my works: the animal as mythological figure, the metamorphosed hybrid animal, the close relations between humans and animals.
Printmaker and performer
Outi’s main medium has been printmaking, but she has also loved performing and collaboration. She has described the relationship between graphic art and performance:
The printmaker is a black hunchback figure who fiddles with her etching needles and etching acids. Printmaking is a cooped-up activity. The Record Singers are a necessary counterbalance for me. But printmaking is life; it is the most extreme and intimate stage of my creative process, its most advanced product.
Family and friends
In Outi’s works we meet her family and her wide circle of friends. She has drawn her subjects from the folds of her mind and from everyday life, from everything she has seen. Outi has had a direct line into her own subconscious.
To her pictures are: …so personal you feel you can’t show them to others. It all starts with subjective experiences and relationships, but the most painful things need to be distanced.
Outi’s images revolve around the fundamental elements of life: sadness, love, joy, death and fear, as well as longing, birth and pregnancy. They are common to us all yet utterly private.
Outi has travelled extensively in Asia. She has been particularly interested in Tibet – its culture, religion and people. Her great dream for decades was to circumambulate Kailash, the sacred Buddhist mountain, even if she had to do it on all fours, as she expressed her burning desire. Finally, in 2000, her dream came true, and she walked around the mountain with her friend Tuula Karjalainen.
According to Outi, Mount Kailash was: …the centre of the universe and the canal of its birth. Its nerves and veins absorb all sounds, turning them into music and colours, where time takes off its hat and bows. Welcome.
Outi has loved colours, most of all typical Tibetan colours. For decades she tried to incorporate them into her prints, but it wasn’t always easy technically. She has written about colours, and those experiences were like supreme love poems or songs.
There was that wondrous moment again: I sat and let the colours come, and they did. First came blue, as it is wont to do. From inside the blue emerged bright green, which faded towards yellow-green, through which you could see its complement, red, like spots or tears. I guess it began to breathe, but then it calmed down, and sky-blue filled my head, blue all the way to a horizon with raggedy edges. Clear, pure, heavenly blue. (1995)
Game of cards
A key experience in Outi’s childhood was seeing her father and his guests playing cards. An inquisitive little girl, she sneaked out at night and climbed up a ladder to peer through the guestroom window. It was a dazzling and strange sight. Father and other men playing with pieces of paper with patterns on them.
She later wrote about that childhood vision:
All I saw were men handing each other little pictures of people and pieces of paper with dots on them. Just like a doll or a pine cone cow is alive in a child’s play, those little paper dolls were alive in the men’s hands.
I was staggered by the idea that, instead of speaking, they let those little pictures speak for the players and to each other.
Outi Heiskanen and Janne Laine
Artist Janne Laine was Outi’s go-to printer. He once remarked that, after years of working together, they found lots of similarities in their works, even though they were stylistically far apart. Laine gradually “grew to become one of Outi’s Bush Wind People”, saying:
We were really excited when we created our first collaborative works in the Borderlands series. We had both made something that we would not have been able to make alone. My silent landscapes had found their first inhabitants, and Outi’s Bush Wind People finally had earth under their feet.
The collaboration between Outi and Janne Laine was fruitful, resulting in numerous joint works and exhibitions.
Her rich social life, though it was fun, wore out Outi. She would then need alternate personalities, stand-in versions of herself. The real, physical Outi could rest, make art or even play cards, while her alter ego would party on in the night or give interviews. Outi has had total control of her alternates, and she has loved them, using them to enrich, protect and enliven her real life as Outi Heiskanen.
The most important personality in terms of art has been Immi Piilo. She has had free reign to do anything in art. Immi’s works are full of strong colours in bold combinations made with total disregard for the laws of aesthetics or the colour chart. Immi has been allowed to plunder colours for fun and paint whatever she liked. Never a slave to academic norms or rules, she would violate so-called good taste and squeeze gold paint straight out of a tube to give a finishing touch to her works.
Emptiness has been sacred to Outi. She has often quoted the medieval mystic, her beloved Meister Eckhart, who said that emptiness is greater than even God.
She writes in her diary in the 1980s:
There is nothing here, there is nothing anywhere,
emptiness is absolute and everywhere…
A fragile sensory web of existence at the intersection
of the dimensions of time and space.
Creating emptiness has been one of the key motivators for making installations for Outi:
Emptiness is built from quiet attentiveness, random observations,
a net for plucking out of the void human beings, a tribe, folk rituals,
rules of game, grief, dejection, idleness, busyness, being aware of
futility and ecstatic at the jerky orgasm of living.
I have wondered if you can build a void.
Principal dates in the life
Born in Mikkeli on 26 September as the only daughter in a family with three children. Father was a veterinarian, and the family moved around a great deal.
Graduated from secondary school in Salo. Enrolled in the Institute of Industrial Art housed in the Ateneum building.
Graduated as art teacher and married fellow student Toivo “Topi” Heiskanen. Worked as art teacher in Oulu, Jyväskylä and Helsinki until 1974.
Daughters Metti (1961) and Karoliina (1964) were born.
Studied at Institute of Industrial Art under lifelong mentor Master K or Pentti Kaskipuro. Also studied at school of the Academy of Fine Arts, from which she was expelled in 1969.
First trip to the Far East, visiting India, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Accepted as a member to the Association of Finnish Printmakers.
Outi Heiskanen, Mirja Airas, Hannu Väisänen and Pekka Nevalainen formed the Record Singers ensemble and associated Bellini Academy.
First solo exhibition at Finnish Printmakers’ gallery in Helsinki.
Awarded the State Art Prize.
Travelled to India and Pakistan with Professor Asko Parpola’s research team. Exhibition From Mesopotamia to Singapore at Amos Anderson Art Museum with Tero Kiiskinen and Jukka O. Miettinen.
Awarded prize for prints at Graphica Creativa exhibition in Jyväskylä, Finland.
Won first prize in graphic art competition of Olivetti Finland for Beauty and the Beholder. Filmed House of Cards with Tarja Strandén.
Movable Tuonela exhibition at Helsinki City Art Museum in Meilahti. In addition to Outi Heiskanen and the Record Singers, show featured Martti Aiha, Riikka Haahti, Anne Kauppi, Jan Olof Mallander and Sakari Viika.
Awarded Pro Finlandia medal and Pro Graphica award at Graphica Creativa festival in Jyväskylä.
Received award for her work Mila-Repa II at Graphic Arts Biennial in Bradford, UK. Helsinki Festival Artist of the Year exhibition at Kunsthalle Helsinki.
First trip to Tibet.
Spent part of the year in Gotland, Sweden, with boyfriend Anders Lund.
Appointed Professor of Printmaking at Finnish Academy of Fine Arts 1992–1994, then Rector until 1995.
Travelled to Sikkim to film Tarja Strandén’s documentary Kutsu Kaukoitään (Invitation to the Far East). Curated exhibition Hugo Simberg and Outi Heiskanen visiting Axel Gallén at Gallen-Kallela Museum in Espoo.
Exhibition From Far Away They Look Like Gnats at Sara Hildén Art Museum with Juhani Harri.
Awarded Prince Eugen Medal in recognition of outstanding artistic achievement. Exhibition Houses at Helsinki City Art Museum.
Completed monumental work Scene for Lappeenranta University of Technology. Received title of Honorary Doctorate by University of Helsinki. Received Recognition Award from Alfred Kordelin Foundation. Received Suomi-palkinto (Finland Award) from Ministry of Education and Culture in recognition of distinguished career in art.
Travelled with friend Tuula Karjalainen to Tibet and fulfilled lifelong dream of walking around Mount Kailash. Exhibition Bushwind Village at Retretti Art Centre.
Exhibition Homesickness at Salo Art Museum.
Granted honorary title of Academician by President of the Republic Tarja Halonen. Joint exhibition of “artist siblings” Outi Heiskanen, Lena Cronqvist and Irina Zatulovskaya toured St Petersburg, Moscow, Novgorod and Ferapontova, ending at Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde in Stockholm (2005).
Retrospective exhibition at Sara Hildén Art Museum.
First public appearance of alter ego, outsider artist Immi Piilo, at Galleria Orton in Helsinki. Purchased her childhood home in Vehmaa in south-west Finland, where she established Oheistaidekoti, a house of art, which operated until 2018.
First exhibition at Oheistaidekoti was Master K. and His Students commemorating Pentti Kaskipuro. Decorated Commander of the Order of the Lion of Finland.
75th anniversary exhibition Primordial Sea at Didrichsen Art Museum with Janne Laine.
Retrospective exhibition Travel Companions at Wäinö Aaltonen Museum in Turku.
Since 2015 Outi Heiskanen has lived in a nursing home.