2016: Issue 4: Finlandisation: Juha Tolonen

This essay was going to be about the way that Tolonen’s images appeared to have been made: through the relative distortions and alterations caused by the use of a view camera, or a tilt-shift lens. However, to my surprise, neither of these implements was employed while Tolonen made this series of works. Their strangeness, their odd and subtle alteration of what is expected of a photograph of the landscape is rather caused by Tolonen’s careful construction of the images. There is no technical device that has been explicitly employed to make these images so strange, other than what appears to be, on Tolonen’s behalf, a desire to achieve a washed-out, detailed vision of a landscape. The grandeur is not contained here in scale nor effect, but in space and distance, in a kind of blandness that encompasses the near and far with equal casual disinterest. These photos pull on our eyes, despite their dedication to what might be termed uninteresting.

The Valley. 2014. Juha Tolonen. Courtesy of the artist.
The Valley. 2014. Juha Tolonen. Courtesy of the artist.

What is it that has caused the strange distortions in these works, which play with our perceptions? The images do have a relatively long depth of field, and perhaps it is this, the equivalence of detail in the foreground and back-ground, that is so confusing. The camera does not see life like our eyes, and can show us things in a degree of specificity (and simultaneously) that we cannot grasp physically. I am reminded of the oddness of Jacques Tati’s films, in the exceedingly long depth of field that he uses, and the distortions to our mode of vision that they cause (in the online catalogue, Mike Gray compares these images to scenes from the Coen Brother’s Fargo). They compress our field of view, the camera’s single eye producing a flat plane rather than an out-of-focus fore-and-background. Both Tolonen and Tati’s work are possessed of an older weirdness: the weirdness of early renaissance painting, such as Piero della Francesco’s, where all objects, despite being aligned in virtual, perspectival space, are given equal weight in their detail and rendering. Just like Francesco used architecture in a way that was typical of the dawn of perspective – never letting the buildings overlap the frame of the painting, but always sit beyond the imaginary window of the picture plane, so Tolonen’s images have the sense that their architecture is beyond the plane, never intruding into the gallery, never spilling out of the frame with their scale. It is an effect that, like Francesco’s work, suggests we are viewing the world through a window, or looking on a model. The compositional power of Francesco’s work also reciprocates with Tolonen’s photos, which are similarly precise in how they are put together. The precision necessary to do this is what seems to offer a link to Tolonen’s work. It also exposes Tolonen as a classicist. Everything in his photos seems to exist outside a window, with this unaccountable distance between the subject and us.

The Playground. 2014. Juha Tolonen. Courtesy of the artist.
The Playground. 2014. Juha Tolonen. Courtesy of the artist.

We can sense a slight alteration of this classical plane in many of Juha’s diptychs, where, to allow for a horizon but to avoid a seamless panorama, he places several images at different heights in combination. It does not break the window onto space, nor the strange impression his images give of being models, yet it offers an instance of the process that is often undertaken in our very viewing of these images: a mis-alignment of sensibilities with the image that is presented to us.

Tati, though, is a useful point of reference for the subject of Juha’s work as well as their appearance. Tati’s films revolve around a comedic subject against a utilitarian modernity, that attempts relentlessly to optimise living and subjugate people to its rule in ever more absurd ways. Tati’s pre-modern Mr. Hulot crosses the functionality of industrial modernity, leaving a train of disaster and romance. Tolonen’s images invoke, like Tati’s films, modernity – though one quite different from the birth of modernity Tati lived through. It is not the simple shine of new glass buildings of La Defense in Tolonen’s work – it is a more complex, duller, more concrete image. It is washed out and bleached where Tati’s films were vibrant and sharp. However, the omnipresence of bureaucratic and modern functionality is there in both works, and the relatively long depth of field seems remarkably appropriate to imaging this space of heightened specificity and exacting detail implied by bureaucratic mechanisms.

Muonio triptych. 2015.  Juha Tolonen. Courtesy of the artist.
Muonio triptych. 2015. Juha Tolonen. Courtesy of the artist.

The absence of drama in Tolonen’s images is something that reciprocates with this interest in specificity. I should rephrase that: the absence of melodrama. The drama of Tolonen’s images is more to do with the absence of expectation being rewarded. The sunny and beautiful landscape of Western Australia has been revealed as the bureaucratic space that it most usually is, ruled with a totalising banality like most modern cities. In a word, the glamour is no longer there. There is instead an imperative and directive contained in his very controlled, ordered and placid images of Perth and Finland: that we look harder, and look more, and try to understand what is going on.