Outi Heiskanen

Outi Heiskanen

Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery presents a major retrospective of work by Outi Heiskanen (b. 1937), one of Finland’s leading contemporary artists.

Throughout her 50-year career, the pioneering artist has embraced a wide range of media, defying traditional boundaries. This exhibition will bring together different facets of Heiskanen’s diverse and multidisciplinary practice; comprising more than 300 works including prints, paintings, photographs, installations, films and performance art, together with personal items and material from the artist’s own archive.

Tracing the artist’s practice from the 60’s, the retrospective will reveal her working process – sometimes alone, other times collaborating with artist colleagues, friends or family. The first comprehensive evaluation of Heiskanen’s work, the retrospective will explore her position within the postwar avant-garde in Finland and her critical and influential role in originating forms of cutting-edge art and performance. 

The exhibition opens with Summer Night, 1986 a monumental installation in the form of tent-type structure composed of sheer fabric, with a masked, humanoid figure at its centre. Describing her work as an intimate process of ‘birthing’ images as they exist within her before coming into the world, the work exemplifies some of the universal themes of life, death, birth and rebirth which have been present in Heiskanen’s work from the outset. Rooted in her personal life, much of her oeuvre combines childhood memories with her experiences of everyday life as a woman, wife, lover and mother. These form a very personal synthesis of life and art, drawing in the viewer through shared experience. She has said of her work ʽSometimes the images are so personal and intimate that I can barely show them to others.’ 

An integral part of Heiskanen’s practice involves collaborating with other artists and the exhibition examines her central role in activities of Finnish performance groups the Record Singers and the Bellini Academy, which paved the way for the emergence of performance art in the country. It includes documentation of seminal works such as  Siirrettävä Tuonela (Movable Tuonela). Created by Heiskanen and her artist friends in 1983 and sited across the grounds at the Meilahti Art Museum, Movable Tuonela was one of Finland’s first exhibitions of land art.

A virtuoso printmaker Heiskanen sees this solitary element of her practice as a counterbalance to the joyous, participatory nature of performing. Here she creates mythical hybrid creatures and recurring characters and motifs to explore the mysteries of being human and our relationship with nature. The blending and blurring of human and animal that she began in the 70’s hints at the possibility of transformation whilst her extensive travels across Asia in the 80’s reinforced her world view in which all cultures, human beings and animals are equal. 

Heiskanen’s skill as a printmaker and her playful personality can be seen in one of her most seminal bodies of work, House of Cards (1979 - ). Games are a passion for the artist and she has created deck of cards as an open-ended space for play and improvisation. The images on the cards are based on her personal life and depict her hybrid creatures and characters with their own social worlds and complicated relationships. Playing the game results in shifting combinations and alliances. Heiskanen has said of the cards that they contain  ‘… distinct families, as well as failed and broken marriages as you can imagine. But when you keep on playing, a new family will eventually start to form.’

An uncompromising, unapologetic artist, Heiskanen has always been determined to follow her own vision and do want she wanted. The result is an experience of life lived to the fullest and a body of work which has a vital immediacy. Her mentor, the graphic artist Pentti Kaskipuro ‘Master K’, has stated: ‘Outi is the yeast that makes the dough rise, whatever the context. Her artistic expression is completely untouchable: she relies on tradition, yet she is completely original and open-minded.’

The exhibition is curated by Tuula Karjalainen PhD - an expert on Heiskanen’s art and her long-time friend, together with the Ateneum’s chief curator, Sointu Fritze. The opening of the exhibition coincides with the publication of a new biography Outi Heiskanen – Artist and Shaman written by Karjalainen (Siltala 2021). 

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