Anni Puolakka’s art practice is a multimedia process of playing with the boundaries and potential of human animals as they seek involvement with other beings and objects. Anni talks about relations with horses and other humans, fantasies, remedies for commodification as well as their exhibition Oestrus at Polansky Gallery, curated by Christina Gigliotti.
In your last show »Oestrus« at Polansky Gallery we witnessed your gradual transformation into a horse. Can you elaborate on what »becoming animal« means to you?
I quite feel like an animal all the time, so for me the show is more about exploring different animal forms – humans, horses and centaurs. It considers becoming a centaur or a horse as a way to love horses. The show tells the story of a so-called »horse girl« that has turned into an adult who couldn’t imagine mounting a horse. This autofictional character distances themself from horses and engages with them through fantasies. I want humans to look for other ways of being in touch with non-human animals than controlling, capturing and consuming them. In this show I look at art as a way to do that.
Can you talk more about this importance of engaging with fictions and storytelling – how they relate to the specific experience of corporeality and sexuality?
Fiction and storytelling are particular ways of thinking about and sharing experiences, observations and fantasies, making them public, perhaps seductive. They allow displaying and looking at phenomena in a different light than in the shadows of my own gut and brain. On the other hand, a lot of these stories originate in and use my body as their medium – I often perform in my works myself. As an artist I’m drawn towards feelings, memories and thoughts that are uncomfortable or embarrassing. Fiction enables me to play with these complicated experiences, to respond to them through forms that I want to share. When it comes to sexuality and sex, I think that the humor and playfulness of art can be helpful in investigating these topics. Art can sensitize and invigorate, allow fantasies and desires to materialize. Or that’s at least how it works for me.
Do you think that fiction in this sense could have an emancipatory potential?
I do. In my experience fiction can give freedom from norms and oppression, it can, for example, enable me to perform in a way that I would be too scared or embarrassed to, in real life. I think it’s also meaningful to consider other animals in emancipated visions of the future.
There are certain aspects of magical thinking and cosmology in your artwork – what role do they play in ability to connect with others?
I guess art making, for me, is trusting in the collaboration between me (consisting of different materials and forces) and my surroundings. I try to be curious where different inner and outer situations can lead, if I let them generate drawings, text, or other forms of art. I think this trust makes space for something else than the »truths« or »realities« I’ve been trained in all my life. It’s a mode that can grant access to unknowable connections and hybrids, futures or parallel realities. Maybe someday, or perhaps in some place, something like centaurs will really exist.
The power of believing is the very powerful tool of today – which is evident in post-truth politics – with a double-edged blade. Do you think that art can escape from its echo chamber and have a bigger impact on wider society, in this case the collective imagination?
I think art has its special ways of engaging with issues and questions. In the strongest cases this happens through non-knowing and opening up – being touched and sensitive, instead of »getting it«. And the artist and the viewer could both be part of this, meanings and questions can get shared. But the idea of wider society has a relationship to who can be an artist and who can look at art. If it’s only people in privileged, financially secure positions then we can definitely talk about a grim, stale chamber. A chamber that flies around the world and simultaneously yaps about climate crisis and social inequality.
We all take part in versatile, yet very opaque art system that is interwoven into the post-Fordist economies. There is a feral form of commodification circulating among us, and every creative work – including the mere digital presence – is constantly being transformed into capital. I think this broader structure is often reflected in your artwork. How do you personally deal with the pressures of productivity, competitiveness and visibility?
In collaboration you and what you do are attentively seen by another person. There’s already someone else to whom the work means something. That reduces loneliness and pressures. While making work together, it’s also important to have a meta-level discussion about conditions of and reasons for making art. I’ve learned that difficult feelings in relation to the art world are best unraveled through writing or art making, especially together with my collaborators. I’m very lucky to have found people I can do that with, but it took me something like thirty years.
I actually made collaborative video work, Sacre Trilogy, with Jaakko Pallasvuo, that deals exactly with these issues you mention. It includes Sacre (2015), Sacre 2: HEX (2017) and Sacr3: Eternal Return (2019). The videos follow an anonymous protagonist who’s searching for freedom and meaning in the neoliberal swamp of our reality. They’re struggling with ambition, self-destruction and complicated relations to the ones they admire and care about. And there’s a burning need for something sacred in one’s life. Perhaps it’s the need to devote simultaneously to dreams and reality.