Visual artist and enfant terrible Jani Leinonen from Finland is a revolutionary soul, who is not afraid to point out social injustice and abuse. His work reflects the issues of political structures and capitalism as well as questioning the democracy we live in. He has exhibited several times in Berlin at Salon Dahlmann and is now running as a candidate for the Finnish election as a protest against “behind closed doors – politics” and the lack of political engagement.
If art could do anything: What would be your biggest dream?
I would start a revolution. It would help to make the world socially and economically a more equal place. I am not sure how art would do that in practice, perhaps by inspiring people to have the courage to imagine a new world and showing that this is not a perfect world? Why is it easy for us to imagine the end of the world in blockbuster films but not the end of capitalism? Why do we think this is the only system possible?
As the rest of Europe, the North is undergoing a time where nationalistic populism gathers more and more attention in the welfare states. Can you sense any effects on the Northern European art scene?
Yes, there is a strong reaction. For the first time since the 70´s artists are starting to be political, and taking a stand. For Finland the 80´s were a time when the country reached its highest level of social and economic equality, perhaps the most equal society in the world too.
I was a child then, and the world seemed to be getting more and more multicultural, which was fascinating. There were lots of critical discussions about racism. Hip Hop was bringing up big social issues all over the world, whilst getting people together and I was sure the problems were going to be solved in the next few decades. That´s why I was so shocked to see these hillbilly racists crawl out from somewhere and suddenly it was normal to talk about rude things in public and politics. It was like we have had this rule in Europe that you just don’t spit on the floor. These people just started spitting on the floor again. It was such an arrogant act that it caught everyone by surprise. Only now we are starting to react the right way: Teaching them table manners again.
Your specific style functions on the base of quotations taken from popular commercial characters and visuals. How did you come up with that?
I find bits and pieces interesting here and there. I combine them in different ways to see if they create any thoughts. This idea of logos or packages from different companies forming a sentence came from these weird religious miracles of Jesus appearing in toast, walls, stains, and so on. I was thinking, what if wise sentences about social justice would miraculously appear on supermarket shelves?
Would you say artists are obliged to reflect the effects of social injustice and the effects of capitalism?
Art is such a diverse thing, I cannot say artists are obliged to reflect anything. There are landscape painters and political artivists under the same banner of art that have completely different goals. However, I think that as human beings we should be obliged to reflect the effects of social injustice and capitalism. I am sure most of us would not choose this system, if knowing more about the scale of injustice it spreads. Perhaps that is one task of art as well: to distribute this knowledge.
Last year you traveled to Tokyo for a show called Boutique. What idea was this based on?
The idea for the exhibition Boutique was to pair up a designer and an artist, and have them make a project together. I was working with designer Minna Parikka who I already knew from before. She had told me how she, years ago, designed a shoe that accidentally had 3 “stripes” on the side between the cuts of other elements. She didn´t even notice it until the shoe was out. Adidas threatened her with a lawsuit unless she destroyed all the copies of these shoes. And she did.
The law is very different towards an artwork compared to a commercial product like a shoe. Even when it comes to freedom of expression. As Boutique was an exhibition about the borderline between art and fashion, we had this idea to use shoes to make 101 copyright violations for an exhibition shown in an art museum. I designed a pattern that had hundreds of commercial mascots on it and that was printed on the shoes.
Shoe Liberation Army was born. The show was first in Helsinki, then in Washington DC. There was no trouble before it went to Tokyo, where they are super precise about their mascots and copyright laws. They insisted that the installation cannot be built unless the Japanese mascots were altered to be unrecognizable. So the installation about the corporate censorship was censored because of the fear of corporate intervention. They didn’t feel the debate was worth the trouble. Perhaps Japan is leading in this field and has already crossed into the next level of capitalism, where corporate actions and logos are beyond critical examination. I still loved the country in all the other senses.
What is worth fighting for?
I went to art school when they were teaching postmodernism. We’ve been taught that all great stories are dead. Truth, justice, love, are all relative concepts, so they are dead. I adapted the attitude really well and for a long time I was taking a sarcastic approach on everything, and feared the most being naive. I didn’t commit to anything. I was making a mock of everything. I think times have changed, politically and otherwise too. We were wrong about those big stories. There are values like solidarity, truth and justice that we have to fight for. We have to commit and to engage, to believe in things, to imagine a new and better world. Postmodern heroes were distant and sarcastic but we have new heroes that don’t have a hint of sarcasm, like Edward Snowden. They believe in things, and are willing to risk their lives for it.
Interview: Victoria Trunova