2 to 21 October 2014
Henna Vainio was born 1981.
She studied at Slade School of Fine Art.
Henna currently lives and works in London.
A conversation between Henna Vainio and Amy Leach.
Amy Leach: The press release opens with a quote from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons - ‘Claiming nothing, not claiming anything, not a claim in everything, collecting claiming, all this makes a harmony, it even makes a succession’ – and reflecting on this, I wanted to begin by asking about the relationship between the individual works and elements within the exhibition.
Henna Vainio: I chose the quote as it seemed to sum up the book and my experience of reading it, which went from complete bewilderment to a continued appreciation. One of the things that stayed with me after repeated readings was how Stein throws in certain colours or objects to sort of anchor the text, to prevent it from running away or becoming too ‘slippery’. I see the rhubarb sticks in the exhibition, for example, doing something similar when taken away from their usual meaning. It’s a funny shaped vegetable and through the process of casting, it becomes like a punctuation mark or an anchor point giving the work a sense of order while also having a function of holding the glass up, or dissecting it. This is also true with the three-part screen and the steel rods, which at first might seem like an arbitrary squiggle but when put together there is a sense of order when connecting lines emerge and how it serves as an armature for the large slabs of plaster.
AL: The rhubarb sticks can also be read literally, as funny vegetables. How important is humour to the work, as either a complement or disturbance to this sense of order?
HV: Humour has an important place in my work and things can become very curious when you re-assign them. Part of it comes from exploring the nature of an object and by casting real things you get the time and tactile experience of it, to get to know its ‘objectness’ in a profound way. In a way it feels like you are forcing it to behave in a way it didn’t want to and something about that can be funny. It can also work to counter the austerity of these objects and structures. There is often an element of fragility and precariousness to the works as they are fixed in a delicate balance or made from materials like glass which can break quite easily. The idea that they are fixed together by bronze peanuts or lead cabbage leaves, or in this case wax rhubarbs, is a way to have that fragility be held together or punctuated by something materially flimsy, which is another way humour can work.
AL: This balancing or playing of opposites against each other seems to recur subtly throughout the work – the familiar made strange, the soft and organic made hard and sculptural, rhythms and repetitions interrupted. Could you speak about what interests you about this dynamic? Is it something you consciously create and use?
HV: Yes it’s definitely a conscious method and it goes back to the previous point about humour and wanting to re-assign roles. For a long time I was fascinated by cheap material imitations that you find in DIY stores or theatrical backdrops that signify weight and density but have no real substance. I found this discrepancy interesting and did the reverse with sheets of polystyrene, casting them in plaster and building them up into freestanding sculptures. When you look at polystyrene you automatically make assumptions about its impossible lightness given its size. These sculptures have the opposite perceptive effect as they are so dense and weighty in comparison, but also precarious and often balancing awkwardly. So there are many potentials for tension, but ultimately I hope the reshuffling brings a certain hierarchical equivalence to the materials and dynamism to the work.
AL: Absolutely, and I also see it in the interplay between function and ornament, although maybe this is the wrong word for what I mean. I’m interested to ask about the use or role of colour in the exhibition in this regard.
HV: Not at all, that interplay is important and part of the same reshuffle. Colour… in the past I’ve used quite a muted palette largely determined by the material itself but wanted to do something different for the exhibition. It features so heavily in the text and as mentioned earlier, functions like a ‘grounding’ or a punctuation device. So I wanted to use colour in a similar way;in isolated strokes that bring the other more ‘colourless’ elements out more. I have to say I found it surprisingly hard! There is so much significance to colours that I’m only learning to understand, but I’m pleased with the attempt.
AL: Does or has a consideration of colour played a part in your choice of materials previously? Is there a hierarchy to your relationship with a material’s qualities, for example is the creamy whiteness/greyness of plaster as significant as it’s weight, fragility and other characteristics?
HV: I think it is less significant in that I keep returning to plaster as I feel I know it well and I can get it to do what I want. I like the malleability of it and it seems to offer possibilities and characteristics that can be manipulated easily. So I guess those qualities come first and form a sort of hierarchy when making work. But as colour is being introduced, and it’s definitely more prominent in this exhibition, it opens up new challenges because it becomes another element that can affect the harmony of not only one work but the others around it.
AL: And the space also - looking at the exhibition again now I noticed how the clear, uncoloured areas in the panes of glass, where the material is left as itself, seem to highlight the wall behind or floor beneath. And, in a similar way, the apertures created by the steel rods of the screen. As my last question, could I ask you to speak a little about the role of the space in relation to the sculptures? I’m particularly interested in this act of looking through the work.
HV: The act of looking through is highlighted with the pieces in the show, certainly more than with previous works. However, I have always preferred a kind of modular approach that sees the different elements added on or abbreviated, to make way for another configuration, or to suggest an openness for one. The use of negative space also gives away some of the mystery to how this thing has been constructed. In a way, it can serve to include the viewer in being able to mentally ‘complete’ the work by witnessing its elements that are transparent, or not there at all.
AL: Thanks, Henna.