PRINT November 1995


WHEN IN HELSINKI last winter I came upon Esko Männikkö’s antique-framed photographs of back-country Finns,1 I wanted one. Lust to own art is infrequent but not novel for me. I have often said that, given the pelf, I would be a collector instead of a critic. Writing a check is so much more sincere than writing a review, as you know by the pain of parting with your money. Pelf being what it isn’t for me, my lifetime total of art purchases can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But Männikkö’s photographs, which come in editions of prints, each cropped differently to fit an available frame, turned out to be almost indecently cheap. I bought the one I am looking at now.

It shows a far-northern sunrise or sunset, probably in autumn and thus late morning or early afternoon. Against a slash of livid horizon under an otherwise overcast sky, stanchion lights gleam wanly along a railroad siding lined with empty timber cars. Tiny in the picture’s exact center, a man is silhouetted on the wooden porch of a trailerlike shack whose glowing window gives it the air of a fairytale cottage. Details of the actually squalid scene are barely legible in gloom that is like the crudded varnish of an old oil painting. (I am now in the market for one of those frame lamps that illuminate such paintings.) The bearded man has his head thrown back and a bottle tilted up. Glug, glug. It is a gesture of abandon that salutes the place and whatever is transpiring in the sky. It unclenches a wildness.

This distant view is a tour de force among Männikkö’s portraits of deep-North characters in their tatterdemalion homes. Himself a 36-year-old northern Finn who lives in Oulu, Männikkö knows his people. He visits and often stays with them for a day or two to achieve the images that say what can be said about them. His portraits are overwhelmingly fact-filled and naked, delivering more truth more suddenly than can be absorbed, no matter how long you look at them. With allowance for the greater formality of his photographs, he reminds me of Nan Goldin, who similarly causes pictures to happen like congested freeze-frames within achingly intimate, dark flows of life. Also like Goldin, Männikkö knows how kicked-up color can function analytically, drawing almost tactile attention to the quiddities of things.

I chose the generalized portrait of the drinking man because it gives me latitude to meditate at large on Finland, a country I have visited several times (though only its southern parts) and love. My Finland is a zone of melancholy extremes. Emotional, shy, and acutely observant, Finns of my acquaintance share a national dead certainty, at once sad and defiant, of being misunderstood. Their exotic language, geopolitical bum luck, and tragic history combine to make them more interesting than it sometimes seems they can bear. There are fewer than five million Finns in a roomy but awkward corner of the globe, knowing things they despair of conveying to anyone else. When they get drunk (not as regularly as the stereotype suggests, but as intensely), it is often with a complicated, nearly sacramental will.

I fancy confirmation of all of this in Männikkö, whose finesse as a photographer is likewise Finnish, characteristic of a culture famous for subtle talents in many genres of making. If Finnish art, unlike Finnish architecture and design, has been no great shakes, it may be because Finnish sensibility, rather like that of the Japanese, spreads itself evenly through all its tasks rather than reserving a Sunday punch for prestigious white-cube rectangles.

Notable about Männikkö, in terms of his Finnishness, is a double movement inward and outward, at once absolutely local and internationally self-conscious. The pompous glamour of the found frames evokes an abject rural culture that yearns toward beauty. It stands in tension with the sophisticated style of the photography, a beautiful technique straining for humble truth. The frames present truth as painting—like decorative fiction making stark reality seem mere, even fanciful, possibility. This particular whipsaw is startling and delightful, causing the sharp deliciousness that stirred my greed when I first laid eyes on a Männikkö. Is the device obvious and easy? Not unless a serious commitment to reality, without which the device has no work to do, is obvious and easy.

To continue with their irony, Männikkö’s frames acknowledge his pictures as commodities, though funky ones. They also caricature his vocational position, that of a guy immersed in the subarctic equivalent of Tobacco Road who turns toward the metropolis as an ambitious artist. “An artist?” one can imagine his down-home friends and subjects exclaiming. “Esko?!” The frames communicate a funny compunction by which Männikkö keeps faith with the worldview of the folk, who sensibly expect art to declare its presence, even as he vies for favor at court, which is delighted by his mannerly artifice in serving up folkish authenticity. Männikkö’s is a brittle balance, which will be sorely tested by the feedback of his international success. For the moment, however, he displays an enviable stance that contemporary art culture sometimes allows: to be both inside and outside at the same time.

Whenever you buy something in a fit of acquisitiveness, there comes a moment, usually soon, when you forget how you wanted it. (If you then rush out and buy something else, to repeat the high, you are a collector.) Looking at my Männikkö, I have endured that moment. What did I imagine that, by possessing it, I would possess? Now the photo is among the objects in my house that I am as much responsible for as enriched by. I guess I felt that via ownership I could keep my first love of the work fresh without having to explain it. But all freshness fades, and everything must be explained eventually or else be ignored—and the backlit guy determinedly wahooing in the woods, whose fate is mysteriously so important, will not be ignored by me. He drinks against the sky, against fear and hope, in the end-of-the-world North on behalf of all who are crazed by knowing too much too well.


1. Männikkö’s photographs were shown in a terrific international show, ARS 95 (February 11–May 28, 1995), at Nykytaiteen museo (Museum of Contemporary Arr), Helsinki.