PRINT February 2022


Iiu Susiraja, Broom, 2010, C-print, dimensions variable. From the series “Good Behavior,” 2008–10.

BEING ROUGHLY 320 POUNDS and a little less than six feet tall, with a fifty-inch waist, I am usually the fattest person in any room. With those stats, how could I not be? In fact, because of my size, much of my existence is a numbers game: I have type 2 diabetes, so I need to take two thousand milligrams of Metformin every day, in addition to ten milligrams of Jardiance, in order to try to keep my A1C levels hovering around 7 percent or less. My other daily medications include ten milligrams of Rosuvastatin for high cholesterol and 150 milligrams of the antidepressant Sertraline; the dosage was recently increased because my “morbid obesity,” as my doctor calls it, has negatively affected my mental health. I live on the fifth floor of a walk-up and need to climb ninety-five steps to get to my apartment. I used to be pretty winded by the time I got to seventy, but after thirteen years of living in the same place, I now stop to catch my breath when I hit eighty-five or ninety. One might think that all this quantifying would give me some sense of control over my life, my physicality, but it doesn’t. The incessant counting has only deepened my estrangement from and disgust for my ungainly, enormous body, as though it were a malevolent alien entity like the Blob that, if not closely monitored, will wreak terrible havoc upon the world.

Since 2007, the Finnish photographer and video artist Iiu Susiraja has made her own massive physique the centerpiece of her work. I vividly remember the first time I saw one of her early self-portraits, Broom, 2010, from her series “Good Behavior,” 2008–10. In this picture, the artist stands in the middle of what might be a kitchen or dining room, wearing a plain navy skirt and a drab, peasant-style blouse. Wedged beneath her breasts, unencumbered by a brassiere, is the long wooden handle of the namesake object. Her short, choppy haircut—“soft prison butch” seems an appropriate way of characterizing it—exacerbates an unsettling gaze, which is equal parts bemusement, frustration, and quiet fury. It is Susiraja’s trademark expression.

Iiu Susiraja, Happy Meal, 2011, C-print, 11 3⁄4 × 15 3⁄4".

Behind her are a number of modest household furnishings, including a brown-and-gold wall hanging with a vaguely modernist pattern, a kitschy little landscape painting, a pale-green end table, and a potted plant. Susiraja’s appearance inside this unremarkable domestic space underlines its abnormality, its suffocating “normalcy.” The setting cannot accommodate her larger-than-life-size presence, at once so achingly self-aware, self-possessed, and ruefully droll. She is immense and immensely strange—she overwhelms, unnerves, enlivens. She chews the scenery (fat joke intended) and wields her physique as though it were a weapon. Her body, like mine, is definitely an alien creature: something that many probably gawk at, or try their best to ignore, or ruthlessly pathologize. Yet she presents it to us without a trace of inhibition, shame, or gratuitous prettification.

No matter how comical or surreal her scenarios, a latent animosity simmers.

“If a fat person behaves badly in an artistic context, then they are doubly misbehaving. Being fat is a transgression in itself. . . . An obese person’s simple existence constitutes misbehaving,” Susiraja once remarked in an interview. The impropriety she mentions runs rampant throughout her self-portraiture. Part of this is fueled by her talent for turning commonplace items—food, toys, women’s shoes, boring underwear—into uncanny and even oddly visceral props. Take Happy Meal, 2011, in which various lengths of apple peel delicately grace the top of the artist’s plump bare foot, calling to mind old scabs, skin ulcers; or Let’s Call, 2016, a picture of Susiraja hunched over, an orange rotary telephone shoved between her legs and trapped in the crotch of a hideous pair of pantyhose that have been pulled down around her knees. The phone makes me think of a miscarried infant—the long, coiled cord of the handset, which is draped over the artist’s neck, feels more than a little umbilical.

Iiu Susiraja, Vitrine, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 1 minute 57 seconds.

Her short videos bring her strange tableaux to life. In Vitrine, 2017, Susiraja stands next to an antique display cabinet full of ceramic tchotchkes. After a beat, she opens its door, pulls out a small vase, and proceeds to frantically lick it all over while staring, deadpan, into the camera. When she finishes, she carefully puts the vessel back in place, closes the cabinet door, and walks out of frame. The work reminds me of a scene from John Waters’s infamous Pink Flamingos (1972), in which Divine (the late drag superstar, whose flagrant, fat-ass spirit wends its way through a lot of Susiraja’s work) and her son break into their archenemies’ home to enact a twisted hillbilly curse that involves licking all of the furniture. (During the ritual, Divine drops a huge mouthful of saliva onto a couch cushion, mutters the word juicy, and then, to fully cement the dark deed, gives her kid a blow job. Classic.)

John Waters, Pink Flamingos, 1972, 35 mm, color, sound, 93 minutes. Crackers (Danny Mills) and Divine/Babs Johnson (Divine).

No matter how comical or surreal her scenarios, a latent animosity simmers. In a 2018 interview with Autre magazine, the artist said that she could never make anyone else the subject of her work: “I can bully myself with the camera, but I cannot bully another person.” Yet by seeming to humiliate herself, she pointedly calls out those who cling to cruel misperceptions about the obese—that they’re stupid, lethargic, gluttonous, etc.—by exaggerating such notions to preposterous degrees (or, perhaps more appropriately, fattening them up until they explode). Zoo, 2021, is a photograph that will be featured in Susiraja’s solo debut at Nino Mier Gallery in Los Angeles, which opens this month. (Ironically, the space is located in West Hollywood, a “gayborhood” rife with male-body fascism.) In this work, the artist wears a crimson sweater and sits on a bed in a room flooded with the cold light of day. Her collar is stretched to expose her right breast, but she holds a rainbow-swirl lollipop to conceal her nipple. Susiraja’s bare legs are spread wide; between them rests the decapitated head of a Brobdingnagian teddy bear, whose body is propped up next to her. The artist’s cheeks appear flushed, though not from embarrassment. The image seems to me a spoof of vintage cheesecake photography, Bunny Yeager meets Blue Velvet—something to fuck up a hostile, judgmental gaze. (It would make a great dating-profile picture, pairing quite well with the deceptively cloying “bio” that appears on Susiraja’s website, part of which reads, “I like poems, music, flea markets, mornings, rain, and spring. Close to my heart are animals and flowers. . . . Everyday life is my muse.”)

Iiu Susiraja, Zoo, 2021, ink-jet print, 38 × 26".

Last year, Susiraja received an award for midcareer artists from the Finnish Art Society. In a post on her Instagram account, she said that the organization referred to her work as “weird,” “absurd,” and “adorable.” While the first two adjectives certainly apply, the last one rubs me the wrong way. It’s an infantilizing descriptor that often gets used to make fat people seem innocuous, approachable, soft. The abrasiveness of Susiraja’s aesthetic is a tonic, especially in light of all the smarmy, feel-good discourse that suffuses the body-positivity movement within which her art is frequently positioned. Having a giant body can be a terrible burden on one’s social, physical, and psychic health, and trying to love oneself must involve embracing the darker, more complicated emotions that arise. Fat people are intimately familiar with anger, whether it’s directed at themselves or at a world that can barely stand to look at them. But when properly harnessed, the feeling can be a luminous, transformative force—both humanizing and galvanizing.

This subtle yet incandescent rage shimmers everywhere in Susiraja’s output. It’s just one of the many reasons why her art—so mesmerizing, terrorizing, gnarly, monstrous—is incredibly beautiful.

Alex Jovanovich is an artist, a writer, and Artforum’s reviews editor.