‘It feels like drawing apart the “curtains of the ordinary” for a split second’– interview with Aapo Huhta
17 • 04 • 20Judit Flóra Schuller
Aapo Huhta is a Finnish photographer based in Helsinki. His latest work, Omatandangole was to be —and will later on be —presented at the project space of Mai Manó House called PaperLab. We talked about his latest series, his working process, and, inevitably, about his approach to the current COVID-19 situation.
Your exhibition, Omatandangole was due to open last week at PaperLab. Unfortunately, we had to postpone the opening until it is safe to re-open the museum. How has the virus affected your work?
I was to have an exhibition in Italy in May, and it has been postponed a few times already. I also have a big solo exhibition coming up at Tampere Art Museum, which I have been working on since last autumn. The opening was to take place on 13 June, but it has been postponed until next autumn. For this exhibition, I was working on a video piece that requires about 100 people to be present at the same place. Of course, it was impossible to do this piece in this situation. So I needed to find another solution and eventually the whole work turned into something different. But there are always limitations and things can go wrong in different ways. Finding your way despite all the difficulties is also part of the process. However, it’s a weird feeling to work on an exhibition when you don’t know if it is going to materialize in the end or not, or become an online show. On the other hand, there aren’t of course many commissions at the moment, and my calendar is quite empty right now. But there are also glimpses of solidarity. For example, there was a person who reached out to me and bought a work as an act of support in these difficult times. It gave me the feeling that people still cared about each other and tried to help in different ways. Here in Helsinki too, it seems people really want to support their local producers, shops, bakeries, and restaurants. All in all, I think society will change quite a lot after this whole thing is over. I hope it will change how we appreciate and use things.
Generally speaking, can you create a balance between your personal and commissioned works?
The artistic process can be extremely long. The new book I have made (Omatandangole) took three years to complete. It is a solitary thing to do and you have your ups and downs during the process, which is a good thing, it is inevitable. In the case of a commissioned work, it takes no more than a week or two to finalize it. It is also pleasant to work faster and feel I have completed something within a short period of time. In this sense, I find it useful to have these two different practices in my work. My background is in documentary photography, and thanks to the commissioned photoshoots, I do not have this urge in my personal work to photograph in a straightforward, documentary style. It is also a source of relief to experiment freely with my personal projects.
Omatandangole was shot in Namibia. What was your starting point and inspiration to travel there?
Basically I wanted to go as far as I could, it was an escape from my personal life. At the same time, I was also eager to find something new to work on, to develop my artistic work. In a way, it was the combination of a personal retreat and the discovery of a new tone in my visual language.
What does the title refer to?
The title comes from the native language, Oshiwambo, and it refers to mirage, a phenomenon that takes place when the air is really hot and the view gets distorted. I like the fact that it is a difficult word to use as a title. I had loads of different working titles during the process, but somehow omatandangole seemed to reflect my core interest: how it is possible to create an image that eludes everyday experience, while in the end everything in that image can be said to be true. It feels like drawing apart the “curtains of the ordinary” for a split second.
Omatandangole has a different, more abstract and contemplative tone than your previous photobook-based work, like Block, for example. Was this shift in your photographic approach intentional or did it happen more or less naturally?
Block was shot in New York, so the surroundings there were completely different than in the Namibian desert. Personally, I think my approach was the same in both cases, the images reflect my first observation of the scenery. As for the format of the photos, since New York is extremely dense, the pictures in Block are mostly vertical, unlike in Omatandangole, where the scenery is horizontal in most of the pictures, capturing the deserted landscape. Even though quite a few people appear in Block, they are still isolated and convey a sense of silence and loneliness, so content-wise that is another similarity. When I went to Namibia, I was curious to see what kind of images I can find in this emptiness. These landscapes are particularly massive and deserted at the same time, and I was more interested in the visual possibilities of this emptiness than the actual place or the local people. I somehow feel ashamed about this indifference, but I was on my own most of the time. On the other hand, it was a relief not to take there a documentary attempt, the point of view of an outsider. You can’t really do that as a Western white male photographer. My focus was on the inner things.
When I went to Namibia, I was curious to see what kind of images I can find in this emptiness. These landscapes are particularly massive and deserted at the same time, and I was more interested in the visual possibilities of this emptiness than the actual place or the local people.
How many times did you go back to Namibia?
The series was made during two separate journeys. You can stay for three months without a visa, so the first time I was there for three months, and then went back to Finland to develop the films, and started to go through them. Nine months later I went back again for another three months to shoot more.
Omatandangole was published by Kehrer Verlag and debuted at Paris Photo last autumn. Did you have a photobook in mind from the start?
The creation of my first book in 2015 felt like a wrestling match. Still, I wanted to do it again and see how I can develop the process of making a book. But it was not completely clear at the beginning. I went to Namibia with an open mind, without a clear preconception. I find it challenging when the concept defines the work even before it has been started. To me, it somehow kills the mystery of the photographic process. I like to simply go somewhere, feel and experience the place, and let the work reveal itself to me, assume its own form.
Are you currently working on a new project?
I have been working on a new work for the Tampere exhibition I mentioned before. It would be an installation-like piece, consisting of only two framed images, a tree stump and the video I cannot really do now. It is a little bit pointless to describe the work when it is not completely ready, especially as I haven’t been able to make the video because of the virus situation. But I also have a plan B for it. And of course, my exhibition is not the biggest thing in the universe, tons of exhibitions have been postponed or completely cancelled. That’s how things go now.