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Elina Brotherus, For Sylvia Plath, 2016 | © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020

Perhaps an Otter. A Questionnaire for Elina Brotherus

Bent over with her head in a bucket, playing Chopin on the piano for her pet dog, or becoming a sculpture together with Erwin Wurm – the new photographs by the artist Elina Brotherus, born 1972 in Helsinki, are surprisingly different. For several years she has been creating photo and video works with verve and plenty of humour, in which nods to art history are playfully used as the starting point for new visual strategies.

The new solo exhibition Elina Brotherus. Why not? in the Weserburg Museum of Modern Art in Bremen focuses on more recent pieces and series of works. Also on display is a small photo of the famous Marcel Proust questionnaire, with both witty and cryptic answers from the artist. Inspired by this, the exhibition curator Ingo Clauß selected questions from the questionnaire by Max Frisch as the basis for an unusual interview. Elina Brotherus’ answers are from October 7, 2020, almost 55 years after Max Frisch’s first questionnaire was originally published.


How old do you want to become?

I want to become very old so that I can juxtapose a self-portrait from age 25 with a self-portrait from age 85 in an exhibition. I love the work of Roman Opałka, who did exactly this.


What do you need in order to be happy?

A good gallery in NYC and the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale.


What are you grateful for?

That I had a happy childhood until the age of 13, after which it was unhappy, but the early years were good enough to save me.
That I had excellent teachers in art school.
That I’ve been making art since 1997 and I’m still here. Many of those who I exhibited with in the early years have disappeared or changed career.
That my dog recovered from spinal surgery.


Which would you prefer: to die or to live on as a healthy animal? Which animal?

Of course I would like to continue living as a healthy animal. Perhaps an otter.


Do you usually know what you are hoping for?

Best is when you can go without expectations, because then if something nice happens, it feels like a gift.


What previous hope have you now given up on?

Becoming a mother.


Can you think without hope?



What do you hope for from travelling?

Pre-March 2020 you would have gotten a different answer. Right now I just hope I can start to do my job again. There has been a long, depressing break. Last week I installed my first exhibition since the lockdown started, and this will be the second one. It feels like waking up from a long hibernation, although the winter isn’t even here yet.


When you are in a foreign country and meet compatriots, does this make you feel homesick, or precisely the opposite?

No, I get to spend enough time in my country of origin in order to not feel homesick.


What do you call home?
a. a village?
b. a town or a district within it?
c. places where the same language is spoken?
d. a continent?
e. a house or apartment?

The language area. But as I learn other languages, those areas become adopted homelands, too. France and especially Bourgogne is my second, self-chosen home.


What do you particularly like about your home?
a. the scenery?
b. the fact that the people have similar habits to yours − that is − that you fit in with them and can therefore rely on their understanding?
c. its customs?
d. the fact that you do not have to speak a foreign language?
e. memories of your childhood?

People in Finland usually don’t lie. It makes communication easy.

I really don’t mind using many languages. I think that has become an integral part of me.

At times when I’m too busy, I always think of Sibelius, who wrote that he missed peace and quiet, but then when he got some he remembered that peace and quiet didn’t suit him very well.

I love certain smells: a) dry pine forest on a warm summer day, birch leaves in the rain, the smell of coffee when bicycling past the roastery on my way to my Photoshop technician. I love certain birds: the loon’s cry, the seagulls when they arrive to Helsinki in the spring, the wagtail, the funny faces of jackdaws.

I’m pathetically fanatic about picking blueberries.


How much ‘home country’ do you need?

Enough to take distance from others. I need to be a hermit every once in a while.


Can you think of any regions, towns, customs, etc., which make you feel in your heart that you would have been better suited to a different home country?

Yes, every time I spend a winter in Finland. Anywhere with more daylight is a better choice from November to March.


Can you imagine yourself without a home at all?

To say yes would be an insult to those who have been forced to leave theirs.


What is the difference between a joke and humour?

A joke is instantaneous laughter, humour is attitude.


Do you have a sense of humour when you are alone?



What can you only bear with humour?

Minor disappointments.


Do you know what you need?

Quoting Deborah Hay from memory:
“What if
where I am and what I do
is what I need?”


Do you also collect art?

In moderation. I have my mom’s paintings, and a few pieces I’ve exchanged with colleagues, and a couple that I’ve bought from my students’ exhibitions.


Do you consider yourself a good friend?

I’m bad at answering letters because I would like to do it properly, and I’m very slow and it’s never exactly the right moment. So I feel guilty and fear that people feel neglected. But when I’m with someone, I’m 100% there. With my oldest friends I feel an unconditional love that makes it easy to continue from where we left off even if a year passes without physically meeting.


Which do you fear more; the judgment of a friend or the judgment of enemies? Why?

Judgment of enemies. Because with a friend you can discuss things and there’s the possibility of explaining and learning. Enemies by definition just want bad things for you.


Do you keep a dog in order to have a friend?

I see my dog as an innocent, vulnerable being who would not survive half a day in the nature – so no, not a friend, a thing for which I have a terrifying responsibility and overwhelming love. I’m completely gaga for this dog.


Translated by Ingo Clauß and Ramona Tyler


Ingo Clauß chose his questions from the following book: Max Frisch, Questionnaire. Berlin (Suhrkamp Verlag) 2019. The questionnaires are from Frisch’s Tagebuch 1966−1971.

Elina Brotherus. Why not?  is the photo artist’s first solo exhibition in a German museum. The exhibition comprises around 40 photographs and two video works, and is on display from October 25, 2020 until February 21, 2021 in the Weserburg Museum of Modern Art in Bremen. Hirmer Verlag has published an illustrated catalogue with further essays.



Elina Brotherus
Oben / ylhällä / above:
Elina Brotherus, For Sylvia Plath, 2016 | © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020

Links / vasemmalla / left:
© Elina Brotherus, Disguise yourself as another object (Big Bird), 2016

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