Come, let’s have a cry together
The painter Jukka Korkeila is one of the best-known contemporary Finnish artists. In 2019, he was awarded the Finnish State Prize for Fine Arts. His works are famous for an unveiled lack of compromise, both in his choice of subject matter and in the painting itself. In July 2021, Sylvia Metz visited him in his current adopted home in the Wetterau region of Hesse, where they spoke about his exhibition “All of Finland weeps – Tears of sorrow, joy and healing” at the Finnish Institute, which was still being planned at the time of the interview.
Jukka, we are sitting here in your studio in the small town of Ortenberg in the Wetterau. What was the reason behind moving your very typical-looking studio in a rather atypical place for artists here in the country, far away from the next big city?
I have to say that I am very fond of the landscape here. For many people, the Wetterau is considered the Tuscany of Hesse. But it is mainly for private reasons that I live here at the moment. My German partner Markus Karger, who works as an actor and director, and I are actually based in three places: Berlin, Helsinki and Glauburg-Stockheim. And I have two studios, one in Berlin and one in Ortenberg, which is a few kilometres from our flat. But it‘s not as idyllic here as you might think. The other day, an elderly gentleman tried to run me over with his Mercedes-Benz while I was walking along a quiet country road.
Wow, that sounds just like Neukölln. But all jokes aside – do you sometimes miss Finland?
Yes, I miss Finland, because unlike Finland, Germany, one of the richest countries in the world, doesn’t want to subsidise its artists and leaves everything more or less at the mercy of the market economy. In Germany, a small group of artists collect most of the money circulating in the art world. The financial disparity within the art scene is much greater here than in Finland.
But there are a number of good scholarship programmes in Germany, what do you think about them?
In Finland, there are art museums even in comparatively small towns, like Riihimäki, which have their own collections of Finnish and local artists and are financed mainly with state and municipal funds. This is all part of the promotion of the visual arts in Finland, which is rarer in Germany. As for scholarships, they seem to be practically non-existent in Germany. At least I don’t know of any artist living permanently here who has received a long-term scholarship. Quite honestly, I personally have only met artists who have received small grants, but no large ones.
Let’s talk about your art and your exhibition at the Finnish Institute. What exactly is the exhibition about?
I have a theory that all Finns belong to a distant family of “weeping women”, or professional lamenters. My own connection to the Karelian weeping women tradition is through my grandmother Aino Korkeila, née Partanen. During the Second World War she came to the Häme region in Finland as a refugee from what is now Karelia, the territory ceded to the Soviet Union after the war in 1940. In a situation where others cannot weep, it is the artist’s task to weep vicariously for others as a substitute mourner, which can be compared to the Karelian tradition of weeping women. In the Eastern Orthodox Church there is a so-called “gift of tears” or lamentation: an emotional movement that opens our minds to eternity. The function of the weeping woman in the lamentation tradition is to prepare the deceased’s relatives for grief, to pave the way to and awaken collective weeping. This weeping is completely missing in today’s Finnish culture. I deal with this in my exhibition, but the subject is of course much more complex and has several layers that I want to open up.
Which levels do you mean?
For decades I have been observing how Germany struggles with its recent history, this is especially true of the Holocaust, which is being respectfully dealt with. There are constantly programmes shown on German television about the Second World War. As a foreigner in Germany, I feel like I shouldn’t have the right to deal with German history, but I do it anyway because I could have been sent to a concentration camp here during World War II for being a gay. In Germany, the guilt and burden of the Second World War is always passed on to the new generation and the debt remains unpaid without collective remorse. A collective sacrament of repentance would do good for Germany.
What could such a collective sacrament – and thus a cross-generational healing, if I have understood you correctly – look like for Germany?
Imagine our still incumbent Chancellor as a weeping woman and what effect that would have. We can imagine Angela Merkel as the emotional leader of the Germans crying on TV during her New Year’s speech and the whole country breaking into a collective cry with her. Germany has never managed to come to terms with its suppressed grief and open up to forgive itself for the horrors of the Second World War. Germany is like a mother who has taught her children not to cry. Crying also does good for Germany.
Basically, you’re suggesting Germany do a group psychoanalysis. I would be interested to know if you would suggest that to Finland as well?
It’s hard to say. Finland is at the top of the world’s happiness statistics, although there is an alcoholic in every family and the national suicide statistics are not exactly commendable. In 2021, Finland entered the song “Dark Side” by the band Blind Channel in the Eurovision Song Contest, which, when I read the lyrics, reminded me above all of the Finns’ positive attitude towards intoxication – and the self-destructive behaviour associated with it – and the emotional powerlessness of men as well as women. In the song, crying is portrayed as paralysis. Finland cannot cry properly. Aggressiveness is a more acceptable form of behaviour than crying, which is understood as an expression of weakness. We should free ourselves from the shame associated with crying, which prevents us from becoming holistic and real human beings.
What does crying mean to you personally?
My own history of crying throughout my life is very complex. Crying has always helped me. It’s true that there are three types of tears: sorrow, joy and healing. They can occur separately or appear as hybrids. My crying has always been associated with sorrow, anxiety or joy. I have cried both privately and in public, in many different places: I have cried secretly while staring out an airplane window, or I’ve cried into my goggles in a swimming pool so no one would notice. I have also cried openly in public when necessary.
In some of your pictures you show a type of male body that for some people clearly doesn’t correspond to the traditional expectation of classical beauty ideals. What fascinates you about showing male sexuality in this way?
Classical ideals of beauty derive from the ancient Greco-Roman sculptural tradition, which has always been of interest to the rulers and artists of totalitarian regimes. Not all people conform to or are interested in the classical ideals of beauty, and the physical and sexual diversity of people is enormous. In this context, my works become opposites of classical ideals of beauty and form a counterforce to, for example, the algorithmic imagery of Instagram, which simulates a global and fascist ideal of the body.
In your opinion, is there still such a thing as “the stronger sex” nowadays?
The polarity of the two genders is disappearing and we are entering a new era with a grey scale of countless sexual identities, in which the clear boundaries of the different sexual identities are also disappearing. A new power will emerge from these newly defined gender identities. This also means that the focus on the countless genders will dissolve and the human being itself and humanity will take centre stage, behind which stands a soul that itself has no gender.
When you talk about the concept of the soul, the icon in your studio that I mentioned at the beginning comes to mind. Are you a religious person?
A life without transcendence would mean a life without joy and hope. My work Oneness of Purpose, for example, is a symbol of hope and joy that carries us towards the hereafter. Religion and spirituality bring us back to the forgotten communality, to the interconnectedness and unity of everything.
What other levels of meaning are there for you in Oneness of Purpose?
My artwork is meant as a sign of compassion for sexual minorities, especially in Eastern Europe. In recent years, there have been liberalisation developments in the European Union that have caused a conservative backlash, the rise of nationalist parties in various countries. The problem in many countries is the alienation between sexual minorities and religious fundamentalists, we lack a common forum where we could meet and start a dialogue with each other. The Orthodox rainbow flag is an extension of the olive branch for both sides of the dispute, an invitation to sit down at a common table and seek a compromise for a common future.
That’s a beautiful conclusion. I am sure that your exhibition will make a significant contribution to the possibility of coming together around a table in the future. Thank you very much for the inspiring and open interview.
Thank you. It was a great pleasure. Would you now like to go and have a cry together?
Translation: Ramona Tyler
Editorial work: Benjamin Houitte, Marion Holtkamp
This interview is a shortened version of the article Jukka Korkeila: All of Finland weeps – Tears of sorrow, joy and healing. The catalogue is free to download on our website. You can order the book for 10 EUR plus postage at the Finnish Institute: tel. +49 30 403631890; email: email@example.com.