The first US museum solo show of Finnish artist Iiu Susiraja (b. 1975) radically discards capitalist notions of ‘lifestyle’ in favour of depicting life without style.
On entering the exhibition, viewers are invited into Susiraja’s home in Turku, a city on Finland’s southwest coast. The intimate scale of the forty-eight c-prints, framed in black on light beige walls, make MoMA PS1’s ground floor gallery look somewhat stark and austere. In Susiraja’s vivid tableaux, the artist stares out at us amid a variety of unexpected props. With no standard aspect ratio, the photographs are cropped snugly around the subject, almost always Susiraja herself.
Susiraja’s domestic self-portraits are performances executed with the candour of sitting for a passport photo. Her posture is often slack. Her props, a seemingly random assortment of household objects, reveal her deadpan sense of humour. In one of the show’s earliest works, ‘Large-scale cleaning’ (2008), Susiraja, who originally trained as a textile designer, stands with a long, striped carpet draped over her head. In the show’s titular work, ‘A style called a dead fish’ (2018), the artist stands with a herring between her legs and a toilet plunger over her face.
The phrase ‘dead fish’ is slang for a woman who is passive during intercourse. For Susiraja, it also describes an empty, emotionless state of mind, which the artist attempts to inhabit when she steps in front of the camera. To be a dead fish is to enact a form of refusal. What Susiraja refuses is, first and foremost, the capitalist impulse to make images that further fetishise eros, consumption, domesticity, and wealth. Susiraja’s photographs depict everyday life but not as ‘lifestyle’. It is life hard-won from the prescriptive jaws of style.
The genesis of Susiraja’s artistic practice coincides with the 2008 global financial crisis, from which Finland suffered two recessions. We see in the show a level of recession-era frugality. When asked about her process, Susiraja describes making a shopping list while listening to music. The criteria for her props, she says, is that they must be generic and, importantly, cheap. As such, she situates her tableaux squarely in the mundane, demystifying the role of materials in artistic creation while laying bare their relation to commodity.
Whereas advertising plays up the glamour and eros of objects, Susiraja’s photographs render them impotent, even abject, neutralising their power as consumer goods and symbols of desire. For instance, instruments of gendered domestic labour—plunger, feather duster, latex gloves, bucket—are stripped of their scripted function. She sticks a plunger over her nose and mouth, a feather duster between her legs like a tail. In a two-minute single-channel video titled ‘Cow’ (2017), she cuts holes in a latex glove and pours milk through it into a bucket.
Susiraja presents darker, more troubling strands of critique as well. In her Dalmatian series (2019), the artist poses on her bed, drawing on the trope of the reclining female nude. Deep bruises cover her arms and legs, viscerally linking the subtle language of objectification to explicit consequences of violence. While Susiraja’s work, even at its most critical, resists the kind of politically specific interpretation to which a self-portrait like Laura Aguilar (1959–2018)’s ‘Three Eagles Flying’ (1990) may lend itself, Susiraja’s decision to document her bruises demonstrates a refusal to hide or whitewash her lived reality for the sake of appearances.
Alongside Susiraja’s photographs, the exhibition includes thirteen of the artist’s single-channel videos, pithy performances that take place in various rooms of her apartment. In ‘Prayer’ (2017), Susiraja squeezes a banana until its skin pops open, as if the miniature eruption were proof of her spiritual strength. In ‘Lunch Box’ (2017), she stands against her living room wall and stuffs a cake into her elastic shorts. In each video, once the act is complete, the artist expressionlessly walks out of the frame.
One cannot presume to know what the artist is thinking as she walks off-camera, only that something changes. Her expression remains stoic, but she seems to let her guard down. Once she decides that the performance is over, ordinariness sets in. Action begets consequence: Susiraja changes from a subject of intrigue, the mastermind of an inscrutable tableau, to a woman with a cake in her pants, a woman with a mess on her hands.
Just as Hannah Wilke (1940–1993) covered her face with chewed gum to protest the perceived disposability of women’s bodies, Susiraja strikes a provisional alliance with commodity, if only to skewer it. Through experimental acts executed with the casualness of grocery shopping, Susiraja reveals how versatile objects become when they’re no longer in service to appearances.
Jenny Wu is a US-based writer and independent curator. Her work can be found at safflowerlady.com
Iiu Susiraja: A style called a dead fish is curated by Jody Graf, Assistant Curator, MoMA PS1. 20 Apr–4 Sep, 2023