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About Leena Mertanen's Work

Protractedly darkened, severely introspective, and absurdly gelid over the long winters, yet idyllically proliferating with flora and fauna, and overwhelmingly exploding with human energy and libido over the mesmerizingly bright summers. The character of the Nordic countries is a natural consequence of the climatic features and the extremes of its longitude, yet it also results from the complexity and intricacy of diametrical opposites, from underlying contradictions, ideals of gender equality, liberalism, and social welfare as global models, and from an ever-growing ambition to put a dent in the Universe.


The art of Leena Mertanen is the quintessential expression of this character: unforgiving in its dark side, strong in its humour, temperamental in its emotions, intricate in its way of exploring human nature, complex in its rendering of personality and personas, primal in its depiction of our drives and desires, sharp whilst it unveils the social domain to the extent of blatantly exposing its most repressed and unspoken corners. Indeed, Mertanen’s art is the embodiment of the radical cultural hybridity that takes shape through the Nordic reality, climate, societal rationale, and ethical configuration.

Mertanen consciously draws on a multiplicity of sources in the making of her work: from fashion, music, film, literature, and cultural history. She is in the constant chase for new thematic approaches to modern photography ambitiously aiming at a purist technical knowhow. Combining this conceptual and disciplinary approach to her adoption of her own body and personal journey, Mertanen adds layers of uniqueness to her syncretic photographic production.

Mertanen merges different inflectional varieties of art historical references from classicism to the post-modern and the post-digital; amalgamates cultural references from high art, pop and social media driven culture, fashion advertising and media; and entwines childhood memories to a fierce narrative of deprecation of patriarchy and its deeply entrenched social construction of female oppression. By doing so, she assigns to her body the task of functioning as a vessel, as a medium, and as a lever firmly fixed in the work and entirely capable of exponentially empower art with the strength and authority of the woman condition.

This task was given by Cindy Sherman to her body too, and similarly to this acclaimed representative of the Picture Generation of the 1970s, Mertanen probes the construction of identity, playing with the visual and cultural codes of a highly fragmented 22nd century where the boundaries between the cultural codes of art, celebrity, gender and identity politics have been blurred to a new and radical extent.

Mertanen responds to the landscape of mass media in the era of the digital revolution both with humour and criticism, appropriating images or referencing to the imagery of advertising, film, television, magazines, social media and beyond, and experimenting with the proliferation of new different identities that the era of WhatsApp, Instagram, Pinterest and TikTok are generating as if the notion of the self and the meme could be either interchangeable or corresponding.

As Sherman relied on cinematic conventions to build up her photographic compositions, Mertanen seems to rely on the conventions of the digital world and to aim at displaying the diversity of human types and stereotypes propagated through it. Theatrical effects and pastiche are the tools through which Mertanen embodies different characters, historical moments and roles, with wigs slipping off, prosthetics and props which dramatize the staged effect, and her make-up comically poorly blended or smudged: the artificiality and humour of the fabrications highlighting either the grotesque artificiality of imposed constructions of identity or the strange, visceral, ugly, and even abject aspects of humanity.

Mertanen’s oeuvre is radically hybrid also for the ways through which it overlaps the satirical with myth, mysticism and religion, the bizarre with the history of gender role definition and relations, and the surreal with elements such toys, nature and folklore. Her work is idiosyncratic and strong because it often hides the gritty and controversial aspects of society under the cheerful language of the kitsch, and it suggests how much the artist is politically and socially aware of both her immediate surrounding and a globalised world.

By Kalinca Costa Söderlund

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