Artist Toni Kitti: “Let’s smile, dammit!”

Toni Kitti’s exhibition The Persistence of Plastic will open in Copeland Gallery at the end of June. In this interview, Kitti tells us about plastic French fries and shame.

Your exhibition deals closely with your AIDS diagnosis. Have you previously created autobiographical works?

My obsession is with plastic. In fact, I’ve just been admiring these toy plastic French fries and thinking about what I could do with them. I have been working with plastic for a decade now. My illness came into the work of its own accord. My illness caused an inner shift into a million different directions, and I simply had to include it.

Did you have any important breakthrough moments working on this project?

Yes, melting plastic. I started to melt plastic and made, for example, different masks out of it. When melted, plastic seems to return to an organic form, and you begin to see blood, intestines, buttocks and penises in it. The breakthrough moment caught me completely unaware, I was not expecting it to happen. These coincidences are always present in the creation process.

What would you hope the public to think about plastic after seeing your exhibition?

The central message of my exhibition is that we can overcome shame. Plastic waste and what it does to nature is shocking, even shameful. However, at the same time, I love plastic. Plastic imitates life, but unlike living creatures, it never dies or decomposes. I am a plastic artist myself, not some stereotypical, serious and depressed artistic genius who only ever wears black. Even my artworks are selfies taken with my mobile, everyone takes those. I just reveal the things people are usually ashamed of. The central message of the exhibition is that we can overcome shame. I am also a historian of plastic. I record plastic objects by photographing them – but the photos themselves are the result of an industrial process. They don’t have the aura of an artwork. It is clear that a plastic artist who examines plastic cannot make works out of clay or marble.In a way, using plastic is a way to say: “Let us smile more dammit!” I smile in each piece of the exhibition, even in the ones where my face is covered by a mask.

Plastic and illness are topics that have political and social importance. What do you think is the role of an artist in society?

I am a shamester. The role of the artist is to deal with difficult topics. A large group of people cannot deal with shame in the same way as an individual artist, whose task it is to examine, present, and exhibit their dark side. Artists are also jesters and clowns who make themselves into objects of laughter and mockery. There must be many people out there who think I was a colossal idiot when I didn’t believe in HIV. It’s true, I was. And now I continue my journey.

Have any audience reactions surprised you?

It was interesting to see who visited the exhibition. When The Persistence of Plastic was exhibited in Helsinki, a woman who had just left the Laestadians, a conservative Christian community, came there to say hi to me. I think that me being so open makes it easier for others, especially those who have made big decisions, to be open as well.

How does it feel to bring the exhibition to London during Pride month?

It feels exciting! Hopefully the exhibition can go to yet another place from there, so I won’t need to lug the artwork around in my hand luggage. Jokes aside, the message of humanity in the exhibition is universal and quite easily understandable. That message is necessary, no matter which culture you come from.

The Persistence of Plastic can be seen as a part of Skin Deep, an exhibition produced by the Finnish Institute.28.6.–2.7.2019.  Copeland Gallery, Unit 9I, Copeland Park 133, Copeland Road, London SE15 3SN, open every day 12–8 PM. Free entry.

Text: Aura Saxén Photo: Toni Kitti


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