Eyes as Big as Plates is an ongoing collaborative project between the Finnish-Norwegian artist duo Riitta Ikonen and Karoline Hjorth. Photographs from the project are currently on view at the Barbican as a part of the Our Time on Earth exhibition, and their second book Eyes as Big as Plates 2 is on sale online.
We talked to Riitta and Karoline about the origins and the journey of their project ahead of the Barbican’s opening.
The Eyes as Big as Plates collaboration began all the way in 2011. How did it start?
Riitta Ikonen: This is one of my favourite stories to tell. We have both studied in England and actually lived quite close to each other, but we did not know each other back then. In 2011 after Karoline had returned to Norway, she received an email from me out of the blue where I asked if she would like to collaborate. I had found her by googling “Norway + Grannies + Photographer” and having Karoline’s name pop up as she had just written a book about Norwegian grandmothers.
Karoline Hjorth: After seeing Riitta’s amazing work it made perfect sense to me to say yes to her proposal of sharing a tiny flat on the west coast of Norway for a month and a half for an artist residency in Sandnes.
Riitta: The original idea for the project was born as I was travelling in Norway with a Norwegian friend whom I had met while studying in Brighton. She would talk to the nature and the environment surrounding us, and I remember it feeling quite alien to me. I realised that her connection to nature was very different from mine and I became very intrigued. This is why I wanted to start looking into personifications of natural phenomenons and how people would explain and understand their surroundings. Was the nature that was depicted in some folktales still there? The original hypothesis was that older people would have a stronger connection to these folktales and stories about the talking rocks, which is why we initially started with approaching older people.
Has the project changed over time? How?
Riitta: Already in the first month we experienced the first redirection of the scope of the project, and since then it has happened multiple times. Originally the idea was that our subjects would portray ‘personifications of nature’ by embodying characters from folktales, because I had read somewhere that those were the “clearest reflection of the soul of the people”. However, once we started meeting people and talking to them, we noticed they had very pragmatic answers to our questions about their nature relationship. As such, our idea of Norwegians routinely chatting with rocks was pretty quickly dismissed.
When we travelled to Finland to collaborate with new people and started asking them questions about their relationship with nature, their responses further confirmed this finding about pragmatic approaches to nature. Instead of reflecting on their emotional relationship to the nearby lake, people would look at us in askance and try to figure out what exactly it was we wanted to know about the lake; perhaps the best spots for a refreshing swim? We very quickly realised that people in Finland largely had a practical way of relating to their surroundings. There was a strong connection to their environment but the reflections we heard were rather pragmatic. This is interesting, because there are also large numbers of Finns that have a very spiritual relationship to, for example, the forests around them. While the original concept of the project had already started changing during its early stages in Norway, these findings further encouraged the shift and the project became more focussed on the individuals we were meeting and collaborating with. During the length of the project we have also somewhat moved away from the focus on the older people, and instead have approached folks with an interesting lived life.
The central aspects of the project have always been that we travel to the people we work with and these people have so far often been older. Travelling and meeting people were obviously not possible during the pandemic, and we are only now about to restart our travels and photograph new works for the project.
While the in-person meetings were on hold during the pandemic, we were hardly idle: instead we were hard at work putting together our second book, Eyes as Big as Plates 2. It features new portraits we have produced in collaboration with people such as retired wrestling coaches, Sami reindeer herders, Aboriginal uncles, kantele players, and surfers. It also includes contributions from guest writers and an extended field notes section revealing the behind-the-scenes action of each portrait.
What has the project taught you?
Karoline: On this small planet we humans all have a relationship with our surroundings. I have also learnt that the more you get to know your environment, the more you can care about it.
Nature is somehow always around us even in the most densely built concrete environments. I have started to think differently about what nature is and whether a separation between ourselves and the environment even exists: are we really separate from it or are we part of it? I remember someone saying that we should ‘look with our hands’ perhaps meaning that there is an opportunity to feel and connect with our surroundings with other senses too instead of just with our eyes. I think that has been something we have learnt from this project, gaining and trying out new ways of experiencing our surroundings.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of this project?
Riitta: The relationships. Not just the friendship with Karoline, but the connection we have with the more than human world as well as the humans we work with. We have truly made some lifelong friends during this project. Of course, because of the demographic we have been working with, many are with us only in spirit. Some of our collaborators we are still actively in touch with, we exchange news from our lives, and we have met their children and grandchildren. These relationships continue to be amazing.
Where did the idea for the project and especially the outfits come from?
Riitta: I worked with many museum education departments in London at the time running various workshops. The participants tended to be rather young and I realised that part of the reason was that maybe there were obstacles which meant older people were not finding these workshops or could not attend them for some reason. I thought that I should create my own project and make it so that it was targeted towards an older demographic and would remove those obstacles.
The project deals with our relationship to everything that is around us. What is the role of art in the conversation regarding the environmental crisis and the impact of human actions on the environment?
Karoline: This is something we have been thinking about for a long time. Artists have an integral role in the environmental conversation in our society, because we have a unique opportunity to get the message across to people about how serious this problem is. We have an opportunity to propel change through our art.
Riitta: Artists are uniquely positioned to react and respond to changes. I almost feel like it is part of my job description to be awake and in tune with what is happening around me. Our job is also focussed on sharing your personal take on the world with other people, which makes it a great tool for communicating new perspectives.
Karoline: There is a lot of talk about how to compensate for our carbon footprint or how to create a sustainability plan, but there is perhaps less effort in actions taken to actually reduce the carbon footprint or environmental impact. This is something we have been trying to do in this project in recent years. While we have to travel in order to create this project, we have been trying to rethink our travel plans so that we remain in one location for longer periods of time to reduce flying. It could be a good idea to move away from our anthropocentric worldview and perhaps consider things from alternative perspectives. This could give us incentive to change things!
Riitta: We think that this quote from Roy Scranton encompasses that last idea Karoline brought up:
“We need to learn to see not just with Western eyes but with Islamic eyes and Inuit eyes, not just with human eyes but with golden-cheeked warbler eyes, coho salmon eyes, and polar bear eyes, and not even just with eyes at all but with the wild, barely articulate being of clouds and seas and rocks and trees and stars.”
The book “Eyes as Big as Plates 2” is for sale on the project’s website. All proceeds from the sales go directly back into producing more works. London book launch 6–8 pm on 5 May at Tenderbooks, 6 Cecil Court, London, WC2N 4HE.
Barbican exhibition “Our Time on Earth” 5 May–29 Aug. More about it here and on Barbican’s website. The Eyes as Big as Plates photographs as well as some other exhibits are on view in the public areas of the Barbican free of charge. More information about opening times and tickets on Barbican’s website.
Image credit: Eyes as Big as Plates # Ernst (Norway 2017) © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen
Text: Sanni Lappalainen