Elina Brotherus Interview

Elina 7

L’Etang, 2012, 90x113cm

From the series 12 ans après by Elina Brotherus.

Elina Brotherus (b. Finland, 1972) went to France to live and work as an artist in residence when she was 27 years old, an outsider without the language. Her series Suite Françaises, made during this time of flux in her life, is described in her own words:

When you do not understand the language spoken around you, you live in a strange state of instability. Language is essential in creating the feeling of basic security. When I arrived in France at the beginning of September, I was barely able to buy myself a subway ticket. This work is an effort to learn a new language, to get acquainted with a new country and a new culture. It tells about “outsiderness”, the incoherence between the person and his environment, and about the simple small means with which one tries to take his place in society…

Language is a way of creating order out of chaos. We give names to objects, classify and categorize things, analyse phenomena. Language makes thinking possible.

Elina Brotherus.

Adopting the post-it note method of language learning (writing words on post-its and posting them on the object as a memory triggering device) Elina not only learnt a language, a culture and became an insider, she created a structure on which to hang a poignant, reflexive and personal piece of work.  One which became universal in its resonance with the human need to belong. She revisited this place at another crucial time in her life (turning 40) and produced 12 ans après. In the following interview she kindly discusses these two pieces of work with me (interviewed on 21 March 2013).

In 12 ans après you returned to the same place where Suite Françaises was made and decided to revisit it photographically too.  What made you want to return (in both senses)?

Officially I returned for a job. I was asked to participate in a programme where photographers are invited to public schools to work with the pupils. I was offered to do a workshop in the same highschool where 12 years earlier I went to French classes together with three immigrant children.

I think the job was a pretext for returning. I had been to Chalon every now and then for a day or two, I have continued to collaborate with Musée Nicéphore Niépce who organised my residency in 1999. But this was an opportunity to stay longer, to throw myself in a situation, to do an experiment on myself. I have noticed that this turning point of being 40 is a bigger issue than I had imagined. It’s a series of irreversible things happening to one. So I felt a need of making a position statement: to look into where I am now, coming from where, what has happened since those early years full of expectations, and what has not happened. Since my residency project in Chalon back in 1999 was dealing with my life and experiences as a young artist, it seemed logical to return to the same place when, after 12 years of doing something else, I returned to an autobiographical approach. I even insisted in having a room in the same guesthouse where I stayed in 1999, instead of sleeping in some hotel.

Elina 2

Chalon-sur-Saône 3, 1999, 80x102cm by Elina Brotherus.

In Suite françaises and, of course, again in 12 ans après the structuring of a series around the post-it note technique of language learning is great because it allows you to use a multitude of visual approaches.  I am particularly drawn to the landscape images.  Can you speak more about the relationship between yourself and the land?

In the Suites françaises of 1999, I started with interiors and still lives. I didn’t see a way of entering the unfamiliar French landscape, until I realised that I can use post-it stickers outdoors as well. The post-it’s made the landscape accessible to me. Since then, ‘figure in a landscape’ type of picture has been what I do most, I guess. In 12 ans après I wanted to follow the landscape method I developed during the residency: to go out with the 4×5″ camera looking for places, without knowing what I might find but feeling the thrill of hoping to find something wonderful. Often the trick is to go out very early or in so-called bad weather. I also went to some places I had photographed in 1999 to do a new version. In Chalon, the river is very present. That’s why it has a big role in the landscape pictures of the series. I never get bored with rivers.

When these are placed within the context of interiors, still lives and self portraits a wider narrative takes hold.  What do you think is the benefit of allowing these styles to interact with each other? 

Precisely what you say: it’s the wider narrative, the full picture, different points of view.

Elina 3

Pleine lune, 2012, 50x73cm by Elina Brotherus.

The isolation of being an outsider was emotionally tangible in the original images.  But a lot happens in 12 years.  What was it like to experience that emotional and geographical place again?  

I was surprised how little I remembered. In some sense 1999 is like yesterday, but on the other hand it felt like it was another person who was there then. My life is elsewhere and so are my problems. Being an outsider in France isn’t my reality anymore: France is my second home. I’m as fluent in French as I am in English, which is not perfect but honestly it’s good enough to enjoy life and conversation on a rather elaborate level. I don’t feel nostalgia for what was 12 years ago. It’s more of a sad constatation of being already at an age where one doesn’t understand where all the years have gone. I regret the missed opportunities and the other lives I could have had but didn’t.

What were the main ways the project expanded after those 12 years?

I’m not so lost as I was at 27. I know more what I want, so making images I’m pleased with is easier. I don’t have to search in the dark.

Elina 6

Les Oranges, 1999, 80x100cm by Elina Brotherus.

In 12 ans après the post-it notes are either gone or include more information.  What does this signify for you?

The things I need to communicate cannot possibly be condensed into a single word. On the other hand, I trust in the image and know it doesn’t necessarily need any words glued on it. Or let’s say that I know the words I need to pronounce, and I know in what photo I can integrate them.

As a result of the varying visual tempos it feels like this project communicates a lot more than perhaps the fluency of a language would.  Do you see photography as a language and is this a metaphor for that?  

There are things photography can communicate in a beautiful, inoffensive and subtle way. I don’t want to say in a richer way than language, because that’s not true for good literature, but in a layered, allusive way that leaves a lot of space for a spectator who wants to enter the work and filter it through his/her own life. I think that through photographs people can really understand each other in a profound way. Perhaps it’s an illusion, but at least it gives me the feeling that human beings are quite similar after all, and that’s something I want to believe.

Elina 4

La Saône 3, 2012, 80x100cm by Elina Brotherus


12 ans après was exhibited for the first time at the Lianzhou Photography Festival in China, November 2012, curated by François Cheval, the director of Musée Nicéphore Niépce.

Elina will be exhibiting as part of the Home Truths; Photography and Motherhood exhibition at The Photographers Gallery, curated by Susan Bright this Autumn.

Some upcoming notable shows:

Elina Brotherus: Spectator, Galleria Effearte, Milan, March 22-April 30

Elina Brotherus: Annonciation, gb agency, Paris, May 25-July 20

Elina will also be participating in group shows at the Hasselblad Center, Gothenburg, Bogota photography festival and Stadtische Kunstsammlung Waldkreiburg, all this spring.

You might be interested in Elina’s recent publication on a different body of work Artist and her model; find it here.