A conversation at Markus Heikkerö’s studio

Saara Hacklin & Markus Heikkerö

The first painting and early influences

I’d like to know about your influences. Which artists do you remember from your early years?

When I was a child, I remember there was talk at some stage of going on a trip to Tampere and to see Hugo Simberg’s Garden of Death there. We had lots of art books and magazines at home, and when I looked at pictures of Simberg’s piece beforehand, I was frightened. I took it at face value, that the hereafter would be like that. I was in a sort of panic about it.

You must remember that I was surrounded by art at home: we had works by Max Salmi, Alpo Jaakola on our walls… Writers and artists used to come to the house. For instance, I remember listening to Jaakola when he came to us. He would talk for hours on end about fascinating, surreal things. Our family was also very international in its outlook. For example, there was talk about Max Ernst and Yves Klein, who were prominent for being highly experimental artists. And you mustn’t forget Hieronymus Bosch. There was fantasy in his work, a sense of transcendence.

Underground culture and the counter-force of art

What was your view about art and the underground movement relative to society?

My own thinking cannot be enslaved by any ideology, whether left or right. From a psychoanalytical perspective, nothing makes the authorities more jealous than creativity. Creativity is the polar opposite of power and authority. Real creativity aims at liberation, authority and power are control! That’s why I have never been able to commit to any political party.

The underground movement that emerged in the 1960s was also largely an ethos for a non-hierarchical society in which people are not divided into different value systems. Other aspects of it were sexual freedom and tolerance. As well as expansion of consciousness and hallucinogenic drugs. That was a part of freedom: to change the world, you must step outside society – we were not slaves of the system. We had an underground house in Lönnrotinkatu where we lived without a permanent address. That was a crime in those days. Some were caught, and their crime was on a par with prostitution and vagrancy. Because underground culture was so wild and uncontrollable, it had to be stifled with surveillance and punishment.

Art and the music scene

You were a member in the underground band Sperm, and later you joined the Sleepy Sleepers. What is your view of the relationship between visual art and music?

In 1968, I was invited to join Sperm because of my paintings. Instead of playing rock music, Sperm produced real, concrete sounds, John Cage-like free noise, atonal progressions, even electronic music. For me, Sperm was an opportunity to extend painting in a theatrical direction. I actually built sets and would also play the part of a set designer. I played music quite rarely in fact. The idea in Sperm was very much that anyone can be an artist. During the Sperm period, I met Pedro Hietanen and we became good friends.

The reason I was invited to join Sleepy Sleepers was that Sakke Järvenpää and Mato Valtonen admired my paintings, and that I had been one of the Spermers.

There is another interesting period in your career that is associated with music. In the 1980s you made album covers with spray painting technique. How did you end up using that particular medium?

They had an optional course in spray painting at the University of Industrial Arts. I was interested in the look. I noticed that I had a natural bent for it. When I graduated from the university in 1980, I continued to use spray paint. That led naturally to invitations to design album covers. I felt that the music scene was freer than the art scene, which was extremely anaemic at the time.

Tennessee and Rome

In the early 1990s, you were a visiting professor at the University of Tennessee. How did the stay in the United States affect your practice?

It was a mind-blowing experience to see the colours – you don’t see as many tones in Finland. Light is absolutely central to it, you see: colour is situated between light and darkness. Although they say that there is a lot of light in Finland in the summer, it is not as abundant as it is in the south. In the south, even the darkness is impressive. And the dimensions, the vastness. It was also impressive to climb up the Smoky Mountains. It was a kind of climax of spirituality, an experience of sanctity: the Tennessee Valley opening up below. A lone eagle circling above.

You have also worked quite a lot in Italy, especially in Rome.

If the States was an experience of light, Rome was for me a powerful cultural experience. Just a single block in the centre of Rome contains so much. A walk in Rome brings you close to the Stendhal syndrome. I have worked in Rome, not in any institution, but just staying somewhere: working in the streets and in hotel rooms. In churches, if it rains.

Towards something greater

Your works convey a powerful sensation of spatiality, the viewer seems to be quite physically floating in the air, an experience that parallels the loss of self. The Secretum triptych is different in this regard. The Secretum triptych is different in this regard.

The third panel is A Graveyard of an Artist. The underlying idea of the piece was that artists do not usually destroy, they create new things. Yet there are no monuments to the ‘Unknown Artist’. Secretum is a summing up: in the first panel fertility surrenders to death, the second contains love, death and faith. In the last panel, a new generation is digging a grave.