17 July – 5 September 1998
White Cube Duke Street
Finnish artist Esko Männikkö presented a large number of photographs that portray people in and around their homes in the north of Finland. Männikkö stays with his subjects, getting to know them over several days (often joining them in hunting, fishing and drinking) before making his calm and dignified portraits. The photographs always convey the marked distinctiveness of each individual and their environment; most show lone men in wooden shacks whose walls consist of varnished boards of sheets of painted plywood and plasterboard. These homes are makeshift structures, with bits of material hung from string functioning as curtains, and with rooms sparsely furnished with battered sofas, chairs and tables. Amongst the images in the exhibition, ‘one man listens to music, but most sleep or sit quietly smoking’—the sense of total stillness in the pictures is underlined by the simplicity of their visual composition.
Whilst the photographs register as social documents, much of their force lies in their extraordinary compositions—they feel constructed, as if Männikkö had carefully arranged the person and placed objects around them. In fact, he very rarely manipulates his photographs, but instead, uses doorways, furnishings, coloured painted walls and homely paraphernalia to make a kind of frame for his subjects. In one image, an elderly woman seated on her bed becomes like a Byzantine icon, her body framed by a woven wall hanging whose pattern appears behind her like an expanding aureole of light. In others, there are radial arrangements with highly coloured objects that provide exuberant splashes of colour to unify the image, as well as to contrast the generally earthy tone and atmosphere of the photographs.
Männikkö selects old frames from flea markets for each of his pictures, basing his choice on how they relate to the image. In this way, the frame becomes part of the work and creates a palpable sense of crossing a threshold into a different world. Each photograph is an abstract play of colour planes, structure and spatial rhythm, and constitutes a sophisticated synthesis of different levels of social content and aesthetic form.