Iiu Susiraja’s current exhibit at New York’s MOMA PS1 is strange and discomforting in all the right ways. Through her photographs, Iiu Susiraja (pronounced ee-you susi-rah-yah) raises taboo topics, such as consumption, body image, and sexuality, through unique and affecting methods. It’s not exactly a cheerful viewing, but it is certainly interesting and engaging enough to reflect on one’s own life through the images.
Iiu Susiraja: A Style Called Dead Fish is Iiu’s first solo exhibit in the USA, a collection of her practice since 2008. The exhibit is impressively coherent, the work seemingly all building off of itself and operating through the same techniques throughout the years. Iiu has managed to take a seemingly simple concept and continue to make gripping work over the course of a decade.
I was perplexed and increasingly confused by the work on the walls.
Walking through the cold gallery, with a handful of other patrons who had also escaped the summer heat, I was perplexed and increasingly confused by the work on the walls. The word “strange” kept coming to mind – I didn’t know how else to put it. Her work was certainly affecting, but I wasn’t sure in what way, or what exactly I was feeling. It took me a few days of sitting on it and also watching a couple of David Cronenberg’s films (an unlikely yet enlightening accompaniment) to be able to put the experience of the exhibit into words.
Iiu’s work displays a marked indifference to both itself and to the audience. It is at times mundane in aesthetic choices, and at other times loud, with clashing patterns and harsh compositions. She seemingly only uses available light, through windows or from lamps, and maintains a consistent technical level through the years. She mostly uses simple, lived in backgrounds (such as living rooms and bedrooms); these are usually scenes from her parents’ home, where she takes most of the photos. Her work offers a window into her world, albeit a bastardized version, that she knows we – the audience – will see our own lives reflected in. She does not glamourize these scenes or the everyday objects they portray; she does not need to. She takes their natural states and flips them on their head, into something we recognize but cannot truly grasp.
Alongside the photographs on the walls was a series of 13 short video pieces, playing on loop in the back of the gallery. Each one averaged about a minute in length, and all were basically animated versions of Iiu’s self portraits. Before the video camera, she positioned herself against the same backgrounds as many of her photographs, and interacted with various everyday objects in unexpected, sometimes crude ways. In Stand, she puts a coat hanger around her neck, and hangs herself on a coat rack. In another called Cow, she cuts the fingertips off a yellow cleaning glove hanging off her hand, then pours milk down it, resembling the udder of a cow as it falls through the holes at the bottom.
The mockery of everyday life is comedic at first sight, but you quickly realize that the characters she is portraying are disturbingly uncanny. Each photograph portrays a distorted window into the modern life we all know and live; she manipulates brooms, umbrellas, food, objects we all interact with every day. Although the work portrays itself as self-portraiture, you slowly realize that each one acts more like a still life, and that despite the human body that’s depicted, there is no life to be found in them.
Reflecting the title of the gallery show (“A Style Called Dead Fish“), Iiu presents herself with the same blank stare as a dead fish. In the eponymous piece, she poses in her underwear with a plunger attached at her mouth and a dead fish between her thighs, standing in what is presumably her parents’ living room, staring directly and blankly at us. Her body is just another prop, one she makes sure we cannot ignore.
She is a large, obese woman, and does not make any attempt to hide it, in fact at times forcing the viewer to confront it.
She is a large, obese woman, and does not make any attempt to hide it, in fact at times forcing the viewer to confront it. She does not present her body with shame or even neutral commentary; her body is just another object in the frame. Iiu manipulates the sexualization of her body, at times blurring the lines between her femininity and phallic imagery. It almost reaches the point of body horror – melding the human body with the objects that shape it, the fusing of the tool with the flesh, almost following in the steps of Cronenberg’s films Videodrome (1983) and Crash (1996). The pieces on the walls of the gallery and these films have no resemblance to one another except in their ideology, but thinking about Iiu’s work in connection with them helped me begin to put the experience of this gallery show into words.
It’s impossible to draw any conclusions about the artist’s intentions or the “meaning” of the work from the title or the contents, and any attempt to do so certainly reflects more on the viewer than the art. A lack of description or explanation is loudly present throughout the gallery – especially in a series of photographs depicting Iiu covered in awful bruises all over her body (an image that invites crude curiosity but which she has refused to explain). The titles themselves offer no clarity, often only inviting more confusion. This choice to evict clarification is far more interesting and disconcerting than if she had a paragraph explaining the meaning behind each photograph posted under its title. We all have different, personal associations with the objects she uses, leaving it up to us – the viewers – to decide what she means when she poses with her foot in a top hat and six red clown noses attached to her face (Clown is trying to be magician’s bunny, 2018).
The most obvious theme within the work is that of consumption, not of media, but of food and objects. Iiu parallels her own body with the items that shape our day-to-day lives, the things we choose to shape ourselves through. None of the work is definable enough to be considered commentary, rather it acts as a distorted mirror of the viewer’s own reality and the objects that are most prevalent within our lives. It is a strange exhibit, and Iiu Susiraja is certainly a modern artist to keep our eyes on.
© Hannah Mayo (8/21/23) – Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Click here to visit the MoMA PS1 Exhibit.
Click here to visit Iiu’s website.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: A visitor looks at the portrait of Finnish photographer Iiu Susiraja during a photo exhibition held at Fotografie Forum Frankfurt, in Frankfurt, Germany, Oct. 31, 2014. Photo Credit: ©Luo Huanhun/Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: E9RD7R
Middle & Bottom Photos taken by Hannah Mayo for FF2 Media at the MoMA PS1 Exhibit. Approved for responsible use as long as user includes link to this post.