Felicia Honkasalo turns heirlooms into a photo-biography of her late grandfather
Losing a grandfather: a sadness felt by those lucky enough to know a parents’ parent. Artist Felicia Honkasalo never knew hers, and only found him after his death through a series of inherited artefacts. An exercise in meditative memory-making, she has monumented these vestiges into a new photobook; a posthumous visual biography of a man she never met.
Very little is revealed as fact; instead the story is told impressionistically, through passing moments and fragmentary narrative. One of the only things we know to be true is that he was a metallurgist in Finland in the mid-20th century. ‘Through these objects, documents and photographs, I rebuilt different images of him, and reconstruct imagined memories of him at work, of his everyday life,’ she explains. ‘In the process of making this body of work, these unusual heirlooms have become, in my eyes, animate characters with independent bodies and powers.’
These characters – some complimentary, some idiosyncratic – fold into each other, like mourners at a funeral, each with its own expression of loss, or celebration of life. A telescope; a grainy photo of a church; a tiny, egg-shaped sculpture that looks like it contains the whole universe in its patina; an open pack of bullets; an identity card from 1940.
‘They cast a flickering light on the complex relationship between the frailty of my own memories in contrast to the solid forms and eternal glances of the objects,’ she says. They are scattered, difficult and fascinating. And they ask as many questions as they answer: What did the objects mean to him? And why did he leave them to her?
Helsinki-based, Honkasalo weaves in a history of her native Finland into the work; a national story inseverable from the artist’s idea of her grandfather. She paints pictures of ‘the wet lunches held at the mine headquarters during cold-war Finland’, musing on the historical moment the objects stem from, and the present they have found themselves in.
The characters fold into each other, like mourners at a funeral, each with its own expression of loss, or celebration of life.
Meditative work is Honkasalo’s métier. This is a quiet, curious collection; as clever as it is unpretentious. It would be easy to say that by the end of the book, we feel we know Honkasalo’s grandfather inside out. But this would be inaccurate; and would be doing a disservice to the complexity of a human life.
Instead, the book points out the vast monographic ability of objects and photographs to hint at histories, telling tiny stories in the footnotes; remembering what otherwise could be forgotten. Honkasalo has not distilled her grandfather’s essence, or immortalised him. Instead she has cracked open the door to his story; allowing the rest of the world in. §