Alum Erkka Nissinen’s art thrills audiences at the Venice Biennale

When pursuing an international career, Uniarts Helsinki’s Academy of Fine Arts alum Erkka Nissinen advises young artists to not lose sight of what really matters – their art.

At the 57th Venice Biennale, Finland is represented by Erkka Nissinen and Nathaniel Mellors’ work The Aalto Natives which has gathered plenty of critical acclaim from international media. The installation – which combines sculpture, video and narrative storytelling – depicts the adventures of an egg-shaped god figure Geb and its son, Atum, with a cardboard box for a head. Frame Finland, who commissioned the work for the Finnish Pavilion, sought in its open call for a work that would reflect on concepts of independence and national identity in the spirit of Finland’s centenary in 2017.

– I had been talking with Nathaniel Mellors about working together for a while already. The open call gave us a good jumpstart to creating a completely new kind of installation.

As Finland’s centenary year draws closer to its midpoint, Nissinen and Mellors’ work comes as a breath of fresh air. The artists deal with clichés that are associated with the Finnish culture and identity, but in a racy and humorous manner. This anything-but-sombre approach has proven to stand out from the rest of the art selection of the Biennale’s national pavilions.

– I do hope that the installation will be considered to be as funny as possible. We both use humour a lot in our work. That’s why our collaboration felt very natural.

Photo courtesy of Frame Finland

The Aalto Natives is the first collaboration between Nissinen and Mellors. Creating an artwork together with another artist was a new experience for Nissinen.

– This has been an educational experience, at times even a difficult one. As an artist you are used to having complete control over your work. It was challenging for both of us to let go of some of that control – and of our own ego – and to make artistic decisions based on what was best for the work. The collaboration has been a refining process mentally, but it has also been very rewarding. We share similar tastes, which has helped with our working together. 

Erkka Nissinen’s transition from Finland to an international sphere has been a smooth one. Born in the city of Jyväskylä, Nissinen graduated and received his MFA from Uniarts Helsinki’s Academy of Fine Arts in 2001. He has also studied in London, at the Slade School of Fine Arts. Nissinen befriended Mellors in Amsterdam while doing a residency period there in 2007-2008. Today Nissinen lives in New York. Art education provided a platform for him to experiment and grow as an artist.

– Art school was more than just a school. It was a place where you could develop your artistic expression. I got to meet other artists there and follow their personal growth and style. At school, you gained access to the art world.

Finding his own artistic expression took its time, but Nissinen eventually found it in comedy.

– When I was in art school, I was kind of clueless. It was only toward the end of my studies that I began to work on comedic pieces and find my own voice. It was then that I realised I had found my own thing.

Nissinen encourages young artists to focus on finding their own artistic voice.

– You shouldn’t think about your career too much. Art in itself shouldn’t be seen as a competition. If you try to make art for the sake of success, you likely won’t end up with anything interesting.

After such a large-scale project as the Biennale work, Nissinen will have time for a short breather. Such laborious projects as Aalto Natives aren’t in plans in the immediate future, but the collaboration with Nathaniel Mellors is set to continue. Humour is surely to be expected, but what else will the collaboration entail? “Let’s say, a Christmas movie”, Nissinen hints.

Erkka Nissinen

  • Born 1975 in Kerava
  • Received his MFA from Uniarts Helsinki’s Academy of Fine Arts in 2001
  • Studied in Slade School of Fine Art in London
  • Worked in Amsterdam at the Rijkskademie van Beeldende Kunsten artist residency in 2007-08
  • Received the AVEK (The Promotion Centre for Audiovisual Culture) award in 2013
  • Lives and works in New York

Erkka Nissinen and Nathaniel Mellors’ installation The Aalto Natives represents Finland at the 57th Venice Biennale. The Biennale opened for the public May 13 and is open until November 26, 2017. The Aalto Natives will be seen next at the Cobra Museum in Amsterdam in December 2017 and at Kiasma Museum in Helsinki in spring 2018.