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A Life Lived 
– Choreographer and curator Johanna Tuukkanen on combining art and life

“I haven’t dared to phone up the other Johanna Tuukkanen – I’ve only collected details about her,” said choreographer Johanna Tuukkanen. She discovered her namesake by chance when a travel agency gave her the wrong plane tickets that were under the right name.

“Then, when I was enrolling at the University of Jyväskylä, there were already details under my name in their computer system,” she continued.

“I’m interested in an autobiographical approach that emerges from our own lives: how our identity is formed and what aspects create a person’s image. Can we consciously create a self? How big a role does random chance play in constructing our lives?” Tuukkanen the choreographer pondered.

For her new work, Meet Johanna Tuukkanen, she has collected a lot of information about her doppelgänger. The other Johanna is about ten years older, a doctor and mother of three who is involved in local politics and whose hobby is ballet.

There are a number of similarities between the two women.

“I never really longed for children, but now my partner and I have six kids altogether. I’ve also thought about going into politics. If I’d made only a few slightly different choices, I could be living my double’s life!” she laughed.

This work aims to show the choreographer Johanna Tuukkanen at home in the midst of an artistic family’s life. As a venue, her own home is a new territory for the choreographer. The space where she encounters the audience is an important artistic consideration for her. Besides the black box of the theatre, Tuukkanen would like to bring her art out into real life.

Points of contact with real life

In the performing-arts landscape, Johanna Tuukkanen performs the new and questions the old. She has an impressive ability to artistically integrate individual, everyday details from a woman’s life into a high-quality, multi-dimensional creation.

She once wrote: “I’ve sat in a tub containing over 50 litres of milk. I’ve crawled around on stage. I’ve greased up my legs in performances, lain on top of peas, run on a treadmill, changed my clothes, screamed and told my life story on a catwalk prompted by items of clothing. I’ve made sushi, gave a list of how I spend my time, collected make-up containers and danced a lot in high heels.”  

Her latest work, Map of Scars (2012), marks a departure for her: it is a stage-based piece for three female dancers. In this successful work, the almost-naked performers use black paint to trace along every scar and bruise on their bodies. As they do this, they explain how they came to have the scars, thus revealing significant moments from their lives.

It is the female performers’ authentic presence on stage that creates the unique aspect of the work. Instead of performing or interpreting, when they are on stage they are doing and being. The performers’ autobiographical honesty and openness provide a liberating and moving experience for the audience, sharing feelings and insights.

“Scars are an excellent subject because we’ve all got emotional as well as physical scars. Scars are a sign of a life lived and the passage of time. But we can also think of them as openings. When we get a cut or a wound, the scar tissue is not as strong as the skin; a scar is like glue, a third material. Skin is also a fascinating organ: it is a renewable organ and a great deal of meaning is attached to skin in relation to femininity,” Tuukkanen explained.

“I’m interested in lives that have been lived, and for Map of Scars I originally wanted to find performers in their 40s, 50s and 60s, since dancers in their twenties are still really children,” she said.

“I don’t go to rehearsals with ready-prepared movement material; instead, I give them tasks and spend a lot of time on being together. That’s when I seek out information and knowledge from their own experiences and their pasts. This is linked to my aesthetic values: when you do things rather than just performing them, you create real meaning and content for the world.”

“I don’t want these works to remain within the realm of art. It’s essential to have a two-way exchange of aesthetic references with the audience,” she said. “Instead of elitism, I’m looking for points of contact with real life and audience participation.”

In Twirling World (2010) audiences participated in painting Johanna Tuukkanen’s naked body. Thus she transferred the performer’s power to the viewers. While it sounds easy, Tuukkanen said the situation was extremely nerve-wracking.

She wrote: “People painted hearts on my breasts, decorated my hands and feet, put cave-like shapes on my lower abdomen and a sun on my thigh… One woman was sobbing so uncontrollably, I wasn’t sure whether she would make it or whether I’d end up in tears myself.”

Art comes to the city

Johanna Tuukkanen hails from Hailuoto, an island in the Gulf of Bothnia with a population of 900. “I hated that island. I couldn’t get away from it for weeks at a time because of the weather conditions,” she recalled.

These days, Tuukkanen is a choreographer with international connections. She is the founder and artistic director of the ANTI – Contemporary Art Festival in Kuopio, Eastern Finland. Since graduating with a BA in dance and choreography from the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten in Arnhem in the Netherlands in 1997, she has worked as a dancer, choreographer and live art producer. She is currently finishing up her master’s degree in cultural policy at the University of Jyväskylä.

“Studying art theory provides inspiration and a grounding for artistic work,” she explained. “Theory helps me to analyse the directions art is going in, so my own work doesn’t appear to be just some strange whim, but is part of a wider context.”

In emphasising the collaborative nature of her art, Tuukkanen underscores the meaning of art as a primarily social event. The ANTI – Contemporary Art Festival, now in its twelfth year, has brought key figures such as Rebecca French, Annie Sprinkle & Beth Stephens and Guillermo Gomez-Pena to Kuopio audiences. The festival has gained an international reputation and over 400 applications are received each year in the open call for participants.

Johanna Tuukkanen thinks of the festival as a gift to the city. Thanks to the festival, Kuopio residents who may not be likely to visit a cultural venue can encounter art in the tax office, at the railway station, in lifts and at the barber’s. Similarly, the art investigates and reveals city spaces to the residents in a totally new way.

“We can no longer keep art hidden away in elite cultural institutions; it’s being disseminated to everyone. Then again, you do read in the local paper things like, ‘Is this stuff art? And it’s at the taxpayer’s expense!’ It’s rare to generate fresh discussions at the same old institutions,” Tuukkanen smiled.

Making gender roles visible

Dressed in a carefully chosen, feminine black outfit, Tuukkanen, 39, gives the impression of being someone who knows what she wants and is capable of achieving it.

“I’m no longer as angry as I was at the start of my career. As a single parent and female dancer in those days, I experienced discrimination. Can you be credible as a mother, a dancer and a young woman?” she asked.

With her works such as Milk (‘Maito’, 2004) and Huippusuoritus – Outstanding performance (2009), Tuukkanen examined the stereotyped roles and pressures of motherhood and womanhood with irony but also affection.

“Although age brings credibility, I still have to be aware of what concept of people and image of women I convey in my work,” she explained. “We are gendered bodies: femininity, equality and freedom are quite contradictory terms. Often these terms conceal discriminatory unspoken agreements. I have set out to investigate these in my work, to make them visible and hopefully to break them.”

Quoted material taken from:
Johanna Tuukkanen: Tanssin ja live art-taiteen rajamaastossa. Nykykoreografin jalanjäljissä (‘In the borderlands of dance and live art: In the footsteps of contemporary choreography’). Edited by Hannele Jyrkkä. Like, 2011.

The article was originally published in Finnish Dance in Focus 2013–2014 magazine.
Translation: Ruth Urbom

Artist Tuukkanen, Johanna