Chasing Falling Water
Don’t go chasing waterfalls, stick to the rivers and lakes that you’re used to, the pop group TLC suggested, but to little effect in Marko Vuokola’s case. Leaving behind the still waters of Versailles and Purnu, he ventured to chase fluid in motion for The Seventh Wave – Flora (2012), his largest diptych so far. Rather than rejecting a piece of sound musical advice or tuning out altogether, Vuokola searched for a way to realize an old idea. While insisting that the subject matter of his works is not relevant – images from landscapes and curtains to blue sky and car sales have been equally presented – Vuokola admits that he had a long-time wish to photograph a waterfall. To wish something as simple as that can only turn very complicated, and Vuokola had to acknowledge the weight of overtones built into the idea. How to express nothing, when history of the subject suggests so much? One may recall, for example, the painting Mäntykoski (1892–94) by the Finnish master Axel Gallén, where a waterfall is pictured with five golden strings on top, as if a harp of nature is playing its tune to the sound of running water. How, then, can we wash away all associations to national romanticism, nature mysticism and tourist postcards, and picture a waterfall anew?

A key to Marko Vuokola’s recent works can be found in the small triptych Tammerkoski (2012). Untypical of Vuokola both in size and format, the series of nine digital photographs documents moments of water rushing through Tammerkoski, the rapids of Tampere. This is no nature location. Instead, it is a famous urban setting, the cradle of Finnish 19th-century industrial revolution and the site where electric light was lit for the first time in the Nordic countries. Vuokola’s Tammerkoski shows water as seen through old factory windows. For each part of the triptych, he has taken three consecutive photographs from the same position. The four coloured squares in each image are the centremost four pixels of the original photograph, 39 million in total. In other words, visual representations of fast-flowing water are blown up to the extreme, and at the same time reduced to minimalist compositions – the next and last step in progression of squares would have resulted in a single pixel.

We could now imagine the altering four colour fields representing tiny drops of the almost 100 cubic metres of water that passes through Tammerkoski every second. Since both fluid and light are in constant flux, each moment produces a different composition – what looks red or green in the first instant appears white or blue in the next. Seen in this way, Vuokola’s work seems to confirm the ancient aphorism by Heraclitus, stating that we cannot step twice into the same stream. Moreover, the sets of squares in the artwork are but results of our technical (optical and electronic) as well as cultural interpretations. The examined phenomenon is constantly escaping; possible combinations of squares have no seeming end. It may well be that without necessary simplifications we cannot set our foot into a stream at all. As Paul Klee put it in the 1920s, it is not easy to arrive at a conception of a whole which is constructed from parts belonging to different dimensions, as nature is. Klee, who also painted groups of colour squares not unlike those in Vuokola’s Tammerkoski, understood art as a transformed image of nature. It is clear that Marko Vuokola’s want and desire to capture images of turbulent water have resulted in forms not far removed from those of traditional abstraction. At the same time, however, his works and techniques reveal new dynamics in the transformation of nature image.

Returning to the diptych The Seventh Wave – Flora and its conjoining work Flora (sharpen) we can see that the method of massive enlargement used for Tammerkoski is repeated here. Flora (sharpen) shows two groups of sixteen pixels taken from the waterfall photographs. This time the size of each pixel is set at 25x25 centimetres. An unsuspecting viewer first sees more colours and bigger planes: Vuokola’s idea for Flora (sharpen) may appear quite familiar. Yet, in order to fully grasp the transformed image of nature facing us, we need to add up different dimensions. What would be the size of one waterfall image if each of its 39 million pixels would measure 25x25 centimetres? The harmless one-metre panels of Flora (sharpen) give little clue that the calculation results in nearly 2.5 square kilometres, an area bigger than Monaco. In chasing his waterfall, Marko Vuokola has looked into a microscope and interpreted his findings telescopically, or the other way round. For what is big and what is small in this play of captured moments?

Does the artist then concern himself with microscopy, Paul Klee asked rhetorically. Only in the exercise of his mobility of mind, he answered, only in the sense of freedom: In the sense of a freedom, which does not lead to fixed phases of development, representing exactly what nature once was, or will be, or could be on another star (as perhaps may one day be proved). Marko Vuokola has used his freedom well. He has not stuck to what he was used to, but has continued his voyage, no matter how the sirens are singing. And now, as if recalling another star in Klee’s comment, he wants to capture a flicker of light from an object more than 41 million kilometres away. In this case, space is but another waterfall. The beauty in Venus (sharpen) (2012) appears the same rather than new, and one cannot tell for certain whether the thing within squares is really a planet, a lightbulb or simply a single drop of rain. Perhaps the sharpness of Vuokola’s art is to testify that nature loves to hide, just as old Heraclitus concluded.

(Paul Klee quotations are from On Modern Art, 1948, translated by Paul Findlay)

Jyrki Siukonen, artist and researcher