Some years ago, while attending a PhD class, I was introduced to the artwork of Terike Haapoja and the impact of that encounter led me to a post here. Last year, I ended up having a conversation with that same lecturer, Rogério Taveira, and he told me her recent work was very different, probably closer to my heart, for somehow it had to do with phototherapy. I remember, at the time, I was curious and unable to picture how could Haapoja do something like that. I knew I would be surprised, but now that I’ve seen some of the imagery, I confess it’s a bit of a shock.

Haapoja’s practice seemed to have a very concrete direction. I’m making no judgement on this; it’s just how I understood it. Her projects addressed technology’s place in mediating the relation between humans and nature. It had a political nature and a clear context: the conventional and professional artworld. As far as I understood it, the final product aimed at conveying a pulse to a dimension often invisible and/or neglected – the dynamics and the rhythms of nature; its birth and mortality; it’s proximity and unattainable genesis. Obviously, a lot more could be said about that component of her practices, but what brings me here now is a new project – Gravitation.

© Terike Haapoja, from the project ‘Gravitation’.
© Terike Haapoja, from the project ‘Gravitation’.

As the press release about that project makes clear, Gravitation was “created at fast pace during a time of physical and emotional hardship” and it addresses “how our individuality, our desire to be free or the desire to give away our freedom, is constructed”. However, her words, her statement, couldn’t be more poignant:

After the falling out I was diagnosed with serious illness. As the only remaining way of communicating what I was experiencing I started taking pictures, realizing every visual impulse, and posting them on a fetish site where my lover and I used to hang out. While my body was subjected to nonconsensual cutting, piercing, poisoning and touching by strangers, and I had lost all agency in what would be happening to me, the site’s seductive imagery of submission and dominance, pain and degradation became more complicated, as if too much closeness to reality would reveal what is ultimately at stake.

These images, created over a course of almost two years, were not made for art audiences. They are perhaps a letter for someone who was not there anymore, or a shout against the wind in the face of mortality, desire and loss. Most of all they are a reassurance: I am.

© Terike Haapoja, from the project ‘Gravitation’.
© Terike Haapoja, from the project ‘Gravitation’.

The last text posted in her blog addresses the framework of Gravitation and we understand that Haapoja had an unfortunate encounter with cancer that was brutally transformative. Contemplating the calmness of the Mediterranean, she states (and the full text is well worth reading):

At the core of this calmness is a lump – a tight little knot hidden inside my body where there was nothing only a few months ago. It sits there innocently as if it had always been there, this little thing that suddenly has the gravity of a black hole, pulling everything towards itself. From this hole life slowly leaks out, leaving me stripped of agency, helpless and dependent on others for survival.

In the minutes, days and weeks that follow, the desire to live grows all-encompassing, primitive. I no longer care about animals in laboratories. I no longer care about ethical discourses, or the pain of others. I need to live. The selfishness of this desire is isolating. I become the last knight protecting a precious secret no one else knows of, a jewel that has value only to me.

This light I guard.

[…]

Later, I wake up from surgery with a sensation of being attacked. I vividly experience myself as a child who is subjected to something it doesn’t understand and has no power to reject. I declare in clear English (as I’m later told by the nurses) that this is my body and these people have no right to transgress its boundaries. What the invader does – be it illness, war, flood – is strip you of agency. You don’t need pity, because pity is merely a reinforcement of your lack of agency and in pity there resides a seed of rejection: what you need is to have a say in the things over which you still have control. Agency is what defines my humanity, my sense of self, and when in danger of losing it in the face of the void, I hold on to whatever agency I can. The violation of the boundaries of my body and of my intimacy is so profound that the negotiation of managing what is left of my integrity becomes a fierce battle. What choice do I have among the options at hand? What and how will I communicate this situation? Do not touch me without permission. Do not treat me like a thing. I have worth. I am someone.

I struggle to imagine what could be more representative and powerful than these words. How could photography, somehow, intervene or compensate for that void? I’m stranded at a crossroads: on the one hand, I understand that the motivation for this new set of images is completely different from that of her past artworks – what these images want to discover can be somehow too personal and, therefore, too ordinary; on the other hand, they lack the originality of her previous works and, in that sense, I’m left wondering about the need to transform these imagery into a project that, as previously, is exhibited inside the white cube, framed into the conventional artworld – so full of rules, boundaries and frontiers.

Don’t get me wrong: the need for Gravitation to exist is, as far as I see it, undeniable, as is the need for it to be shared with others. But why travel the same path? Should the loss of agency, the menaced body, be treated as political matter? Maybe it should. But even so, when doing that, can the individual, suffering from that lack of agency, re-inscribe it into a different arena. I’ll go further and ask: should such a deeply rooted work be seen as lifeless bodies inside a frame?

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