Jani Leinonen: Rousing the Rabble
In one of the most recent memorable acts of artistic transgression, the Finnish artist Jani Leinonen illegally seized a McDonald’s hamburger chain mascot from a Helsinki franchise. This planned, strategic assault executed with pinpoint military precision that would make Mossad, the CIA, and any terrorist group envious, was not some frat house joke or the result of an all night drinking binge with the boys. It consisted of “kidnapping” the globally recognizable clown effigy Ronald McDonald and sequestering him until demands were met. Before one can situate Leinonen’s polyvalent and subversive artistic gesture within his larger corpus, it is imperative to frame this multimedia artwork within an historical trajectory of aesthetic practice that teeters between law and crime.
On January 14, 1972, the so-called “Evil Knivel” of the art world Chris Burden “did a piece” for a cable television station. Burden’s performance came with a prerequisite that the station must transmit his work live rather than prerecord it. After live transmission began in the studio and questions were fielded by interviewer Phyllis Lutjeans to Burden, the artist rose from his chair and nonchalantly walked behind his TV host and pulled out a knife and held it to her throat. With weapon in hand, Burden proceeded to threaten Lutjeans’ life as well as telling her he would force her to commit obscene acts on live television. It is not clear to this day as to the artistic motivation for Burden’s menacing and controversial performance. While Burden’s TV Hijack seems to broach ethics about incorporating a person into an artwork without their consent, Leinonen’s kidnapping committed under the auspices of the FLA or Food Liberation Army, made it difficult to dismiss it as handiwork of vandals or pranksters. In order to de-center the sequestering as being construed solely as illegal activism, it would later be exhibited in a gallery in myriad formats giving the impression that this was anything but a crime. The exhibition display was impeccably designed and consisted of a beheaded Ronald McDonald lying on a guillotine with video of the actual kidnapping and the kidnappers’ demands, plus related ephemera including banners, newspaper articles, and segments from television programs. McDonald’s never did buckle to any form of ransom, but the kidnapping did manage to land the artist in jail. Incarceration raised the ante even higher, for Leinonen now entered the pantheon of anti-McDonald’s activists whose actions that predated the kidnapping were ostensibly folded into the work. This, in short, made Leinonen’s intervention that much more complex.
In 1999, the French anti-globalization activist José Bové vandalized a McDonald’s with the intent of impeding its franchising into a province in his native country. The influence of McDonald’s beyond the U.S. and its exportation of food as culture was construed as a type of cultural imperialism where the world, in this sinister scenario, would become exceedingly homogeneous. Fast forward to the year 2004: the respected Mexican artist Francisco Toledo successfully petitioned Oaxaca City’s local council from allowing a McDonald’s to be built in the colonial city’s historical center where if given the chance, the fast food outlet would be located amidst early seventeenth-century architecture. Fast Food Nation (2001), a book written by Erik Schlosser, was another salvo launched against McDonald’s globalization bid by critiquing its unfair business practices and unhealthy ingredients used in its menu. Any nutritionist would agree with Schlosser’s findings, but it was a documentary film titled Super Size Me (2004) that underscored experientially what everyone already suspected: that living on a McDonald’s diet would immediately spur detrimental health consequences. In the film, its creator Michael Spurlock ate only McDonald’s fare for a month with progressively deteriorating consequences including rapid weight gain and increased body mass, depression, headaches, lethargy, sexual dysfunction, and cardiac and digestive problems. Leinonen’s piece is, in one sense, a work situated within a dual trajectory as a kind of activism that takes the form of art; but at the same time, it is an artwork that transcends activist art and the politics that the latter often, and to its determent, wears didactically on its sleeve.
To be sure, Leinonen’s artistic modus operandi immediately garnered publicity from local and foreign newspapers, TV stations, as well as rightwing radio hosts who banter about with their own ideology to a willing if not complacent audience. In the same way that Burden had seized his TV host with a knife, Leinonen captivated the media. Unbeknownst to them, however, is that he had sequestered their attention and now they were the Lutjeans to his Chris Burden. What is also a quintessential Leinonen artistic strategy was that the media did not know how to “read” this act: was it terrorism, was it a hoax, was it neither; but surely it was theft and therefore a crime? Of course, no one except those familiar with Leinonen’s guerilla aesthetics ever suspected what was being played out across newspapers, TV, radio, blogs, the Internet and so forth was actually a brilliant work of art. Yet for all its seriousness, Leinonen’s piece was bellied with comic relief; and for all its absurdity, there was something poignant and authentic in its articulation of concrete social, cultural and political issues. One element of the piece that highlights this dichotomy consists of a video uploaded on Youtube that triggered many hits. It entails a masked Leinonen and FLA comrades making their demands with backdrop similar to Al Qaeda terrorists that had seized foreigners during the Iraq war that were then beheaded. Although there is nothing humorous about these gruesome executions and one could naively accuse Leinonen of trivializing senseless deaths, the artist’s protean methodology often includes comedy as well as tragedy. Leinonen’s razor blade-like artistic maneuvers that oscillate between aesthetics and ethics, form and content, humor and tragedy, all the while being critical, pertinent and topical evinces an artistic mentality that has set him apart from his peers. His aesthetic perforce is wholeheartedly apparent in the Ronald McDonald kidnapping as it is discernible in earlier works.
The formal arsenal that Leinonen has deployed is wide in scope and consists of installation, video, works on paper, sculpture, performance, and interventions into readymade media such as cereal boxes, pornographic magazines, and quotidian ephemera. What links, for instance, his cereal box series are semiotic interventions into recognizable brands, logos, and advertisements that are de/re/constructed and subsequently reveal the insidiousness of corporate PR techniques for maximizing profits. Whereas Leinonen’s Ronald McDonald project was a multi-prong interrogation of not only the unhealthiness of McDonald’s food, its ascendant global homogenous presence, and foreign exploitation of native resources, the cereal box works dovetail on a sophisticated understanding of language at the ground zero of the sign as pictorial language articulated via visual metaphor, simile, and metonym.
In White Supremacy (2010), for example, Leinonen directly painted onto a package of Pillsbury Devils Food Cake. The Pillsbury mascot is known by its true name in advertisement circles as “Poppin Fresh,” but this anthropomorphic, bulbous mass of flour is recognized in the vernacular as “Doughboy.” The latter was the name by which America, more or less, was ingratiated to the brand, but it was also the nickname of the African-American character played by the rapper Ice Cube in the landmark film Boyz n the Hood (1991). The film, which was the first to garner an Academy Award nomination for an African-American director, was set in the rough and tumble lower income neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles. While it is not important to delve into the plot and subplots of the film, Leinonen intervenes directly onto the Devils Food Cake package by painting the word White Supremacy next to the Pillsbury “Doughboy.” John Sayles, who was the director as well as writer of Boyz n the Hood, deliberately used the term doughboy for one of his characters because the product rubbed up racially against the film’s backdrop of the African-American community: the mascot’s whiteness was all the more apparent to the character’s blackness, which created a humorous yet politically charged juxtaposition.
One aspect of Leinonen’s White Supremacy touches on this and uses it as point of thematic departure resulting in more complex narratives. Pre-Civil Rights U.S. society, particularly in the Jim Crow south during segregation, was awash with racial stereotypes configured into quotidian bric-a-brac such as saltshakers, bottles, plates, lawn decorations, and so forth. The Sambo and the Picaninny, for instance, were racially derogatory terms; the latter being one for children of black descent. One product was, in fact, called Picaninny Freeze (1922) and was a frozen edible whose logo consisted of a racial caricature of a black child about to eat a very large watermelon. To what degree, then, are contemporary products with roots in the past such as Uncle Ben’s Rice (1943) and Aunt Jemima Pancakes (1893) vestiges of a racial history of post-Reconstruction and the segregationist South? Since the two aforementioned products respectively appeared on the market during World War II and as early as the late nineteenth century, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima would be considered black servants of the white, middle and upper class. In other words, Uncle Ben’s Rice and Aunt Jemima Pancakes were marketed before the Civil Rights Act of 1964; a legislative act that theoretically ended racial segregation. What these products show, as well as what is intrinsic to Leinonen’s astute critical intervention into Pillsbury Devils Food Cake, is what the black, French-Algerian psychoanalyst Franz Fanon so eloquently stated in his milestone book Black Skin, White Masks (1952), that these objects evince a society’s “racial unconscious”?
Leinonen’s simple, albeit critically poetic gesture, manages with verve and finesse to conflate racial politics with food, film, and social and cultural disparity. His tactful brilliance shines with aplomb in conceptually deconstructing signs found in packages that grace our tables at breakfast including a plethora of cereal brands such as Frosted Flakes, Trix, Cap’N Crunch, Golden Crisp and numerous others. In one sense, these signifiers are the first to greet us in the morning; and as corporate advertisers know all too well, their products, if successfully lobbied in the breakfast tables, pantries, and dinning rooms of nuclear households, can impinge themselves onto the deepest recesses of our psyche because were so accustomed to them. How often do these signs of quotidian advertisements that relentlessly bombard us shape our perception of the other; that is to say, of the poor, of racial minorities, of the socially disenfranchised? Quaker Oats, which is a brand that Leinonen has artistically intervened in as well, refers to the American Quaker and its associative mythology of moral rectitude. The word Quaker was first used by George Fox in 1650 to describe a type of Christian whose direct experience of god could be mediated without a formal or authoritarian church. In one sense, the Quaker theology was heretical. Leinonen’s alteration of the Quaker logo consists of the superimposition of fundamentalism onto Quaker ideology. Rather than see the early American Colonial Quaker man on the cylindrical box of oatmeal, Leinonen has replaced him with a Hasedi, Sunni, Brahmin, Mihang, i.e. exclusionary orthodox religious denominations. Breakfast has become a kind of battleground in Leinonen’s reconfigured Quaker oatmeal repositories. The family dinner has entered the culture wars, and maybe now even breakfast too. Many conservative American politicians bemoan the loss of American values to an ever increasingly secularized and consumer-driven world. One of the call-to-arms by the American political Right has been to enforce its ideology of family values by bringing it together at the dinner table. But breakfast, too, as communal locus has had it its attempted amelioration or at least its fragmentation has been framed as a telltale sign of America’s past greatness and contemporary demise. Leinonen’s layering of disparate cultural signifiers onto cereal boxes as well as dog food, and even pornographic magazines creates new meanings that necessitate altogether new understandings of how ostensible design advertising can affect us.
In another series of interventions into existing materials, Leinonen printed images of pornography magazines onto paper which, in turn, were painted over in all the right places, so to speak. But the porno scenarios including anal sex, fellatio, and cunnilingus and so forth where rendered over with food product labeling including the previously mentioned cereals. For example: a woman bends down to scoop up into her mouth a spoon of cereal rather than a phallus; a blond vixen erotically stares out at the viewer as she contains a deluge of white fluid, but it is not that kind of viscous liquid, but Milk (2009); a guy bumps a pinball machine under which are discernable human legs next to the machine’s limbs, subsequently leading us to believe the image’s original context of anal sex. Faces are contorted, and the viewer is left to imagine as to the source of the perplexed visages; upon further scrutiny one realizes, however, that women or men depicted are in states of erotic stimulation. Because these magazines and their materials are often fictions constructed for the voyeuristic consumer, the mechanization of sex and the body as commodity become inescapable, uneasy revelations. Adding to sex’s sublimation is the de-sublimation of recognizable products that underscore how commodities are presented to us with the ruse that we need them to fulfill a kind of existential void. The pursuit of their purchase and their acquisition are surrogates for a rechanneled libido; our sex drive now serves big business as objects of our delectation become unconscious desire we seek to satisfy. In one sense, it is the Freudian and Marxian fetish rolled into one. The patina of signs piled on top of each other and the re-contextualization of symbols that Leinonen has transformed into an aesthetic, formal signature is also part and parcel of a performance project that the artist called Pimp My Art.
Pimp My Art was based on the MTV show titled Pimp My Ride in which old cars considered junk and bordering on total disrepair were restored into something completely new due to extreme modification. Analogously, Pimp My Art were readymade paintings that were not only ciphered into new works through Leinonen’s interventions, but ultimately referred back onto the genre from which those paintings were originally associated: idyllic yet banal landscapes, for example, were intervened with a fast food logo that astutely remind us that nature is never natural but that it too, is a cultural construct like the altered paintings. Or, a group of children originally portrayed innocently are now wearing suicide bombs around their waists. Like in previous works, Lienonen is able to make a whole web of meanings through effortless interventions into existing paintings that are not dissimilar to the works of Asger Jorn, the renowned artist of COBRA and the Situationist International. While Leinonen has continued to artistically explore the media saturated world of consumerism in all its guises whether this be quotidian consumables or pornography, he has recently created a body of work that might be construed as slightly more formalist in orientation; but this, of course, would be presumptuous.
These works, all dated 2010, consist of sheets of glass that have been shot with various makes and types of firearms that are framed and set within a monochromatic background. Some of the firearms used to create these works include the double magnum revolver Ruger Super Redhawk; the single shot pistol Ruger Mark II; the mythic 9mm Glock 17 Pro; and the Mossberg 500 pump shotgun. Part painting and part sculpture, these works are all titled according to the firearm used for mark-making. The works are highly differentiated from each other and some of the formal allusions of these works include Russian Constructivism, Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana, and Minimalism. Leinonen’s singularity in color is both a backdrop as well as framing device for the meticulously shattered glass. The glass sheets are set above a monochromatic background, which creates a kind of a set design effect that formally negates planarity; and because the same color is what also constitutes the frame, it corrals its potential three-dimensionality back into the register of painting. Of course, the fragmented and cracked glass is akin to the drips of Pollock’s paintings, and the violent bullet entries are reminiscent of Fontana’s slashed and punctured Concetto Spaziale canvases. Like Fontana’s gashes, slices, and gouges, Leinonen’s firearm works are formally exquisite that conflate the aggressive signifiers of our everyday world of guns and violence with the register of the artistic. Such contradiction, moreover, is the sine qua non of Leinonen’s aesthetic practice.
Jani Leinonen’s protean work to date in an array of media evinces a keen artistic intelligence and critical imagination. And this is overwhelmingly evident in what the philosopher Arthur Danto called the Transfiguration of the Common Place: cereal boxes, babushka dolls, panhandler’s signs, pornographic magazines, “found” paintings, bullet riddled works, sculptural installations made from electrical cords, and even Ronald McDonald are poetically recycled and incarnated. At the same time, Leinonen has an uncanny ability to “transfigure” these disparate forms of cultural detritus into heady narratives that address a broad purview of subject matter. If Jani Leinonen’s art did not exist, it would have to be invented: for he is a timely artist whose creations seize our attention, undermine our complacency, interrogate our morality, question our conformity, confront our preconceptions, and provoke us to respond; in short, he is that rare artist who rouses the rabble.
Raul Zamudio is a New York-based independent curator and critic. He has curated over 80 exhibitions in the Americas, Asia, and Europe including co-curator, City Without Walls, 2010 Liverpool Biennial; co-curator, Constellations: 2009 Beijing 798 Biennial, co-curator, Turn and Widen: 2008 Seoul International Media Art Biennial; artistic director, Garden of Delights: 2008 Yeosu International Contemporary Art Festival; and co-curator, Poles Apart, Poles Together, 2005 Venice Biennial. He is author, co-coauthor, or contributor to more than 50 books and exhibition catalogs, and has penned more than 200 texts for numerous periodicals.