I was lucky enough to be part of the SHIFT Business Festival 2017, a lively, colourful and interactive business conference which takes the form of a laid-back summer festival. At SHIFT, many contemporary pieces of art are hidden and revealed here and there, both at the forefront and in the background. While there were so many great things I gained from my internship with SHIFT, it was the people I met, learnt from and remain in touch with that made it an unforgettable experience for me. Niclas Kangas is one of those interesting individuals that I fortunately found while working there.
Actually, I became acquainted with his work first. While preparing for the SHIFT after party with a dozen other people in the old Kakola prison, a specific piece of art on display caught my attention. It was a skeleton with a TV monitor in place of its head, sitting with one hand against his chin, the other hand set loose on top of his knee. The figure appeared thoughtful, upset and bored at the same time. I was very impressed with the concept, the simplicity of expression and the straightforward message. Ironically enough, among the bunch of people working nearby, I chose the perfect person to ask if he knows about the artist behind this work: Niclas. Since that day I have gotten to know a great deal about Niclas, his inspiration, artistic philosophy and way of living, and he was kind enough to let me interview him for this article.
Niclas spent four years studying Fine Art at Novia University of Applied Sciences, and then studied Art History at Åbo Akademi. He is now at the phase between education and jobs- or in other words, he is a freelance artist with a passion for 3D modelling and sculpting. Sharing a bit about his experience in art school, he told me that the first year of his studies brought him some disappointment.
“The school was so different from what I envisioned an art school to be. I thought that the lessons would be more structured and that we students would get to learn and master many techniques through practice. However, it was kind of a free-spirited school, with a lot more self-reflection, looking inside yourself, figuring out what you want to do and executing it however you like. The instruction was often like, ‘okay, this is one way to do it. Now find your own way!’ Now I agree that this is a better way for artists to find themselves and their own way of expression.
When we began art school as very fresh students, one of our teachers jokingly told us, ‘you are going to spend four years learning how to be unemployed. Welcome!’ He never lied to us about having a beautiful bright future as a famous artist after graduation. He didn’t mind sharing with us that in Finland, one out of a thousand art school graduates get ‘big’ nationally and internationally. Nevertheless, he also motivated us to never stop trying, to keep doing our own stuff and sooner or later somebody will recognise something. It is more important to do something you love than to just spend your entire life doing things you don’t enjoy and feeling bitter about it. It might be fun to be rich but I am not waiting for it.”
I was surprised to learn that even though he likes painting and drawing, Niclas has no sense for colours.
“I have better spatial reasoning than I have with colours. I enjoy sketching and drawing, and I can do it in black and white just fine. But as soon as it comes to the colouring part, I can’t see what matches. I just keep trying until something works but there is really no plan in it. Sometimes I like to just blend all the colours together and see something take shape out of it. The best painting work that I have ever done are the ones when I didn’t think at all and just let it happen. On the other hand, sculpting happens when my brain is overloaded with thoughts and feelings that are bursting out. Also, with sculpting, I enjoy the feeling of knowing that the work will stand in the room and there is no way you can walk past it without seeing it. Traditional painting is normally made on flat surfaces, and people might just walk by without glancing at it.”
While acknowledging that he is a young contemporary artist who is using modern techniques to create his art, Niclas was hesitant to call himself a modern artist in terms of creating something completely new and exotic from what others have done before.
“Based on the fact that I work today and not forty or fifty years ago, I am a modern artist. However, I don’t think that my work is something very new even when I shift styles a lot. Metal sculpture has been around for ages. I’m not necessarily trying to find an entirely new way of making things either. What I am doing is basically expressing things in my own way. Every artwork is a way of storytelling, and I would like to give the audience an introduction to the story before they start reading it, so they don’t just have empty pages to fill in. To me, abstract art is basically blank pages- they can be in red, white or any other colours, and maybe with some sprinkles on them but there is no writing. You must generate the messages by yourself. Whereas something more figurative usually has lines of explanation here and there but the complete story is still forming in your own head. What else is modern about my work? I use modern techniques like metal welding and mostly modern materials. Therefore, in a way, I am a modern artist, yes.”
Remembering what Niclas’ teacher had said, I was curious about the real situation now. I asked Niclas about the hardest aspects of being a fresh modern artist, as well as the brighter side of things.
“Generally, a young artist usually spends some time with the naïve idea of being completely himself and at the same time getting recognised by the public. From my own experience, if you want to sell your art, you still need to be a sort of a populist and create pieces that people want to buy. I believe that this can actually be a good opportunity to discover another side of yourself and try some new styles and techniques.
The interconnected technological world makes it a bit easier for young artists today. It allows many fresh individuals to be exposed to a larger audience and become quite popular within a short period of time, even at a young age. More diverse sources and better availability of information and knowledge also help young artists discover the broad art world more extensively. You have the chance to choose whatever you want to learn and the freedom to explore hundreds of thousands of styles, and combine them the way you want, and just keep going and mess things up until something fairly new emerges. The downside of this is that it’s more difficult than ever for young artists to be confident and unique. I am still learning to stop looking at what other people have done and start focusing on what I want to do. Everything has already been done in some form, so if you start looking for a completely original idea you might just give up. Another good thing compared to forty or fifty years ago is that artists don’t get judged in the same way today. We are being seen more as everyday people who do things they love to do.
In Finland, it seems that art must be more traditional in order to be recognised, which is an additional limitation for young contemporary artists. We have seen that people here can’t accept modern ideas [in art]. Many Finnish artists start looking outside of Finland to reach a more open-minded international audience.”
I have an old project with stuffed animals that I started in school but haven’t been able to finish because I ran out of time. It involves a bit of criticism towards the social phenomenon of today’s manufactured childhoods. Children with different personalities and interests are given exactly the same kinds of toys to play with. Parents prefer to buy mass-produced, boring products from the shop. The stuffed animals used for this project will look horrific with metal frames and revealed skulls. It’s not profitable in any way, as I hardly think anybody would want to buy horrific looking teddy bears. I also know that the finished project will receive negative feedback from part of the audience. However, I like a saying from a Finnish artist: “there is no such thing as negative publicity.” Even when people hate your work, they will come to look at it. I am not going to demolish the project just because some people might not like it. Rather, I want to restart it and finally see how it will be in reality.”
Niclas’ description about this project with plush toys and stuffed animals reminded me of my own conflicted feelings when seeing many of the paintings and sculptures he has made. I saw sadness, conflict, discomfort and emptiness. At the same time, the intention to hide the pain, fear and disappointment could be seen, along with a tremendous desire for transformation- to break through and overcome this pain. I asked if he wanted to share any stories about his hard times, when all these strong emotions simultaneously exist.
“Imagine you have a white page. You put drops of different colours on it then take a stick and stir everything up. Sometimes they meet and sometimes they don’t, but it is always messy in the way they form patterns and randomly present new colours. That was basically how my life was for many years before and after my mum passed away of cancer. She was sick for a very long time. My family has never been good at handling trauma quietly. We get angry and loud. I use art as a therapy to help myself get over these difficult seven years. I’ve tried to get all the negative energy, pain and anger out in a constructive way through creating artwork. The one I had to dig the deepest to make was my thesis work. It represents a grand monument of moving on after traumatic experience.”
Niclas was born in Pietarsaari, and has lived in many different towns, cities and countries, including Japan, Australia and Sweden. As he explained all the movements in his life, I asked him why he plans to stay, work and keep making art in Turku.
“I’ve had so much moving in my life, but Turku has much more cultural beauty than most of the cities that I have been in. It is always amazing for an artist to stay in such a place where he can just go here and there to discover the rich cultural and artistic heritage. Secondly, I have my social life in this city, with inspiring people that I want to keep. Some of them are crazy enough to join me in bouncing ideas around and turning them into reality. Other friends are quiet and withdrawn. They help me to dig deeper into layers of thoughts and ideas to balance out my craziness. Many other people I’ve met here through the years have given me the experience to grow and alter myself. Another thing that I am happy to see around in Turku is the walls with graffiti paintings on them. I think that is modern art done right: it strongly reflects the artist’s own style but still gets people to relate, and they’re pleasant to look at.”
Finally, I asked Niclas about the role of a contemporary artist in the modern world. I was interested to hear his fascinating opinion about why the world needs art.
“An artist is a kind of inspirational force, who allows people to forget the real world for a minute, and either look toward themselves or to a fantasy world that somebody else has created. It is like building windows to possibilities and things that go beyond limitation. At some points in life, people need a place to escape from their day-to-day routine. Artists offer that space, not physically but mentally in a way that nobody else can. Today art still has its basic function of storytelling, but it has evolved into more forms and new means of expression. The stories are not purely about moral tales anymore, but also about what has been done, what is being done and what should be done. I think it is necessary to somehow record history through art, because even when the story being told is surreal, it remains the same as when it was made and still holds a lot of ‘original truth’. There are specific pieces that should be kept around just for historical value, to remind people to think by themselves and not blindly follow what is written on the page. Looking at art, you can see the consistency of history- maybe not more truthful, necessarily, but always consistent.”