Donna M. Roberts
Riika Hyvönen: Roller Derby Kisses
Gallery Saariaho Järvenpää
A sexy pop homage to the gutsy girls’ world of Roller Derby
These five large-scale, multimedia works by Finnish artist Riika Hyvönen hang like a proudly sassy and very sexy homage to the gutsy girls’ world of roller derby. While displaying images of women’s heavily bruised bottoms might at first sound like cause for anxiety, the erotic exhibitionism of these works comes directly from the heart of this racy all-girl subculture. If this is exploitation art, then it’s entirely in keeping with the audaciously and self-consciously erotic world of roller derby itself. “I objectify the girls completely,” the artist admits, “but in the same way as they objectify themselves”. Hyvönen is keen to stress how the perception of such bruises in mainstream culture is out of touch with their reception inside the derby community, where they are flaunted proudly to fellow participants. “They are love bites and badges of honour”, Hyvönen has affirmed, adding how she feels “deeply honoured to be able to turn some of them into art”.
Hyvönen, herself a roller-girl who recently completed her BA in Fine Arts from Goldsmiths, University of London, has worked with images sent to her via internet from women around the world keen to show-off their extraordinarily florid derby trophies. One girl posting on Hyvönen’s Facebook page “I have a really beautiful bruise on my bum. Do you want to see a pic? It has 12 colours and is the size of my head.” Clearly a passionate participant in the derby world, its community, and what she calls “the mezmerising subculture that has sprung from it”, Hyvönen treats the injuries as delicate traces of the women’s experiences on the circuit, psychological as much as physical indexes of this high-octane contact sport. If, as the artist says, “our skin tells the stories of our lives”, then Hyvönen has, with great affection and humour, captured not only the intense physical reality of roller derby, but also unabashedly conveys the fetishistic aura of this feisty subculture. With that sassiness characteristic of the activity, Hyvönen’s work expresses how, like most sports both for its participants and fans, roller derby is far more than just a sport. Amongst other things, it is about beauty, particularly the roughhousing challenge to conventional notions of female beauty, and appropriate behaviour, that the girl-on-girl sport represents.
Hyvönen’s works, some huge at over 2 metres square, have their own physical impact on the viewer, especially after first viewing them on the screen where their curvaceous three dimensions are flattened into mere 2D images. These are impressive, boldly fleshy 3D relief constructions that, while wearing their constructedness as openly as the roller girls wear their bruises, nonetheless delight in an erotic, illusionistic materiality. The softly textured skin-toned leather is stretched tautly over rounded butt-shaped curves of wood, overlaid a few millimetres above with another jigsawed MDF curve in the form of fluorescent micro-shorts that curls to a deliberately sensual point between the arrestingly realistic butt-cheek forms; illusorily yielding skin under the mimetic surface of spangly, sequinned lurex, or satin fabric. The bruises that adorn the smooth vellum of the buttocks blossom like deep-space constellations or haemorrhaging tie-dye patterns, some bearing the criss-cross imprint of fishnets worn at the time of impact. For Hyvönen, the internal tincture of theses trophy-blooms invite hallucinatory images, the dreamy immersion of visual analogy epitomised by the dialogue of Polonius and Hamlet or the works of artists from the Renaissance to surrealism: “Their psychedelic figures’, Hyvönen muses, “are capable of taking forms as mystical as the clouds, pictured for centuries in art.” For the cover of a 1947 surrealist exhibition catalogue, Marcel Duchamp created a single 3D relief breast from foam rubber backed with black velvet, invitingly titled Please Touch. The viewer might be disappointed that Hyvönen does not follow suit. She does, however, tantalise with the tactility of her works which, with the trashy spangle of their materiality and the confident reveal of their anonymous subjects’ butt-selfies, evoke both the fetishy cropped female forms of pop art and capture a highly contemporary attitude in the way women record, display, and enjoy their own bodies.
Published in Finland Today