In Conversation With Riikka Hyvonen

In Conversation With Riikka Hyvonen

Riikka Hyvönen, born in 1982, is a Finnish artist, based in London and known for her Roller Derby sculptural painting series. "This project began from a realisation: I wanted to capture the momentary marks, the bruises, from within the subculture of derby players. That’s where my investigation of the psychology of bruises started, in an effort to portray them in a completely different light to mainstream culture. For me, roller derby is really all about the community. If a derby player gets hit in the game, she wants to show her bruised bum for her team members (and then reach some well-deserved admiration on the internet). These bruises are called derby kisses. They are little love bites and badges of honour." Hyvönen describes. These days, derby girls from around the world send photos of their bruises to her. Hyvönen captures these athletes’ injuries in giant 3D artworks which are somewhere between sculptures and paintings.

UL You grew up in Lapland, Finland. How did you think growing up in such a unique place affected your progression as an artist?

RH Growing up in picturesque Lapland, next to Santa's grotto, in a place where you can often see reindeers walking in the backyard and the northern lights shining in the sky, was not always the fairytale the marketing brochures would have you believe. 

I can not say my hometown shaped my practice, at least not in a direct, visual way: the rough, beautiful natural world is not present in my artworks. But a thing I have always been fascinated by is the interesting contrast between the artificial and natural. The Santa Claus Land is an intriguing combination of these two: it's where the shiny, vivid commerciality of the touristy Christmas theme meets the exceptional Northern landscapes, in all its rugged beauty.

For me, Lapland is a place where people get depressed during the winter when the sun does not come up at all, or go crazy during the summer when it does not go down. So light and the lack of it is a big part of the lives of people living above the Arctic Circle I guess that is where my fascination for light and light reflections originates. 


UL Your work is concerned with the Roller Derby. Specifically roller derby kisses (the bruises participants get from falling over). When did the roller derby first start to attract your attention and why? Do you still partake in the sport?

RH I saw pictures of derby women in social media and then, an advertisement about a particular game suddenly caught my eye. So me and Selma (one of the women who eventually became one of my subjects) went to see a game. Naturally, we didn’t understand much about the game but the exciting pace, the dangerous turns and the powerful women made an unforgettable impression on us. We decided to enroll, we were the next intake of fresh meat (that’s what beginners are called in roller derby). Since then I’ve been skating in three different teams: Kallio Rolling Rainbow (Helsinki), London Rockin Rollers and London Roller Derby Recreational League. Lately, I’ve been focusing full time on capturing the beauty of the bruises in my artworks, so I haven’t had time to train myself, but I’m hoping to get back on skates some day. 

I started to pay attention to the way my team members were showing each other their bruises on the side of the track after well-played games, like badges of honour. I felt the feminist, communal spirit was something exceptional and definitely worth researching. At the same time, I got fascinated by the way the derby subculture creates its own objectifications on the Internet: posting photos online and commenting on them is an essential part of the unapologetic representation of beauty. That’s how my investigation into the psychology of bruises began. 

I Think I’ll Just Stand For a While…, 2017, Acrylic on MDF and leather, 140 x 105 x 19 cm

UL What materials and methods do you use in these pieces? What makes them hybrids between painting and sculpture?

RH The very first works of my derby kisses series were actually paintings. But I came to think that these artworks need more form and sparkle. Therefore, to honour the painful splendor of roller derby and the beauty of the bruise, I started to work in this multidimensional way, mixing sculpting and painting, glitter and rainbows.

In the process of recreating a glorious derby kiss, I use wood, MDF, leather, glitter, and various tools from airbrushes to jigsaw. I needed to break the surface of the leather, then paint it in order to create a picture, as hypnotising on canvas as on the skin. 

With the kitsch, tacky, thoroughly questionable elegance, my aim is to capture the unapologetic representation of beauty that roller derby is all about. I am trying to do justice to the inspiring community, occasionally aggressive rhythm, original elegance and feminist spirit of the sport that is closest to my heart.

I hope the large scale and intensity of colour does justice to the magnificence of the sport. These women are beautiful but also very heroic. And they are proud of showing their trophies — the love bites from derby. I wish this glory will be reflected for the viewer. And also, perhaps there is an element of shock involved: first comes the pain, then the relief and admiration. It is an objectification created in a particular subculture where the bruise is an intense symbol of bravery. It’s also about the pride of one’s own body. I think that’s why the large scale of the artworks and the unlimited brightness of the colours feels natural and necessary for me.


UL In a previous interview you state "I am objectifying these women totally. But I am doing it exactly in the way they objectify themselves,” Can you elaborate on what you mean by this? 

RH The idea of objectification often includes the fact that people are being objectified by someone else. In these photos, and in the culture of derby women, the objectification is voluntary and starts from the women themselves. The sport itself is not an act of self-objectification. These women are framing the bruise in a new kind of context, and the tone of the conversation is often simultaneously funny, sexy and encouraging. Through creating artworks of large scale and with a remarkable amount of sparkle; glitter and colours, I objectify them completely, but faithfully for the way they objectify themselves.

It Made My Leg Numb in the Spot For Almost a Year, and the Skin is Permanently Discolored in the Spot Now lol, 2018,  Acrylic and glitter on MDF and leather, 120 x 140 x 17 cm

UL Can you talk a little about the potential gender-political significance of the work? For example, would you ever say there is an implicit tie to conversations about domestic abuse? Or, if not, could you see your work taking on this - or any other - darker tone in future?

RH Though my work isn't about domestic abuse, roller derby has helped victims of domestic abuse to deal with their bodies and bruises better. My series about roller derby is a love letter to the subculture. It's a celebration of all that it is and all that it has done for women; it's a celebration of the strength and the mental toughness the sport requires, as much as it is a celebration of the bruises that follow. I played roller derby and was inspired by how empowering the sport can be. I wanted to share that side with others. The bruises are a batch of honour and women share photos of them on social media. I am not interested in going darker, I want to challenge the viewer to reconsider what is regarded as beautiful instead.

UL Finally, would you like to finish by telling us a little about the wonderful piece you have submitted to Drawn Together?

RH The piece I submitted is the first drawing I have done in 19 years. We are living in unusual times and Covid-19 has forced us all to get out of the comfort zone of living outside ourselves and has forced so many of us to face our inner selves. As Drawn Together is for a charitable cause, I also wanted to step up and give a part of myself that I have not shared with anyone in 19 years. We are all vulnerable in different ways and the female body, often seen as fragile and weak, is in fact divine and strong as evidenced by childbirth - and roller derby bruises.

Skate Hard, Crash Hard #improudofit #pacman #permanentnervedamage, 2020, Coloured pencil on 100% cotton paper, 59 x 70 cm.

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