In her debut book Grey Cobalt, the Finnish photographer uses her grandfather's objects and documents to create a photographic biography of a man she never met
When Felicia Honkasalo’s grandfather passed away in 2009, her family inherited stacks of boxes filled with shiny bits of rare rocks and minerals, stuffed between piles of notes, sketches, and fading photographs. “No one else in the family wanted them,” says Honkasalo, who never got to meet her grandfather. “I was really intrigued by it all, but I didn’t really know what to do with it at first.”
Ten years later Honkasalo has published her debut book, Grey Cobalt. It is an attempt to use these items to construct an imagined identity of her grandfather, who was a metallurgist during the Cold War in Finland, as well as an avid cosmologist. Published by Loose Joints, the book release accompanies an exhibition at the Webber Gallery in London, on show until 15 February.
Honkasalo’s family were surprised that she wanted to produce such a large body of work about a person she had never met; “Why didn’t you just ask us what he was like,” they’d question. But for Honkasalo, her grandfather’s hidden identity was just the beginning.
“This book is very much a subjective, fictionalised account that was inspired by events, places and objects that he owned, and I believe, cared for,” she explains. “I was interested in this new-materialist perspective on why we think of nature as an inactive, passive entity. We’re the ones that do things, and nature and objects are passive. We don’t see them as having a hidden history.”
She’s made the book with a tactile element that mimics the act of rooting through her grandfather’s boxes. The cover opens up like a cabinet, revealing a long-form prose piece by Ada Smailbegovic that’s tucked in like a leaflet. There are also two loose documents within the main body of the book, which can be taken out and examined. The first is a “certificate for displaced persons” issued to her grandparents when they were evacuated from Lapland during the war. The second is a signed agreement from 1941 between Germany and the Nickel factory where her grandfather worked.
Inside the book, Honkasalo combines portraits and photographs of the Finnish landscape with her grandfather’s faded prints, as well as still-life shots of microscopes and rocks that are photographed against surreal dusty landscapes, or floating futuristically in front of a space-like backdrop.
“I wanted to blur the ownership of the images,” says Honkasalo, so they would appear to belong to “the same pool of time”. She was interested in how different moments in history could be merged into a “single temporal space that only exists inside the book”, she says, adding: “I wanted the past to collapse into the present, and vice versa.”
“Through the images I try to imagine a past in which my grandfather lived, not to speak for him, or to create an objective account,” she continues. “I’m still working with the same questions. I’ve found what really interests me, which is the threshold between art and science.”
http://www.feliciahonkasalo.com/ Grey Cobalt by Felicia Honkasalo is published by Loose Joints, and can be purchase for £25 http://loosejoints.biz/projects/publishing/grey-cobalt/
An exhibition of selected work from the project is on show till 15 February at Webber Gallery in London https://www.webberrepresents.com/