I am an artist. My favourite canvas is architecture. My greatest works to date (both physically and artistically best) have been made for churches designed by Juha Leiviskä. He has designed my best canvases to date.
As starting-points for my work, the altar walls designed by Leiviskä have been easy for me. Leiviskä sculpts light, and so do I. Leiviskä uses reflected, indirect light in his works, which transforms itself into an immaterial illusion. I, too, have done the same in my contre-jour works. All I have had to add to Leiviskä’s sculpted light is colour.
The question of where, in these works, architecture ends and art begins, is unimportant to me. I am a painter.
I have painted on my canvases the best works I am able to produce. The rest of the work is supplied by the viewer’s eyes and brain, which react to changes in light.
My working method is always the same. I sketch and think about the work in my mind. To begin with, I mentally pour on to the canvas everything that passes through my mind. Then I tidy it and see whether anything is left. It is from what is left that I set out. I try to work as much as possible just by thinking. The reason for this is that I am easily bored. If I try to shape the work in the real world oo early, I no longer feel like completing it. I
always try to make a work that I have not yet seen.
In these commissioned works, however, it was necessary to make a sketch, and in the case of St John’s Church, Männistö, there was even a special reason. I knew that I would have to paint the work on site while building work was still in progress, and that I would not see what I had done until the scaffolding was taken away. And so I practised and evaluated the whole thing using scale models. This did not spoil it; my fears were groundless.
While I was working in St John’s, I stayed in the arish guestrooms. Work went well. The site foreman told me in good time when and where I would be able to paint. As I stood painting on swaying scaffolding, fifteen metres up, under the rooflights in the brightness of the midsummer sun, I thought, I shall never get closer to God and heaven.
The work was finished on time. I handed it over, I seem to remember, into the keeping of the art committee of the parish. Also present was a reporter rom the local paper, Savon Sanomat. In the next day’s newspaper, he wrote that he had been present, for the first time, an inquisition. I was essentially interrogated as to whether the work was definitely made of the best possible materials and whether I could give a definitive guarantee that it would stay on the wall for at least ten years. I was a little perturbed and assured them that the work would last at least one hundred years. That, apparently, was sufficient time. The occasion ended; no one thanked me. I went drinking and found myself, that evening, at the birthday party of the singer of a local heavy metal band. The next day I drove home to Helsinki. The next week I split up with my wife.
Construction of a work in the Church of the Good Shepherd
In the autumn of 2001 Juha Leiviskä asked me whether I would be interested in making an altarpiece for another church.
It would be a rush job. I answered in the affirmative.
The combined parishes of Helsinki commissioned a sketch which was to be ready in three months. I made a 1:20 scale model of the altar wall on the basis of Leiviskä’s drawings. On completion of the model, I realised that I did not really want to do anything to it, so dynamic and impressive was Juha’s altar. My assistant, however, urged me to develop the idea of a prism.
After a little negotiation, the Iittala glass factory promised to examine the possibility of casting prisms.They would be made in an injection press.
For the model, I made some small prisms in the glass workshop of the University of Art and Design, together with a former student of mine. Juha had already studied the effects of the movement of the sun on the altar wall. I went through them with an engineering student and we realised that it was pointless to calculate the angles of the sun at this stage. Instead, we decided to make the fixings of the prisms in such a way that the prisms could be rotated.
Once again, Juha’s architecture offered a natural foundation for the use of coloured reflections. At this early stage, I decided that this church would not be as charming as the one at Männistö. I called the work Gabriel’s Wing. The light of god filters through Gabriel’s feathers and fragments into colours. The work was to be gentle and stern. Sometimes almost invisible, sometimes strongly visible. And that is how it turned out.
The people from the combined parishes of Helsinki came to look at my sketches and the work was commissioned.
The prisms were made in an injection press at the Iittala glass factories. It proved necessary to fix their size according to the volume of the press’s dipper: the prisms had to be wide enough to prevent the sunlight from dazzling in the openings in which it was intended to place them, and their height was defined according to the given width. The mould was made at Rautaruukki. When I visited Iittala to look at the first prisms to be finished, I decided that only one face would be polished. On the surface left by the press, the spectrum refracted by the prisms would be a little amoeboid and would fragment more than if it were polished. It was a good decision.
The fixings were finally made at Cariitti Oy, which also delivered the fibre optics. The first manufacturer of fixings was unable to take the job on because of the timetable. It was going to be done in a hurry. In the end it was a piece of luck that it was possible to design and make the fixings just before they were installed. When the walls of the prism openings were cut, the dimensions of the fixings changed and they would in any case had to have been made again. I wanted some of the prisms to lean forward 15 degrees so that the spectral amoebas would refract on to the church walls even at midsummer. I myself drew the basic forms of the fixings and of course caused an unfortunate but fortunately correctable misunderstanding when I was not immediately able to sort the matter out with the engineer who was making the final drawing. The fixings were a brilliant success.
The reflective elements were made of polished acrylic panels painted with acrylic paints. They were painted in my studio.
At first I used colours that were too dark, and I had to lighten them at the installation phase. Against the sun, they still cast an almost shadow-like colour field on to the neighbouring beam. Juha telephoned me a couple of months after the church was finished and told me that they terrorise his vertical design by creating a horizontal tension. I certainly understand Juha’s point of view, but the colour was, for me, a deliberate decision. The colour is not, in fact, so strong. The situation changes according to the position of the sun, when the ultra-violet radiation finally and inevitably unravelled the colours. The colour is never permanent and final. It changes constantly.
For the dark period of the day, fibre optics were installed behind the prisms. They are visible through the prisms as points and cast a fine butterfly-wing on to the neighbouring beam. A lidded uncast hole was left in the floor under the prisms to take a projector.
Holes were first drilled for the securing of the sturdy strip irons of the fixings. The problem was that the holes had to be drilled perpendicularly into a space which would not take a drill. After various searches, some of them stupid, I found a simple solution. The holes were made with an angle drill and a grinding bit. The grinding bit was invented when hammer drills did not yet exist. The angle of a grinding bit is slightly different from a hammer drill. With a little extra pressure – using a plank as a crank – it became easy to drill the holes in the concrete. The strip irons were fixed to every third prism. One screw thus bore about ten kilos. That was certainly enough. The bunches of fibre optics were lifted to the windowsills of the openings and clicked on to the installation lath. The prisms were fixed to the strip irons with studs. Each prism rotates freely. As the row of prisms rose upward, the fibre optics behind them were bent to face in the right direction. In the final phase of the installation, the sun happened to shine suitably and I was able to rotate the prisms into the positions I wanted. The reflective elements were glued and nailed to the walls and beams. >From the floor, I shouted co-ordinates up to my assistant according to what looked right. I already guessed at this stage that someone was sure to have something to say about this.
As a memorial of what had happened upstairs, I installed a few prisms and reflective elements in the crypt downstairs. This is where we made our only technical mistake. We did not nail the acrylic panels to the wall, but believed the glue supplier, the hardware merchant next door. I shall have to drill and screw the panels, which have come away, to the wall.
The work is ready
The person in charge of the work from the parish approved the work. The church was consecrated; the occasion was beautiful.
I went to Spain on holiday, fell in love and gave up drinking.
My own assessment
A couple of days after Juha’s telephone call, I wrote in my diary:
‘We went and sat upstairs looking at the play of the sunlight on Gabriel’s wing. I think it is a fine thing. It still has the problems it was left with, but I do not wish to alter it in any way. Of course, it does ‘terrorise’ Leiviskä’s white verticality, it exploits it shamelessly, exposing its breasts like Cicciolina in the Italian parliament. But it is beautiful. Stern. Seductive and mysterious. It is Gabriel’s wing. It does not comfort, it brings a message and tells a story, dazzles the eyes and draws the gaze like a magnet.’
The Iittala glass factory made the prisms
Cariitti Oy made the fixings, fibre optics and projectors
My assistant was the artist Panu Ruotsalo
The article is an edited version of Markku Pääkkönen’s article ‘Gabrielin siipi’ (‘Gabriel’s wing’) and comments made by him at the Pyhyys ja arkkitehtuuri (‘Architecture and the sacred’) symposium. The article was published in Ptah-magazine of Alvar Aalto -academy 2003:1
Translation Hildi Hawkins