Elsa Salonen

Artist Statement

My works are marked by the artistic interpretation of alchemy, which explores the universe through natural materials, and animism, especially the Finnish nature worship. What alchemy and animism have in common is the perception of all surrounding nature as living and sensing. I prepare the pigments for my works by grinding a wide variety of raw materials, such as meteorites and seashells, as well as by extracting colours from plants and algae. Each of the materials stores a special knowledge. I view the pigments as collaborators whose ‘experiences’ define the conceptual message of each work.

For example, I have used stones which are millions of years old as pigments, to depict the lost landscapes of the Carboniferous Period (Stories Told by Stones, 2018), and burned fox bones to paint a herbarium that reflects on the circle of life (Eighty Modest Statements About the Impossibility of Death, 2013). Through the self-collected materials, many of the themes connect to a certain natural site around the world, wherein the more universal themes are addressed with unique materials collected with the help of specialists.

In addition, I distil colours from flowers, preserve the dyes in various ways and bleach plants to make them appear entirely white. The technique is based on a notion that most organisms, both in the plant and the animal world, seem to lose their colours in death – flowers wither and bodies blanch. Thus, all the colours in nature signal the presence of a living force. The result in my three-dimensional paintings is a poetic separation of the vivid life energy (the preserved colours) from their empty, pale bodies (the bleached flowers). For example, the installation Study of Eternal Cycle (2014) shows a single bleached rose with three laboratory glasses that are painted with the colours distilled from the very same flower. A spotlight illuminates the glasses and the painted colours are reflected back to the bleached rose, which again appears vivid and red.

Medieval alchemists studied natural materials, which they also used to make colours. Through the materials, they sought to understand the surrounding universe as well as the interconnectedness of everything in the cosmos and the individual’s role among all others; oneself. One of the most important steps in alchemy was repeated distillation, which left the purest essence of the substance – and the alchemist – in the glass flask.