Photographer Toni Härkönen’s (b. 1972, Kuhmo) exhibition Between Ashes consists of photographs cropped down the middle, after which one half of the picture is duplicated and mirrored, exactly as in the Rorschach inkblot test. Photographs have turned into almost abstract images, yet people start to look for new meanings and identifiable figures in them. Facial features and various insects are often the first things to be recognized, even if they do not actually appear in the pictures. This is a manifestation of a mental phenomenon called pareidolia. Pareidolia is a perceptual psychological phenomenon in which random sensory perceptions become meaningful. Typically, pareidolia phenomenon has to do with seeing faces.
Toni Härkönen is a Sipoo based photo artist. His studio is located at the former mental hospital, Nikkilä. For several years now, Härkönen has created photographs resembling inkblot tests of his familiar environment. Sometimes he sees angels in his own pictures, sometimes demons. Flowers turn into butterflies, and in a heap of stones lurks an alien. Displaying his photographs to other people, Härkönen has noticed that almost everyone finds their own interpretation of them.
All the photographs in the exhibition have been taken in autumn 2018 at the cemetery of Nikkilä mental hospital. Every photo has been cropped down the middle and mirrored, and no external elements have been added. Contrast and colours of the photographs have of course been adjusted, but the images have not been otherwise manipulated.
Nikkilä mental hospital cemetery was in operation from 1922 to 1951. Over 700 people have been buried there but only a handful of tombstones exist in the area. In those days, it was not that uncommon for people with mental problems to be left alone, without support from their family. During the war, Karelian evacuees lodged in Nikkilä and patients from Helsinki hospitals were also buried in the cemetery.
After having spent years at the Nikkilä mental hospital area, Härkönen started to ponder how much our mental health, and above all recovery, is related to the fact that our needs are paid attention to, and to our feeling of belonging to a community.
Härkönen’s photographs express diversity of nature which grows from the remains of people buried in the area. In his photos, Härkönen sees demons we all must face in our lives, the same demons people buried in Nikkilä have perhaps encountered. But his images also exude hope and longing for love – a desire to be seen and heard.
The name of the exhibition, Between Ashes, derives from the committal phrase, “ashes to ashes”. This selection of Härkönen’s photographs reminds its viewers that our life is but a brief moment between dust and ashes. As in the intersection of these pictures, our own lives happen somewhere in between.
Härkönen has named his photographs after poems by L. Onerva (1882–1972), probably the most famous inhabitant of Nikkilä mental hospital.
Toni Härkönen is best known for his long career as an editorial and portrait photographer. He also has a long career in advertising and image processing field. He was chosen the portrait photographer of the year in 2003. Between Ashes is Mr. Härkönen’s first solo exhibition.