Tale of a “Crazy Artist”
Finnish Photographer Toni Kitti Talks Art, AIDS, Shame & Recovery
by Lester Strong
“There is always a deep inner peace when I do my work. They are pictures that I just have to make. I call it the obsession of an artist: that thing you have inside you and just have to get out of your head into your medium and show to people.”
These words, from a recent interview with Helsinki, Finland-based photographer, video artist, and installation artist Toni Kitti, paint an accurate picture of an individual driven to produce a remarkable body of work reflecting passionate responses to a number of topics ranging from Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol to plastic to the traumatic experience he underwent a number of years ago when his life collided with AIDS.
Kitti speaks and writes English quite well, and his own words explain his art better than anyone else’s summary could do. So, to quote him directly:
Plastic and photography: “In the beginning there is life. In the end there is death and a new beginning for something else. Life and death form the circle in which we all roll during the time we wander about this universe. Plastic and photography symbolize this circle for me. Plastic is made of plants that died millions of years ago, and when molded by human hands can take almost any form and imitate how life looks—for example, like the plastic animals and trees you can see in my art. Plastic is immortal because no organism can decompose it. Likewise, photography is also immortal: The process doesn’t involve the human hand [directly] because light produces the image [by means of] an industrial technology humanity has developed. Even if the original print fades away with time, we can always reproduce the image, be it from the [plastic] film it was shot on or from a [digital] file. The picture stays the same, unlike a painting or a sculpture where the power of the work is dependent on the touch of the hand of the artist that produced it. I hate hand-made work and love industrial work because it can be replicated, reproduced, and just like plastic doesn’t fade and die in the way that hand-made work does.”
Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol as artistic influences: “As a child I was drawn to the work of Dali, and spent countless hours looking at the pictures of his work in the encyclopedia. In my late teens I became a Warhol fan. Both artists appealed to me because they do not show the hand work in their images. Dali’s images were surrealistic, where the idea was to paint something that did not exist but looked photorealistic and thus played with the idea of what is real. Warhol used a completely industrial method to produce his paintings, and didn’t paint at all with a brush. Both of them fit into this idea I have about a clean, sterile surface of a picture that doesn’t look like it has been created by the shaking human hand. I also love the fact that both of them were very eccentric in their lives and were walking pieces of art themselves, just like me. The crazy artist life with glamorous parties and night life inspires me a lot. If I had a time machine, I definitely would crash their outrageous parties!
“I find it very fascinating that these artists mesmerized me with their work before I myself became an artist. Why was my personality structured in a way that from an early age I was drawn to these artists? And why was I drawn to photography? Was the artist always in me just waiting to get out, or did it evolve with time?”
Color: “I love bright colors! When I was in my twenties I had my ‘pink decade,’ and pink was everywhere in my life. Then in my thirties, I grew up a little and became this red, funny boy that I am now! Recently I’ve been diagnosed with ADD, and that might explain why I love color so much: I get bored extremely easily, and strong, vivid colors feed my visual input so that the feeling of getting bored doesn’t take over so easily in a colorful environment. Red is the color of life, too!”
Collision with AIDS: “In my childhood, there was no medication for AIDS, and I belonged to a generation that was scared to death about it. In the year 2000 I was visiting New York City and at the airport saw a Newsweek article about Christine Maggiore [1956–2008], the late HIV denialist. In a way I joined the ‘denialist cult’ by starting to read the message she and other denialists were putting out. They had so many theories about AIDS that I can’t say what I thought actually caused it or how I could avoid it. But by believing the denialist message, I found a way to avoid thinking about AIDS! I could push it aside. For over ten years I didn’t take an HIV test, and that stupidity almost killed me.
“In 2012 I moved to Berlin and became very sick. I’m lucky to be alive. I was in a Berlin hospital for eight weeks, and in a Helsinki hospital for four weeks. I survived, but was covered with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. Out of the hospital my life was no longer in danger, but I had to continue the medication for pneumonia for another four months, and after that I had sixteen months of chemotherapy for my Kaposi’s sarcoma. You can believe it wasn’t easy. Even standing on my feet for more than ten seconds was difficult for almost nine months after I left the hospitals since AIDS caused something in my muscles to hurt so much that I couldn’t get my legs to straighten out.”
AIDS and shame: “When I started to realize that I wasn’t going to die after all, I had to face my feelings of shame. How was I going to survive life after having done something so unbelievably stupid as not believing in the disease in the first place? I realized the only way of surviving the shame and really starting to live my life again was to be open about what had happened. I didn’t want to keep secrets anymore. I truly came to see the scars growing up gay in a small town in the 1980s and 1990s had left. I was never in the closet, and came out as gay in my teens. But I never felt proud about my sexuality. Things have changed. The Internet has helped by making a lot of good information available. You can even see out and proud professional teen drag queens nowadays. I’m really happy about that! So I consciously fight and question the idea of shame in my own life, and in my art too.”
Walk Over Me: “Installations are for me about mixing media and ideas and taking photography to the next level by making the viewer part of the work. I like to challenge the audience. In a way my exhibition ‘The Persistence of Plastic’ [Galleria Lapinlahti, Helsinki, 2017] was a temple of plastic and joy. But it contained another element. As you entered, there was a large vinyl carpet at the door with my smiling face printed on it. You could not enter the space without walking over my face—or maybe you could if your legs reached far enough to stretch yourself over it. There was also a motion detection camera installed in the ceiling above the carpet that took a picture of everyone entering. From what I’ve heard, people were very impressed by this installation piece. It was also very exciting for me to see the pictures of people trying not to step on my face. I realized the installation worked really well.”
AIDS in Finland: “One of the main things that made me decide to come out with my HIV/AIDS story and make it part of my art is the wall of silence about AIDS in the Finnish gay community. There is a lot of shame and stigma surrounding the disease, and it makes people avoid getting tested. The only way to get rid of the stigma is to talk about it. I want people to know that you can live a good life even if you do have HIV. I am not my HIV. It has been a long and rough journey learning to love myself and to start living again, but I succeeded. People make mistakes. We are weak and vulnerable creatures. But we can learn from our mistakes. That’s part of what makes us human.”
“The crazy artist”: “There is also a ‘crazy artist’ part to my story. After my hospital stays, the doctors wanted me to take pictures of my Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions so they could see how the medicine affected the lesions. So friends and I took medical pictures for the doctors showing my body, but not my face. Then I decided I wanted to make art about this as well, so we re-cropped the pictures to add my head. Of course I smiled because I always smile in pictures of me. The main image in the series is titled Strike a Pose. I used it in ‘The Persistence of Plastic’ and several other venues. There I was, smiling and posing for the camera just like a little child. I try to live in the moment. I don’t succeed at it all the time, but when I do I’m always having the best time of my life!”
As a final comment, it should be noted that Toni Kitti introduces the image Strike a Pose by referring to himself as “the crazy artist.” But in going public with the photo and his struggle with HIV/AIDS, a more correct description suggests itself: “the brave artist.” In the interview he stated that he “loves tigers.” Perhaps it could be said that this Kitti learned how to become a tiger.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.