Delicate Demons: do women belong in the home?

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Delicate Demons is a collaborative, ongoing project between Finnish photographers Satu Haavisto and Aino Kannisto, in which women are meticulously staged in domestic spaces.

The spaces in the photographs are tight, with a room corner in most of the scenes, compressing the viewer and the subject into an uncomfortably proximal relationship and emphasising the sense of home as a potentially oppressive place.

The women appear as mysterious characters, deep in thought. They feel heavy and complicated, physically embodying difficult emotions and experiences.

Woman on Balcony

The gaze of many of the women is strikingly intense. In one image, Woman on Balcony, her stare out of the frame feels somewhat over-constructed until, with a jolt, we see in a reflection she is in fact gazing directly at the camera.

Face on, her look is more vulnerable, more anxious and raw. Props and settings combine to hint at troubling, ambiguous backstories: one figure clutches a kitchen knife, barely visible between her knees.

Delicate Demons comes from the same vein as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella The Yellow Wallpaper, in which the apparently innocuous wallpaper becomes a metaphor for woman’s confinement in the home.

Haavisto, who was born in 1975, and Kannisto, born 1973, make work which feels less theatrical, expansive and allegorical than their contemporary Gregory Crewdson, the American photographer known for his elaborately staged scenes of American homes.

This work eschews the cinematic feel of Crewdson’s imagery, evoking instead a feeling of disturbing intimacy.

Both artists graduated from the prominent Helsinki School at Alvar Aalto University, a department which also produced their contemporary Elina Brotherus. Alvar Aalto’s photographers are known for their cool, careful style and frequent use of the figure to embody experience in the landscape.

Woman and Pillows

Haavisto and Kannisto find the process of collaborative working an opportunity to confront and negotiate their intuitive, unchallenged methods of practice.

While they share the development of ideas in the project, they have demarcated roles in the realisation of the work, with Kannisto designing each set and Haavisto directing the model. They were drawn to these scenes of women washing themselves, doing dishes, perched uneasily or lost in anxious thought, saying they felt these experiences were rarely represented, perhaps because they were seen as “too private, in an embarrassing or banal way”.

Delicate Demons serves to contradict the facile notion of home as tranquil haven and as a naturally feminine space.

The overall sense of the series is of the unheimlich, the uncanny or unhomely, in which the familiar contains aspects which are both known and strange, comforting and frightening.

Delicate Demons, by Satu Haavisto and Aino Kannisto, is on show at the Red Barn Gallery, 43B Rosemary Street, Belfast until 28t June. Open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10-5pm, as part of Belfast Photo Festival.