In living a life there are very few guarantees, but experiencing loss is one emotional hurdle we will all face at some point. How we handle it depends on its nature, but the death of a loved one carries its own signature. It is a fundamental human experience that can bring solace for some and the loss of self for others. Rebecca Solnit once wrote: "To be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like Arctic tundra or a sea of ice.” This is the starting point for understanding Hilla Kurki's newest body of work Fallen Feathers, from the Phoenix series. It begins with her sister’s death at the early age of twenty-eight and how Kurki incorporates this personal tragedy into her own story, using her grief as stepping stones toward a new becoming. She transforms her sister’s forgotten black dresses into a bridge to link us to her memories in hope of self-recovery. Kurki's photographs have a familiar feel to Yoko Ono's early performances from the 1960s, where she sits upon a stage in a self-induced trance while members of the audience come forward to cut pieces from her clothing. In a similar fashion, we see Kurki in Phoenix Piece (2016) dressed in one of her sister’s full-length designs, blankly staring into the camera. Slowly, over thirty-six individual frames she begins cutting from the bottom to the top in one continuous strip until, ultimately, she is naked. The photograph appears to be a documentation of a performance, but there is no audience apart from herself and her continuous inner dialogue. Kurki seeks another avenue, one that approaches self-recovery through her family’s legacy of weaving.
The tradition of cutting clothes of the deceased to be wefted into rugs is a long steading Finnish tradition. What could not be used was remodeled, deconstructed, and then reconstructed as a form of pragmatic exorcism. By cutting, sewing, and weaving, Kurki works through all her sister’s collected garments to reshape her personal story, to enable her to take back the authority to determine her own fate. In Kurki's own words, she states: "Something is lost but something is reborn. It is a tender annihilation.”
What's essential in all of her works is the juxtaposition between the living body and the materiality of the textiles. These images portray a play within what we see and how it touches us. They set the stage where form meets the tactility of how it could feel. The dresses are symbolic vestiges, incomplete and empty shells invoking the absence of presence. These compositions of Kurki's fall into the same shadow of Annika von Hausswolff’s piece, The Memory of My Mother’s Underwear Transformed into a Flameproof Drape (2003) in how they seem to loom over the viewer, remaining both softly aloof yet menacing at the same time.
Hilla Kurki has gradually learned that sorrow can be grown out of like a snake’s skin can be shed. She states: "One cannot empty out an emotion just by feeling it. One can overcome it and learn to own it, by meticulously re-telling it.” This follows a long history of female artists who renegotiate the past through self-reflection and reevaluation of their own families’ relationships and how a profound experience can endlessly resonate. Like a stone cast into a pond we are left with just a ripple, reminding us of the impact.