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Eyes As Big As Plates

by | 19 June, 2018

What connection can we maintain to nature when the jungles we inhabit are increasingly made of concrete?

It is a question artists Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen have been exploring in an evolving sense for the past five years.

Hjorth, from Norway, and Ikonen, from Finland, both grew up with a keen connection to the outdoors, and while today they too live in big cities, the pair still feels “a definite need to roll in the leaves regularly”.

So when they first met in Norway (via Google) in 2011, their shared influences and interests sparked a collaborative project to recreate scenes and characters from Scandinavian folklore.

“We were curious and on a mission to find out what kind of connection the Norwegians had with their rocks, fjords and hills, and especially keen on looking at folktales where nature or natural phenomena were personified,” they explain.

“Folktales often made complex natural and sociological issues understandable and accessible, with phenomena taking on forms and characteristics that even a mere mortal could have a dialogue with.”

The project, which came to be called ‘Eyes as Big as Plates’, is part sculpture, part installation, part photography. Ikonen creates sculptural costumes from natural materials, which Hjorth then photographs their models wearing, using a medium format Mamiya camera.

man lying on mossy ground

The pair chose elderly people as their subjects because “we reasoned that the older the local we would work with, the closer we would be to the tellers of the tales and the talking rocks of the stories”. But, “what we found when interviewing these people was that folktales don’t seem too relevant as a guide to navigating the everyday world around us anymore”.

“Those Nordic hills might not have changed since the tales, but the people sure had!”

And so the project evolved into “a search for modern human’s belonging to nature”. Elements from folklore remain in some images, but they are equally inspired by the Romantics’ celebration of imagination. A solitary figure in a landscape, dressed in elements from that landscape, indicating neither time nor place. The duo describes their works as timeless and universal, the natural world acting as both content and context, with an additional narrative provided by the character.

The images also aim to convey a message about the “usefulness” of older people, which Hjorth and Ikonen believe Western society has become “unnecessarily confused about”.

woman covered in wildflowers

“Attitude, knowledge, experience, and stamina are some of the main traits we have found amongst all our collaborators, as well as a formidable curiosity for new experiences. ‘Eyes as Big as Plates’ aims to rediscover a demographic group too often marginalised, and generate new perspectives on who we are and where we belong.”

The title ‘Eyes as Big as Plates’ is borrowed from Asbjørnsen and Moe’s ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ folktale, in which a troll living under a bridge is described as having “eyes as big as tin plates”. Hjorth and Ikonen say it “seemed to fittingly describe many of our models’ ways of looking at the world”.

Each scene the duo creates begins with an interview and a location visit, and “we build the image upwards from there”. It can be a long process, but the end result is all the better for it.

man covered in white flowers

“Working on film requires time — as does arranging seaweed! — but having time as an important element in the process works wonderfully in the collaboration with the wild.

“We ask our models to allow at least half a day, preferably a full day, for a shoot with us. When the model knows the relationship with the camera is going to be a lengthy, and at times uneventful, one, there is a chance of relaxation and time for observations and daydreaming to start taking place.

“Many of the models tell us after a shoot that they have experienced the surroundings, which they have often seen many times before, in a completely new light.”

Connection to nature: achieved.

man covered in seaweed

Paul / Draugen (or Draugr): Draugen is associated with the spirits of mariners drowned at sea, possessing a human form, except for its head, which is made entirely of seaweed. Paul is a sailor and a sail maker, and agreed to don the grand seaweed headpiece in homage to Draugen, and in the hope that he would look a bit like Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean.


woman wearing hat made of sticks

Agnes / North Wind: Agnes did her first parachute jump at 85 years old, and her second at 90 — “she is not afraid of anything” — and seemed the perfect embodiment of the North Wind, which is thematic particularly in Nordic folk tales. The North Wind is associated with snow and showers, and is also seen as fierce and mighty, much like the indomitable Agnes.

man with grass around his head

Bengt / Lyktemannen: According to folktales, Lyktemannen, or will-o’-the-wisps as they are more widely known, are mysterious lights, or creatures carrying lanterns, which can be seen on the Norwegian bogs. These mischievous fairies, or spirits of the dead, are said to lure travellers off well-trodden paths and into treacherous marsh areas.

woman wearing grass shawl

Edda / Huldufólk: Edda is an expert on Huldufólk, or ‘hidden people’, who are said to inhabit the volcanic landscape of Iceland. The hot springs of Seltún is part of the active volcanic zone where locals have recorded seeing ‘hot spring birds’, or dead souls that take the form of birds, which dive into the bubbling, boiling water. Edda bravely walked out into Seltún as it bubbled around her.

woman covered in rhubard

Astrid / Huldra: Huldra are forest-dwelling creatures that take the form of tall, beautiful women with long, flowing hair. They are often depicted with a tail, and it is said their back is open, like a hollow tree, but this is hidden by their hair. “After a great initial interview, Astrid offered us a gargantuan rhubarb from her garden to build the long locks for the character.”