Jenni-Juulia Wallinheimo-Heimonen — “The pleasures we choose”

jennijuulia film still from could you watch my mom for a moment

Known as the Olympics of the Art World, the Venice Biennale is an international contemporary art exhibition held bi-annually in Venice, Italy. Celebrating its 60th iteration this year with the theme Foreigners Everywhere, The Venice Biennale hosts a select few artists from 86 nations to showcase their creations on a prominent world stage. The high profile nature of this event may seem intimidating to some, but to others, like artist Jenni-Juulia Wallinheimo-Heimonen, it presents an incredible opportunity to draw attention to important pressing social issues in the hopes of creating a chain event of awareness and change.

ABILITY Magazine’s Jennifer Woodall and Chet Cooper met with artist Jenni-Juulia Wallinheimo-Heimonen in a virtual interview to discuss what it means to navigate social systems as a woman with a disability, creating art as a catalyst for change and being invited to participate in one of the most prominent art events in the world.

Jennifer Woodall: Hello, hello! How are you?

Jenni-Juulia Wallinheimo-Heimonen: Good. I’m just getting the right webcam. Is it this one? Yes! (laughs) Hello, so nice to meet you!

Woodall: Nice to meet you as well. How is everything over there? It’s nighttime over where you’re at, right? Almost 7 p.m.?

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: Yeah, it’s actually—there was a little change, so I’m right now in a hotel room still in Venice, because there was a little polishing last-minute touch-up, so I’m leaving tomorrow morning. Still here, but it’s going really good. It’s like 99.99% ready. (laughs)

Woodall: That’s awesome. And an extra night in Venice, come on! Who doesn’t want to stay in Venice a little extra? (laughs)

jennijuulia am i your inspiration really 2021
Am I Your Inspiration, Really? 2021

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: (laughs) Yeah, yeah, it’s been really an experience. Still unbelievable. A city of bridges and stairs and lots of challenges to do practical things. But I think it’s so much fun. It’s a so rebellious city. I really respect its attitude here.

Woodall: That’s great! You’re one of three Finnish artists representing Finland at the Venice Biennale art exhibit, right?

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: Yes. We have a collaborated exhibition; we call it The Pleasures We Choose. We are three artists, but also, our amazing curators, Jussi Koitel and Yvonne Billimore, we have worked together a lot, discussed about the topics, and then we even have an architectural intervention, also related to access issues. We are three artists but also three very important persons supporting us and working together.

Woodall: Tell me about how you all got involved with the Venice Biennale? Were you invited? Did you have to apply to that? What was that process like?

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: Actually, honestly, I don’t know why it’s me, but I’m not sure if you’re aware that there was of course a little criticism for our selection in Hyperallergic magazine? This time the Frame Contemporary Arts Finland decided to use invitations, so Jussi Koitel and Yvonne Billimore selected three artists. I think in the background is their many-years-long program Rehearsing Hospitalities, where they were trying to look for artists in marginals, like they were doing a lot of collaborations with artists with disabilities, deaf artists, artists with neurodiverse issues, but also all kind of minorities like LGBTQIA, the Sami and people of color, and I think this has affected that there are now three artists who, I mean, we all share this little problematic relationship with this world that is not perfectly designed for our needs. So, I think that why we three are having things in common and still very separate problems, but we need to sometimes do a bit more to survive, and then for us it’s really, it’s hard for us to divide our lives and bodies from the art we make, so we’re also all art activists, somehow, (laughs) in different ways, but still.

Woodall: Can you tell me about the work for the exhibition and what the piece is about and what it’s like? I know you mentioned it’s called The pleasures we choose. Can you tell me what it looks like visually and the artistic decisions that you all made about that?

check this out

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: My work consists of three different elements. We have made—there’s a short film, a two-screen film, and then there is a textile installation and a kinetic sculpture. I’m more like a storyteller, it’s hard to tell you how they look. I know I should be able to do that. But they are all inspired by hate speech towards people with disabilities in Finland. They are inspired by this survey that our Ministry of Justice has repeated from 2015-17. I think the next one was in 2019. Hate speech is a huge problem in Finland, they wanted to know how it’s affecting Sami people, Roma people, people of color, LGBTQIA, and us, and there is one very big difference between the disability community and other minorities, because for us, the most common place to face hate speech is actually the social and healthcare, which doesn’t surprise the disabled community, but it’s something that they’re not talking about at all.

In the first survey, it was almost 50% of hate speech that we face that comes from the social and healthcare workers, and then I wanted to bring this up because then if such an opportunity for a disability artist, I was thinking first, what is the most important thing? It would be the social model. But if the gatekeepers, the medical world, doesn’t even understand that they, in a gatekeeper position, have such a negative attitude towards us, I have to first point up this hate speech issue.

jennijuulia wallinheimo heimonen
Jenni-Juulia Wallinheimo-Heimonen

All these pieces I have been making are very playful, very shiny and glittering and fun, but the title is, How Great Is Your darkness. I mean the question of knowledge, if you don’t even know that you don’t know how deep in this darkness you actually are when you don’t even see your own darkness. The biggest challenge for me was to—this is a very international exhibition, so I was trying to, for example, in the video, use bodies and pantomime to express the hate speech in a way that everybody can read its negative attitude. There is actually even no words, there is no sound, there’s just an audio description. Many of those elements that I’m using in the film I have embroidered and used them also in this textile installation and the kinetic sculpture also.

I’m so deep in my work, so I’m just sitting and embroidering and it’s really hard for me to go to the details. But there’s a lot of beads, a lot of glitter, because I want to have a huge contrast with the darkness and then the happiness. That’s been my practice for 20 years, because disability art has such a negative feeling in people’s minds, so I’m kind of tricking people to come a bit closer, and I hope they don’t even realize in the beginning that they’re actually watching a very serious art work, because the first impression is hopefully humorous and fun. The point is that maybe you know who we are laughing at and we’re laughing at these practices that sometimes healthcare makes things more difficult for us, where they could make our lives easier. But there’s a lot of protocol, a lot of things that have to be done in a certain way that makes it even less accessible for us than it should be.

Woodall: Absolutely. I think too that it will be interesting to see, because it’s so easy to be drawn to release shiny things and really shiny things, so it’ll be interesting to see people get drawn in by those aspects of it and then realize the deeper meaning behind the artwork. It’s almost revealing what the artwork is about itself, where you’re in the thick of this darkness and you don’t even know you’re in there, and then hopefully all of a sudden, they’ll be like, “Wait a minute, am I in this, too?” That’ll be interesting, to see how it’s interacted with. That’ll be cool.

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: Finnish people say what we think, but I can honestly say that I am right now in the stage where I have this fear that as a disabled woman, talking about the problematic attitudes of people who have so much more power than I do, that there is of course a huge risk that they will not be angry at me, but more like explain me away, saying, “Oh, we’re sorry for your negative experiences, and we hope to do better next time,” which means “end of discussion.” That’s why I didn’t want to go to the words, so that their attention doesn’t go to who said what and when to whom, but more like, what makes a person snap in the situation where you’re alone with a patient who needs more time in communication, dressing up, who may be asking things that other patients don’t ask that you should give some positive, special treatment, and you just get upset. I’m more interested in this psychological question of what is going on, and then the second very important thing for me is that when I was talking with other women with disabilities about this, the problem is that authorities don’t recognize the hate speech towards us. If they don’t recognize it, our hands are kind of tied for what we can do to change things.

For example, in many countries, if you threaten with violence or if you say to someone, “I want to kill you or hurt you or make you suffer,” it’s a crime. It’s a very black level hate speech. But if you say to someone that “It would have been better if you had died in that accident,” or “Your mother should have aborted you,” many authorities don’t even see that’s hate speech. Of course, women with disabilities especially don’t usually report these, we just share them in our peer groups. We go through the experience on our own. But they also shape our thoughts about ourselves, the value, everything that if you get used to this feeling, they can say anything to us, you accept this kind of behavior more and more, and I don’t want anyone to get use to this kind of way to talk.

jennijuulia artists of the pavilion of finland in the 2024 venice biennale vidha saumya left jenni juulia wallinheimo heimonen and pia lindman
Artists of the Pavilion of Finland in the 2024 Venice Biennale; Vidha Saumya (left), Jenni-Juulia and Pia Lindman

I’ve been thinking about the moment, if a friend with cerebral palsy, if you go to the police and say, “The nurse told me that if I’m not staying still in this mammography machine, she’s gonna make sure it will hurt.” It’s hate speech. But I’m sure that the police would say, “Yes, that was not nicely said, but go home.” (laughs) “We can’t do anything about it.” Then, accidentally in ’21, when I was already processing this hate speech on a bigger level, there was also I think that Harvard University published a study about American physicians’ attitudes against patients with disabilities. That is also a lot about the same issues. There are even really funny things, like, most of the surgeons, for example, think that if a wheelchair user gets breast cancer, they always want to have everything removed because “Women with disabilities don’t care about their appearance.” (laughs) I used to be a chair of a women’s working group in the Finnish Association of People with Mobility Disabilities, years ago, but I think we definitely, all our members, we’ve cared a lot (laughs), we even invited fashion students and people checking what colors match us. It was a little bit challenging, because some of us wanted to show our disabilities and some wanted to know how to hide a curved back. But anyway, we all definitely—I think sometimes maybe we care a bit more because it’s so strongly linked to how we are met in public situations. But there are these attitudes, and I think it’s not a taboo because there are a little of studies and surveys, but still, nothing is happening. They don’t do anything. And now I’m going to Venice and I’m here, but I’m taking this topic up and I don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe nothing. Maybe it’s big for me, but still, I wanted to bring it to light. I hope it’s not offensive. (laughs)

Woodall: I’m also a disabled artist. As a disabled artist, my thought process is, even if it is offensive—like, I hope it does offend somebody sometimes.

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: (laughs)

Woodall: I know that’s not how everybody views it, but sometimes that’s what needs to happen to make people take a step back, take a moment and really connect with what’s happening. Navigating the health industry as a woman anyway, and then a woman with a disability can be a total nightmare. It’s so much mental effort to try to advocate for yourself and to convince somebody that you have this thing that you need help with. The Venice Biennale is such a huge stage to bring this to, it’s so exciting! It’s awesome, and I feel like just that alone is acknowledging the situation. Hopefully there’s some traction to that, that some change can come from that. That would be amazing!

check this out

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: I really hope that there will be real, honest discussion. I’m very solution-oriented. I would like to hear what the physicians think about what they could do. I am quite openly blaming that they are so ableist that they are teaching it. I’m always thinking about the young girls and women, there are so many situations where if they just changed their way to work, the social model would spread much, much more easily in Finland. For example, I think still that physicians can say to girls, “You should maybe choose a profession where you don’t have to walk long distances or maybe something you can do with computers,” and I’m like, come on, they should say something like, “When you go to working life, there will be a lot of obstacles but we can teach you how to fight them.” They still think that everything is coming from our bodies without even thinking that they are actually very ableist and they’re spreading this 30-year-old, old-fashioned medical view still, in 2024, and I wish this would stop. I was in Canada, in North America, there disability is taken more seriously there than in Finland or there’s more punishment if you break the rules, but in Finland, things that have nothing to do with medicine, like if you need a big screen to read books, you have to go to the doctor, who then has to write you a paper that you really need this big screen. They have to write a paper if you need access to your sauna or your balcony, things that. They are privileged people who don’t understand that this balcony can be the only place where you get fresh air, and if they say that it’s not necessary for you, they can block your independence and block your life in such dramatic ways, without knowing that, without ever thinking that. They can sometimes cause a lot of harm.

This doesn’t mean that I’m against medicine in the big picture. I think it’s perfectly okay if they can improve some impairments so that your real life quality gets better. That’s okay. But a lot of these procedures cause more pain and suffering and hospital days than actually make your life better. So, this balance is challenging, but they are throwing away the Finnish healthcare system–our new government–so let’s see if in the future nobody gets healthcare! (laughs) They want now the “American way,” insurance for everyone. (laughs)

jennijuulia film still from the biennale short film how great is your darkness
Jenni-Juulia film still from the Biennale short film How Great is Your darkness

Woodall: (laughs) I’m sorry!

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: No, no, it’s not yours, but it’s such a big difference. We had such a wonderful government–the previous one–with Sanna Marin, young woman leading the country, and everything was going better. Now we have the opposite, like it always happens, that the old men activated and now we are going back to the 1960s. (laughs) But I’m going too far.

Woodall: (laughs) That’s all right. Go too far. It’s fine. I totally understand and absolute resonate with that, which is why I’m excited to see this piece. Also, something that was interesting to me, in some of the past pieces that you’ve done, like Am I Your Inspiration, Really? and Will you Marry me, Space? —which, I love them both, they’re great–you mentioned the idea of “discrimination framed as kindness.” Can you go deeper into what you mean by that?

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: It’s an English translation by a friend. I think I have invented this new word in the Finnish disability vocabulary. “Discrimination framed as kindness” (says it in Finnish), I mean those situations where you don’t get honest response from other people. For example, a young journalist, a wheelchair user, they are not giving her opportunities to go to interview people because they think it’s too challenging for her to go to meet people. They don’t even ask, but they think that they are acting kindly, but they are actually discriminating you and treating you differently because they want to make things smooth and they don’t want to have a conflict and they don’t want to really ask and even think that maybe you want to do things. And then as an artist, it’s a very real thing in criticism, for example. It’s really hard to get a real criticism when you do disability arts because people just come to you and they are in tears and they think it’s so sweet that you’re doing these things, but you never know for sure whether this is just a small-talk blur and they want to be nice to you.

Also, I think it’s the situations where I or my friends behave badly, if a disabled person walks in the street blaming people, yelling bad stuff, people just pass by because they think that maybe it has something to do with a disability, and they don’t tell you, “Hey, behave! That’s not okay!” I started using this term to point out these situations. The older I get, the more I understand that it’s really painful. I don’t want to be paranoid, but there are more and more situations where all this nonverbal language, you see that the person is just wanting to be—I mean, Finland is not a country of small talk. In this we have a very different culture–but a person comes very nicely to have a chat with you but you read between the lines that this is just actually this kind of childish attitude, that they underestimate me as an almost 50-year-old woman. I would really appreciate more very straight feedback.

Woodall: It’s kind of like being treated like you’re made out of glass, right? They want to be so delicate and precious. I get that. I totally understand. I really liked that “discrimination framed as kindness.” When I read it in the art description, it stuck out to me. I wanted to talk to you about your artist process. Can you tell me what you go through from idea to final piece and how you work?

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: I’m now in the stage, I’m in Venice, so I think I’m going to reveal the crazy process. The big artists give you a beautiful description of their process, but the real truth is that I am talking with my—I have worked with men with disabilities, but just a little bit, mostly women–we just have our everyday chats or I read their social media and their experiences, and then there are things that really hit me. “Oh, there’s a wonderful story, could we somehow work on this?” Because I always need the story first or the survey first or some very important topic, and then my background is in textile arts, but I can change the media depending on what I’m going to say. So, sometimes I’m learning new things. If I want to work with wood, if that fits better, then I just order a book and start working with wood, which is a lot of fun and a lot of learning, but it’s also sometimes problematic, because then when you do it for the first time, it cannot be as good as those who have used the same materials for years and years. The textile of course is something that’s following me all the time. In the beginning, when I was collecting these stories, it was more like I was asking women and telling their stories with my mouth in the exhibition space. But when the cameras got better in phones, I started filming their stories. I wasn’t supposed to make films, but it was really fun to show people the video of the person telling the story together with the artwork, so then it doesn’t have to be me always repeating someone else’s experiences. Nowadays it’s very common that I combine a simply made—I think sometimes “short film” is too big a word, because I’m not a film director, but I love making these crazy films. Nowadays everybody who has a phone can be a filmmaker.

jennijuulia detail from textile installation for the biennale
Jenni-Juulia detail from textile installation for the Biennale

The elements and things that happen in a film I bring to installations or sculptures or some kind of artistic work. It sounds prettier than it really is. I have a studio space that is full of boxes of fabric that people have donated to me. I go to flea markets, I try to use—because as textile artists, we should not increase the number of textiles to the world–so I’m using a lot of recycled things and beads. The truth is that I am sitting or crawling or lying on the floor. It’s better for me to work on the floor than in front of a table, so I just have these fabrics and scissors and needles and everything around me, and for the first time, for Venice, why try to show that this is prettier than it really is? I’m the messy old woman on the floor with my materials around, and of course I get up when I need to take some coffee or something, but I’m mostly going on my knees to the next place, and if my back hurts, I’m lying on pillows. When we talk about embodiment, and the difficulty of separating life and art, that is my pleasure also. I’m enjoying it. I have tried working in front of a table, but it doesn’t work. It’s a lot of lonely work, and I have eBooks on all the time, so I read almost a book per day when I’m sewing or stitching. Not of course if I’m writing things down or filming. I have my hearing books, and I forget my body that is just going and doing. Now that all in Venice. I don’t know. It’s definitely not this kind of white beautiful artist where I’m sitting in front of a desk and having visitors, having a nice couch, blah-blah-blah. It’s just like yarn’s coming out of my clothing. (laughs)

Woodall: Art born from chaos is some of my favorite. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but the art world can be surprisingly prejudiced to navigate. From the outside when you’re looking in, you think “they’re artists, they must be open-minded” and then when you navigate it, especially as a woman with a disability, it can be incredibly prejudiced. There’s an attitude that things need to be highbrow. But to me, give me all the art, give me the chaos. I’m a chaotic creator, too. I’ve got stuff everywhere. That’s the type of energy I like. I appreciate that process. (laughs)

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: That’s why I think our process has been so amazing. I’m so grateful for our two curators. I’m the messy person crawling there, and then Pia Lindman who had the mercury poisoning and it’s about toxic things and her relationship with her surrounding that can make her ill. She’s interested in all kinds of healing processes. Her art is that she’s having a healing session with people and what comes out of that, how it resonates. She brings that to her art.

check this out

Vidha Saumya is also working on this, so for her, it’s about a nation-state thing. She came from India to work and live in Finland. She’s questioning gender issues overall, intimacy things, these things. I think there’s a lot of practices that don’t match—just like you said, there’s an artist’s profile that you should be processing. That’s why I also think that when I said in the beginning that there was a little criticism to select these kind of not so—well, Pia is very well-known. She has had work in New York, MOMA, MIT, and blah-blah-blah. But for example, me, I’m very not-known in Finland, so I think that if we always have these open calls and if we think that that’s the fair way, only the artist who can work for free or who can read Finnish, Swedish, or English, there are so many artists who don’t even hear about these open calls, who don’t have resources to make their sketches for weeks for this call. I think it’s very important that there are those good people, like our curators, who want to themselves go to look for something different. That’s why this has been such an amazing process. It’s also very encouraging, that my strange process, I’m not well-known but I can go to Venice if these people trust me. We can create something amazing together. I’m so grateful! I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m overwhelmed. I’m too excited, nervous, but happy. I’m super happy. We’ll see what happens. (laughs)

Woodall: It’s an amazing opportunity. I’m excited for you. I’m excited to see what the work looks like, to see how people feel about it, too. What an incredible stage to have it on as well. They call it the Olympics of the art world.

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: I have heard that, and that’s why I am surprised, I was so surprised to get this opportunity. Sometimes life surprises you. I don’t know what—I don’t think I have done anything, it just dropped from the sky. Just out of nowhere. I was always dreaming of getting—I don’t have a gallery, there are no curators running after me, but I have been very active in the disability arts field, in Europe, because I’m following what’s happening in the UK. I’ve been working with Shape Arts. I was at CoMotion in Canada. I have been in exhibitions in Switzerland. They were all disability-related, there are lots of good artists, but the audience is not the same as here in Venice. Their audience was really interested in disability arts, but I don’t think there’s so much like these gatekeepers who could open galleries and help us to join the mainstream. This is maybe something I have to process now because I want to have it all. I think it’s very important for my own community to still participate in all these strange, small disability-related things where we can come together and be super-active and have very strong messages, but of course there is part of me who would like to say that it would be nice to have the structures that are in the mainstream, that there are curators, there are people putting lights and people carrying your stuff, because often when I’m working much alone, it’s just me and my husband and my relatives who are carrying stuff, installing things, driving around, doing this voluntarily to make this possible–which I’m so grateful for that–but it would be nice to try when there is a little bit more outside help. It’s just the practicality is–sometimes I’m proud, I know how to do it by myself–but the older I get, it would be nice to get some more physical help.

jennijuulia group image of actors getting ready to film how great is your darkness
Group image of actors getting ready to film How Great is Your darkness

Woodall: Absolutely. It would be really great to see something like that in play, some sort of environment where it is a collective, a combination of everybody working together, disabled and non-disabled people, to help make art and shows more accessible. That would be great. Are you funded to create your piece for this upcoming exhibition? Does the Venice Biennale fund? How does that work?

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: The Biennale is not funding. All the countries that have a pavilion have their own funding. Finland is a small country, so I don’t know how it works, but I have heard rumors that last year the U.S. had, like, $6 million. (laughs) I’m laughing because we are getting a commission for creating new work, and when it’s Venice, of course it was easy to apply for the artist funding for the last 16-month period that I have been working, so that has been really, really wonderful. The Kone Foundation gave me full funding for 20 months so I could work on this, and then we get a commission. (laughs) I’m poor, and I’m staying poor, but I get to do these things. I’m in a hotel here and we get paid for travel and hotels and all this. I’m not poor in the sense that other disabled artists are in Finland. I get food for my kids and they get to go do their hobbies, but art is never a good business. Or I don’t know, maybe in some part of the world, but not in Finland. (laughs)

Woodall: It’s not over here, either. You know the phrase “starving artist”? It’s interesting, and I don’t know how you feel about it, but as an artist, I don’t have a choice. I have to create. A lot of times people are like, “Why would you choose this career path?” I didn’t choose this. I have to do this. I don’t have a choice. I have to make art. I don’t know if you feel the same way.

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: I totally feel it, and earlier, when there were gaps between fundings, it was really nice that I got a job at the Threshold Association, which is a human rights organization for people with disabilities. It was run by a most famous Kalle Könkkölä, who was even in the UN negotiation with all these things, like the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, all this. It was really good working there because he was all the time respecting the role of disability arts together with advocacy. He kind of could read me that even I was doing some brochures and planning some campaigns, he still knew that there was this artistic part of me. Like most artists, sometimes you have to do other things to be able to do you art. This is something that I kind of regret, but there is part of me that is actually interested in medicine and that, and I have been joking about why I didn’t go to medical school first and specialize in, for example, those who have the hardest time to find doctors in Finland, like people with intellectual disabilities. Something like this, and then I could do that for three days a week, and I could have an amazing studio if I could work as a doctor for a few days a week. I never did it, and I’m too old, and I won’t do it anymore, but for the young people, it would be good to have something that you can survive on that doesn’t take too much from your body so that you don’t have the energy for the arts. I didn’t plan well, but I’m so old! (laughs)

Woodall: I don’t know, you could still become a doctor.

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: I could, but if I have to choose going back to physics and mathematics, it’s just this thing that I think my experience in disability politics could make me—because that kind of doctor is writing those certificates that this person needs access to the balcony, so I would love to be the one doing this, but on the other hand, I have had this idea of, why don’t we have committees of disabled people who could get paid, they don’t even have to be social workers, but a disabled committee, and then if you need something, because Finland mobility is all free, access renovations in your house are free if you pass first the process. Why put this weight on doctors, because there could be a good group of disabled people who could also know how to do this cheap, what is a good company to renovate your things, what is a good brand of the wheelchair? They could read the applications and then say yes or no. I think it doesn’t happen in any country because they think that they need the medical knowledge. I don’t know, I’m not a social worker, maybe you need some knowledge that this committee idea doesn’t have, but I still would like to test it.

Woodall: In ABILITY Corps, which is a nonprofit organization connected with ABILITY Magazine, we do housing where we team up with Habitat for Humanity to build houses for people with disabilities. There’s also another organization that’s doing that in Africa that we interviewed for the magazine as well. I think they’re trying to do a movement towards that, which is really cool to see.

A lot of your art, from what I was looking at, seems like performance and installation pieces. Do you sell any of your artwork?

jennijuulia portrait of juulia wallinheimo heimonen.
Portrait of Jenni-Juulia Wallinheimo-Heimonen

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: I would be happy to sell everything if someone wants to buy, but the problem is, as you see, Will you Marry me, Space? is like, that is now in the Helsinki Arts Museum, they bought it. But I every month pay more and more for storage. (laughs) I’m not talking about big money, but I just had to change my nine square meters of storage to 30 square meters because of the crates I had in Canada, I had an exhibition at Harbourfront Centre, so they came back and I didn’t have a place for them (laughs) so I would be happy to sell. When they are textile arts, they are very fragile things, so I think they are more like museum pieces. Of course you can buy a carousel for your living room if you want to have a wheelchair carousel, but I don’t know many people who have such a residence for such a big thing.

My husband always says, “Why don’t you make stamps that would be easy to carry and ship all around?” Maybe it’s also because of my body and I’m so short and I’m breaking easily, it’s kind of challenging myself. Maybe I’m getting some crazy feelings from this moment, like, I’m going through this hard metal and okay, it’s not well done like a professional welding person would have done, but I managed to do it somehow. I just want to try what my body can do. But always, if anyone wants to buy anything, I’m always selling! I would like to highlight the Wynn Newhouse. I just heard in March that I’m one of the six winners of the Wynn Newhouse Award in the States. I’m so grateful for this title. When they asked for my portfolio, I wasn’t aware that someone had done a selection of 15 people, and they asked for my portfolio, and then I got this happy news. I’m very grateful for the foundation. They know what disability art is. That means that those people who are deep in disability art saw something in the work. In Finland disabled artists, maybe we are 10 or 15 active artists. Our community is really small. Of course there are some new young people all the time, but we are always in the same festivals together. The same artists, same actors, same writers, always working together. It’s a very small circle here.

Woodall: That makes it seem like a tight-knit community, though. When you get to know somebody so well, when it’s in a smaller area, I think collaborating on pieces flows a little bit easier as well. I prefer the smaller groups. It’s more like an intimate creative space.

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: I love literature, so recently I have been very inspired and also we wrote to the Venice publication. We have a super poet, a disabled poet, Sanni Purhonen, she just received—they are now translating in the states her poems for a U.S. audience. It’s happening right now. I don’t know when it’s coming out. She has inspired me so much. I see her poems as pictures and she’s almost doing half of the work when she puts her work out, she words it so beautifully that I see these strange images and stories coming. This kind of collaboration is really lovely, when everybody knows each other so well.

Woodall: I’ll look her up, I love poetry. I like reading poetry from all over the world because the cultural influences are so different. Right now, I’m reading a book of Korean poems. I would love to read something from Finland, at least the English versions.

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: They are coming soon. There is someone living in the U.S. who also knows enough Finnish to help and they are working together on the translation. It’s going to be super because she published first with a very small publishing company and finally for the third book she got a big publishing company in Finland, and now, suddenly—poetry is such a small field in literature, and now you get translated into English from Finnish! It’s like a Venice Biennale!

Woodall: I definitely am looking forward to reading them. Is there anything we haven’t covered yet that you would like to talk about?

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: I am jumping from one topic to another. Our sweet curators gave me advice to remember that the exhibition is not all about disability arts, that I’m just one of three. There are other conflicts with bodies. I just wanted to say that it doesn’t all come down to disability questions. (laughs)

check this out

Woodall: Are you are all collaborating together on a cohesive piece?

jennijuulia will you marry me space 2022 2023
Will you Marry me, Space? 2022-2023

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: We have done our individual pieces, but we have spent a lot of time discussing about privilege and bodies. In my case, “toxicity” is a bit too strong of a word, but the challenges with the environment. That has inspired us a lot, like each other. For example, with Pia Lindman, I’m talking about the power of medicine and she’s working with healing, but more like natural healing and subsensorial healing. It’s really interesting that probably many disabled people don’t even want to think about healing, because healing is like, “Come on, I’m okay like this, don’t try to heal me.” Then we still have lots of deep discussions about how differently we can understand healing, like in her process it’s so different from classical medicine healing and thoughts and also how gender and disability are also strongly connected. I’m talking about women, but overall, earlier I often talked about women with disabilities who are kind of a-gender, because in Finland, many people don’t even see us as women, we’re just the disabled. They see young boys and disabled men, but women are just lonely creatures living in their home with our families and kids and all that. This has been like a collaborative process, but of course we all build our own pieces that are now beautifully installed a little bit mixed to their own–to the space.

Chet Cooper: You had mentioned that after the exhibit you were hoping that the discussion would continue, not just having a one-off, but how do we do something that manifests some kind of not just awareness but actual change in the medical field? Do you have any thoughts on what could be, would be the best-case scenario of the work starting a new movement?

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: I’m personally thinking very locally. I have been visiting the school for teaching nurses or there have been situations where I have been as a patient role, where the young doctors can ask questions. I’m hoping that maybe this raises questions so that I could get some invitations to give a short presentation about this project to people who are working in medicine. The best way so far with my artworks has been that I make a 10-15 minute presentation when there are seminars and conferences in Finland, I ask them, “Do you want something funny for your coffee break? I can come to give you a 10-15 minute presentation, show some images and bring a topic in a nice way.” Those have been a very easy way to get the theme. I have received a lot of good feedback from that, because many conferences have their real speakers and their own program going, but they are very open to short things to lighten the atmosphere a little bit, something funny and light. Then of course, I don’t know about the medical field interviews, because the power difference is so strong that I’m not sure if I’m able to convince doctors that they should turn their biological thinking more towards the social model. I hope they would, but that can be a bit harder. I think it’s easier to touch people’s hearts, for example, by showing a glimpse of a film during a coffee break in some events.

Cooper: That’s a wonderful idea. I’m glad that you’re doing that. My quick background: I was pre-med, and the medical school nearby started a curriculum for medical students dealing with disabilities. They understood early on that they needed to change attitudes, to bring awareness. My peers–doctors–are pretty linear in our thoughts–in the way we think. You study the sciences. It’s structured but willing to learn, but not necessarily abstract thoughts, not like a PhD. An MD is oftentimes more, study, put your head in the books and study, study, study. That’s why you always hear about this bedside manner. It’s novel when a doctor has good bedside manner, because they’re more about just the science structure of the human being.

I think that push to try to get into medical school or nursing school, to have curriculum built into every school in the world, not just in your country or our country, that’s been a struggle. I’ve seen the people who have put the curriculums together, and it’s difficult to do it. But I think getting there and then even if you get into college, that whole idea of mainstreaming these concepts, what is ableism and how to get that message across. That’s great that you’re doing that. I love the idea of mixing humor and short pieces of content to start that awareness building. It’s very cool.

check this out

I know you’ve been with us here for quite a while. We’ll let you get going.

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: Thank you both so much. This was a wonderful evening, afternoon, whatever.

Jenny Woodall: I really appreciate your time today. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your art and the process and the upcoming exhibition. I really appreciate all of your insight.

Wallinheimo-Heimonen: Thank you so much that you are interested in this, you’re a big magazine. This means a lot to me to be able to talk with you. I’m looking forward to your writing.

sharing is caring

we did our part - now do yours and share

like a good neighbor, share

Related Articles: