Against the grain

Issue 3/1992 | Archives online, Authors

Carl-Gustaf Lilius is an artist, sculptor, painter, poet, essayist, political journalist and polemicist whose willingness to speak about subjects on which others prefer to remain silent – immigration, abuse of power, self-censorship, the mentally ill – has earned him the label of trouble-maker. He lives with his wife, the Finland-Swedish writer Irmelin Sandman-Lilius, in the small coastal town of Hangö. Tuva Korsström interviews

TK: You are an artist, a writer and a social commentator. You are the originator of thousands of pictures and sculptures, you write love poetry, you have written a novel on thought and essays on art, literature and music. You are the author of controversial articles and books in which you appear as the leading political dissident in Finland at a time of self-censorship. How do you maintain such versatility?

C-GL: I have always felt that the world is full of important things which interest me. They have alternated, depending on what is most topical to myself personally or what is happening in the world. I find newspaper articles just as demanding as a drawing or a sculpture. Poems appear in another way. My only complete collection of poems, Burgundiska sviten (‘Burgundian suite’), was written in a few weeks.

The first poem appeared quite simply by itself… I remember running into the kitchen where Irmelin was sitting one winter’s day in January… I showed it to her and was terribly proud. So in the middle of everything the whole book was finished; it was fortunately accepted at once, and came out that same autumn.

TK: That was your debut, and the whole of your world was in it, wasn’t it?

C-GL: Yes, it is all there. Burgundiska sviten was a kind of indication of everything, and in a way it includes a programme for what came later. You could say that a young person’s programme can never be realised, and nor can it, either. But if, on the other hand, you have no dream or great vision, then I don’t think you can ever create anything in your life of any significance.

TK: What was the programme?

C-GL: To include in your own life’s work as much as possible, first and foremost of such breadth that you could actually call it a world, in the sense that it is thoughts on a vast range of human phenomena. Everything from vital things with which you live, from love and relations with other people, right up to relations with wider circles: the question of who is to govern, of oppression and rights – all that is indicated. Also what you are like yourself as a person, what demands you make on yourself… a kind of ethical striving. There are also relationships within the whole: the idea that you can live in numerous times.

That is connected with what I usually say about my own age.

When I was 30, I said I was 3,000, and since then I have increased my age by a hundred years every year. Nowadays, when I say I am approaching 6,400, I am not at all met with shaking heads. A great many people say that you must be at least that old to have achieved so much, or it is certainly clear that you have been involved in a great deal. No one has ever tried to go through everything I have done, but there are already more than 50,000 drawings in existence…

TK: As early as Burgundiska sviten I think you polarise existence in a particular way. The one extreme is love, the other power. Where love is positive, it is to the very highest degree liberating and creative, while power binds and limits.

C-GL: If love as a rich abundance does not exist in art and creation, then the art is lifeless. To me, art is life, and life binds me to movement. That leads back to art: I concern myself only with work that I create very quickly. Individual items may be worked on for a long time, but their effective working time is short and intensive. The better the drawing, the quicker the hand movements.

In my sculptures I have for a long time used wire netting. It is quick and light: you join the pieces to each other, and space and forms appear; great concrete forms, which are weightless. I usually say I am really shaping air. A great deal of light is also needed, for light penetrates from every direction

TK: Your pictures have a certain dominant theme, the theme of women, for instance.

C-GL: That’s probably also connected traditionally with the activities of an artist, and particularly a sculptor… you are a link in a chain of an enormous number of sculptors. Everything indicates that sculptors in general have been men, and for man, woman has been an obvious subject. Woman’s form and the female figure are a kind of perfection. If, as a human being, you search for what is beautiful and also inspired – not just a form – then I think you need go no further than woman. In addition, it is also linked with love. I have made very few sculptures of men and, in my drawings, men exist largely in the form of heads.

TK: In Burgundiska sviten there is also a strong love-and-women theme. You’ve always been surrounded by positive female figures, haven’t you?

C-GL: Yes, that’s true. My mother, of course, and a younger and older sister, and other women in the family. At times I was the only boy in a circle of women. Then Irmelin [Sandman] joined me as my wife, and our only child is a daughter. It has become a life in harmony with women, while the conflicts I have had have usually been with men. Naturally I also have male friends. But my experience has been that it is with men that trouble arises. In that way, life for me has confirmed my original view of women as those who are positive. I have also developed this so that I personally am pleased to be living in a time when the importance of women has increased, within society as well as on an individual level.

TK: Then there’s the other extreme, the power extreme. As early as Burgundiska sviten, there’s a figure you call the ‘world improver’.

C-GL: Well, that’s both myself and other people. It’s a creature who is always recurring and who thinks he knows how things should be. When a person like that acquires very great power, then he also often behaves as the ‘great destroyer of the world’. He dreams that by ruling other people, he can create a world that he himself has planned. Then he always has to witness that it doesn’t work like that. War and disasters are all part of that process.

That is the dark side of the world improver. World history has produced such figures again and again, even to this day, and there are sure to be more. But then there is another side: that you have to begin by improving yourself if you wish to improve the world. You can do that by observing yourself and the choices you make in important situations. That you have some idea of what is ethically right.

TK: What runs like a scarlet thread throughout your work is an enormously strong feeling for what is ethical, to say aloud what is right and what is wrong. That is a very unusual quality in this society.

C-GL: To me, it has also been important as a member of society to show this kind of caring. To me, it has been normal and natural to stand with those whom society seems to put aside, or does not wish to accept. One group of people I spoke for early on are those whom nearly all societies call mentally ill, and who are put into institutions of various kinds, who are exposed to medical treatment and, in various ways, made to feel different. In that field, I have appeared as a critic of the whole social system on which such treatment is built, and I have protested, in particular, against the political abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union.

In today’s society, there are also other oppressed groups – in Finland, refugees form a very topical group of that kind, although it is a small one. But they are important people. They are all individuals who have come to Finland because they hope to find help here, or at least to have a better life for a while and not be exposed to the risk of being murdered or maltreated in their own country. So it has, from very early on, been natural for me to speak for their cause long before they came to Finland. Then I was largely concerned with refugees all over the world. Now that we have them here, I regard them as an important aspect of my life. I have become friends with several of those who have come to Finland.

I see it as my task to inform this extremely bone-headed country and especially its extremely bone-headed authorities. It has gone so far that, in this field, I have even criticised our present president, which I had hoped not to have to do, as I have great respect for him, although I wrote a great many critical articles about his predecessor. As a citizen, my view is that I have both the right and the duty to be critical of the state as well, whether it be government, parliament or president. That is included as one of the rights of the citizen.

TK: In what context did you criticise the present president, Mauno Koivisto?

C-GL: It was at the beginning of 1991. When a few more Somali refugees had begun to come through the Soviet Union to Finland, at the direct invitation of the president, Finland’s government started making attempts to halt their arrival. I maintained that this was singularly shameful. I consider that his duty as head of state should have been to welcome them. That would have changed everything from the start. Two or three sentences in a speech on television would have been sufficient. But this dismissive line has, unfortunately, continued, and even today not one of our political leaders has uttered the word ‘welcome’ to any of those in need of help. I believe this is something the Finnish people should be ashamed of. In the kind of world we live in today, everyone with any feeling for humanitarian ideas should be able to go as far as welcoming those who need help.

TK: That’s also perhaps a reason to point out that, in comparison with other Scandinavian countries, we have very few refugees indeed.

C-GL: Today it’s only a few thousand. In neighbouring Sweden, they talk of one or two hundred thousand. An even greater difference is that, while Sweden is accepting another ten thousand or so a year with full refugee status, Finland lets in fewer than twenty a year. We have roughly the same laws, but we apply them much more strictly, and maintain that these people do not fulfill the demands of Finnish law for refugee status. Telling the outside world that it is not worth coming here is a political act in Finland. That is part of the political reality of today. Nor has anyone questioned it. Only a very few people who are professionally working actively for refugees, and then
 there is me.

TK: Do you think this inability to question and discuss things has something to do with Finland having been a closed country for such a long time? During President Kekkonen’s time, we had the self-censorship you have mentioned so often. In many ways, you were a lone voice even then. In your newspaper articles and the collection of essays Makt och mardröm (‘Power and nightmare’, 1984), you also wrote of political oppression in Tibet and Estonia, the abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union, and our way of saying nothing about all this. Didn’t you feel terribly isolated at that time?

C-GL: Yes, of course. There are lots of subjects on which I was the only one to attempt to speak in public. It is true that there was no response from the Finnish side then, either. The newspaper which published most of those articles was Hufvudstadsbladet, and it was often said that the pieces could not be published in any Finnish paper, because a Finnish paper represents the state, while Hufvudstadsbladet represents only the Swedish-speaking people of the country. That was a fairly crude and also faulty judgment.

Index on Censorship, which published my 1975 article on self-censorship, has now asked me to write another article which will be linked with the old one and at the same time show what lessons there may be for other countries, in this way of avoiding talking about important matters. I have now begun to realise, as a matter of some importance, that we really have not one public world in Finland, but two. The one is the Finnish, which has always been the more timorous and cautious, and then we have the Finland-Swedish, which to some extent has been more courageous and has
taken a slightly different time.

TK: As I see it, it was self-censorship dictated from above by the head of state. How else can you explain how free journalists and intellectuals followed the decrees so obediently?

C-GL: Much can be explained, but I can’t explain that. I have often asked people close to the president of the time how it came about that they bowed to his demands. I have never met a single person who has been able to explain that in any rational way. It’s something to do with power – and there, we’re back at power again.

When a human being has great power, all around him is a circle of subordinates who can to some extent regard themselves as fairly equal. He appoints them to posts and he uses them, but at the same time they never achieve his power. He delegates a little of his power, and in order for him to exercise his power at all, he has to have such people. Nowhere on earth can a man rule a country alone. He has to have collaborators who, so to speak, become even more papal than the Pope. They are the people who often keep check on each other, and on others. In Finland this finally went so far that people often claimed that the head of state had said things that they themselves had constructed, because he was not even any longer responsible for his actions.

Now, afterwards, it is said that the country managed very well in this way, but there is nothing to say that we would not have managed perfectly well with another method. It is true that, afterwards, many people stepped forward and said that things were not good, but they couldn’t do anything about it. But what kind of consciences did they have when they were involved? You very rarely hear anyone saying he has done wrong, or one shouldn’t behave in that way in connection with a head of state, who takes upon himself the right to play about with his subordinates. The present president certainly cannot be accused of such things. He is worthy of very great respect, in that he has reduced the risk of a head of state abusing his position.

TK: In this spring’s debate on Finland’s entry into the European Community, you have adopted a tremendously pro-EC stance. How do you see Finland in the new Europe, now that the Soviet giant you have fought against has fallen apart?

C-GL: When the Soviet Union collapsed, some of Finland went under, too. There are people who would very much like to continue the complicated and impenetrable political relationship we had with the Soviet Union. They would like to go on acting in that shabby way, with half-promises and peculiar treaties, in relations with Europe as well. But when it comes to Europe, that simply won’t work. We must become a western state with an ordered social life. If Finland becomes a member of the EC, definite demands will be made for a different kind of political activity. And that will be good for Finland.

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