What is ugly? Who is ugly? Is ugliness at all a word, a description, a kind of characterization one can use?


Copyright© Iiu Susiraja

I am working on a short text about the Finnish artist Iiu Susiraja. Susiraja is a photographer using her own body as subject and motif. What is most striking about Susiraja’s appearance, is that she is fat, actually obese. Susiraja has for several years thematized her own obesity.

The public responds to Susiraja’s work in different ways. Some say she is an overweight advocate, they believe her work is making obesity less shameful. Loïs Van der Wildt in Rooms magazine says:

If there is one thing to admire this Finnish artist for, it’s her courage to approach her body in a humorous way. Shoving a broom under her boobs, putting on a hat with ‘bread hair’ while standing on a treadmill, nothing is too absurd for this upcoming photographer. However while she’s having the time of her life making these shots, she’s simultaneously teaching the world a lesson about body shaming, taking a piss with beauty ideals and questioning the fact that abnormal may be normal.


Copyright© Iiu Susiraja

Others say things like: “Look at her face, isn’t she really pretty behind all that fat”? “She would be a beauty if only she could loose some, or actually quite a lot of, weight”. One man said that the images represented an “entirely new type of esthetics”, which he had (yet) to discover.

I must admit I don’t, like Loïs Van der Wildt, find Susiraja’s art very funny. There is something in these images, in the gaze, in the way the model stares back at us, which seems to me to transgress both humor and compassion. It is as if she – the artist as model – is saying: “Ha! You thought you knew ugly?! – I’m gonna show you how bad it can be …”

med kvast

Copyright© Iiu Susiraja

Iiu Susiraja is nobody’s darling

Here is an idea: Susiraja’s art is about ugliness, but are not restricted to the artist’s own body. Susiraja’s pictures communicate with our deepest angst for our own deformities, visible or more ofte; well hidden – but always there to be exposed if we don’t take care.

I wonder: could it be that Susiraja, by exposing her own ugliness, feeds my fear of collapse, my fear of exposing who I really am, my true self – an ugly misfit. The sense of aversion, of loathe, I detect in myself while watching Susiraja’s art stems not, I believe, from the girl in the pictures, but from my own fear of loosing control over my own body.


What do you think? Any comments … anyone?


18 Comments Add yours

  1. Rio says:

    All art questions the viewer even when we, as the viewer are comfortable with the question. When we are uncomfortable with the question we want to know why the artist is doing this. What is it about them that would inspire them to make that…

  2. Rio says:

    Feeling “ok” with what we are looking at is not required. Not feeling ok for whatever reasons we come up with when we are confronted with an artists work asks us to understand what we are constantly bringing to perception. ALL of the “norms” we are unaware of, it is not the end of the conversation, art is never successful when it is the end of the conversation.
    So why am I the only person commenting?

    1. Sigrun says:

      Hi Rio!
      When writing this post I wondered if the art might be too (I would like to say strong, but insisting might be a better word, so lets say:) demanding. Too personal, or maybe offending. But of course these qualities is also what I like about Iiu Susiraja’s art.

      1. Rio says:

        I recently watched the three part series by James Fox called Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds — A tale of three cities. It is interesting the difference in what shocked (past tense) and what shocks and what it shows about a society. On a personal level, I find the décor as interesting as the artist as the subject. The broom stick thing has been done and so has the bread as hair, but those jokes are placed in environments that seem committed to control. The binding of her face, the arbitrary red circle on her arm, the flowers stuck in like they are “nice”. I am thinking of sexualized violence and how this accepted more than obesity… so much so that if all those aspects of the adornment were on a young model type woman it would be considered sexy even. Why? Where are we coming from that this is the case?

      2. Sigrun says:

        Thank you! I’m reading Gretchen Henderson’s “Ugliness: A Cultural History”; trying to learn about the theme:

  3. c m wilson says:

    I haven’t read any of the other comments yet, but my take is that the artist here is achieving several things. By exposing her sadness, her (assumed)weakness, and her desire to be loved and accepted (as every human being does) she challenges the viewer to love her (and we do) just as she is – she is emphasizing the assumptions inherently made in a society saturated in “body culture” and confronting them. I like that it makes us uncomfortable, makes us see we are affected by physicality, we feel something, if not repulsion, at least attraction. What also immediately comes to mind is the notion of the notorious “gaze” turned on its head. She’s seducing us while challenging us to look at her, and she is unashamed. So many angles from which to view this amazing woman’s work! Sorry for the incoherent comment, I’m so rusty at writing, but thank you, as always for such stimulating topics.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Good comments!
      Absolutely agree about the art challenging us in several, partly incomprehensible, ways.
      Very interesting thoughts about the gaze, definitively something to mull over – .

  4. All I’m able to feel in front of her work is suffering, and at the same time provocation without humor, near hostility. Something I would like to express sometime when others judge my appearance according to their own “normality”. I’m afraid Art act on me as a mirror, like often. Your reviews are very interesting !

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you! I can sense the suffering too, and so one of my question to this art, to Susiraja’s project, would also be: WHY? Why does she, a talented artist, choose to do this?

      1. if she’s so ugly, if we feel so uncomfortable in front of her work, then we must look at her correctly in real, we could see how sensitive she is really. These pictures are something like a vaccine for me.

  5. I agree with you that the work goes beyond humor. I don’t see a subversion of beauty ideals either. There is sadness and suffering in these images. As for why the artist is doing it, there seems to be a drive to be awake, lucid and aware. You asked in your recent post, “if beauty is the promise of happiness, what is ugliness the promise of?” I would say ugliness has more to do with failed promises. Again, I agree with you that the work speaks to our fear of failure, loss of control (and ultimately, death). The work is profoundly thoughtful and provocative, and that is indeed its value.

    1. Sigrun says:

      “a drive to be awake, lucid and aware”, interesting – I haven’t thought about it before, but seems viable. Thank you!

  6. I think she challenges many things (aesthetics, cultural values, body-shaming, etc.). And I think she challenges us to interpretation. What each viewer “gets” from these photos may be different from the artist’s personal reasons for taking the photos. But if her aim is to confront the viewer with perplexing thoughts, she has achieved that. And that has value as art, I believe.

    1. Sigrun says:

      “to confront the viewer with perplexing thoughts … ” Ooo – I love that! Thank you!

  7. Sigrun, I love this little series. Beauty is not a guarantee of success. It may be the opposite… in Academia. 🙂

    1. Sigrun says:

      Interesting. Thank you!

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