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The Mythical World of Eyes as Big as Plates

“To us, Agnes is the perfect embodiment of the fabled North Wind.”

It’s easy to forget the wilderness when you’re living in a high-tech, screen-focused, hurry-up world. The power of nature, the thrill of the imagination, the mysteries conjured by folklore — how far away it all seems. That distance makes the photography project Eyes as Big as Plates all the more remarkable.

Eyes as Big as Plates offers a contemporary look at our forgotten connections to wild nature and the places where our imaginations can take us. Each carefully constructed image shows an older person dressed in a uniquely sculptural costume crafted from local organic materials, and posed in natural surroundings, often in or near cities. Whether staring straight at us or off into the distance, the models evoke those mythical creatures that inhabit folk literature — which is where the artists found their inspiration.

The duo behind the wearable sculptures and images, Norwegian photographer Karoline Hjorth and Finnish artist Riitta Ikonen, met in 2011 via the Internet. Ikonen Googled “Norway + Grannies + Photographer,” and up popped Hjorth as the number one search result – the photographer had published a book on Norwegian nanas, the Mormor Monologues (see our article on that project).

Hjorth’s photography defies the stereotypes of aging and what seniors can do, “When I did the Mormor Monologues project, people were surprised to discover that an old lady is more than waffles and warm hugs. I guess both of these projects are driven by a wish to broaden these horizons,” she recalls.

The pair started Eyes as Big as Plates in Scandinavia, but the project has turned into an ongoing collaboration. They have costumed and photographed seniors in cities around the world — including New York City, where they met Marie.

Eyes as Big as Plates, Marie (US 2013) © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen

Eyes as Big as Plates, Marie (US 2013) © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen

“Only weeks after Hurricane Sandy battered the area, Marie bravely clambered over the sandy banks of Fort Tilden in the Rockaway’s. Originally from Taiwan, Marie lives in one of the skyscrapers in Battery Park City and walks to the City Hall senior center nearly every day.”

We caught up with Hjorth and Ikonen via email right after their return from a production session in the Faroe Islands. They talked about their project and shared stories about the photographs, including the picture at top of “North Wind” Agnes, who made her first parachute jump at age 85 and described floating through the air as “pure joy.”

Who are the people you photograph and how do you find them?

Karoline: The series is produced in collaboration with retired farmers, fishermen, zoologists, plumbers, opera singers, housewives, artists, academics and 90-year-old parachutists. These are people we meet through friends, relatives and newspaper ads in hardware stores, noodle shops, indoor gardening society meetings, swimming pools or on the city streets.

How do you collaborate with the seniors you work with? Do you consider your models to be co-creators of the work?

Karoline: All the contributors actively take part in shaping the final outcome. The conversations up front make up the basis for the wearable sculpture and often determine the location and mood of the picture. Ultimately it is the model’s tale that shapes the day. When we’re out on location, the models sometimes help with the gathering of the material, too. Most are excited to see themselves turn into something different, something more than themselves. Many of the models tell us after a shoot they have experienced the surroundings they have seen so many times before in a completely new light.

What inspired Eyes as Big as Plates? 

Riitta: Starting out as a play on characters from Nordic folklore, we wanted to find out what kind of connection the Norwegians have with their rocks, fjords and hills. Those hills haven’t changed since the tales, but the people sure have. We figured that the older the local interviewee/model, the closer we would be to the folk facts and the talking rocks of the stories.

And how have the project goals changed over time?

Riitta: After interviewing the residents of the small Norwegian town of Sandnes for a couple of weeks, we shifted our investigation towards imagination, and Eyes as Big as Plates evolved into a search for modern humans’ belonging to nature.

Karoline: As the project continues to cross borders, it also aims to rediscover a demographic group too often labelled as marginalized and to generate new perspectives on who we are and where we belong.

Your project sessions have taken place in Norway, Finland, New York, France, Iceland, The Faroe Islands, Sweden and Japan. What have you learned about seniors living around the world?

Riitta: Attitude, knowledge, life experience and stamina are some of the main traits we have found amongst all our contributors, as well as a formidable curiosity for new experiences.

Karoline: Like one of our model puts it: “This is not a time in my life when I want to lie around in bed.”

Have you seen differences in the way the various cultures view getting old?

Riitta: Much of Western society is unnecessarily confused when it comes to the “usefulness” of older people. We simply wanted to work with the most interesting people we could think of.

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Eyes as Big as Plates, Bob II (US 2013) © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen

“On the lookout for enthusiastic participants we spent a wintry night in the company of members of New York’s Indoor Gardening Society. One of the regulars was a charismatic-looking gentleman in an elegant black beret and a pair of spectacular glasses. We couldn’t resist slipping a little note in his pocket to say we would love to hear from him. The next day he called and agreed to model proclaiming, ‘This is not a time in my life when I want to lay around in bed.’ A week later we were all sitting on the J train to Forest Park in Queens.”

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Eyes as Big as Plates, Phetsavath (France 2013) © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen

“An evening of exquisite homemade Southeast Asian food in Phetsavath’s family business in Dijon prepared us for a trek up the majestic Combe Lavaux Réserve Naturelle the next morning. We spent the better part of the day waiting for clouds to arrive over our chosen mountain. The clouds never came and we descended back to the shadows of the forest where we finally found our chief.”

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Eyes as Big as Plates, Edda (Iceland 2013) © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen

“Edda means great grandmother in Icelandic. She lives in Reykjavik and is an expert about Icelandic plants and the culture of believing in the ‘hidden people.’ The hot springs of Seltún, where this photo was taken, is part of the active volcanic zone where locals recorded seeing ‘hot spring birds’ or dead souls taking on the form of birds that dive into bubbles in the boiling water. Edda bravely walked onto land where no other would, as Seltún bubbled left and right around us.”

Eyes as Big as Plates is on view at the Finlandia University Gallery in Hancock, Michigan through October 17, 2015. In December, the artists will take part in Miami’s NADA  Art Fair.

Eyes as Big as Plates, Behind the Scenes

All photographs: Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen

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