Grey Cobalt by Helsinki-based artist and photographer Felicia Honkasalo, is a book that takes place around a set of objects, photographs and documents that the photographer inherited from her late grandfather. A man unknown to her when he was alive, Felicia used these objects as a springboard for what would become not only an attempt to recreate who she thought her grandfather was, but as a way to tell a larger story about historical and geological narratives.
“I wanted to create something that I have no memory of, and the only thing I could do to achieve this was to reconstruct through imagination a person, who he had been, what his personal history had been,” she explains of the beginning of the project, now published as a book by London-based publisher, Loose Joints. “I thought that perhaps all the papers or things that I had inherited could explain to me what had happened, who he had been.” However, as Felicia rifled through more boxes, the more convoluted the narrative became.
She took the time to delve into the various subjects that presented themselves within her grandfather’s possession through books on metallurgy and mining (he had been a miner during the Cold War in Finland). “In my mind, these pictures of minerals, medals, open cast mines, furnaces, factories, miners, steel sheets and rolls were marking a path to a world in which I could find the person that had disappeared. I started to read about metallurgy and enrolled on a course on geology,” Felicia recalls. She went to museums and factories, looked at core samples and intricate drawings of furnaces, learning about her grandfather’s job but also the historical context in which he lived. “In a way, what started as a fictive history of my grandfather, turned into an investigation into the things that he had lived with and that now resided in my home,” she continues.
“I started to look at the objects in a different way, organising them into groups based first on intuition and then on a system I created,” she explains. “They became, for me, souvenirs from the past, souvenirs that had outlived their owners. I started to see a pattern emerge, in which specific artefacts seemed to hold inside them a hidden narrative, as if they were silent about the story I wanted to discover.” In response, Felicia catalogued and photographed the objects, a series which forms the basis of Grey Cobalt.
As a result, the work connects personal, historical and geological stories, as well as raising interesting questions around the agency and significance of objects when you photograph and archive them. The book features scans of Felicia’s grandfather’s documents, her own photographs of objects (old and new) and handwritten notes by both her grandfather and herself. “Where does the line go between fact and fiction, past and present, if a photograph is always evidence of something that has once taken place?” Felicia muses. In turn, the project comes full circle allowing her to explore the question which overrides everything: “What remains of a person you have no memory of?”
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.