The closest a toilet roll ever comes to being called art is when Poundstretcher’s point of sale chief rearranges the window display.

But things are different if you live in Fiskars, Finland. It’s an artists’ colony and a centre for adventurous design. Back in 1997, Kaarina Kaikkonen decided to hang Andrex from the ceiling.

My Outline was made of 1.5km of unravelled loo paper stuck to two perpendicular parallel wire posts. It made an evocative wave-like installation at Fiskars’ Art Center.

The show marked a mid-point in the artist’s career.

Before then Kaikkonen had arranged potato sacks at the Finnish Gallery For Paper Art for a work called Mouths Open. The sacks looked like a crowd of people in an audience. As well as playing tricks on the eye and questioning ways of seeing, the piece showed how everyday objects can be transformed.

She made Travelled Journey in Helsinki’s Hakaniemi Metro station 1987 using reclaimed wooden boats.

Thousands of unwanted men’s jackets were laid on the steps in front of the city’s cathedral for Way in 2000.

Perhaps most powerful of all were the suit jackets she turned to face away from her viewers for A Concession Already Made at Kotka Fire Station in 1990.

“I am very site specific,” she says, referring to her creative process.

“First I have to see the site, get a feeling for what is the history of the site and the context and its visual energy, then together with my own background and a sense of how I feel in the space, I can create the artwork.”

Ten years ago she was at Fabrica to make Beyond Reach, which used men’s jackets to build a boat and explore life and death.

“I felt very well about this space last time I was here. I was happy to come here again.”

Donated clothing

We are sitting on the altar at the church-turned-art-space. It’s a fitting resting place given that her latest installation, The Blue Route, opens here tomorrow.

The work has been co-commissioned by Fabrica and Brighton Festival and will remain open throughout May.

Up to a thousand shirts hang from ropes tied to the upstairs wooden balconies – and there is transcendence in its themes of loss and memory.

The shirts were donated by local residents. Fabrica’s head of communications Laurence Hill says he has emptied his wardrobe. Once the exhibition finishes, the shirts will be donated to Oxfam.

Kaikkonen, who speaks in heavily accented English, explains it was vital all the shirts had been worn.

“It is important there has been a warm heart inside these shirts. I like to think they are still part of the energy of this person and that they are bringing energy to the work.”

The shirts are joined cuff to cuff, hand in hand. Each item has its own story or meaning to its donor.

“Every person is hand in hand because everybody is important in creating the structure.”

But though she believes in collective creation, Kaikkonen is an uncompromising artist.

She once painted 100 birch trees white in a Finnish forest in the middle of summer.

“I wanted to make a winter in the middle of summer. You know in Finland they cut a lot of trees to make paper. It was a kind of work for birch trees. It was my statement.”

Residents nearby in northern Finland were stunned.

“They thought I was crazy painting these trees and leaves to be white. Maybe I was.”

Whether crazy or visionary she is certainly steely.

To make art she argues “life must be difficult”.

Her recent work at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Chile required 3,000 shirts.

The installation in the museum’s central space was 12 metres high and 60 metres long. As in Brighton, where she is making another huge outdoor installation opening at the Clock Tower on May 4, she created another huge piece for the street in Santiago.

“I know this space at Fabrica so that gives me a safe feeling. I feel good. I have been in this space before. When I was in Chile, I couldn’t sleep at all.”

A precursor to The Blue Route was a show in the Finnish city of Tampere, entitled Shadow, in 1999. There the shirts hung on a tight rope across a street. Here they hang “softer, looser”. The sentiments and power, a sadness which has been with Kaikkonen since her childhood, are similar.

“My father died of a heart attack in front of my eyes when I was a child. I was ten years old. After that I just wanted to wear his clothes to school. I wanted to make them a bit smaller and I wanted his jacket and shirts. I remember I felt very happy to have his clothes around me, his arms around me. That way I felt more safe. I just wanted to be like him in a way, wearing his things.”

She went to university to study medicine and physics. “I felt I had to study something to help people stop dying.”

She wanted to be a scientist and studied the subject for six years. She then changed to art, a decision which took some bottle.

“Yes, it was quite a decision. When I went to art school, I was 26. In Finland I had a lot of debt. My mother was very poor, I had to take a huge loan from the bank without knowing how I would pay it back. So I worked and studied at the same time.”

All art is a risk. The artist never knows how their work may come out. Life is the same.

“Yes, yes, but I felt like I had a big win. I felt very happy.”

She turned to art because she was missing her father.

“It was a very strong feeling. I remember very clearly one evening when I was studying physics that I was missing my father a lot. I took a photo and made a drawing, then I felt his eyes were looking at me.

Freedom of the outdoors

“The feeling was so strong from the drawing. He felt like a living person. So I did some tests, entered an art competition and they chose me.”

The prize confirmed her as one of the best artists in Finland. “It was very surprising. I thought maybe I can change my life.”

She started to paint but it was too easy. The natural progression was to head outdoors.

“I needed some resistance. Painting was too small as a background. First I wanted to go over the edge of the painting, then over the edge of the wall, then over the edge of the studio. Then I went to the street and I was free.”

The other advantage is she can connect to an audience outside the gallery.

“I wanted to give my art for everybody in a way. I wanted to face those people who never go to art galleries. I wanted to go to the street. It is quite a challenge to meet all these people who sometimes hate art.

“In a gallery you are free to make whatever you want but if you go to the street it’s different.

“What you are able to see depends on your background, how you look and what you perceive. In the same work we can see many things.”

It’s inherently tragic these big projects are temporary. Something beautiful always leaves.

“It’s always very sad for me. Maybe it’s a kind of masochistic idea I am not made of stone or gold, and neither is my artwork. I am made to be destroyed in the end. I am here only for a moment. My artwork can also be like that. Hello and goodbye.”

  • Fabrica, Duke Street, Brighton, Saturday, April 6, to Monday, May 27.
  • April 6 to May 3: Wednesday to Saturday noon to 5pm, Sunday 2pm to 5pm
  • May 4 to May 27: daily from noon to 7pm, free