Contemporary artists like to see themselves as working against the grain. Art challenges established ideas, institutions and systems of power. But what happens when the grain changes? What role then do the arts play?
A fascinating exhibition recently opened at the Seurasaari Open Air Museum in Helsinki. This small island to the west of the city center was established as a “people’s park” in 1890 before the museum was founded in 1909. It consists of dozens of old wooden buildings, taken from all over Finland and reassembled among rocks and trees. Today the island belongs to the city of Helsinki and is free, but the museum is run by the National Museum of Finland and admission costs € 9. Management lines are often difficult to discern: one example is an old phone booth, left unloved by the city, but well maintained now that it has been recognized as historic and moved to the museum.
‘Finnish Landscape’ (until August 31) was curated by Checkpoint Helsinki (featured in January column) and curated by Joanna Warsza of Manifesta 10. This is the first time that contemporary art has been exhibited at the Isle. From a media perspective, Warsza described the exhibition as “a way of thinking both about an idealized and fantastic version of nature and about the reality of the landscape as something social and political”. There are works by 10 Finnish and foreign artists: almost all of them have been specially commissioned to respond to this strange museum landscape.
The result is a series of subtle but effective interventions: Annika Eriksson’s video draws attention to Seurasaari’s constructed identity through the use of two Finnish cosplayers; Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Haig Aivazian and Jumana Manna stress the violence inherent in the uprooting and displacement of houses or homes. My personal strong point is Remains, by Liisa Roberts. Roberts placed archive boxes in the bedrooms of a number of Seurasaari homes. In doing so, she underlines an aspect of Finnish life which has now disappeared: the setting aside of a room for the specific purpose of welcoming foreign travelers. According to journalist Wendy Hall’s 1953 book on Finland, Green, Gold and Granite, this tradition continued until the 20th century.
Roberts’ work provides a clue to the cause of the decline: Inside each box is a photograph taken in a different apartment on the same street in Tapiola, a 1950s utopian garden city just west of Seurasaari. The functionalist suburban apartments of Tapiola formed the model for post-war reconstruction in Finland. Today Finns are rightly proud of their 20th century architects (the apartments of Remains were all from Pentti Ahola). But Roberts makes us question what has been lost: could this social atomization be a factor in Europe’s failure to welcome those who now need our help?
Elsewhere, Ahmed Al-Nawas and Minna Henriksson bite the hand that feeds them (as artists usually do), calling attention to an ugly aspect of Seurasaari’s own story. Next to the official sign that tells us about a pretty neo-Gothic summer house, the artists have made their own sign on the family who owned the house and bequeathed it to the museum in 1912. The text tells the story of the house. wealth and power of the family and how they used both to promote not only culture but also eugenics. This makes reading difficult and it is admirable that the museum accommodates it. There was even talk of this text becoming permanent. If so, then the institution’s acceptance of art would represent a small political victory.
But what about cases where the status of outsider of art is fundamental for its independence? Last month, I interviewed artist Jussi Kivi. He lamented the loss of Finland’s wilderness and sought freedom in the wasteland left by industry or the military. But there is a danger that this aesthetic will now lose its political advantage.
This summer, the Helsinki Island of Vallisaari was opened to the general public for the first time in decades. The island has long been a site of military activity and was under the authority of the Finnish Defense Forces for almost a century until 2008. Uninhabited since the 1990s, it is littered with ancient military ruins, today half submerged in plants and trees. It has the richest biodiversity in the region.
But what was once a psychogeographer’s dream is now inundated with tourists. There are wide gravel paths and picnic tables. Signs tell us where we can and cannot go. Hotels and a marina are planned. Unsurprisingly, Kivi visited Vallisaari in secret a few years ago. The same place: but how different it must have been.
Exploring this same dynamic, ‘Bad Gateways’ (until July 24) at the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM). In addition to a fascinating little publication (which includes a text by Kivi) are three works by artists Johannes Rantapuska and Sauli Sirviö. Sirviö is a former graffiti artist who served a prison sentence and lived for a year in a disused train car in Turku. Together, the duo explore interpretations of place that go against official narratives of regeneration. But what happens when this kind of counter-cultural expression ends up in a publicly funded museum?
The strongest work, entitled Unnecessary exercise, consists of a video projection occupying an entire wall of the gallery. The video takes us along a dark, graffiti-lined railroad tracks beneath the streets of Athens. In front of it stands an old exercise bike; video only progresses when someone sits on it and pedals. Witty, engaging and surprisingly fun: Unnecessary exercise also stages the very processes that his presence here dictates.
it reminds me of a passage from the book Spirit of adventure, in which Rebecca Solnit describes the gymnasium as “the interior space which compensates for the disappearance of the exterior”. HAM, moreover, is installed in a former Olympic tennis center. Are Rantapuska and Sirviö suggesting that today’s museums are just gymnasiums for the mind? There is certainly a similar aesthetic of infertility.
We are told that art, like exercise, is good for our health. But is art in fact only a “useless exercise”? Even the most politicized art can be co-opted by the institutions it seeks to challenge. Maybe being useless is really why art matters.
More from this series.