lauantai 29. helmikuuta 2020

WHAT IS POSSIBLE IN THIS SPACE?

Infiltration, a group show at SIC gallery, Helsinki

three works visible, an abstract collage print on the wall, a sculpture in the front of the image and bottles that look like archeologist's research materials, with light coming from the window on right.
Installation view. Photo by K.M.
If the city can be understood as an interface, then Infiltration, an exhibition curated by artist and SIC gallery co-founder Sauli Sirviö, wants to show us the city’s background and the less obvious ways of using it.  Anyone who has ever tried their hand at first-person-shooters or world-building computer games will be familiar with the idea of looking behind the surface that’s meant to be the thing you paid for. Often, you get tired of executing the brutal missions given to you (kill this, invade those, accomplish that), and find yourself in the backwaters of the virtual world instead; looking at the sights; walking around aimlessly; ordering coffee although it doesn’t do anything for your avatar but you like visiting the shop. It’s not a stretch to think some of the artists in this show having gone through boredom to freeform expedition in their relations with their places of living.

Is there something subversive in the act of peeling behind the city’s façade? Much media art (and even more theory) has been cooked from players utilizing glitches. Whether you’re ”misusing” a game – or the city – simply because you’re not running the errands you’re being offered is questionable. Most glitch-related media art theory fails precisely for overplaying the meaning of so-called misuse or looking behind the surface. When I'm confronted with the underground archaeologistsvideos of semi-illegal hikes and canoe cruises through the hidden parts of the city, I am similarly unsure what to make of it. Counterculture? But counter to what, you may ask. To nobody’s surprise, the backside of a city is meant for able-bodied people as much as the foregrounded, daily version, or even more so. In Infiltration, issues of safety and access are left for the viewer to consider. Such viewpoints would’ve given the show, which features many inspiring works, more scope and depth.  

Now, the point is not to guilt artists or hobbyists out of researching abandoned water dams. This is not a large-scale museum survey, either, but I wouldn't say it's an excpetion to the rule of whose flaneuring we get to witness, either. Finally, it’s worth adding some of the works in the show, such as the one documenting a person climbing up to the top of a giant ferris wheel only to being forced by cops to come down, did make me smile. But as I’m attempting to parse the mood these works conjure, I feel it’s fair to look at them from various angles, instead of accepting the reading most readily at hand, ie. celebrate them for the wild rides they offer. The exhibition is an interface too, and I’m curious to take a peep behind its cover, as futile as such gestures might end up being.

a sculpture on the floor, reaching knee-height, made of  bronze, concrete and steel. Description in text.
Tiina Raitanen: Combination II. Photo by K.M.
Infiltration can be split into two categories of works. There are the more abstract pieces that rely on evoking emotions, and the ones that are documentary. The latter batch is marked by uniform aesthetics - a mix of steampunk industrial nostalgia and matter-of-fact photographs tilting towards the gloomy and melancholic. This crude binary doesn’t do justice in full, but points towards the direction. The abstract works are by Tiina Raitanen and Saara Karppinen, respectively. Raitanen is presenting three small sculptures, which at first sighting might resemble the speculative futuroi-archeological findings (think Nestori Syrjälä) that was all the rage a few years back. Spend some time with Raitanen’s works, and you’ll realize how much more there is to them. The arch form, found in all three, refers to classical architecture, while the glass assemblages – one looks like a headset – moulded on top of each piece spell a more modern feel. One of the pieces seems like it’s bolted to the wall with a half-circle steel bar, ending up looking like a como between the loaded allusiveness of Lee Lozano's early minimalist drawings and BDSM interior design. The size of the works infuses an eerie, even nightmarish vibe, as if the scale is all wrong. The arch forms and repetitive patterns allude towards escape, control, and access, while the embedded glass bits remind you of the material traces of past events in the fabric of the city (say, carvings on benches, ruins). I could spend days with these works. Without them, the show would most likely feel a little pale, with its almost-monotone uniformness, or might seem more formal, with the images circulating the walls and all.

inkjet print image attached directly to wall, the image is an abstract collage of images.
Saara Karppinen: Map of a U-line. Photo by K.M.

Karppinen’s two inkjet prints, attached directly to wall surface, take on a similar role in relation to the exhibition than Raitanen’s sculptures. The prints offer a refreshing pause between the works documenting derelict industrial landscape, shadowy larks, and memories from trips. My friend was applauding the curator's eye for arrangement and I can't disagree here. Karppinen’s visually playful pieces look like how a city feels to me: confusing with multiple images layered over each other competing for my attention. The two prints manage to take you inside a space. One of their works is titled Map of a U-line (2020), but instead of an actual map, like with Jussi Kivi’s elaborate works, what we get is a composition that could pass for a cover image for an album of deconstructed club music emanating from Berlin. Karppinen’s art trusts the viewer to solve the visual puzzle by feeling it. Like with music, I can’t put my finger on why I like the U-line image so much; it simply has a dynamic I can feel in my body. I think of Gernot Böhme’s theory of atmospheric aesthetics. Ridiculously long quote ahead, sorry:  
[W]e may presume an extraordinarily rich wealth of knowledge of atmospheres in the practical knowledge of aesthetic workers. This knowledge must be able to give us insight into the connexion between the concrete properties of objects (everyday objects, art works, natural elements) and the atmosphere which they radiate. This perspective corresponds approximately with the question in classical aesthetics as to how the concrete properties of a thing are connected with its beauty, except that now the concrete properties are read as the ecstasies of the thing and beauty as the manner of its presence. Aesthetic work consists of giving things, environments or also the human being such properties from which something can proceed. That is, it is a question of ”making” atmospheres through work on an object.” (Böhne, 1993) 

a drawing of a map on a worn wall, with names like Styx River written on the map that depicts a sewer system in central Helsinki.
Redrick Shoehart: Night shift undeground hiking map. Detail. Photo by K.M.
Onwards to the first category of works, meaning the documentary ones. On the back wall, we find drawings of underground sewer systems by Redrick Shoehart. The name seems to be an alias, but my willpower deficit stopped me from sussing out the genealogies; I guess we can credit Jussi Kivi? The drawings could double as police case files taped across the walls in a scene in a Nordic Noir series, set in the apartment of an oddball investigator (think Claire Daines’ character in Homeland). Kivi’s own works, which illustrate symbolically resonating underground sites, are so much about mood: dark, a little scary yet goofy, magical. But with titles like UG Orch Slime deposit and The High Cathedrae of Underground Artistic Research, with the latter given for an image portraying a group of abandoned toilets in a cave of some kind, Kivi’s works reach the high score in boyhood nostalgia.  

Try as I may, I’m not available for these works. The humor evades me, the scenes seem too distant to reach. I list this as a personal shortcoming. I visit the gallery a second time to make sure there isn't anything I could do, but to no avail. There’s no feeling room. Kivi’s images and documents are self-sufficient. Being unable to carve a space for myself seems to be a recurring feature in contemporary art made by established Finnish artists. Their art feels too perfect for me in a way that makes you question why they were brought out for us to see in the first place. Two words that circulate in my head are proof and bravado. It's as if I could hear Kivi’s works whisper: This is what we did, look at where we’ve been; this could be you if you’d live a little. Also: I might be losing my mind.  

But I’ll write this down in the hopes that somebody shares this feeling of artworks condescending you for not being more interesting, as if being interesting is a zero-sum game and the works in question have more of it than you do. Of course, any of this is not a problem of Kivi’s. As always, the best I can do is to describe the aesthetic system I use to operate in the world and then hopefully possess the sense to give up if a piece doesn’t fit. Or to put it in the words of Colin Burrow waxing on the literary critic Howard Bloom, writing about art requires you to have “the intellectual strength to construct a coherent structure of judgment that suggests how some texts might matter more than others, and the ability to recognise that texts which don’t fit that larger structure may be all the better for being misfits. Tall order but an order no less.

a general view of the show taken with a fish eye lens.A video work shows a ferris wheel, with small photographs on the right side, a person sitting in front of the video, and more works far on the left. The floor shows wear and is maybe laminate, tinting towards yellow.
Installation view. Photo by K.M.
Earlier, I named two categories of works for Inflirtation, but you could argue for a third one. Clocking in under eight minutes, Necropolis is a video created by Trestalkers, an anonymous ”urban exploration group”. The work is shown on a TV screen that’s placed on the floor leaning against a window. Its dark ambient soundtrack, composed by Crichton Vulcan, provides a chilly static for the gallery space. Later, as I dig up info about the group, I learn they’ve been at this romantic exploration game for over ten years, producing DIY films, meeting like-minded romantic archaeologists, and traveling to derelict industrial zones. This constitutes a full range of activities, and more importantly, an aesthetic that has little or nothing to do with the stiff formalities of contemporary art. But the atmosphere of the latter, prevalent at SIC for reasons almost beyond Sirviö’s - or anyone’s - control, nullifies any phenomenon placed within it into homogenous visual art.

The neutralization powers of art today make me a little sad, and it’s a sadness I know so many of you have experienced. Why can’t Trestalker’s curious DIY practices co-exist with Raitanen’s contemporary sculptural musings without one or the other taking over? Can’t the gallery space host more than one atmosphere at a time? Does the colonial drive that gave birth to Western art exhibiting practices still ring so loud that exhibitions can’t but end up reproducing imperial epistemology? 
  
The problem of making space for multitudes takes us back to the question of viewpoints. What would this exhibition had looked like if it would’ve invited us to consider more ways to use (or fail to use) the city than the heroic ferris wheel climber? Are there other kinds of adventures for other kinds of bodies? Asking an exhibition to do something it's decidedly not doing means I'm failing the Burrow dictum, but if nothing else, this is worth mentioning in relation the gallery at large: It seems SIC as a site owes too much for its previous stage as a larva for slick contemporary art to transform overnight into a space that can host more polyphonic situations. Maybe it’s the way the works are installed, maybe it’s the reputation, maybe it’s our education, or the class position of art’s core audience. But the earth is trembling. SIC has just moved, and it's possible the new location will affect the gallery's operations little by little.


Infiltration was on at Helsinki’s SIC gallery running from February 8 to March 1st, 2020. 
Image of a video work Necropolis by Trestalkers. A video screen leans to a window, with cars parked outside and residential flats behind them, and an image of a flower on the screen.
Trestalkers: Necropolis. Courtesy of the artists, photo by K.M.