keskiviikko 8. marraskuuta 2017


Diego Bruno James Prevett SIC


Jätkäsaari is a new residential area in central Helsinki that looks like a more sombre Copenhagen. The scandi topping of primary colours and subtle asymmetrical quirks are there, but life is yet to be downloaded to the grid, as is the case with most suburbs in Finland. But then I don't live there so how could I know.

The name Jätkäsaari translates to "Dude Island". something the abhorrent, mammoth sculpture of a pissing little boy next to Verkkokauppa megastore wants you to remember. It's by artist Tommi Toija, and titled "Bad, Bad Boy". In the radio play ”There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, written by Johannes Ekholm, the protagonists marvel said megastore in flames, along with the statues of Finnish nationalist heroes of the right, in a nod toward the removal of confederate monuments across the US. The play was part of a show Ekholm did with Man Yau and 111x, and I am trying to write about that soon.

Aside from the three galleries, SIC, Huuto, and Rankka, the Jätkäsaari area is home to West Harbour, with its mega-cruisers, Helsinki-Tallinn ferries, and the hoards of tourists who try to fathom a way to the city centre from the Ballardian, grey surroundings. I’d be surprised to find out the galleries would still be here in five years, after completing their duty of injecting the neighbourhood with cultural vibrancy to attract bussinesses and tenants.

In addition to running their own programme, SIC serves as a new home to Ruler, a mobile gallery project for lack of a better description, initiated by artists Mikko Kuorinki and Diego Bruno, the latter currently having a show there, whilst the former is showing in Helsinki Art Museum's gallery.

You wouldn't blame them for it, but both the artists running Ruler and SIC as a gallery represent the kind of visual art that is regarded support-worthy in Finland. The heavyweight grant-giver and art policy game-changer Kone Foundation has supported SIC in the creation of the extended makeshift space for Ruler within its premises. Currently Kone also supports Kuorinki's artistic practice (it said so in the handout at HAM). Bruno's exhibition notes tells us the show is supported by Kone, Art promotion Centre Finland, AVEK (an organisation supporting audiovisual art that gets its money from royalties), and Helsinki International Artist Program. As everyone knows, these currents come and go, especially so when the money is coming in from foundations that rotate their jurors annually, creating even more instability to an already precarious system. I bring all of this up to shed light to the infrastructure of the art ecosystem here in Helsinki.

I've worked with Kuorinki a few times. EDIT: Kuorinki mentioned on Twitter that I did also participate in a Ruler-organised group show curated by Valentinas Klimasauskas. I wrote about a show by Happy Magic Society, a group Kuorinki's part of together with performance artist Essi Kausalainen, for Alkovi gallery's catalogue(0). Before that, I wrote a text for another show Kuorinki was in, at Oksasenkatu. People running SIC once sort of asked me to do something there, but this never materialised. Once I was with a friend in Corona bar, where artists tend to go after an opening. Me and my friend were both crying for some reason when the people from SIC suddenly stormed our table asking what do I do nowadays since they haven't seen me around, encouraging me to propose something. Bruno I don't know, apart from one or two chance meetings at not openings but somewhere else. I recently visited Prevett at their studio.

Bruno's previous work was a 20-minute video work titled "Galindez". It got its name from a theatre play titled El Señor Galindez, written by an Argentinian psychoanalytic-cum-playwright in the 70's. The video unearths the connections between institutionalised violence, and the once-felt revolutionary potential of psychoanalysis, if my memory serves right. It is easily one of the most powerful video works of late that I've witnessed; you want to know more but you're unsure if it will help. It was also shown in SIC's premises, but I don't think it was part of their exhibition programme back then.


Bruno's new show, "1035/1039", and its main piece, a 17-minute single-channel video titled "Space Under Hidden", traverses in similar terrain than "Galindez". Bruno's camera seems set to break any notions separating objects from subjects, or the humans portrayed from their surroundings; it moves deliberately on the surface of dusty chairs, house plants, and architectural details, while the voiceover and historic still images inform the viewer about events concerning the Revolutionary Workers Party, the measures someone took to protect an ideology, or the minuscule routines of everyday life surrounding the constructing of a secret hideaway and meeting place for the Party. The feeling I get is not of flattening relationality, but of agencies shifting between front and back so that, just like a film is a succession of images made to flow by speed and light, history becomes watery without the sharks disappearing.

Keep in mind I only looked at the the video once.

The overall stripped-down look of the exhibition manifests some of the characteristic traits of biennial-level, rigorous video art installation: architectural investigations juxtaposing political meddling with the sites of such actions, minimally produced posters (shown alongside the video in adjacent room) echoing a resonance from hidden histories, sedate cinematography preferring sluggishly sweeping interior shots over fast-paced editing, and deadpan voiceovers caught in crisp, high-definition audio.

One could simply look at these features as medium-specific, sensible standards that should not catch your attention, but for me, those choices reveal the desired-cum-couldn't-be-helped positioning of the work in the complex web of aesthetics, class, art scenes, identities, and careers. Some of those features did seem like part of the deal and thus as off-putting or attractive as those things are, depending on what you're looking for, but the extra wall separating the text works from the video, in a space within a space in the muffled Jätkäsaari neighbourhood, for a video that investigates the building of a secret underground space, is a glorious, even chilling move. I thought of Anna Daučíková's video shown at Documenta this year, cleverly installed in a small, sweaty room with constant traffic of visitors, mimicking, for me, the invasive reality of Soviet era domestic/sexual life depicted in the film.

I am not writing about the content of Bruno's work that much, because I have only a rudimentary idea what it was about, and, without any sarcasm, I am not sure if that matters. I mean it does, but how, and how much? Afterwards, I duckduckgo'd the address and other info mentioned in the handout text, but after 30 minutes of online investigation, I still wasn't even sure which country these events took place in, and felt both confused and ignorant and like I've missed some important clue, which I most likely did because I didn't take notes while watching and because of my non-existent knowledge on the subject. The cold-but-sensual camerawork grabbed all my attention.

Other small details drove me away from sticking with the facts. One of the most striking moments, although possibly only taking place in my head, had to be this banal foley sound added to a black-and-white archive material bit, which I imagine was silent originally. But I wasn't sure. Sound is particularly apt for making you mistake a fleeting experience for narrative key.

When I'm around a work that looks very much how critical contemporary art should be looking like, with support from numerous foundations in Finland, in a smooth new district in Helsinki, it makes me wonder if art works sometimes take the form of escapism from the conditions of their own production. (Sometimes they celebrate that, as is the case with IHME Festival, for example.) Meaning, one feels pressured to provide for content deemed worthwhile and serious, when surrounded with such an opportunity. But as said, the support comes and go, and I doubt Bruno, or most of us, would make work based on whether you are temporarily supported or not.

It feels ridiculous, and a little shameful, to think about the funding or the professional-looking execution of the work, when I am pretty sure it was not some lavish production. What I'm after here is not at all if this childish remark holds true, but to say out loud what certain aesthetics trigger in me, and perhaps in other people too, from what I know from my conversations with friends. Furthermore, can anyone really look at "the content", and if they do, how do they do it and where does that put them? On the right side of the discourse?

That is another question I can't help pondering over when I attend critical curatorial talks in Helsinki, where the rare micro-histories, always new to its audiences like a shiny gift, are presented as the latest findings of the dedicated clergy. Or this is how I witness it amid my defensive paranoia. 

Does the choice of topic make all the difference? How does, for example, Bruno's resolute investigations compare to a DJ digging crates for rare Italo 12" singles? It's not a problem related to Bruno's elegant works. No, this is the house ghost I greet at these premises when I'm presented with high-definition video and the logos of supporters. 

So this was not a review of the exhibition, really, but an account on how the exhibition nudged me away from itself and how I was unable to find a way back in. I leave the space and feel like I didn't do enough work, something I often feel so I might as well point it out. But then this choreography of doubts, and a gaze that flickers between what is offered and what is not meant to be looked at feel very much like suitable partners to Bruno's works, where you find yourself contemplating untypical connections between histories, stories, information, objects, people, actions, and aesthetics.


At the same time in SIC there was a show by James Prevett titled "Distension", which the dictionary tells me means "disagreement", but I imagine it's alluding to "distention", which means cutting up, which maybe has something to do with a specific medical condition (such as bladder distension), but my English fails me here. Later, while visiting their studio, Prevett tells me both ways of writing the word are grammatically correct and mean the same thing, but, fittingly, I forgot to ask what it means precisely.

Visually the exhibition differs from Bruno's commanding rigidity bordering on austere. But then, Bruno's show strays away from Prevett's fractured storyline bordering on hallucinatory. Put it this way, I feel they both are more closer to each other than their presumed extremes.

In the exhibition space, there is a sense of harmony and poise, and a warmth you might take either as coyness or care. Some of the materials, bronze and aluminum more precisely, create a distance between myself and the works. It reminds me of how Julia Bryan-Wilson tore down the claim(7) about the everyday nature of Carl Andre's materials, which were seen at the time as just stuff Andre found from the streets, whereas in reality there were only very few places to get those specific raw materials in the US at the time. 

I have no idea how to get my hands on bronze and aluminum, let alone figuring out a place to work with them. I expect it wouldn't be beyond my means, though. I just wonder how one ends up forging that relationship with bronze.

Prevett has placed two 3D printed objects on the floor acting as small plinths for cast toes. The toes are so shiny you can see yourself and other gallery visitors reflected on the surface, like a body part made to monitor us -or a trigger to make you hum Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb". This has nothing to do with Prevett's show, but in general I love to look at people's toes when they're talking: they're like kittens saying everything the cultivated mouth is avoiding to speak about.

But maybe there is a connection to the show: The wobbly, uneven, distorted, wounded characteristics of the body parts seem to contradict what the show at large seems to be saying. If you glance at the credible, trustworthy group of objects as placeholders that are there to affirm your idea of how contemporary art should look like, or if you take the proportionate placing of the works as an invitation to stroll around them pleasantly and unobstructed, you're prone to feel the show is beautiful, fun, a little indeterminate as these things always are expected to be nowadays(8), but enjoyable nevertheless, whereas the individual works and their details speak of a more darker, difficult experience. This tension between how the show looks like at first take, and the deeply troubled place you can see them emanating from if you give them time, is the blood-pumping heart of the show.

On the exhibition notes, Prevett describes being in the hospital, which I take for granted has happened. There has been a procedure the artist had to undergo. The text renders visible the knees of a worker laying in the adjacent bed: "he spent fifteen years on his knees installing" TV-related things. The text ends on a description of the surgeon who has "very big hands", a phrase forever connected to current president of the United States and the body-shaming culture prevalent online. In line with such images, Prevett remembers the anesthetist's room transforming into "a hole".

These images lend the show an air of psychoanalytic unconscious and masculine innuendo. There clearly is admiration towards what you can do with your able body, and horror for what that body usually ends up doing in this world.

Some of the works feel unsure about being in such a world. Five characters made of plaster, with long legs and brown paper bags covering their heads, seem to be walking towards the exit of the gallery space. This piece is titled "Walking 1,2,3,4,5". While they're the biggest in the space, they seem to ask for the least attention.

A small cast bronze object mounted on the wall is named "3rd Part (Brainstem)", and it looks like the Willendorf Venus figurine. I wonder if I should take it as a hint that perhaps the operation was much more serious than I first thought, or concentrate on the potential art-history reference (but then it also does look like a brainstem). On the ground next to Brainstem, there's another work titled "3d Part (Semicircular canals)", that could pass for handcuffs. Am I fetishizing everything, or is Prevett's work helping me see how I fetishize everything?

Close to the end of the show (it makes sense to tour the space clock-wise), the point about masculinity and the hegemonic vista is hammered home. There are two digital prints mounted in steel frames, around 150 cm from ground, that have legs on both sides of the frame. One depicts a hairy white person's belly, and the other an upper-middle-class home with functionalist design furniture and decor. I went and stood between the silk screens, surrounded by two well-established centers of the capitalist world: the affluent home, and the naval-gazing of a white human.

I feel the objects testify to the potential violence of presenting yourself in the everyday (the walking figures with paper bags covering their heads), being on the mercy of biological luck (pretty much all the other works), and turning your cursed body into lucky charms that reflect the world back at itself, because there is no escape. 

You can try to outsmart the world: You dip your toe in first, thinking you're clever to be so careful, only to see people next to you being thrown in at the mercy of the river.

From the handout text: "The television news is on but I can't move to look. Some violent men somewhere." Are they not here?

How do their violence compare with that of Bruno's revolutionaries, and why would you compare? Moving on: what are these exhibitions you do when no one is watching, until, after you've finished with the show, you wish everyone would be? A gym teacher in a video(1) I have on while doing my workout in my living room is encouraging me to try harder. "What you do when no one sees you tells a lot about your character."

Afterword: This text was very much inspired by this text(6).





Julia Bryan-Wilson: Art Workers (2009)


torstai 19. lokakuuta 2017


"When philosophers get into art and start endorsing artists, we get the official version of how a theory should look like as art." This is what I remember a friend of mine saying while we were having coffee and talking about certain theories currently circulating in our art universes. The discussion begun from my friend having visited Alma Heikkilä's exhibition at AMA gallery, here in Helsinki. They were unsure of the relationship between the ideas informing the show and the execution & works themselves. 

Heikkilä's previous exhibition at AMA in 2013 struck me as powerful. I can't remember any details from the show, only its considerable impact that stayed with me. Looking at the documentation now, I noticed how similar these two shows are to a fault. There's the zooming in on white skin (this time between the eyes), and what looks like the ground seen from space, but also the echoes from the lineages of abstract painting, such as line drawings and color field, and playful hanging of canvases that barely fit to the wall height-wise. All of this made, and makes, you consider the nature of seeing and measuring both within and outside the gallery.

It might be worthwhile to mention that I am not really writing about the works themselves for the simple fact that I don't know so much about painting. So my attention steers towards the effects the exhibition as a whole has on me, and the connections I am making from what I've seeing, reading, and sensing.

The most striking thing I saw, in the 2017 show, was witnessing an artist sticking with their inquiry. It comforts you as a viewer when an artist is signalling a commitment to what they're doing. This might seem self-evident or something best dismissed as a shtick to some, but it made me realise how the artists I know usually try out a different approach each time (unless a particular thing sells well). I do that too. So in my world, staying is much more rare than shifting, and it's something that pulls me in immediately.

I was reading a review of the 2013 show, written by Veikko Halmetoja, a Helsinki-based curator, art dealer, and critic. Halmetoja notes how refreshing it is to see "these themes" (ie. ecological issues in general) being turned into paintings, instead of the usual strategy of depicting them via photographs. In general, either strategy isn't preferable over the other for me. Both tend to result in visualising a theme or a theory, while the making of a show itself-where it is, who pays for it, who works there, how is it made and experienced-might bear no relationship to the ideas it is said to explore. For example, if I would make a show criticising the the role of work as the new religion in our society, wouldn't it be weird if I'd do 18-hour days and drove people helping me into burnout in order to finish the show on time? Maybe it wouldn't to you, but I think it should feel weird. I prefer the exhibition space not be cut away from the reality that produces it, although I see no value in reproducing images of that reality in that space, either. So what is the solution?

I want to say something along the lines of "more holistic approaches in which one considers everything that goes into the production and experience of knowledge in exhibition spaces", but what that means is beyond me. I am standing in AMA, confused by my own art-related preconceptions and anxieties which I then project onto the works of another artist, half-heartedly wishing for them to solve these issues, while I full well know the only way I'm able to be in a meaningful relation to these works and ideas I'm temporarily sharing the space with is by both abandoning my presumptions and cherishing them, thus accepting the mess I am bringing with me to meet another mess. 

A few quotes from the 2017 Heikkilä exhibition handout: "I (and many other humans, and why not some of their pet dogs as well) MUST CONSUME LESS", "This is Me (the biophilist / multi-species ecological unit) working in a state of complete merging of the Self
with all Life using materials like acrylic glue that is harmful to both Self and Others.", "To reject the privileging of human existence over nonhuman existence. Is this “fashionable”? If it is – it’s kinda cool. Essential fashion on Most Important Matters. Please gimme more ᕙ(`▿ ´)ᕗ ♥". "Trillions become one and this one is acting towards it"

If this is the case, then I think it's worthwhile to ask this: If a merging with everything arounds us, and the un-privileging of the human existence, is paramount, why adhere to the modernist role of the individual artist who creates discreet art works? Isn't that prone to shut out all other possible agents and connections? Or am I doing the shutting out? Am I taking the press release text too literally, instead of seeing it as just another squishy piece of material contributing to the tapestry of things, ideas, realness, and references? "Every relation immediately generates a new object."1

Or is the press release, as it so often seems to be, a way to make sure the "aboutness" of a show comes through? Is it up to me to start creating those new connections, to lose myself in the allusions to glue, the trillions, and other ecological units? But if we take these ideas seriously, wouldn't it lead us to question the very foundations of the platforms we inhabit as artists? The rejecting of the privileged position of the (Western, white) human existence compels us to ask what is human and who defines it, and how that definition and category is being protected, and who ends up feeling the violence from such categorising. Can artists (and curators, directors, producers, technicians, etc) change these things, if they don't question the very nature of how knowledge is being produced and safeguarded?

Surely these are questions that most artists struggle with: representation vs action, beliefs vs practice, ethics vs forms, defenses vs curiosity. One could say that Heikkilä's text is a strategy to show the limits of what art works can do, and investigate those limits within a chosen medium. Perhaps the answer to "what to do with art" is in the small things and gestures that spark your imagination and subtly nudges your preconceptions. If I tend to feel sad about what I perceive as the limits of an art work or an exhibition, what can I do? Demand the artist works more to my liking? Or accept what's there in this room, and start over?

[[To quote Ta-Nehisi Coates, one makes art not to change the world "but in the mean and selfish desire to not be enrolled in its lie"2. But it is also true that art is the one thing that has affected my structures of thinking the most. It has never been about learning new things or receiving information per se: art changes the way I experience the world, if it does anything at all. This is why formal qualities, questions of presenting, curatorial concepts, and aesthetics have far more political potential than the raw information one might inject into an art work, or an exhibition, although it is hard to say where on ends and the other begins.]]

Speaking of small things, Maureen O'Malley's book "Philosophy of Macrobiology" was hidden under a pile of seemingly art-making -related objects, such as a plastic box where one mixes colors. I was crouching like a cat trying to see what the book is. It felt oddly rewarding to figure it out but this is not a value judgement.

In their writings (of which I have, as with most things, only a cursory understanding -I looked up a review of the book while writing this, and then hastily read an article from John Dupre's Philosophy of Biology), O'Malley has made a a compelling case for considering fundamental philosophical questions through the lens of microbes, "the smallest things". The book could easily be implemented, by artists, as a contribution to the current increase in all things system theory, diagrams, and classifications (in art discourses). O'Malley encourages the reader to re-think the foundations of the categories that, for example, separate living and non-living things in philosophical thought. The unfortunate thing is, as much as artists are being encouraged by a host of thinkers, and no matter how many art works are asking the viewer to question certain given notions of meaning, subject-object -relation, and other binaries, the museum machine, the biennial complex, or the educational paradigm will eventually render everything violently into neat categories to uphold the tenets of their reality.

Whereas O'Malley's writings makes the case, as far as I understood, for taking microbes seriously, Heikkilä's exhibition proposes something akin to refurbishing. That is only if you're willing to look at the works as paintings in a gallery that tries to sell art, and if you compare them to what is being shown in other spaces where similar gambits are at play.

Most of Heikkilä's paintings that were sold had sprinkles of miniature stuff on the surface that gave them more three-dimensionality. These bits connected the works, by the choice of materials the sprinkly stuff was made of, to the themes addressed in the handout text. It looked as if someone had updated the abstract landscape painting genre that, I imagine, comprises 70% of all the art works sold in Finland. This is a harsh thing to say, but it's not about the effect of the work: it's about the reference points I have at my disposal, collected from time spent touring Finnish galleries.

After I am done sharpening my nails with such routine dismissal I've learned to exercise around art, a practice I am slowly unlearning as I begin my long goodbye to orderly art while still considering the potential value of those nails and that order, I sit down, get back up, walk around the gallery a few times, re-read the text, pace a little, and eavesdrop a visitor talking with a staff member (they were quibbling about Finnish art scene). I hang out with the works again, feeling unsure if being direct is more needed today than being there.

I try to be there. The more time passes, the more I feel like being somewhere. This isn't landscape painting: this is a landscape, one that Heikkilä has created from a petro-lifestyle that runs counter to the ideals one holds dear, a paradox so fundamental that most of us have given up on resolving it.

As so often, I'm thinking of how crucial curating is to the experience of art. My mind starts to place Heikkilä's works in wholly different contexts, away from AMA gallery. To see these works at AMA is to look at a machine turned off, stored away from the consuming effect of daily usage. I imagine the inevitable "Anthropocene" group exhibition, probably already in the works in some Finnish museum, that will feature all the 30-something artists currently engaged with issues of intra-agency, non-human subjectivity, petro-narratives, and epistemic disturbances, or, if you instead consider how the rooms in such a show will be put together, pastel-colored mushy objects, fungi, theory-heavy books, diagonal neon sticks, 3D landscapes, the lot. Such categorising and forcing into museum discipline discredits the artists greatly. I secretly hope they turn down the offer if they can afford to do so.

Such a show would, once more, show how thematic curating is a way of ostracising ideas from the enlightened society by conserving them stationary, instead of implementing and vitalising them. It will remind you how "all human orders [...] have mapped their "descriptive statements" or governing master codes on the heavens [...] in doing so, they had thereby mapped their specific criterion of being human, of what it was "to be a good man and woman of one's kind" [...] their respective truths had necessarily come to function as an "objective set of facts" for the people of that society"3.

If I/you wouldn't force art works to mean what I/you think they should mean out of being scared that people will think I/you are not in the know, would I/you have extra room in my/your heart for the total mess?

1 = Graham Harman: The Quadruple Object
2 = Ta-Nehisi Coates: We Were Eight Years In Power
3 = Sylvia Wynter: Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth&Freedom - Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation-An Argument