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 been seeing, reading, and sensing lately, and in the show.

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, defences 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 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 arund 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 many 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 the artists will turn down those future offers if they can afford to do so.

Such a show would, once more, make clear how thematic curating is a way of ostracising ideas for the entertainment of the enlightened members of society, by conserving the works 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

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