torstai 30. marraskuuta 2017

111X & JOHANNES EKHOLM & MAN YAU at SINNE, HELSINKI, Oct 14 - 29, 2017

Image from Sinne gallery, courtesy of artists, pic by Kimmo Modig

Last month, I sat down amidst vintage Artek chairs, Genelec speakers, and a selection of house plants, all enclosed in a room-inside-a-room at Sinne gallery. Fluorescent lights above me were occasionally flickering in sync with the audio, trying their best to animate the makeshift, deadened space. A 90-minute dystopic-utopian radio play, taking place "fifteen minutes from now", in the vein of the British TV show Black Mirror, was playing.

Afterwards, a staff member at the gallery was happy to see I stayed for the full length of the piece. I imagine 90 minutes is a lot to ask for most, but then I was there to write this. Work work work. To be honest, I wasn't there all the time, but went online to vent my frustration. Aargh. I don't have a smartphone but I had my computer with me and it had Sinne's Wi-Fi stored in it from the time our band played there a few months ago.

Whereas Black Mirror -and no I won't drag this comparison throughout- looks at how technology influences (mostly white, middle-class) social relations, "There Is A Light..." imagines the desires and potentialities of Helsinki-based precariat after the current order has gone up in flames in an activist uprising.

The exhibition itself is two-fold: there's the sound piece, and then there's everything else, which is credited to artist and sculptor Man Yau. The broken-beats, post-club bass-heavy music in the radio play is produced by 111X. In a puff-cum-interview(1), the artists said the visual setup should remind audiences that the fictional world of the radio play, in which an actress is receiving a state award while the parliament is being taken over by protestors, is not unlike ours. Choosing audio as the primary medium is an apt choice, as it frees you from having to come up with a visual stand-in for all the ideas. The way out from the muddy waters of representation is through the immersive, physio-hallucinogenic medium of sound, perhaps.

OK so I have no idea how to say this other than like: it seems as if the exhibition wanted us tell ourselves that we, both the audience and the creators of the exhibition, know what is wrong in the world, and that this exhibition exists in that same world. The nod, the wink.

What is it about artists or our working conditions that make us put things into space and will them into meaning what we think they should mean? And if I, as a spectator, subscribe to this meaning, for example by reading the handout text and deducing that the beat-up BMW must symbolise crony capitalism, what does this process do to me exactly, apart from granting me cultural access to a set of symbols & concepts, and before that, making me desire for that make-believe access in the first place? What would happen if I wouldn't agree to accept the presentation of design furniture as a sign of anything else but, I dunno, a successful partnership with the companies mentioned in the thank you notes? As proof of labor? Artists & co always say you're free to interpret the work to your liking but no one ever tells you how you actually can do that, and what doing so would mean to the discourse we're in.


Should we categorise "There is a light...", jarringly, as political art, then how is it different from the works of Jani Leinonen and Riiko Sakkinen, for example, whose works have gathered vast amount of criticism (if you're not aware of these events unfolding in Finnish art, perhaps cut a few paragraphs)? This might seem like a calculated rebuttal, but risking that I still think the comparison is one that must be made in order to clarify these terms so we understand what we are talking about here. What is the difference between this and that kind of art, if they both borrow their momentum and raison d'être from the political (for lack of a better term)?

As a tactic, it reminds me of highbrow music journalism. Pop music thinkpieces seem to be based on the notion that since they tackle globally worshipped, mega-successful artists, the writing must be important, too.(0) Of course, most of the time it absolutely is not meaningful to anyone outside pop criticism believers, as is the case with art and its priesthood, as well.

Obviously, this is not about the merits of pop journalism: it's just that the topic you choose does not elevate or justify your writing per se. People might care about object A, but it does not follow they care about somebody talking about A. The talk in itself is simply another object with which one needs to create a relationship, or not.

Referencing political events or struggles won't add to the weight an art work has in the cultural sphere, then (something the Sinne show doesn't exactly do, though the script contains a lot of quotes from activist-friendly literature etc). Although it kinda adds. What can happen is that the theme itself creates a certain type of aura around your practice: you might have better chances at getting grants, be featured on serious panels, people perhaps deem you as a person worth considering seriously, all that.

Also, no one ever criticises such works unless they're blatantly ignorant, as has been the case with the countless numbers of "refugee-inspired" art made by white Finnish artists touring the topic in their careers. But when, for example, an artist makes an informed work about, say, fascism during a specific period in Finnish history, the cultural sphere ceases to address its aesthetic or artistic merit. It becomes a monument for being right, and for a shared leftist/liberal/critical values (which I share, too). And since this monument is categorised as art, not science, for example, no one will check if the sources hold, there is no peer review system, and so on. We are prone to think the artist is right and so we simply salute the effort, instead of analysing it critically. (But I can't help but to add we need these monuments sometimes, you know, just to have something?)

Still, nothing stymies discussion as combining poetic license with morally proofread topics. Again, no, I am not saying one shouldn't do such works, or that they couldn't work just fine in some cases. What I am trying to argue for here is how so-called political art is being received, and what the choice of content might mean to their reception and cultural mileage. This goes back to the earlier remark about putting a thing in an art space and forcing meaning onto it. We must be able to look beyond that gesture, to see what really happens when the work goes out into the world, and gets mixed up with worldliness.


Though why wouldn't the act of providing information be enough? (ok so this is a tangent way removed from the Sinne piece already just fyi)

Can't I just accept that a move like that is a smart, cold-blooded hijacking of the medium of art for saying something more pressing? And why would I even care if someone does use art to simply disperse some intel?

I mean, I have no desire to "defend" art from anything. I also want to see our current world order up in flames, and art is, as Man Yau and Johannes Ekholm pointed out, complicit. But then I've almost never learned anything from art that that informs me. If I've been made to do so, I've forgotten all the facts on my way home, just like how my tears inflicted by the narco-optics of a Hollywood flick dry before I've managed to exit the cinema.

So I guess if you do appropriate art for something else, then you have to go all the way in, and change not just the content but the conditions of its production, and not simply commit to the tried exhibition practices, artist careers, accepting of group shows, keynotes, and awards, maybe?

In order to set the stage for a meaningful analysis, artists need to recognise similarities between their activities, so we can understand what these concepts mean, as I stated earlier. As much as more in-the-know artists like to set themselves apart from the ones they hate, I can't see any real difference between, say, Alfredo Jaar's empty slogan-heavy posturing and that of the celebrated, intellectually more "mature" artists with up-to-date vocabulary, themes, and subjects. I'm talking to myself here, as well. I want to learn to understand similarities so I can defend the making of a difference.

Just as I feel that criticising the instrumentalisation of art, most recently by Anna Tuori and Aleksis Salusjärvi(2), rings a little hollow, because using art to get things done is not the problem, at all. If you need to stop an environmental exploitation venture by a predatory company and the museum can be of help, of course you do it. Art spaces and workers are real things living in a real world, so of course it's ok to act accordingly. Instead of defending autonomy, I'd like to talk about how you can instrumentalise your practice in a meaningful way. Wouldn't it be healthier to start from the fact we are always complicit, subjective, subjected, and operating in a web of connections, dependencies, and agencies, than to try to defend some 20th century avant-garde dream of autonomy which really ever made sense if you were the heir of a rich family in Italy, driving fast cars and being high all the time?

The problem is never the media and forms in themselves. I think we should look at the institutional execution of the work, ie. how it is embedded in and entangled with its own context, from the salaries of everyone working towards making the work happen, to the affective-intellectual connections it draws, and what are the values it either consciously or unwillingly furthers. Who do you work with, who are you talking to.


Narrowing my interpretation of the work at Sinne as politically mindful but ultimately ineffective miming routine is a disservice to the work. The audio piece comes off as engaging, fun, and refreshing, when you forget this political art label bs I've gone on about here.

First of all, the play is not trying to be well made. It's overarchingly exuberant, and as asuch breaking from the tradition of "good work", something I salute. Sure, the artists are connected enough to get well-known actors &co to read the lines, and they are showing it in Sinne. More so, it's hard to imagine any Helsinki-based art institution saying no to this trio (this was, I understood, a commissioned piece by Pro Artibus, the association/foundation funding Sinne), but I'm sure that has happened and will happen too, sobecause nothing in this faux-meritocratic nightmare neoliberal art world makes sense and everyone is always going way down or up without a second's notice and everyone is paranoid of everyone else, while some of us have decided to judge anyone who dares to complain about these velocities, ultimately denying the intersectionalist power of tears.

But anyways so the work is dirty, the sound design is sometimes very tongue-in-cheek (there's a lot of eerie industrial wind-ish ambience), the acting is all over the place, the text too goes to places without worrying too much about narrative credibility or anything, really. I just needed to relax a little first and take off my usual pair of POLITICAL ART IS SO PROBLEMATIC AAAARGH glasses. It just that everything is politics already, everything is capitalised so I might as well enjoy myself experiencing this work.


OK I'll rage about political art some more now. For most parts, it feels like campaign rhetoric familiar from elections. And just like in politics, in art it is the actions that (should) count. But then, what are real actions in art? I feel my take on this is patchy, and I haven't really grasped this in any particularly deep way, but my gut feeling says art's political potential is in dealing with the politics of art itself, stealing art as a platform in its entirety for completely different means, or working along other non-art-related actors in the long-term, but isn't that pretty standard? I will leave it here to show where I am at. ++I'll try to follow up with this real actions gambit next time when I will hopefully write about a group exhibition that was on for two days as part of Feminist Forum.

So were the actions "real" in this show at Sinne? For me, the answer lies in the space: did the work gain any vitality from the context of a gallery? That's a boring question. Let's try something more suited for the times: did I feel something? If I didn't, is there something wrong with me, should I learn to feel more, or differently?

Is there any way under late capitalism to write a blog like this as a gesture of friendship, or are these things always about envy, belittling another artist, competition, or accelerating knowledge production to keep this machine called art world in motion? What does anticapitalist criticism look like? Is it an act of solidarity to take something seriously and go out your way to write about it, or is it always just careerism? What happens when I meet Man Yau or Johannes Ekholm again in Helsinki? Do they think I'm any less scared or tired than they are? Do I? Am I?

Do you? What makes you want to stand on the side of the ring reading this? What should an anticapitalist spectator do? Should we all just go back to the evasive, invisible, yet deeply political artistic practice of David Hammons, who for all their life has done the most etheral-but-super-concrete, unsellable-yet-totally-sold-out, mysterious-but-pedestrian, hobbyish-yet-professional, silly-tho-political art that I am (made) aware of (what made me know these things, what are the conditions guiding my references)? Negri & Hardt, two philosophers who have written books that you shouldn't feel like you should read them ---screw it live your life, have argued for the abandonment of institutions such as museums, so should we? Why isn't this audio work being played to audiences from car stereos at a parking lot? What do the artists want from the gallery? Or from us, the gallery goers? To wake up? To see you and your knowledge?

How is this show any different from my own show at Helsinki Art Museum's gallery, which was an exercise on entry-level conceptual art? Should we raise or lower the standards? I think, don't I, that we should all be hobbyists and stop doing any kind of art that requires support, gallery spaces, or any other compromises towards the white anti-queer hetero matrix called the normative society, in which art plays the role of the moderate joker so "everyone" can feel they're all right and nothing is too subversive, personal, or weird. I wish it would be that easy. I wish "no" was less expensive.

This I think is true: either you believe that the site of contemporary art (museums, galleries, etc) is worth fighting over, as Irene Campolmi argues, following Chantal Mouffe and sort of counter to Hardt&Negri(4), or you don't. If you don't, then working in art begins to feel overtly pointless. Then the solution is not to insert so-called political content into the art works as a means to signal that these are the real issues that are more important than aesthetics and whatever. For if you do that, it's such a nihilistic, un-beautiful act that I will leave the room, because while it's easy to point out the other, more urgent things we should work on than the politics of the exhibition space, then I as a viewer can't help but to think "then why are you here? And why did you invite us?"

In the end, this had little to do with the exhibition in the title, as often is the case. But the radio play is now in Soundcloud(5), go listen to it, I think it really is wonderful, but it took me three listens to get into it, ie. I am not busy.

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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)