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)