Potato Sculpture and the Muteness Meaning
Anda Kļaviņa
The Ars Fennica laureate exhibition as a journey across the broad spectrum of contemporary art
Maria Duncker. Blessing. 2006

In January and February the KUMU art museum in Estonia will host an exhibition of the works by artists nominated for Ars Fennica, the Finnish contemporary art award. The exhibition has previously been on display at Amos Anderson Museum in Helsinki. After a lengthy interval, a Latvian artist - Katrīna Neiburga - has been nominated for this prize (Oļegs Tillbergs was a nominee in 1994). The other candidates for the award are Finnish artists Maria Duncker, Tea Mäkipää and Seppo Renvall, and Estonian Mark Raidpere, who is well-known in Latvia. Ars Fennica is the most notable contemporary art award in the Nordic countries. Its recipient will be announced at the opening of the exhibition at KUMU. The prize consists of solo exhibitions in several Finnish museums, €34 000 and a comprehensive catalogue.

The trip to Helsinki to write about Ars Fennica was, to some extent, a trip back to the past. Not just because this prize is awarded for artists' past and often already familiar creative achievements, but mostly because of the concept of the prize, which is very much in tune with the art scene of the 1990s and has less in common with the art realities of the 21st Century.

The Ars Fennica prize was founded in 1990 by Finnish art patrons Henna and Pertti Niemistö as an "answer to the British Turner Prize". During the era of the rapid growth of the contemporary art market its aim was to strengthen the self-confidence and global competitive capacity of Finnish contemporary art. 18 years later, Finnish con­temporary art - and photography in particular - has indeed put its name on the map of world contemporary art; however, the artists' integration into global art circulation has been so successful that tying the prize to a specific geographic territory or ethnic origin becomes problematic. It seems the 21st Century demands values as the main criterion. An artist does not necessarily have to be a Finn to represent Finnish values - as evidenced by Katrīna Neiburga's nomination. The recognition of the feminised - and therefore marginalised - aspects of life has long been the focus of Finnish and Nordic art.

More than the attachment of an art prize to a specific region, how­ever, the retrograde feel is created by Ars Fennica's glorification of artist and curator individuality. The award is closing its eyes to the fact that over the past decade art's quest for new non-art elements whose inclusion facilitates self-affirmation through self-negation, so characteristic to modern art, have led it into markedly interdisciplinary territory, where the main prerequisite is collective collaboration and re-evaluation of the concept of authorship. The star era of the 1980s/1990s has proved that personality isn't necessarily the panacea solution; ideas are more important - and ideas are born of mutual collaboration. The Ars Fennica format significantly limits the circle of artists who may be nominated for this award.

The principle of individualism also affects the way the award recipient is selected - the choice is made by a single invited expert from abroad, the almighty curator; this year it is Hou Hanru, Chinese-born curator form the USA. In the 21st Century, when the very dis­cussion of art often itself becomes art, such an authoritative gesture seems a little outdated. Certainly, any award and public recognition has a stifling effect - so many writers thank God for not receiving the Booker or the Nobel Prize "prematurely" - but there is that niggling little wish that this award would consider actual circumstances of art creation instead of imposing a frame that is convenient for representation. There's no looking a gift horse in the mouth, but one may ask to what extent the Finnish artists themselves find the Ars Fennica prize useful - its recipient has the opportunity to put on solo exhibitions at several Finnish museums. For Oļegs Tillbergs as a recipient from the underdeveloped Latvia of 1994, it was truly an opportunity to make his way out into the wider world; these days, however, when local flights run more frequently than buses, the significance of this gesture is changing. However, last year's Ars Fennica candidate exhibition at Scandinavia House in New York and the Finnish Embassy in Washing­ton represented a valuable opportunity. Both shows attracted the attention of major newspapers.

Naïvety is the first category of perception the Ars Fennica exhibition evokes. Naïvety is still a persistent position in contemporary art: what wisdom and gravity is there to speak of in the circumstances of a permanent crisis of meaning, where the world is segmented into countless networks with a single common denominator - discord? Where day after day we are landed in situations of uncertain meaning and missing context? Artists use childlike timidity and naïve openness as the best means of representing contemporary life. This often results in unpretentious and unaffected style, and wariness of all that is trite and mundane. Their works of art become anarchist backpacks, filled with equal measures of humour and seriousness.

The artistic practice of Maria Duncker (b. 1963) may be described as recycling of Finnish tradition and local behaviour. She achieves it through use of comical and ironic mise-en-scènes in which national values like Midsummer festivities, the art canon, nature etc. are com­bined with the actual realities of the consumer society. In her chresto­mathic Midsummer (2001), human figures, dressed in plastic carrier bags from the popular Anttila department store chain, are stood gazing at a plastic "bonfire", which is propped up against the bonnet of a car. Duncker has also created a Finnish traditional costume made of shopping bags. Picking fun at the possibility of an authentic Midsummer feeling, she constructed a special camera obscura: by placing it on his/her eyes, instead of a Midsummer celebration a user could experience an "even more authentic" feel of the summer solstice festivities: the camera obscura transmitted pictures taken a hundred or more years ago, when the grass was greener and the sun was brighter. This Midsummer camera obscura was intended for tourists, who often arrive in Finland around the summer solstice, hoping to catch a little of the heathen culture and be closer to nature.

In her installations and video works Duncker uses an array of the most unbelievable materials, which in their deliberate humbleness are somewhat reminiscent of the Arte Povera strategy: blocks of wood, stone, vegetables, fruit, glass containers, used toys, plastic, other found objects. However, her chosen subject matter, scale and materials (for example, a sculpture "hewn" from a potato) in effect amount to intentional ridicule of an art genre reserved for the stronger sex - sculpture - and the male-dominated art history. This is true even of her work Homecoming (2005), in which a figure made of little stones is standing on the edge of a tempestuous sea, just as Kant, reflecting on the sublime, imagined it in his Critique of Judgement. However, unlike Kant's hero, to whom the raging waves of the sea are a confirmation of the mightiness of mind, the male, logical, rational mind, this one's cherry eyes are starting to bleed and he looks very lonely and frightened.Looking at the video installation Meeting (2006), in which, in the best tradition of a school autumn fair, wilted apples and potatoes are transformed into characters worthy of Star Wars and play out a situation, or at the video Porn (2003), in which "home cacti watch wild pineapple porn", one may be inclined to agree with the assessment of a Finnish critic: in her choice of materials, methods and situations Maria Duncker embodies a radical freedom of the contemporary artist. Still, at times it all becomes surreal enough to risk breaking the fragile thread of artistic context which separates art as the outliner of new visual and social possibilities from sheer schizo. Here it must, of course, be remembered that Scandinavian contemporary art contains many references to the region's living naïve and folk art traditions, which, on the one hand, remove the end product from the canon of high art by emphasizing the crafts aspect and giving free rein to emotion, but on the other undeniably provide it with its unique features. So unique at times that it seems like it is accessible only to Finns - and Ars Fennica may be the only prize to appreciate this con­tribution. But the issue here also concerns the role of diversity in this world.

The focus of artist Tea Mäkipää's (b. 1973) work has long been on the unity and interdependence of man and beast, nature, man and man. She examines both social structures and global environmental processes. In one of her early works, Parasites (1997-1998), she used found materials to build a shack which resembled the shanty town huts of illegal immigrants in so many cities, and cut in to the power and telephone grids of the next-door building, thus reproducing the interconnectedness and economic inequality of the world. The Ars Fennica exhibition presents her most recent works, in which the focus of her attention lies on global warming and the future of mankind on Earth. The artist opines that man is his own greatest enemy, and notwithstanding our personal social economic position we are all in the same sinking boat - or little house, as depicted in Mäkipää's installation/photo series Atlantis (2007), in which a typical Finnish summer house has sunk halfway into a lake, but, judging by the cheerful voices inside, its inhabitants have not yet noticed it. The artist has trapped people in a burning car and on a ship called Eden 2, and also rather prematurely put up a monument to the gasoline-run car.

Tea Mäkipää's largest recent project is called 10 Commandments for the 21st Century. These are suggestions for an environmentally friendly lifestyle: do not use air transport, do not buy unnecessary things, do not have more than two children etc. The artist has placed these commandments in light boxes and printed them on postcards. Armed with a video camera and the postcards, she travels from Hel­sinki through Europe and the Middle East all the way to Saudi Arabia, preaching this catechism. The closer this inverted crusade gets to its final geographical destination, the more absurd these command­ments seem to become: people in poverty and litter-ridden Turkish, Iraqi and other cities stare at the artist's postcards with the same incomprehension with which Rigans once greeted Kaspars Vanags's attempts at sabotaging the global catering chains in Latvia; evidently the green way of life is determined by social and economic circum­stances. The artist's own surprise at people's unresponsiveness and the unpopularity of the commandments at times reproduces the very same North-South divide which splits the world and stops people uniting in a common fight for the future of mankind. Though socially active and relevant, Tea Mäkipää's most recent work feels too poster-like.

Tea Mäkipää. Motocalypse. 2007
The video works of Katrīna Neiburga (b. 1978) in their poetic sop­histication and clarity seem almost classical against the backdrop of the exhibition, and 21st Century art as a whole, and perhaps this arche­typically poetic nature is what entices the visitors of the Ars Fennica exhibition to spend a good while in front of this artist's works. Her work Krokha (2005) is, indeed, a video clip for Semyon Khanin's poem, and Solitude (2005) is also poetry: a fragile view of a woman's living space, which in my opinion, does not, as Ilmārs Šlāpins observes, acknowledge the "painful loneliness" surrounding us; rather, it shows the way we inhabit the object world, which, through familiarization, turns "solitude" from being lonely into being alone. A woman is never solitary anyway: there is a photo of Katrīna's young son on the windowsill, her work in collaboration with her creative companion Pēteris Ķimelis is right there on the table, she takes the car to go meet someone, etc. Such is a woman's natural prerogative. The object world, familiar places, her native city are in this case a continuation, an extension of love; it is a Heideggerian rootedness, not Cartesian seclusion in the solitary tower of intellect.

Katrīna's early projects - T-Shroom (2000), What Is in a Girl's Hand­bag? (2002), Traffic (2004) - can be viewed as a sort of an expansion of the space of love by using communication to reveal and legitimize another social space which is based on the link to the woman's role, image and self-perception in post-Soviet Latvia. And it is a truly ironic coincidence that Katrīna Neiburga, who has given voice to women in her works, has in real life found herself in a situation where her voice is disregarded - in the case of the notorious "little boy of the Opera" incident. Katrīna depicts this invasion of obscurantist, prejudice-addled institutions into her creative and personal space as toy soldiers attacking in the night. In the video work the same inexplicable power that brought the toy soldiers to life also makes them stop before the child has awoken. The question is - is the three-headed dragon of the family, the strong women of the clan whom Katrīna honours in her work, the one who will stop the toy soldiers? Will those private worlds which Katrīna allows us to glimpse in her installation The Street(2006) save us from an attack of such uncontrollable forces? Katrīna's own experiences indicate that the toy soldiers are not just a dream. In her search for answers Katrīna skilfully manoeuvres between the social and the existential, and this makes her art no less grand than Oļegs Tillbergs's installations, which, combining mighty historical processes with subjective sensations, earned the Ars Fennica award 14 years ago.

The Ars Fennica exhibition is an interesting opportunity to observe the creative development of Estonian artist Mark Raidpere (b. 1975), which gives a new meaning to his controversial videos and photographs on the subject of the traumatic process of the growth of identity. His videos Voiceover (2005) and Shifting Focus (2005), in which Mark examines his relationship with his parents, and which were included in his 2006 solo exhibition Five Works in Riga, are re­veal­ed by the context of the newer works as an exploration of communi­cation and meaning rather than just the parent/children dynamic. Shifting Focus is the mother's inability to take in and the son's inability to communicate an adequate message, while Voiceover is an uncontrolled stream of a father's feelings, delivered to the spectator through his son's translation/interpretation. The artist then proceeds to view limitations of communication and shifts in meaning at another social level: using the format of an interview, he speaks with five attendants of the Latvian National Museum of Art - Five Guards (2006) - and a dancer from a Riga nightclub - Andrey/Andris (2006). The interviews are simple, centring on the life stories of these people, their chosen profession. The mediator is a rather abrupt Russian language, which immediately bodes discrepancy between intent and actual expression. Has the Russian language (associated with the Soviet occupation) primarily served to divide Estonians and Latvians, or has it brought them closer together? Language is also an issue in the video work Vekovka (2007), in which a "vestibule con­versation" about the situation of the Russian-speaking population in Estonia, the Estonian poets' wish to write with the sophistication of Russian poets etc. is visually complemented with mundane scenes that are taking place at a railway station somewhere on the Moscow-Izhevsk line.

The muteness of meaning culminates in Majestoso Mystico (2007), which is comprised of scenes from the Bronze Night unrest in Tallinn, and a composition from the soundtrack from the movie The Silence of the Lambs, as performed by some street musicians in Stockholm. The unrest rages without a sound, becoming an abstract performance. What is the meaning of this riot? For Estonia this was an event which undermined the stability of the country, while right across the sea in Stockholm, tourists were strolling around as usual. It is a story of the power and fragility of meaning. And, as pointed out by the observant art critic Anu Allas, the truth is somewhere between the official, the intended and the accidental.1 Mark Raidpere's works seem particularly significant in the post-Soviet Baltic context, where the field of lingu­istics, the primary point of access to ourselves and our surroundings, has not been sufficiently explored through artistic means.

Seppo Renvall (b. 1963) is an internationally known representative of the Finnish experimental video and movie scene, who in the 1990s started off the now-widespread practice of using filmed materials from private archives in artwork. This approach relates to the still-relevant rewriting of history and its reconstruction from a personal perspective opposite the narratives created by mass media and the state. In his works Renvall combines home video, accidentally found recordings and abstract images; he bypasses conventional narrative structures, letting the images create their own rhythm and logic.

Critic Kari Yli-Annala observes that Renvall's works are like a good contemporary novel which leads the spectator into a whirlpool of co­incidental memories, created by everyday audial and visual impulses. "It is not reality that we see, but our own private world, various subconscious layers - disillusionments, hopes, dreams."2

As a part of a programme of Finnish experimental and video art films, in early 2007 the audiences in Riga had the opportunity to see Renvall's video for artist Mira Calix's composition Woody. In the video a blond little boy is wandering alone through sand-dunes and a forest: he falls, gets up, walks, falls, cries... The little boy is the artist himself, as captured by his father with a 6mm camera in the late 1960s. Child­hood trauma, the 1960s feel and a private amateur creativity all twist together to form a single expressive video work. This is the slogan of the 1990s: the private is political.

Still impressive is the artist's photo/video collage The Price of Our Freedom (1990), which presents the spectator with a sequence of photographs of those who fell in the 1939-1940 Winter War - often the features of fragile adolescent boys, now extinguished by history and war. Renvall was part of what could be called the de-ideolog­ization of the highly ideologized media - photography and film; still, over the past 20 years the private and personal have again become a sort of a dictatorship. The question of how to conquer it and avoid losing the connection to living reality is one of the most fascinating issues in contemporary art.

All of the Art Fennica nominees use interesting means to approach subjects of regional and global human significance, and I suspect the task of curator Hou Hanru in selecting the recipient of the award will not be an easy one.


1 Allas, Anu: After the Isolator: Voices and Talks / Ars Fennica [Catalogue]. Printon Trukikodas. Tallin: 2008, p. 101
2 Yli-Annala, Kari: A Turn to Opposite Direction - on the Moving Images of Seppo Renvall / Ars Fennica 2008 [Catalogue]. Printon Trukikodas. Tallinn: 2008, p. 130

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