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Outside the museum: art on Helsinki’s islands

19 July 2016

Contemporary artists like to see themselves as working against the grain. Art challenges established ideas, institutions, and systems of power. But what happens when the grain changes? What role do the arts play then?

An intriguing exhibition has opened recently at Seurasaari open-air museum in Helsinki. This small island to the west of the city centre was established as a ‘people’s park’ in 1890 before the museum was founded in 1909. It consists of dozens of old wooden buildings, sourced from across Finland and re-assembled among the rocks and trees. Today the island is owned by the City of Helsinki and is free to visit, but the museum is run by the National Museum of Finland and entry costs €9. The lines of management are often difficult to discern: a case in point is an old phone box, left unloved by the city, but well cared for now that it’s been recognised as historic and transferred to the museum.

Finnish Landscape’ (until 31 August) has been organised by Checkpoint Helsinki (profiled in January’s column) and curated by Manifesta 10’s Joanna Warsza. It’s the first time that contemporary art has been shown on the island. At the media view, Warsza described the exhibition as ‘a way of thinking about both an idealised, fantasy version of nature and the reality of landscape as something social and political’. There are works by 10 artists from Finland and abroad: almost all have been specially commissioned to respond to this strange museum landscape.

The result is a series of subtle but effective interventions: Annika Eriksson’s video draws attention to Seurasaari’s constructed identity through the use of two Finnish cosplayers; Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Haig Aivazian and Jumana Manna emphasise the violence inherent in the uprooting and relocating of houses or homes. My personal highlight is Remnants, by Liisa Roberts. Roberts has placed archival boxes in the guestrooms of a number of the houses on Seurasaari. In so doing she underlines an aspect of Finnish life that has now disappeared: the setting-aside of a room for the specific purpose of welcoming travelling strangers. According to journalist Wendy Hall’s 1953 book about Finland, Green, Gold and Granite, this tradition continued well into the 20th century.

Valkeat (2016), Ahmed Al-Nawas and Minna Henriksson

Valkeat (2016), Ahmed Al-Nawas and Minna Henriksson. Photo: Noora Geagea

Roberts’ work provides a clue to the cause of the decline: inside each box is a photograph taken in a different apartment on the same street in Tapiola, a 1950s utopian garden city just west of Seurasaari. Tapiola’s functionalist suburban apartments formed the blueprint for Finland’s post-war rebuild. Today, Finns are justly proud of their 20th-century architects (the apartments in Remnants were all by Pentti Ahola). But Roberts makes us question what has been lost: could this social atomisation be a factor in Europe’s failure to welcome those who now need our help?

Elsewhere, Ahmed Al-Nawas and Minna Henriksson bite the hand that feeds them (as artists are wont to do) by drawing attention to an ugly aspect of Seurasaari’s own history. Beside the official sign that tells us about a pretty neo-Gothic summerhouse, the artists have produced their own sign about the family who owned the house and bequeathed it to the museum in 1912. The text tells of the family’s wealth and power and how they used both to promote not only culture but also eugenics. It makes for uneasy reading and it’s admirable of the museum to accommodate it. There has even been talk that this text might become permanent. If so, then the art’s acceptance by the institution would represent a small political victory.

But what about those cases where art’s outsider status is fundamental to its independence? Last month I interviewed artist Jussi Kivi. He lamented the loss of Finland’s wilderness and sought freedom in the wastelands left behind by industry or the military. But there is a danger that this aesthetic is now losing its political edge.

Vallisaari, Helsinki, Finland.

Vallisaari, Helsinki. Photo: Creative Commons (Flickr: Ninara)

This summer, the Helsinki island of Vallisaari has been opened to the general public for the first time in decades. The island has long been a site of military activity, and was under the authority of the Finnish Defence Forces for almost a century until 2008. Uninhabited since the 1990s, it is littered with old military ruins, now half-submerged among plants and trees. It has the richest biodiversity in the region.

But what was once a psychogeographer’s dream is now awash with tourists. There are wide gravel paths and picnic tables. Signs tell us where we can and cannot go. Hotels and a marina are in the pipeline. Unsurprisingly, Kivi visited Vallisaari in secret some years ago. The same place: but how different it must have been.

Bad Gateways, installation view in the Helsinki Art Museum. Photo: Sauli Sirviö

Bad Gateways installation view in the Helsinki Art Museum. Photo: Sauli Sirviö

Exploring this same dynamic is ‘Bad Gateways’ (until 24 July) at Helsinki Art Museum (HAM). In addition to a fascinating little publication (which includes a text by Kivi) are three works by artists Johannes Rantapuska and Sauli Sirviö. Sirviö is a former graffiti artist who has served time in prison and lived for a year in a disused train carriage in Turku. Together, the duo explore interpretations of place that go against the grain of official narratives of regeneration. But what happens when this kind of counter-cultural expression finds its way into a publicly funded museum?

The strongest work, entitled Useless Exercise, consists of a video projection taking up an entire gallery wall. The video takes us along a dark, graffiti-lined railway beneath the streets of Athens. In front stands an old exercise bike; the video only progresses when somebody sits on it and pedals. Witty, engaging and surprisingly fun: Useless Exercise also stages the very processes that its presence here enacts.

It reminds me of a passage in the book Wanderlust, in which Rebecca Solnit describes the gym as ‘the interior space that compensates for the disappearance of outside’. HAM, incidentally, is housed in a former Olympic tennis centre. Are Rantapuska and Sirviö suggesting that today’s museums are simply gyms for the mind? Certainly there’s a similar aesthetic of sterility.

We’re told that art, like exercise, is good for our health. But might art, in fact, be nothing but ‘useless exercise’? Even the most politicised art can be co-opted by the institutions it seeks to challenge. Maybe being useless is really why art matters.

More from this series.

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