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Mika Taanila: Tomorrow’s New Dawn at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

The suggestion that there is a “correct” way to spatially experience an exhibition is probably an unacceptably conservative proposal, given contemporary art’s natural penchant for radicalism and contrarianism. It seems uncomfortably hidebound to insist, however modestly, that a patron view a group of works in a particular way, even (perhaps especially) in the case of short films and allied media that utilize the moving image. Nonetheless, there is a potent aesthetic undertow to the suggested counter-clockwise progression through the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis’ new exhibition by Finnish artist Mika Taanila. Entitled Tomorrow’s New Dawn, the exhibit organizes five of Taanila’s works—all incorporating film or video, after a fashion—as a sort of dark, tunneling journey towards an expansive visual and aural crescendo.

Taanila’s body of work is almost archetypically Scandinavian: possessing an abiding and affectionate fascination with design and technology, and yet far too skeptical and acidly incisive to be properly described as futurist in its inclinations. His most renowned pieces are melancholy but modestly flattering portraits of Finnish contemporary art icons, such as electronic musician and designer Ekki Kurenniemi (The Future Is Not What It Used to Be, [2002]) and the mass-produced UFO-like Futuro house created by architect Matti Suuronen (Futuro—A New Stance for Tomorrow [1998]). CAM’s new exhibit, however, presents Taanila in a much more leery and probative mode, wherein his absorption with the alluring surface sheen of precision-engineered modern life is plainly vexed by his social, political, and ecological consciousness.

The centerpiece of the exhibition’s first gallery is Twilight (2010), a hypnotic (almost narcotic) video installation in which two digital projectors mounted on tracks slowly slide back-and-forth, resulting in a pair of black-and-white videos trapped in eternal oscillation with one another. The six-minute, twinned footage is assembled from clips of a university experiment in which laboratory toads react to passing food morsels. Twilight presents science at its most absurd, emphasizing the repetitive, obtuse character of the experiment, as well as the uncanniness of animal instinct in a highly controlled environment. Meanwhile, tucked into a nearby corner are a monitor and earphones that offer the patron a solitary encounter with Vebranntes Land (2002), Taanila’s music video for the Finnish cosmic folk-rock band Kiila. Constructed primarily from instructional video found footage, the work is partly a clinical examination of the technical minutiae of the VHS era, and partly a warm eulogy for the analog physicality of video tape.

Relatedly, the following corridor-gallery presents Black and White Movies (2013), a series of photograms depicting videocassettes that have been physically destroyed by the artist. Each cassette has been maimed in a manner that gives violent expression to the inner, invisible content of a feature film recorded therein. (A blown-to-bits tape that once held Kiss Me Deadly, for example, recalls that work’s climactic atomic explosion.) In an adjacent screening room, Taanila’s 15-minute short film Six Day Run (2012) provides a glimpse of the more focused and humanistic qualities that are evident in his works of documentary portraiture. The film follows Finnish ultramarathon runner Ashrihanal Pekka Aalto as he participates in New York City’s annual Self-Transcendence Six Day Race. Taanila presents Six Day Run less as a record of Aalto’s punishing physical feat than as a cinematic approximation of his ecstatic experience. The work’s rapid mutations between jittery vérité and psychotropic abstraction compliment a shifting aural landscape of pop-rock energy and droning ambient mournfulness.

In the atrium beyond, the exhibition undergoes an airy expansion from its heretofore “black cube”-dominated format to reveal the artist’s enormous, overwhelming The Most Electrified Town in Finland (2004-2012). Recently shown at the esteemed quinquennial German exhibition documenta, the installation features three colossal side-by-side HD video projections and accompanying 5.1 audio. Picture and sound drench CAM’s cavernous cement and glass performance space, mutating the chamber itself into a oneiric and disquieting multimedia object. The film’s fifteen minutes are assembled from fragments of the upcoming documentary feature Return of the Atom, depicting Finland’s under-construction Olkiluoto 3 nuclear power plant and the nearby town of Eurajoki. Some of the footage is intensely specific, if mysterious: scientists collecting plant samples, massive machinery being lifted into place, hard-bitten men gathered around an outdoor cooking pot. Others elements in the film are more impressionistic, such as scratched and blurry shots of a wintery stream, or time-lapse footage of workers milling about like fluorescent bees.

Although these images are frequently arresting in their own right—the mammoth steel and concrete viscera of the power plant recall the jaw-dropping industrial photography of Edward Burtynsky—the haunting character of the film flows from the precision and subtlety of its juxtapositions. The images on the three parallel video tracks almost seem to be in dialogue with one another, as their colors, textures, subjects, and themes cycle like sliding puzzle blocks. At first blush Taanila’s work might seem a tad avant-garde due to its superficial randomness, but gradually an aesthetic logic begins to reveal itself, one in which both natural and constructed environments are closely regarded, each edit underlining contrasts and circling similarities. Like all exceptional video art, Electrified possesses an irresistible and immediate sensory magnetism—assisted by an ominous instrumental soundscape—yet the longer the installation is examined, the more it impresses as an exceedingly assiduous and cerebral work. Electrified is undeniably the jewel of the exhibition. CAM’s organization of the exhibit illustrates that the use of a venue’s space to create a powerful emotional impact is not only desirable, it’s downright essential for certain works to attain their full effect.

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