Notes from Suomenlinna [curaticism]
The following notes have been written during my stay in the Suomenlinna Island, Helsinki (Finland) as curator in residence at HIAP programme, where I developed my project GAM [curaticism] for the first time in Europe.
Born in New York, and today at its 4th American chapter, The GAM is a series of Spoken Words Exhibitions about the artist’s role in shifting and sharing concepts between different places, with the aim to analyze and debate how its practice enriches the vision and knowledge of a given scenario. Whatever it is.
In particular, The Suomenlinna Episode/The GAM#5 [curaticism] focused on the identity of Helsinki, analyzing how the practice of artists and curators, local and in transit in Helsinki, is enriching the local community and contributing to its evolution.
During my stay, I worked on writing a daily/weekly report, documented here, where artists’ practices have been sewn together according the coherent connections I found between their work and contemporary events (social, political, natural etc.) happening at that time.
These notes are part of curaticism, an ongoing attitude towards curating in which the curator’s role is played to ‘critically’ uncover the ideas and thoughts resulting from an in-progress visual phenomenon and ‘curatorially’ position the same phenomenon within an equally in-progress contemporary scenario (be it social, political, urban, natural etc.). curaticism is a curatorial theory founded by the author that identifies several activities that, although shaped each time in different forms – panel discussions, spoken words exhibition, writings, etc. – has the goal of exploring the status of the embedded curator as a long-form voice deep-seated in the artist’s practice.
The Suomenlinna Episode / The GAM#5 [curaticism] was made possible with the support of HIAP and the project DE.MO./MOVIN’UP II session 2015 promoted by Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and TourismGeneral Directorate for Contemporary Art and Architecture and Urban Suburbs (DG AAP) General Directorate for Performing Arts And GAI – Association for the Circuit of the Young Italian Artists.
This text will be updated semi-regularly with additional episodes in an ongoing experiment in embedded curaticism by the author.
Notes from Suomenlinna#1 [curaticism]
Windy and overcast in Suomenlinna. A perfect day to stay at home to order my notes taken during the first studio visit session I had with artists at HIAP for the 5th chapter of GAM [curaticism] project. Speaking of GAM, and therefore about Moby Dick (its 53rd chapter, from which GAM project took inspiration), I think of a passage in the book, where Melville describes the wind as noble and heroic (i.e. something that, it seems hidden in his words, we do not deserve).
“Were I the wind, I’d blow no more on such a wicked, miserable world. I’d crawl somewhere to a cave, and slink there. And yet, ’tis a noble and heroic thing, the wind!”.
In this moment of tragic migrations and widespread xenophobia, the following news is added: 33 adults and 5 children from Syria, Afghanistan and Myanmar dead, trying to reach Greek island of Lesbos, as well as students in Naples (Italy) assaulted with hammers by miserable thugs, who unconstitutionally still define themselves as fascists.
Therefore, today I think of the heroic and noble Melville’s wind, and how privileged we are, to hear the wind still blowing out of our windows.
Notes from Suomenlinna#2 [curaticism]
A few days ago, I wrote about the tragic news of 33 adults and 5 children dead in the sea, trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos, as well as students in Naples (Italy) assaulted by miserable fascists.
I believe that these tragic events, within this contemporary condition we are now living in, represent a magnifying glass that reveals the condition’s details. In this case, scars and wounds. We’re observing what is going on during our current time so closely that little or nothing of it seems to remember the founding identity of the humanity that we live with. Additionally, the closer we get to it, the more unrecognizable this time becomes, the less human it becomes.
Written in the diaries found after his death, Baudelaire wrote, “It is not, however, specifically in political institutions that the universal ruin, or the universal progress will be manifested. That will appear in the degradation of the human heart. Need I describe how the last vestiges of statesmanship will struggle painfully in the clutches of universal bestiality?”
We need simply look at what specifically is going on within the geometries of our seas to realize that today, more than ever, Baudelaire’s thoughts give words to the bestiality with which our political institutions are painfully administering human material during this tragic migration. These words are scanning the “last vestige” of our humanity. They are going in depth to peer across its heart to see its wounds, and realize how they are degrading this heart. It’s about details, or rather, about a microscopic view of the landscape (urban and natural in their case), that I spoke about this week with Finnish artists Minna Pöllänen and Jukka Hautamäki. During our meeting, we discussed their practices, and how both, over the course of their evolution, have had several chances to express themselves as a means of observation of the surrounding reality at a close distance.
Among a new production she was working on during her residency at HIAP, Minna Pöllänen told me about her “observatories”. Dating from 2012, these observatories are temporary structures made of wastepipe binoculars for the viewing of detailed landscapes. By showing only small fractions of the landscape, the “observatories” seek to re-contextualize the mundane, positioning them amongst the other sites in the area. Through their form and arbitrary collection of sites, the viewing platforms imitate touristic strategies used to showcase historical and picturesque locations and create new reference points between the observer and the surrounding environment.
Jukka Hautamäki, instead, showed me an installation consisting of monitors connected to a tiny camera pointed at the ground. Every x seconds, the camera moves a few millimeters, due to an additional attached small device, which produces a micro movement forward. The dark gray and peeling surface of the floor develops a surprising coloration. It happens, due to the use of low-quality second-hand monitors, that the artist voluntarily uses for making works of this kind.
I realize that more than one coherence binds both practices together. Foremost among these is that their works investigate fragments of reality to be filtered, recovered and finally returned to viewers as a neutral image; free of all the overwrites that are usually applied by the stereotypes of its usual scenario.
This fragmented world regenerates, as it is within us that it is reborn again, and vice versa. That is, even we ourselves are renewed being internally fed by the new image of the reality that the artists’ works drive us to discover. This mutual “gestation” between us and the world, immediately puts me right in “Mettere al Mondo il Mondo“ (Bringing the World into the World), the famous series by Italian artist Alighiero Boetti consisting of sheets of paper, on which a painted puzzle invites players to solve by association of the commas and letters of an alphabet aligned along the edge. The resulting sentence is, in fact, “Mettere al Mondo il Mondo”.
“Bringing the World into the World” is a concept, of course. But a concept that we get through a physical approach. Indeed, by unifying the commas and letters, the viewer is actually forced to carefully observe the work. In doing so, it visually evaluates, consciously or unconsciously, every little detail of the painting. Every centimeter of it: the determined stretch of the pen, the materiality of paper, the bright white of commas and letters, floating on the magnetic and thoughtful blue. This is how a selfish attempt to discover a phrase becomes instead the unexpected symbiotic experience the viewer has with the painting. Which means that the spectator returns to it the act of looking on the painting’s forms, shapes and figures. Art is conceptual, of course. But through a formal experience.
In the same way, or at least in a way that is very close, the mechanism of approaching the world through the work of art that happens in the Boetti case, also happens in the works of the two Finnish artists. In Minna Pöllänen and Jukka Hautamäki practices, a mechanism is employed to bring attention to details of a given landscape, so that by looking at them – i.e. by embedding them within -, we bring them back into the world, through the image of the same world (a fragment of it) that we really want to see. An image that really looks like us. Human; as such, right next to us.
I can therefore see why both artists are radically approaching reality through practices that force extreme views. They do that by looking at the landscape, a crucial element around here, where beautiful forests and great flat clearings dominate everything, including the architecture, and in consequence humans. The works of these artists, then, work by way of contrast to the aforementioned contemporary bestiality that is causing the degradation of the human heart, and that is so far from us.
By looking to their most immediate surroundings, these artists, instead, strongly oppose this vile time. They do that with absurd utopias and weird instruments, which patiently map, centimeter by centimeter, the current time itself, so that every wound will be manifested and then healed.
And if it is true that art does not follow a particular logic, but every logic, then it is logical that by pointing a set of wastepipe binoculars on a blade of grass, or a micro camera on a gray floor, these too are the necessary tools to lead us to the edge of the human vision of a universal ruin or progress that only our heart can give us real access. The heart’s alone.
Notes from Suomenlinna#3 [Curaticism]
About ten or so days ago, I was in Vantaa, a small area on the outskirts of Helsinki city centre, to visit the The Finnish Science Centre Heureka’s Planetarium.
The reason for the tour was a second meeting with Axel Straschnoy, a Helsinki-based artist originally from Argentina, whom I met a few days earlier in his studio in Pikku Huopalahti in the west area of the city.
During this encounter, the artist showed me Kilpisjärvellä, a film that he specifically realized to be shown within this planetarium. Kilpisjärvellä shows the artist, along with a friend, also from Argentina, travelling together toward Kilpisjärvi (Lapland), the northest area of Finland, where its boundaries meet with Sweden and Norway. Their goal is to film the Northern Lights.
In order to get an image that would perfectly correlate to the planetarium’s screen format, the artist was equipped with two 360° cameras running at all times. For several weeks, the two friends walked northward equipped with these cameras looking for strategic places to capture the natural phenomenon.
A very personal motivation underlies this work that relates with the artist’s path as an individual relocating himself from one country to another – a matter very dear to the GAM, a curatorial project that I’ve been curating since 2014 based on exploring the artist’s role in shifting and sharing concepts between different places, with the aim to analyze and debate how their practice enriches the vision and knowledge of a given scenario.
Therefore, the case of an artist from Argentina relocated in Finland for the past fifteen years perfectly matches the GAM’s mission, because this case encompasses two questions: what does an artist export by moving their practice somewhere else, and what remains?
Stepping back to the film and to the aforementioned personal reasons for its creation, Straschnoy, during the first studio visit, told me about his life in Buenos Aires, as well as his work and exhibitions, including the unrealized ones. In particular, he mentioned a large planetarium situated at the center of the city. Because of its strategic location, it was a visual symbol that everyday, whether they liked it or not, everyone encountered. He told me that this architecture is a collective symbol; an archetype of daily life that has accompanied many people during their childhood, including his own. For this reason, the Vantaa’s planetarium represents for the artist the archetype of his encounter with a new life in Finland.
Therefore, the scope of the project and its construction, the final installation, the personal implications, the adventurous image of two individuals seeking for nature, as well as the environmental issues relate to a country whose identity is crucially founded on the symbiotic relationship that people have with it. For all these reasons, it was clear that viewing this movie on a two-dimensional monitor – although conceived to be viewed on a three-dimensional one – was an experience that could in a sense demean the work of its grandeur and encompassing capabilities.
Hence, I asked him if he could arrange a film screening at the planetarium. And so it was. A few days later, on Friday, February 5th, we met at 16:30 at Vantaa planetarium. I caught the 611 bus line, which took me there in 45 minutes. There, we meet Simo Pirinen, one of the planetary operators. A long hug and a strong handshake, shows me that there is a strong friendship between them. Simo accompanies us into the big projection room and starts to talk about the structure, it’s history and how it has been renewed by technology over time.
In particular, he showed us the old projector, which was previously used to screen on the big hemispherical screen. A wonderful cobalt blue object dating back to 1988, purchased in East Germany, at the time of division.
He said they have not been used for many years. It still works but up-to-date technologies have simply replaced it. Lacking space in storage, they decided to keep it there where it has always been (i.e. at the center of the projection room), as a wonderful vintage object to be admired in all its beauty.
We sit down. The film begins. It does not last that long. About 17 minutes.
What you see in the film is a documentation of his experience in the northern areas, as many other artists did before him in the past. There are no specific subplots, narratives or unexpected changes of the story. All takes place with linearity, a sequence of views showing the activities of the two friends during the day, and the apparition of the northern lights at night.
The camera wobbles when they are on the way. The resulting image distorts according to the rhythm of footsteps, but relaxes when at night, on the ground, the camera stares toward the wonder of the color effects.
The two walk in the snow, reach the shelter, cut the wood, light the fire. Cook and eat something. Then, go to bed, reading a book before to sleep. Then darkness. The green, pink and green again appear throughout the sky, thus coloring the darkness that surrounds.
New day. New stage. Where there is no shelter, a tent is mounted in the middle of nowhere, where only a little lamp put out at night, distinguishes the camp in the darkness. So another night. And once again its colors in the sky.
While you watch them move, you cannot think of anything else except the dreamy adventure, that only two humans willing to embark on an experience of this kind can convey in this manner. Two Argentines plunged on in their attempt to have the single most Finnish experience you can ever have around here: going to the northernmost part of the country discovering the landscape, nature and the northern lights.
During a third studio visit, Axel tells me about a Finnish tradition of going to the forest to make art and capture the most spectacular images of the landscape. It’s an old school tradition, better known among previous generations of photographers. He mentions some most notably Finnish artists, including Antero Takala, Jorma Puranen, Pentti Sammalahti and Jorma Luhta. They have been working in the northern areas to take pictures in this style. This practice is no longer so widespread, but still resides in the activity of a few.
Hence, Axel embarks on the same path. He is authentically playing the role of the local artist by fully embodying within his practice the local culture, from its principles to its founding traditions.
The projection ends and I thank him for organizing this private screening, saying that the city of Vantaa, from an anonymous name like many other towns around here, becomes for me a familiar sound today.
A city enriched in a film able to provide the local community with a distilled form of the surrounding beauty, through the most spectacular form of all time: that is, the format of the planetarium, known for being the place to understand and marvel at the birth of the universe.
What the artist is doing through this film is allowing viewers to marvel at the beauty of their surrounding area, amplifying an experience of super-consciousness. Straschnoy puts these people in front of their identity by showing images digging deep into themselves (i.e. in the inner spaces, where these images have been put within, where the focal point has the same expanded degrees through which those images have been filmed). Images dilated by memories and feelings, reflecting the strength of belonging to a place that we define as home and where we can find “some right idea on the need for an intense moral life. An exemplary life, like in front of a mirror”, as yet Baudelare suggests to me within his “intimate journals”, which you may now figure out, is the book that is accompanying me on this trip in the North.
Speaking of mirrors, and especially of companies, in that passage Baudelaire reveals, that it is precisely living “with the company of maniacs, extravagants, some half-crazy people” that fifteen of his years made his life “intense,””exemplary,” “years that you are never entirely lost”.
Hence, I think of the company that I have kept over the years, which look very much like those that he described. With them, I climbed mountains, collected dead horses’ bones and discussed every day, for three months, in a late 19th century renaissance villa abandoned for thirty years, and then realized, in the end, that each of them has not only made paintings, drawing or installations, but, in truth, “areas of freedom”, where finding “right ideas” about life is an option that has never been so remote.
Among these “maniacs,” there is one in particular to talk about “areas of freedom” with. An artist, who has given a shape to this topic many times over the course of his career as a painter, and most recently as relational artist by realizing ephemeral visual gestures – pictorial, sculptural and performing – on the street, with the aim of disseminating unfiltered artistic expression, as well as stimulating ordinary people to reclaim the places they belong, including their history and related culture.
More than half, he is entirely crazy.
And I along behind him. This is the truth. I guarantee. Because one day, in Morocco during his residency at atla(s)now (a community platform for cross-disciplinary collaboration created by artist and ski coach Angelo Bellobono), Italian artist Alessandro Bulgini – he is the one I am talking about – with his usual angry voice told me “Alessandro! I have only crazy friends!”
We were crazy for real, when we decided to walk for ten miles from one village to another, and back again within a trailer of a fruit truck. But that’s another story that I will tell another time.
Resuming the whole story, I think back on what Axel tells me walking toward the Vantaa rail station. That is, after the premiere in Heureka Planetarium when the film came out, after various film festivals, after all these special events, it was very difficult to get anyone to come and see the movie. Most curators prefer to watch the computer screen version since it is more efficient.
I wonder, therefore, what is it that we find that way. By not experiencing the work in person and its original format and expression, actually we do not grasp the meaning. Anything.
It reminded me of what many artists told me when I used to live in Rome. Namely, that curators and critics visited their studios infrequently. It was 2005 and over the years I have done nothing but continue on this road. I mean, meeting artists, in their studios, following them wherever it was necessary to visually experience the work properly.
I belong to that generation of curators who have seen the economic crisis born, and yet see artists working tirelessly without financial support, with criticism as well abandoning their studios.
That one in particular – criticism, I mean – left a great void. In that void, however, I found the fertility for a critical exchange that the artist and curator together are able to encourage in their encounter, both human and professional, that otherwise would not have been possible within the sterile field of a market-based system, such as the one we are experiencing today, and whose early signs were already clear at that time.
And no matter how intense and exemplary life is, what really matters is that life aims to reach the highest peaks of human respect, in our case, beginning from the respect of the artwork and its essential truths hidden within the visual expressiveness, that we will not certainly get from a monitor.
And if it were not for many others, for me the studies were, and still are, independent geographies, where we build an important dialogue on topics like the need of shaping the “moral life,” that Baudelaire speaks clearly about in those passages.
Straschnoy’s truths are essential as well. They are the ones he frankly reveals in the planetarium by providing viewers an image that looks alike. Even though they already know this image in its details, the artist offers it in any case, so that the viewers can use it as a moment of internal investigation, and, as such, find a time that is “never entirely lost”.
Images courtesy of the artists and the author.