Finland: Myth and Innovation

Imago Mundi

Contemporary Artists from Finland

In Perfect Harmony
Finnish visual art has progressed in parallel with European art since the end of 1800s. We have shared the same art capitals and we have gone through the same -isms, at times with some delay: at the beginning of the 1900s, the avant-gardes barely touched Finland and in the Sixties the introduction of abstract art into our national imagination proceeded rather slowly onto an art scene loaded with nationalism.

Mona Aho - Bend, Don’t Break (2015)

But this is history, water under the bridge. Nevertheless, the low level of internationalization of Finnish art still seems to be a cause for concern among the powers-that-be of the art world. There is no shortage of complaints about it, particularly when a gallery, any gallery, appoints a new director and everyone hopes that he or she will finally solve the problem.

Cris af Enehielm - Untitled (2015)

Kati Salonen - Untitled (2015)

Interestingly, artists have paid no heed to the matter, which they have addressed by making their most basic activity international, especially through the network of residencies abroad. Indeed, these networks are so dense and so numerous, that even the crème de la crème of the art world has not been able to keep up.

Senja Vellonen - Untitled (2015)

For example, around sixty young Finnish artists are currently living and working – on a more or less permanent basis – in Berlin, one of the undisputed capitals of contemporary art. At least according to an acquaintance of mine who lives there. Most of them show very little interest for their Finnish nationality or the reaction of the Finnish art community to their artwork.

Kukka Paavilainen - Untitled (2015)

Lauri Laine - Musician VII (2014)

Already a few years ago, another artist friend remarked that nowadays there is no distinction between the Finnish contemporary art production and – say – that of Portugal. In today’s global art world, trends no longer acknowledge or avow any connection to a specific place. This was once again all the more clear to me when I recently traveled to Berlin to see a group exhibition by young artists from the Dominican Republic. I set out to find any difference between the works on show and Finnish contemporary art: to no avail. Then I tried to identify some eminently Caribbean elements. I came up empty.

Tuomo Saali - Exotic Wandere (2015)

Perhaps, however, we have reached a turning point. Globalization is poised to meet its opposite dialectic force. Luckily, this has nothing to do with rigid nationalism (which is also on the rise), but rather concerns the local and community aspects that are clearly emerging in everyday life. At the same time, the subjective, at times narcissistic stance of the Eighties is losing momentum. Artists no longer investigate their identity and their education, or their own interpretation thereof; what they
do now is they try to see themselves and their work in context, anchoring things to a certain place or small social units, instead of their ego. The weight of place, family, and history is gaining ground. From the essential driving force of art, memory has emerged, together with the ability to use it and particularly to enrich it with what is more difficult to recall. But, rather than personal memories, these are things that are remembered together as a group – or withheld together.

Leena Saraste - Flying Stars 1945 (2015)

Eeva-Liisa Isomaa - Untitled (2015)

Artists have started to rewrite history. Art’s connection to a place no longer means that an artwork is created in a certain space, but indicates that the spatial dimension is recognized and strengthened in the artist’s themes. David Harvey, the guru of the Nineties, was wrong when he argued that “space is annihilated by time”. Speed and the reduction of space have not irrevocably changed our world, after all. The endless meta-levels introduced by post-modernism, as well as the need to represent an ironic conscience, have withered. Nowadays Finnish artists are not afraid to approach their themes in a way that would have been benignly ridiculed a while ago: nostalgia, melancholy and childhood joy can now be addressed upfront just like rage, candor and even aggressiveness.

Susanne Gottberg - Untitled (2015)

Panu Ruotsalo - Old, New, Borrowed and Me (2015)

The cold conceptualism that was widely appreciated in the art world of the 2000s, has had to make room for less intellectual and more direct ways to make art. In fact, the two have apparently come to coexist – at times in the production of the same artist. The relationship with art history has also changed. Finland’s young contemporary art was obsessed with a certain intolerance towards modernism for a long time. However, the transition phase has clearly been overcome and what was often a rather inarticulate disgust, has been replaced by a benevolent, at times even playful curiosity towards various modernist trends. Many young painters have gone back to the theme of their predecessors, but Ad Reinhardt’s motto “Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else” no longer applies. The fact that a certain sacredness of art has disappeared seems a fundamental point. In the end, the black square can be painted in different ways, with a range of patterns to choose from, and in various contexts.

Ulla Rantanen - Peace Flower (2015)

Petri Kaverma - Falling Man Sleeping Man Never existed (2015)

Reflecting on the history of “our” art, expressionism seems to have played a particular – but fickle – role. Born before the Great War, characterized by dark tones and a rural temperament, expressionism was elevated to the status of explicitly national art by critics and art historians alike; then it was challenged by the more modern currents. This tension has given a specific quality to Finnish art. In Finland, expressionism never achieved the level of social criticism that has characterized it, for example, in Germany.

Lasse Ylitalo - Untitled (2015)

The powerful waves of imperious neo-expressionism of the Eighties washed over Finland too, but here, surprisingly, it was spearheaded by a strong group of women, instead of heroic manly figures: a tradition that is still very much alive in Finnish art. There was never any censorship, no dialectic process, because those strong female models were never the object of a generational fight that might have relegated them to the trashcan of history. On the contrary, they soon became well-loved and esteemed artists, and this apparently continues to be the case.

Mari Rantanen - Untitled (2015)

On the other hand, a noticeable fracture was created in terms to expressive means, when photographic and video art conquered the art field. Many painters started to feel marginalized when, for a certain period of time in the Nineties and 2000s, only photographs, videos and installations were regarded as contemporary art. I remember very well something that happened when I was in Paris around the year 2000 to talk about Finnish contemporary art at an art magazines congress. I was showing the works of a graphic designer, which were in fact quite revolutionary, when suddenly a voice rose from the audience: “She doesn’t seem to be very contemporary”.

Carl Wargh - Self-portrait as a Dog (2015)

Whatever the case, the hierarchy of tools and techniques seems to have been subverted. A video artist may start to paint, and painters are free to show photographs as well as paintings in their exhibitions. It is a custom that has become quite common. Realizing one’s ideas apparently requires a greater variety of tools and techniques, while the conventions of each genre no longer seem to be as fundamental as they used to. But then again, such conventions do not require to be deliberately and resolutely questioned any longer.

Hannu Hyrske - Untitled (2015)

Aimo Katajamäki - Asino alfabetico (2015)

The medium is no longer at the center. Luckily, in Finland artists have not been contaminated by the cult of the star system, going from one biennial to the next, and they still address the eternal human themes. This is partly due to the lack of international stars in Finnish art, with a few notable exceptions. For example, in the very popular Art Facts rankings, the first thousand names include only two Finns, and they both appear after the sixteenth position.

Jukka Korkeila - M. in Drag (2015)

Liisa Kanerva - Springtime (2015)

With the increase in human stories, it could be said that, in the end, the era of great stories is far from over. But greatness is no longer represented by dogmas, religion, or political ideologies; rather, by those small stories that offer to everyone the chance to identify with the artwork across social classes, in a way that is authentic and democratic. The work of Finnish artists no longer illustrates what it means to be an artist, but what it means to be a human being in general. Artists have become fellow travelers.

They seem to be living in harmony with their colleagues and other people. In this sense, the fairytale of Nordic wholeness continues, with the artists’ contribution. So much so, that the fairytale is slowly turning into a fight, in which the artists will no doubt feature prominently too. Despite the richness of their contents, they too are increasingly sliding into the less well-off part of society. Camilla Vuorenmaa - Untitled (2015)

Otso Kantokorpi
Freelance critic and curator

Riggert Munsterhjelm - Fragments of the Past – a Study of white (2015)

Credits: Story

Art Direction, Photography and Production
Martti Berger
Barbara Liverotti
Giorgia De Luca
Editorial Coordination
Enrico Bossan
Luciano Benetton
Martti Berger
Otso Kantokorpi
Editing and Translation
Emma Cole
Sarah Cuminetti
Valentina Granzotto
Camilla Mozzato
Elina Suolahti
Pietro Valdatta
Art Direction
Bianca Otilia Ghiuzan
Artworks Photography
Marco Zanin
Marco Pavan
Ismo Kajander - X-mas Flie.
Our warm thanks to all the artists who have participated in the project, in particular to Catharina Kajander, Lauri Laine and Kimmo Sarje. We would also like to thank Otso Kantokorpi, Maaretta Jaukkuri, Timo Keinänen, Alberto Basili and Simo Örmä for their invaluable contributions.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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