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Peripheral Gaze in the Middle of Everything

For starters, I have to confess that as a European art professional I am ashamed of how little I know about European art criticism, and even European contemporary art at large. Almost as long as I professionally remember, my Finnish-embodied, and thus allegedly “peripheral,” feminist gaze has been directed on the one hand towards “the center,” i.e. American art, especially towards its emphatically political phenomena and the New York art world, and on the other hand towards art produced in my country of origin.

Hannele Rantala, “A Summer’s Day,” Rauma, Finland, 2010. (From the series “Blue Scarf”.)

My feminism would maybe have never geared towards its queer, postcolonial, and intersectional directions without the time I spent in New York in the very early 1990s, without the theoretical discourses I started following at the time, and without the radical art that could be seen in some of the galleries—remember that gallery scene in SoHo, anyone?—and even at some museums in the city. Indeed, those were the days of ACT UP demonstrations, David Wojnarowicz filling Exit Art with his anger, Barbara Kruger turning Mary Boone Gallery into a total anti-Gulf-war artwork, and MoMA showing Adrian Piper’s race-critical conceptualism for the first time. This was art practice equaling criticism, and it made me look at the art made in Finland and the Finnish art world through critical feminist lenses as well.

During the past 25 years that I have been alternately living in and traveling between Helsinki and New York, the art world constellations in terms of “center” and “periphery,” and politics of representation, have transformed quite thoroughly. This has largely had to do with a couple of structural changes taking place in the 1990s: firstly, after the worst recession of the decade was over the international biennials began proliferating, and secondly, the Western art professionals were challenged by non-first-world curators, and intrigued and seduced by art coming from the formerly colonized countries and other areas which had been conceptualized as peripheral. Then, in this millennium, the art fairs and the global neoliberalism took over, big time.

So, New York is no longer the center it was after Paris yielded its top-position as the capital of (modern) art after the Second World War. There are more galleries in the city than ever, but many art world practitioners—artists included—agree that much of the art shown, because it is made to fit the market and to please the (imagined) collectors’ eyes, is too much on the safe side to be interesting. New York may not even be the center of the art fair scene anymore, since there are fairs everywhere. The art world has truly de-centered.

And as for the former periphery, the contemporary Helsinki, or Finland at large, seems not to be peripheral at all when it comes to art. This seems to be the case even though some arguments for the Guggenheim’s plans to franchise in Helsinki have said otherwise; and even though the dire straits of the Finnish and European economies have caused major cuts in the public funding of culture.

Quite the contrary, the capital of Finland has provided fruitful surroundings for several interesting art initiatives during this millennium. IHME (the word for ‘wonder’ in Finnish) Productions and Checkpoint Helsinki commission public works from international artists: as I am writing this text, IHME presents the world premier of Yael Bartana’s explicitly political piece True Finn, which comments on issues of nationmaking and belonging, and on Finnish racism. Bartana’s piece premiered in April on a Finnish public broadcasting television program. Helsinki International Art Program (HIAP) runs residencies for artists and curators, currently in collaboration with Frame Visual Art Finland, but it also organizes exhibitions and events. There is a small but interesting field of galleries, some of them run by artists, and at best the museums, funding cuts notwithstanding, are able to provide the art audience both domestic and international cutting edge exhibitions—even shows in which Finnish artists are fluently presented as international, as they should be.

There is one aspect, though, which makes part of the Finnish art world feel like a periphery. And that is the state of art criticism. In this millennium, the printed media has focused more and more on the human interest angle in terms of art journalism, and criticism has been geared towards both blatant and flat “trade descriptions” instead of inspiring analysis. Not to mention there being fewer critics writing for newspapers and there existing only a few art magazines. The sphere of electronic art publishing is not exactly thriving, either, even though there are a couple of Internet forums for thoughtful artwriting, such as the ambitious Mustekala, (Octopus), which publishes articles and criticism also in English. Of course when we speak of the Finnish “art world,” we are rather speaking of an art village in a very small country. And when speaking of Finnish art journalism we are also speaking of a very small sector of journalism within a tiny language area: in the officially bilingual country, there are approximately 5.5 million people, 89.4 percent of whom speak Finnish and 5.3 percent Swedish. Nevertheless, in this tiny culture we have seen better days in terms of art criticism and (art) journalism at large.

After saying all this I do insist that, especially from my Finnish perspective, New York is still one of the centers of art criticism. Before moving back to New York and starting to read criticism produced in the city more frequently again, I had not thought for a while that I would be including an art critic among my favorite analytical thinkers. Now I do. In New York you have the New York Times, the New Yorker, and New York Magazine—proudly local mainstream printed media, in which criticism is still taken quite seriously. You have the Brooklyn Rail, which is devoted to critical thinking of art and culture through and through. And you have Hyperallergic, which in its new media blogazine format manages to balance between ironic, playful, and matter-of-fact art reporting, and sharp analysis. Just to mention a few examples.

It is the critical work done by both heavy-duty institutions like the New York Times and relative newcomers like Hyperallergic that makes me and my “peripheral gaze” feel like I am in the middle of everything. In my current work as a facilitator of cultural criticism—rather than a practicing critic—I do my best to disturb the still existing notions of center and periphery, and to move around people and ideas, artists, and other practitioners in the field.

The artworks presented in the images are part of the exhibition Bodies, Borders, Crossings, co-curated by Leena-Maija Rossi and the artist Kari Soinio. The exhibition by 10 artists living and working in Finland has traveled since 2011, beginning its tour in New York. It is shown as part of the Lima Photography Biennial in April – May 2014, and in Montevideo, Uruguay, in August 2014.


Riikka Kuoppala, “Visitor in My Body” (video), 2008.

Raakel Kuukka, “Rebekka at Muhniemi,” 2005.

Elena Näsänen, “Wasteland” (video), 2009.

Minna Suoniemi, “Miss Kong” (video), 2008.

Catarina Ryöppy: Being Misplaced (part of installation), 2002/2014.

Marja Pirila, Every Girl Has Wings, 2009.


Leena-Maija Rossi

LEENA-MAIJA ROSSI started as the executive director of the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York in August 2011. Before moving to New York, Rossi worked as the lecturer and acting professor of Gender Studies at the University of Helsinki. Her research interests include queer studies, post-structural feminist theory, postcolonial studies, and visual culture. She has written widely on representations of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity in media and in contemporary art. From mid-1980s until the early 1990s, she worked as an art critic for Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest daily newspaper in Finland. Rossi has published extensively, both in academic and popular forums. She is the author and editor of several books, including Taide vallassa (Art in Power, 1999) and Heterotehdas (Hetero Factory, 2003). Rossi has also worked as an independent curator and co-curator for several art exhibitions, such as (Un)Naturally at Kiasma, Finnish Museum of Contemporary Art (2009), M.A.P. (Media Art Photography), which took place in several venues in the Greater Helsinki Area in 1997, and Bodies, Borders, Crossings, which was on show on Governors Island in New York in the summer 2011, has toured in Norway and Finland, and will be part of the Photography Biennial in Lima, Peru, in April - May 2014, and in Montevideo, Uruguay, in August 2014.


The Brooklyn Rail


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