This winter and spring in Helsinki there have been shows, mostly featuring local artists. They lasted three to four weeks. They have included museum exhibitions of internationally recognized artists, such as Alfredo Jaar, presented at Kiasma, and Jean Tinguely, at the Amos Anderson Art Museum. Some museum shows have also featured local artists; for example the recent exhibition at Ateneum was dedicated to Tove Jansson, who is an internationally recognized artist as well as a seminal figure in Finnish modernism. There has even been an exhibition dedicated to Charlie Chaplin in the City Art Museum. Clearly, the art scene in Helsinki is both local and global.
Currently on view is the Helsinki Photography Biennial. Spread around the capital, its venues include the Finnish Museum of Photography, the Hippolyte gallery, the Hungarian Cul-tural and Scientific Centre, the Helsinki University’s Main Library, as well as public spaces, the main railway station among them. The Biennial has been curated by curators from diverse cities, including Ankara and Zagreb, while participating artists are from Barcelona, Beirut, Budapest, Derry, Helsingborg, Helsinki, Istanbul, New Delhi, New York, Paris, Sarajevo, and Skopje. Using the mediums of photography and installation, the exhibition deals explicitly with environmental themes such as the urban and postindustrial landscape, fading agricultural communities, and the plastic garbage afloat in the Baltic Sea.
The local press is silent. Only a few journalists attended the press conferences: the majority of those present were artists, curators, and the participants in the exhibitions. There was some initial coverage in the main Helsinki newspaper, but, then, there was little news about the Biennial, and even less visual material: only one photo appeared in its cultural pages.
I am upset, but this situation is not unusual. While a lot of interesting contemporary art is shown in the main cities of Finland, the media coverage is minimal. And if it occurs, it is reduced to short, descriptive reviews and a few pieces of art criticism. If contemporary art gets any coverage, it is in the form of an interview with the artist, in which he or she is given little opportunity to discuss his or her art.
Instead, there are articles discussing the art and life of Tove Jansson from every angle possible: about her exhibition in the National Gallery, about her new biography, and or about her old and not that important wall paintings. Her art has been merchandised everywhere; from Moomin cups and plates, to books, t-shirts, and Moomin animations in addition to marmalade and candies, which she did not produce. What seems to makes sense is the venue of the show—the Finnish National Gallery, for she is an internationally recognized artist, most notably in Scandinavia and in Japan. But she is mainly known for her early comic strips and her novels for both adults and kids, but not so much for her work as a painter.
I am an art critic, journalist, and art historian. While the historical approach to art interests me, my background is in journalism. Having long worked as a staff writer in the cultural section of the main daily newspaper in Finland, I am therefore astonished that the coverage of contemporary art in the media here is so minimal. Recently I attended a seminar about the media, criticism, and art during which a highly ranked person in the world of print media proclaimed that focused public discussions of different aspect of cultural life only make sense if they are as engaging as an international TV series. His subject was television, but he could have easily been talking about the contemporary art made in Finland and elsewhere.
To a certain point, I do understand his point. The print media in Finland, like in many other European countries, is having great difficulty because of the commercial pressures and the popularity of the Internet’s free channels of communication, such as blogs, and forums for online discussions, as well as cultural criticism geared toward general public. In result, the number of print media subscribers has decreased. This is economic reality. Some of the radio and television channels in Finland are owned partly by the state and governed by the parliament, but most of them are commercial. In spite of some excellent internationally produced television shows, it is quite rare to see good programs on local contemporary art, not to speak of daily news of culture. The situation is much better on the radio, although there the focus is more on literature than on visual culture and arts.
As a close observer of contemporary culture, I sometimes see the situation as hopeless. It is even more troubling because I consider the Finnish audience—readers, listeners, and viewers—to be sophisticated and curious enough to warrant better coverage of the art scene, as well as appreciate more nuanced and analytical viewpoints.
Returning to the artistic activities in Helsinki. Every April there is a weekend-long contemporary art festival called IHME (which translates as “miracle”) that consists of happenings, discussions, and art film screenings. In the past years, artists commissioned to produce community-based works included Antony Gormley, Mirosław Bałka, and Christian Boltanski. This year, IHME invited the Israeli artist Yael Bartana, best known for her work in the Polish Pavilion in the 2011 Venice Biennial dealing with the fate of the Polish Jews. In her Finnish project, rather than address her Jewish identity, she focused on that of the Finns. In her film entitled True Finn, she focused on eight people representing different ethnic and language groups in Finland, among them immigrants from Russia, Canada, and Somalia. The screening generated excellent discussions during the festival, but critics declined to cover it in the media. Needless to say, their silence could not have been provoked by the inability to see the film, for it has been available for free through a web-channel of our large broadcasting company, (www.yle.fi/areena).
During the IHME festival, 12 Finnish artists presented their work in a series of lectures, each lecture 13 minutes-long. It was an exceptional opportunity to hear them speaking on contemporary art, expressing so many different analytical angles and personal viewpoints. The talks focused on language, nationality, ethnicity, locality, gender, multiculturalism, immigration, marginality, diaspora, and exile. One of the artists presenting his work in the festival was photographer Jaakko Heikkilä, who conducts the interview with the present author published together with this text.
Marja-Terttu Kivirinta is an art critic, journalist (freelancer 1976 - 80, 2009 - present) and academic writer, Ph.D. and author of non-fiction books. Kivirinta worked as a staff writer for 28 years in the cultural section of the daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (1980 - 2008). She has taught art history and art criticism since 1978 at the University of Theater, University of Helsinki, and University of Art and Design in Helsinki. She has published numerous articles on art history and contemporary art, and worked as a co-editor on editorial boards for a series of non-fiction art historical books. Kivirinta is currently a member of the Board in AICA-Finland (2010 - present), AICA-International (2011 - present) and the Membership Comission of AICA-International (2012 - present). She has also been a curator or co-curator in a several exhibitions.