Freeze Fair

Mark Sladen on ARS 06


Left: The writer and friends face Helsinki winter on the way to ARS 06. Right: Roi Vaara performs his Golden Handshake, 2006. (Photo: Sanna Ikäläinen/Central Art Archives)

Touching down in Helsinki at midnight the captain smugly told us that the outside temperature was minus twenty-two degrees. Is that Centigrade or Fahrenheit, I mused wanly, as I toyed with my last packet of rice crackers. The primary reason for my trip was to attend the opening of ARS, Finland’s mega-exhibition of international art, which is staged every five years at Kiasma, Helsinki’s energetic contemporary arts center. However, I am currently cocurating another art festival in the region—Momentum, held every two years in Norway—and therefore had a few appointments lined up prior to the big reception.

The next morning I was joined by Annette Kierulf, my Momentum cocurator, and together the two of us set out to find art, armed only with a keen appreciation of international discourse and (in my case) a set of thermal underwear that my boyfriend once bought for a skiing trip. Our first stop was on the edge of town, where we met the Finnish-German artist duo Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen. The two of them live in a rustic house on a little island, and of course in summer you can row a boat . . . but in winter you have to walk across the frozen sea. “This is beautiful,” I rhapsodised, as my feet sank into the powdery snow well beyond the height of my black brogues.

Left: The crowd swells at ARS 06. Right: Artist Shu-Min Lin. (Both photos: Sanna Ikäläinen/Central Art Archives)

Tellervo and Oliver told us about the work which they are showing in ARS, The 1st Complaints Choir of Birmingham, 2004, a film that documents their attempts to get the people of a proverbially dreary English city to sing collectively about their individual woes. “Why does my computer take so very long?” they warble in unison. “And wh-h-y is the beer so expensive in town?” The artists filled us up with berry-flavored porridge, wrapped our inadequately shod feet in plastic bags, and sent us back across the lake with ski poles.

Over at Kiasma the party was kicking off. At the top of the building’s grand staircase the great and the good of Helsinki were greeted by local artist Roi Vaara, who was offering all visitors a golden handshake—conservators had painted his hand with gold leaf. This gesture of generosity chimed well with the show, which is highly confident, beautifully installed, and a pleasure to visit, and which successfully combining biennial favorites like Willie Doherty and Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba with some much less established artists. Having said that, though, the prevailing flavor wasn’t entirely to my taste. After a room featuring the intestinal tile work of Adriana Varejão and some overripe, computer-generated images of half-naked teens by the Russian collective AES+F, relief came in the form of The Fountain, 2006, a work by Polish artist Monika Sosnowska that consists of no more than a gentle drip from a corridor’s ceiling. I never knew I was such a Minimalist.

Left: A visitor participates in Shu-Min Lin's Inner Force, 2005. (Photo: Sanna Ikäläinen/Central Art Archives) Right: Artist Alexander Ponomarev, reporter Anne Siilahti, and photographer Raisa Karjalainen. (Photo: Pirje Mykkänen/Central Art Archives)

ARS is aimed squarely at a Finnish audience, and hanging out at the bar it seemed popular with the local artist crowd, in which could be seen luminaries such as prolific photographer Elina Brotherus and the artistic duo Tommi Grönlund and Petteri Nisunen. However, just as I was settling in I was whisked away by feisty Glaswegian artist Susan Philipsz, who took me to an impromptu party-within-a-party being thrown in the museum’s administrative offices. Here I discovered the Russians running the bar—they had brought large quantities of vodka from the mother country, and the spirit was now flowing. Kiasma’s magisterial director, Tuula Karjalainen, who has done much to promote post-Soviet art, was demonstrating her version of a Russian dance, while one of the Muscovite crowd started explaining that the temperature was even worse in Saint Petersburg and that vodka is the only reliable form of winter protection. I left at midnight, and as I stumbled out into the snow I found that I was, indeed, curiously insulated.