Wonder Women


Left: The Mieskuoro Huutajat choir. (Photo: Lauren O’Neill-Butler) Right: Pro Arte Foundation chair Tuula Arkio and Reina Sofía chief curator Lynne Cooke. (Photo: Kai Widell)

IF APRIL REALLY IS the cruelest month, March comes a close second––particularly in Helsinki. The city’s aged cobblestone streets were still covered in patches of ice when I arrived from New York the Friday before last, and mounds of rigid gray snow lined the roads, recalcitrant in the intermittent freezing rain. Despite the fog and the frost, there was warmth to be found amid the small but energetic local art community, which was kicking off the second annual IHME Days, a three-day program of lectures, workshops, and panels, as well as a “club” that was copresented with the new-media festival Pixelache. This year, the Days probed sound art and public art with special attention given to the 2010 IHME commissioned project by Scottish artist Susan Philipsz. Other annual early spring events include reindeer races and ice-angling marathons in northern Lapland. I kept to the art; some highlights follow.

In Finnish, a (the?) most entrancing language, ihme means “wonder,” which is an amusing word to connect to Nordic contemporary art, given the amount in grants and support Scandinavian artists receive from their governments—even if such “wondrous” funding has diminished in the past few years. The Pro Arte Foundation that manages IHME is privately funded, however, and it is organized by some of Helsinki’s most notable cultural advocates, including chair Tuula Arkio, the founding and now retired director of Kiasma, Helsinki’s contemporary art museum. Arkio kicked off Friday’s events at the city’s Old Student House with a short speech, noting that Philipsz would not be present––the artist had other engagements, her solo show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery that opened the same day in New York chief among them. A performance of John Cage’s 4'33" by Swedish artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Finnish art historian Petri Kuljuntausta on two vintage guitars followed; the moment of silence seemed a suitable way to begin. Kiasma curator Leevi Haapala and IHME project manager Paula Toppila later told me that the Finns invented text messaging so they wouldn’t have to talk to one another. Thanks, Nokia!

Left: Curator Mary Jane Jacob. (Photo: Kai Widell) Right: The outside of the student house hosting IHME Days. (Photo: Lauren O’Neill-Butler)

A more obvious link to the culture could be found in Philipsz’s When Day Closes, which is installed in the most trafficked place in the country: the Saarinen-designed central railway station. The work is an a cappella rendition of a melancholic Finnish lullaby from Aleksis Kivi’s 1870 novel Seven Brothers. On Saturday, Reina Sofía chief curator Lynne Cooke contextualized Philipsz’s art with nods to sound-art poster child Max Neuhaus, as well as Cage, Donald Judd, Richard Serra, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. (All very Dia, until Cooke began to talk about Philipsz’s recent work at the twelfth-century Spanish monastery Santo Domingo de Silos and its relation to the chants sung by the Gregorian monks who still live there.) Cooke concluded by noting that in Philipsz’s work, “Sound is the material, but it isn’t the art,” a thought that echoed peculiarly a few hours later during a performance of some eighty people rhythmically shouting in the student house, where most of the lectures and events took place. The production, organized by Finland’s famous Mieskuoro Huutajat, a choir of men shouters, was by far the most aberrant moment of the weekend: I was unsure whether it was art or just insanity. There’s a documentary about the group—the first Finnish film to enter Sundance, and a scream, surely.

Later that night at Kosmos, a restaurant co-designed by Alvar Alto, I caught up with the leader of the pack, Petri Sirviö, over some native arctic char, sea buckthorn berry soup, and a tart cloudberry meringue. Sirviö talked about working with fifty or so volunteers, the majority of whom were women, in a three-hour workshop earlier that day. “They were fast learners,” he said and explained that though he sees the choir as something of a men’s club, he also wants the performances to be considered a critique of patriarchy. Not that there’s much to critique in Helsinki; women gained the right to vote in 1906, a first in Europe, and today Finland boasts a woman president, Tarja Halonen. To boot, there aren’t any gender-specific pronouns in Finnish––“We use hän,” the art historian Hanna Johansson told me, “which stands for he or she.”

On Sunday, I skipped the events that were presented only in Finnish, such as presentations by ten contemporary artists about working in public space and a “trial” investigating the arts in Finland and the economic downturn. Instead, I stopped by a few galleries with Helsingin Sanomat critic Timo Valjakka, including the Kluuvi Gallery, where Pekka Nevalainen’s Op-inspired paintings on discarded pieces of wood made a special impression. (The saunas in the 1928 Art Deco Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall were pretty stimulating too.) I doubled back to the closing party at the student house but not before stopping once more at the railway station. In the central hall, I found a few passengers lingering, soothed by Philipsz’s voice. “Grove of Tuoni, grove of peace!” she softly recites. “There all strife and passion cease. Distant the treacherous world.” Or, as T. S. Eliot (and Madonna) would have had it: Shantih, shantih, shantih.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Left: IHME project manager Paula Toppila and Kiasma curator Leevi Haapala. Right: Black Horse playing at a concert presented by IHME Days and Pixelache. (Photos: Lauren O’Neill-Butler)