Finnish Fetish

Left: Artist Alfredo Jaar. Right: Curator Lotta Petronella and artistic director Taru Elfving. (All photos: Lauren O’Neill-Butler)

IT WAS AN EXTRAORDINARILY warm, bright, and calm afternoon in the Baltic Sea. Every once in a while, our boat would dock or slow down in the brackish water so we could observe. Sometimes there was wine or coffee. It both was and wasn’t art tourism. But this didn’t resemble High Desert Test Sites, Manifesta, or any other curated nomadism. It felt more intimate, more transitory.

I should tell you where we were, and why: Friday, August 26, the midway point in a symposium for the “Contemporary Art Archipelago,” an exhibition with no discernable beginning or end in Finland’s Turku Archipelago. By some definitions this is the largest archipelago in the world, although what exactly constitutes an island versus a rock is debatable. (Estimates of some fifty thousand “islands” and nearly sixty thousand residents were tossed around.) The medieval city Turku is one of this year’s European Capitals of Culture, and CAA might be its most ambitious project. “It’s not exactly a show or an event,” participating artist Renée Green pointed out. “I’m still not exactly sure what to call it.” Earlier that day, artistic director Taru Elfving and curator Lotta Petronella had introduced their “dysfunctional” showcase in one of the city’s universities, the Åbo Akademi, and under the rubric of “archipelago logic” there were presentations by Elin Wilkström on her conservationist seagrass-weaving project and Platforma 9.81’s design proposals for the islands (camouflaged homes for camouflaged locals).

Left: Artist Renée Green and Howie Chen. Right: The bunker.

“Do you know Tove Jansson’s Summer Book?” Green asked during one of our stops. I had not yet seen one of her contributions to the show, Endless Dreams and Water Between, a film about islands and proximity, with texts borrowed from writers as varied as George Sand and Gilles Deleuze. Jansson is, of course, the legendary author and illustrator of the beloved Moomin tales, but her 1972 novel is also evidence of the importance of islands to Finnish culture, as places for respite, solitude, and contemplation. Places where myths are made. That evening on the boat, Ena, another native storyteller, regaled me with accounts about New York in the 1970s, where she lived and worked as a Fulbright scholar, mother, and cabdriver. As we traversed the most polluted body of water in the world, Ena also schooled me in archipelego facts: how the population has decreased dramatically in recent years, how there are only two public beaches in the area, and how variously colored, blinking signals serve to distinguish the particular islands we were passing in night. Navigating this part of the sea, she noted, is like driving a car in a forest.

“Just look out there.” She pointed out the window toward the sea. “It’s the kind of deep blue that you want to keep forever after you close your eyes.”

After five or six hours on the boat, we landed on Korpo, the misty island where Ena lives, and took shelter on the conference grounds, the Centre Korpoström.

On Saturday we were back on the sea, hunting for works by Alfredo Jaar and Raqs Media Collective. Hurricane Irene was threatening New York, but the weather around the islands had grown even clearer and more humid, and now we could see the depth of the water around us. In the morning, Jaar had given us a primer on his Dear Markus. “Why do we need art here?” he wondered, and moments later delineated his process in clear spoken prose: “During my research last year, I observed a boat leaving from one of the most remote islands, Utö, as early as 5:45 AM every morning. I learned it was a school bus for a teenager, Markus . . . I asked twenty-five Finnish intellectuals to write letters to Markus.” Eleven responded and Jaar published their notes on large white billboards on islands along Markus’s “bus” route. Many of these discuss a society undergoing political changes; some specifically cite the ultraconservative True Finns party, which won a stunning 19 percent of the vote in this year’s elections, becoming the third largest party in the Finnish parliament. Our heartstrings appropriately pulled, we observed the signs from the boat only from a distance, unable to get too close.

Left: Alfredo Jaar’s work. Right: Birgitta.

The next day, critic Jan Verwoert gave a lecture in the Centre Korpoström on “the sociotemporal horizon of affective labor,” arguing (correctly) that “women’s work” has always entailed some form of menial “personally public and publicly personal labor.” The demonstrative talk ended with a proposal for us to think about “emerging qualities.” But such contemplation was very tricky by then, as the trip’s packed itinerary had downgraded into mere glimpses. And so we wondered: What were the “emerging qualities” of the geometric mold patterns in the obscure cold-war bunker where Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas had hosted a performance the day prior? And of the sea buckthorn berry parfait we were served for dessert that night as part of Arja Lehtimäki’s Foodscape? Or the blazes that followed the dinner, on the night of the ancient bonfires, which signal “the real end of the summer, not June or July as the government would have it,” as islander Birgitta told me? And what is the emerging quality of a text message about 75 mph winds hitting your home?

And, finally, what is “affective labor” in a country that has always been more receptive to “women’s work,” where as early as 1906 women could run for election to public office? And is that why Newsweek recently named Finland the “best country” in the world? I wanted to ask Birgitta, Ena, and Tove.