PRINT March 2004



Liisa Roberts appears this month in the 2004 Whitney Biennial with a project that has emerged, in true Duchampian fashion, definitively unfinished. The Finnish-American artist’s What’s the Time in Vyborg?, initiated in 2000, takes as its starting point that city’s municipal library, designed by Alvar Aalto in 1927 and completed in 1935, symbolizing the modernist aspirations of a newly independent Finnish state (Vyborg, then Finland’s second largest city, was called Viipuri at the time, changing names when annexed by the Soviets in 1944). Severely damaged during the war, the library was subsequently refurbished and reopened in 1961 but, like many Soviet structures in a time of dwindling funds, was not consistently maintained. A post–cold war restoration effort was spearheaded in 2001 by the Helsinki-based Finnish Committee for the Restoration of Viipuri Library (though the city remains Russian territory). That aim to recover the building’s past inspired Roberts to use her filmic practice to encourage a more acute public awareness not only of Vyborg’s history but of its post-Communist present and future.

Roberts began by hosting a creative-writing workshop for local teenagers in the library’s auditorium. From this seed has grown multiple manifestations, among them broadcasts on local and Saint Petersburg television; participation in an international seminar on the preservation of modern monuments; and, most recently, the production of a film that gives narrative form to the teenagers’ image of Vyborg through documentary and fictional footage. This cross-disciplinary, collaborative endeavor may seem a radical departure from Roberts’s earlier film installations like to derive an approach, seen at the 1999 Venice Biennale, or 1998’s Blind Side, shown at the Whitney. But Vyborg, which Roberts describes as a “real-time installation,” renders explicit a desire that was equally, if less obviously, present in her earlier, gallery-bound projects: to create an artwork as a kind of transparent frame that incorporates and opens onto its context.

Margaret Sundell


In 1944, when the Soviets took control of Vyborg, its population was given the choice to stay or be evacuated westward to unoccupied Finland; the city was then repopulated with Soviet citizens. When I went there to visit the Alvar Aalto Library in 2000 I found a city with a complex present and in that context understood an awkward blind spot on the part of many Finns regarding its contemporary life. To this day, Finns can have a strong and unresolved sense of loss about World War II’s annexed territories.

Just as Finns’ focus can be almost entirely retrospective, the Finnish Committee for the Restoration of Viipuri Library was largely oriented toward the building’s original condition. Considering, however, that Aalto’s design principles were characterized by sensitivity toward context and user, a faithful restoration seemed to imply attention to the building’s contemporary context. With What’s the Time in Vyborg? I hoped to challenge both the nostalgia of many Finnish citizens and the understanding of restoration as a return to a static, pre-existing model. In 2001, I initiated a writing workshop at the library for local teenagers—the people who, coming of age after the end of the cold war, will define the city’s post-Soviet future. The panoramic view of the city from the library’s auditorium was a central metaphor through which the teens could create a narrative of Vyborg based on their own observations and aspirations; the city itself would be the stage for the project’s materialization. After three months or so of writing, we sifted through what we’d produced and settled on a few symbolic figures or guides (such as a lost girl, an architect, a nameless wandering man we called “the yellow coat”) as well as a set of ideas (like crossroads; steps or levels; a callous crowd; water and stone, in which the city could be reflected; the contrast between gray and the colors of the rainbow). Points of departure for all the project’s subsequent activities, these metaphors allowed us to find and attribute to the city many different forms and develop a way to tell the story of a place that confounds distinctions between fact and fiction, reality and representation. I wanted the students to unfold the narrative of Aalto’s library by writing within it their version of the city of Vyborg, and then to live in the unfolding narrative they’d helped create.

Alongside our work with the Helsinki-based library-restoration committee, we’ve collaboratively carried out some form of activity in almost every part of Vyborg, re-creating the city from the perspective of the teenagers through forms that virtually represent it and are also part of its day-to-day life. One collaboration with the city’s three local television stations was the production of six brief, highly subjective video accounts of locations throughout Vyborg, which were broadcast over a two-month period after the evening news. For example, Lyuba Mukharova (one member of the at-the-time all-girl workshop) described the moods evoked by three inner balconies—its “steps” or “levels”—of a building remembered from childhood. Given the restrictions on free speech during the Soviet era, the spots—which, taken together, constituted a virtual tour of the city—generated a lot of controversy. But one of Vyborg’s aims is to initiate a public dialogue that can actively contribute to building the city’s future. Along these lines, it’s important to note that the project doesn’t really exist independently of the times and places in which its different components occur. It has no center; different institutions contribute to its different shapes.

More recently, we’ve begun to do things outside Vyborg within an art-world setting; we treat our participation in art exhibitions as a continuation of the project, not as an opportunity to present docu- mentation of it. In June 2003, the workshop participants organized a tour of Vyborg as perceived through the five senses whose audience included people who’d been evacuated as teenagers, among them the foremost historian of the city’s Finnish period and a retired Finnish politician. For a recent exhibition at Kiasma, Helsinki’s contemporary art space, we invited the same two people to join our team and attempted to integrate our themes with the historian’s research. What’s the Time in Vyborg? now took the form of a public discussion, a publication, and an architectural model that envisioned the city as an inhabited apartment. Finally, the film for the Whitney Biennial incorporates three years of footage of Vyborg shot by noted Russian cinematographer Aleksandr Burov that follows the lost girl attempting to find herself in the stone city (Lyuba Mukharova’s moody courtyard and other locations reappear). This will be screened in the Aalto-designed conference rooms at the Institute of International Education at the UN Plaza, where, in March 2002, the library-restoration committee in fact gave a presentation. The idea was to continue our dialogue and mirror their event by showing a film that, in a sense, restores the library’s panoramic window as the city unfolds through it.