Founded in 2003, this year’s Turku Biennial marks its tenth anniversary. The collaborators involved and the degree of international emphasis of each incarnation of the biennial has varied from exhibition to exhibition. This year, Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova Museum invited curators from all the Nordic countries. Each curator invited three artists or artist duos, resulting in 15 participating artists altogether.
The theme for the exhibition The Idyll: Wish You Were Here! was determined at the outset by the Finnish in-house curatorial team, Laura Boxberg, Eeva Holkeri, Silja Lehtonen and Johanna Lehto-Vahtera. However, even if the subtitle makes it sound like a typical summer exhibition, the outcome is far from light. To choose such a theme – the idyll – and combine it with the Nordic emphasis seems like an open invitation to critically examine the changing conditions of Nordic societies, once evoked as the essence of the idyll.
Considering the chosen formula of the biennial, one is tempted to take a look at the national representations of the participating countries in order to see how they differ from each other – if indeed they do at all. And alas, at least from the outset, the connotations of the idyll as a description of a pastoral scene, or otherwise harmonic landscape or setting, can be traced from the Icelandic and Finnish works, while attempts to dismantle the idyll are to be found in the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish works.
Does this tell us something about the differences between the countries? This is doubtful. The discussions around the idyll are far more complex than a simple binary choice between “utopian” and “anti-utopian” approaches can comprehend. Consider, for instance, Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego (1637-1638) to find the melancholic undertone of the idyll. It is therefore not surprising to learn that the struggle with the rapidly changing political realities of today’s “Nordic Model” is mentioned in the statements of all the invited curators. The same theme, as it happens, is currently being explored in The Nordic Model exhibition at the Malmö Art Museum as well.
“So what the f**k does the word ‘idyll’ mean today?” asks the Swedish curator Power Ekroth, who is currently also co-curating Momentum in Moss, Norway. Let us start with the more traditional approach: two Finnish artists, Petri Ala-Maunus and Katarina Reuter, have taken landscape as their point of departure, whereas Elina Saloranta has focused on an interior scene exploring Dutch genre painting. Her video work Morning (2013) shows us a familial scene from the breakfast table. The work is shown in a room together with Adolf von Becker’s Maternal Joy (1868), also a scene from the breakfast table with a mother and her son. Looking at Saloranta’s idyll, one can find a delicate balance between the fragile moments of happiness and the critical discussion on depicting motherhood, though at times it might be difficult to remember the latter. Yet, as the author Riina Katajavuori remarks in her essay, now it is the mother who chose what piece of “reality” the spectators are shown.
As the Icelandic curator Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir remarks, it is in the aftermath of the economic meltdown of 2008 that artists have turned inwards to a new creativity. Icelandic representation opens into the Icelandic landscape through the imagery of Silja Sallé and Emil Ásgrímsson, but perhaps the most harmonious dimensions can be found in the sound piece Gambanteinn (2013) by Bjargey Ólafsdóttir. In this work Ólafsdóttir has collaborated with a farmer, Ása Ketilsdóttir, asking her to teach the artist some traditional Icelandic songs. The passing of oral tradition from one generation to other, from a stationary farmer to a nomadic artist has been captured in a very simple gesture.
To look for a work that has taken Nordic society as its point of departure, one could turn to the Danish artist Søren Thilo Funder or the Swedish artist Lisa Jeannin, who both deal with the question of belonging to society. In Jeannin’s Me Tarzan, You Insane (2013) the artists tells a peculiar story of a scientist who adopts a monkey from his travels in Africa, only for things to not work out so nicely back in Malmö. The style of the video is both a reference to the silent movie and to animal fables – as well as to Pippi Longstocking, only here Pippi wears a high bun and wishes that Mr. Nilsson, her monkey, would go to work and do something useful.
The invited artists have created new works specifically for the exhibition. There are also a few projects that seem to specifically make use of the museum itself or its surroundings, the city of Turku. The work of Danish artist Heidi Hove has an ability to camouflage itself within the museum. Her Backyard History I & II (2013) could be confused with the archeological excavations done at the site of Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova, only that Hove has been excavating her own childhood sites, finding mostly banal and generic objects from the past century. In the first Backyard History, the spectator is confronted with bits and pieces found in the garden of Hove’s childhood home. The other Backyard History takes the spectator to an image of a pile of rocks that the artist’s grandfather has been digging up throughout his years of working as a farmer. The two works speak of very different attitudes towards the land, yet both use it for something.
Danish curator Ellen Friis describes Hove’s work thus: “The idyllic memory and longing for a better world is constructed from heavy bits and painful pieces”. This might be true, but showing the work in the context of the museum serves also as a prompt to think about the future. In a story the artist tells us how she injured her foot as a child and how this accident led the family to realize that their garden had been used as a dustbin by the former inhabitants of the house. To me, Hove’s work invites us to look differently at our current world. How do we treat our backyards and what will the future generations hit their feet against?
Joar Nango and Tanya Busse’s Extracted Suggestions has a hilarious do-it-yourself mentality that utilizes Turku’s cultural history. The Norwegian duo were inspired by the fact that xylitol was developed in Turku in a research project from the 1970s called Turku Sugar Studies. Xylitol, a sugar free sweetener, can be extracted from birch trees. In the Biennial, Nango and Busse present the documentation of a project that involved setting up bottles around birch trees in Turku to collect sap. The bottles were camouflaged with elements miming their surroundings: the trunk of a birch tree, a stone, architectural elements etc. Curator Karolin Tampere comments how the artists “nurture knowledge from the past at the same time as dealing with the urgency of taking charge of common urban public spaces”. I see that the work not only brings to fore the relations between tradition, science and (the health) business, but also sheds light on the highly symbolic birch trees – a required element in every Finnish arcadia.
Finally, the Norwegian duo Mom and Jerry, presenting themselves as living artworks, have created a holistic installation with videos of their earlier performances and interventions. Their strange acid disco installation Can You Handle the Truth? includes a new work titled The World Is a Cruise. Here, Mom & Jerry’s take on locality is a poignant: the idyll of the cruise is of course familiar to all Finns (and some Swedes), namely the Silja Line ferry, an ever floating utopia between Finland and Sweden, an easily accessible vehicle for escapism.
As a whole, the Idyll of Turku Biennial raises mixed feelings. To see new works by young Nordic artists in a themed exhibition might sound like a project from the past decades, the golden age of Nordic collaborations; however, this year’s Turku Biennial is a welcome opening in today’s Finnish exhibition scene, so often marked by budget cuts and the need to play it safe. This exhibition, thanks to the large curatorial team, presents various takes on the idyll. At points the variety of approaches do not seem to lead anywhere but towards the very same question curator Ekroth already asked, “What the f**k does idyll mean today?” But perhaps this is a good thing.