Fourty-six graduating artists, four study programmes and four exhibition spaces in Helsinki. The annual MFA Degree Show Kuvan Kevät at the Academy of Fine Arts, University of the Arts Helsinki, sets out to engage with the “now” from personal, political and formal perspectives. The exhibition’s setting is a traditional degree show and it presents artists from all of the academy’s programmes: painting, printmaking, sculpture and time and space arts.
For many of the artists, the Kuvan Kevät exhibition, is a transitional phase from a period of free learning and experimentation to a professional artistic career. The concept of a transition is also a recurrent feature in many of the exhibition’s artworks. It comes out as the unsettled feeling of being in between this moment that is soon over, and the uncertain future.
There is no traditional, obviously political art to be seen, but many of the artists deal with the subtle, human approaches to the current political and ecological climates – a whole era of being in-between. Intellectually, we have already left the modernist futurism with its utopian but unsustainable ideologies behind, but still living in a society constructed by them. Most of us are entwined in the global neoliberal economy that has accelerated our path to the Anthropocene.
The conflict between what we know about the world and how we live comes forward in many of the works. We are beginning to be aware of the abyss we’re headed for, but still feel trapped in the oppressive system. This conflict transpires through several works: sometimes it emerges as desperation, sometimes as escapism or cynicism, sometimes as turning inward.
The feeling of floating in-between comes forward in Otto Byström’s installation. An unimpressed, lazy female voice describes the conditions of the now and the near future – all living species caught in the spinning machine of the global economy – a voiceover for a blurry, pastel projection. The visitor can lie on a comfy sofa and immerse herself in our dystopian condition.
Atro Linnanvirta’s Dead Presidents – old presidential portraits with spinning motorized eyes and neon lighting – take me to the same state of ambivalence between the past and the future, this time from a lighter, even hilarious premise. The old authorities are dead, so why not have some fun with them while waiting what happens next?
In other parts of the exhibition, Byström’s and Linnanvirta’s wittiness turns into bleaker suggestions about the human condition. If the Anthropocene culminates in one material, it’s plastic, which two of the exhibiting artists take as their main topic. to kosie’s gloomy installation is a big room, an empty kitchen, with nothing left behind but plastic garbage. The space creates an eerie feeling of the remnants of humanity. Minna Kangasmaa has, on her part, sculpted big tubes that point out plastic as the abject material – the excessive, the surplus, that creates an experience of abhorrence.
But this is not the whole story of the exhibition, but one that reflects the current state of our collective imagination, and the fact that the stories of unlimited growth and development we have been raised to believe, are failing us. There are other stories to be told, other ways of thinking, and being together. In this moment, these other stories don’t manifest themselves in an affirmative, utopian sense. It is the tacit will to find the other way that comes out in singularities, the everyday movement towards something that is different from what we’ve used to and away from where we don’t want to go.
Realizing our planetary limits may lead to emotional homelessness and feelings of detachment. Surprisingly, I come to these sentiments most clearly while watching the installation by Saara Hyvärinen, who works in a very poetic manner. Her plain video work follows the order of coincidental thought patterns that come and go. In the video, Hyvärinen describes an image that stuck in her mind: a herd of resilient camels floating on an unstaffed boat in the ocean. The image is not shown in the work, but the description creates a powerful mental image over the work’s unpretentious details of countryside everyday living.
Documentary and biographical approaches are rare in the exhibition. In addition to Hyvärinen’s journal-like approach, Iona Roisin’s and Arja Kärkkäinen’s works are based on a clear, intimate narration. Roisin deals with her own artistic work around the topic of her brother with autism. Kärkkäinen’s Mother’s Nerves is a tale about growing up in an emotionally cold environment. The narration is very strong in pointing out how certain random memories become significant in the fiction we all create about ourselves to make sense of the world.
Fatmir Mustafa-Karllo’s sculptures spread over several exhibition spaces. They are sore, painful assemblages, fragments of a life filled with violence, insecurity and precarity. The tragicomic sculptures stick in my mind as ones of the most haunting in the exhibition.
Both Lilli Haapala and Akuliina Niemi manage to bring a new layer to the much-discussed theme of human–nature relations. Haapala’s dioramas give a god-like vision over the small environments she has created, bringing forward the interconnection of all living things. Niemi has an original idea to use sound as a link to our ancestor’s experience. Her installation Southern Hill is accompanied by a text that deals with the prehistoric tendency to carry around metal objects that make jingling sound. The text suggests that various bells were part of rural soundscape in Finland in the 10th and 11th centuries. The installation consists of a large print portraying a meadow, and three smaller, flat sculptures on a floor that have seeds inside them. It all comes together in a fantastic way when one puts on the headphones with binaural sound, handbells and chimes. The effect of the sound is magical, and it takes one to a place of peace and serenity.
Also, Titta Aaltonen sets off from history and the chain of generations. But instead of going back a millennium her approach comes back to the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. She looks for people whose family names have been changed to a Finnish version, in most cases as an attempt to hide their foreign pasts. My Name is an installation of this collective collecting process – dozens of pieces of papers on the wall with the participant’s old surnames and the current ones written on top of each other. This subtle framework brings together an ancestral continuum and the current urgencies of invented borders and migration.
Another artist taking communication and participation as her starting point, Elissa Eriksson, has researched the concept of money in several of her earlier works. The Money Kiosk is perhaps the most pertinent of her attempts. At the kiosk, Eriksson sells money by pound – one cent coins, at a daily changing price that depends on the weather. It’s a clever way of commenting market economy and the concept of money as an interpersonal agreement.
The exhibition brings together individual artists and has no common theme, but the unifying curatorial stance is counter-populism. The exhibition curator Suvi Lehtinen’s text highlights the complexity of art that can function as a counter-narrative for the populist discourses in the so-called the post-truth era, or alternatively, as experimentation of things that are ultimately unknowable. That is something that could be written about every contemporary exhibition, but another more context-specific aspect coming forward from the exhibition’s accompanying texts is the idea of a free, sovereign art school – a clear political statement after the Finnish government’s austerity politics and attempts to tear down the public support system for higher education.
The professor of exhibition studies and spatiality, Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger, puts it beautifully: “– – [a] school can be thought to refer to a social situation where learning, at its best, can be compared to love: neither will decrease if you share them. Neither learning nor love.” They are also the qualities that I hope the young artists now graduating don’t lose whilst transitioning from the comforts of their school to the real life, despite the cynicism that seems to be filling our collective imagination in the present moment.