PRESS: Mike Watson on the exhibition Suomi Finland 101, Vantaa Art Museum

Source: Art Review, Oct. 2018
Mike Watson



Suomi Finland 101

Vantaa Art Museum, 30 August – 13 January

Featuring 17 artists across four rooms, Suomi Finland 101 brings together two-dimensional works, videos and installations that enquire into key social and political issues and underlying power structures in the Nordic nation, which turned 100 last year. These include historical collusion between the media and ruling elite to keep the left from power, an exponential growth in immigration to the country and debate over gender and sexual rights.

Until recently the principal source of income in heavily forested Finland was the paper industry (it’s now metals). As with any largescale industry, its political history is chequered – as Minna Henriksson conveys in Works on Paper (2015-17), 40 linocut prints displayed in a long line. One print, featuring a large paper roll situated in a print warehouse, includes a text that reads, ‘There was an advertising boycott to communist newspapers which some companies kept until late 70’s or early 80’s’. Other images tell of the Transport Workers Union strikes, leading to the end of open trade with apartheid-era South Africa in the mid-80s. The piece serves to remind us that while Finland frequently ranks highly on worldwide national living standards indexes, it is not without internal division and questionable foreign policies.

Minna Henriksson, Works on Paper (2015-17)

Suspended from the ceiling of the same room is ABC Flags (2013-14) by Kalle Hamm and Dzamil Kamanger (born, respectively, in Finland and Iran): three red banners each bearing alphabets used to write the Kurdish language in, respectively, Turkey (where a Latin alphabet is used), the former Soviet Union (where an adapted Cyrillic alphabet is employed) and Iran, Iraq and Syria (where a modified Arabic alphabet is utilized). The work refers to the fragility of Kurdish cultural identity, the expression of which is marginalized or prohibited in the aforementioned territories.

Kurdish immigration to Finland has risen considerably in recent years, with over 13,000 people declaring themselves to be Kurdish speakers in 2017, up from 3,115 in 2000. That many come fleeing war or persecution is addressed by Kurdish artist Baran Çağinli’s installation No Man’s Land (2018), situated in a darkened room off the main exhibition space. The work comprises 29 model buildings realized in cast concrete layers based on the artist’s memory of Diyarbakir – the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan, heavily bombarded by the Turkish army in 2016 – and photos of war-torn cities in Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. Diyarbakir, which is accompanied by similar models of a smaller satellite town and a nearby destroyed industrial zone, is replete with a toppled statue of a dictator. Dimly lit and empty of inhabitants, the scene evokes a ghost town, inviting the viewer to move along its buildings while reflecting upon the devastation wrought by weapons often supplied by Western nations – not least Finland, which counts the Middle East as its biggest arms export market. Çağinli, born in Istanbul, has lived in Helsinki since March 2018 as a resident of the Artists at Risk programme, which provides safe spaces to live and work for persecuted artists across Europe. Since mid-September the artist has been collaborating with the culturally diverse youth of Vantaa, where the museum is situated, working on a project to be installed in the museum after completion: a clay model city incorporating replicas of buildings from the youths’ memories.

In the second of two main rooms, Irania-born Bita Razavi’s video installation How to Do Things with Words: A Legal Performance (2011, in collaboration with Jaakko Karhunen) shows a performance of a registry wedding, carried out in the artist’s studio in the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts. As lighting and props recreate the bare and clinical conditions of Helsinki’s official registry office, the two performers enact a familiar yet awkward ritual. Framed on the wall of the museum, a marriage and official residence certificate point to the pragmatism that, for members of Finnish society not born in the country, often underlies the decision to marry. This personal story contributes to the exhibition’s narrative of diversity at the periphery of the Western world as Finland adjusts to demographic change.

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