MAGNETIC NORTH — Current Installation Photography in Finland
The New Art Gallery Walsall, 28th September - 18th November 2001

The exhibition
brings together for the first time, large scale colour photography by five artists from Helsinki: Elina Brotherus, Marjaana Kella, Ola Kolehmainen, the late Andrei Lajunen and Jyrki Parantainen.

Finnish Photography: Dominant visual art

By Craig Burnett

"In this one, I almost died", Jyrki Parantainen told us as he pointed at a photograph from his 'Fire' series. The "one" in question was an image of a floor from the summit of a staircase, the camera peering down from a floor above to focus on gentle, feathery flames creeping up some dilapidated steps. Taking photographs, the artist explained, was a sort of ritual for him, a macho, risk-taking adventure that produced the necessary emotional conditions to work. He doesn't usually risk his life, as he did on this Estonian staircase, but putting himself in a position of imminent oblivion seems essential to his creative process.

Jyrki Parantainen's dangerous, adventuresome mode of working provides a useful contrast to the institutional apparatus behind his and his contemporaries' work. Finnish photography has developed over the past ten years into the country's dominant visual art, and, according to Pirkko Siitari, chief curator at the Finnish Museum of Photography, Finland boasts one of the best systems of photographic education in the world. The University of Art and Design Helsinki, where Jyrki Parantainen teaches in the Master's programme, is producing a crop of photographers to join the older, better known generation of Esko Männikkö and Jorma Puranen, for example. The flowering has been helped along by a contemporaneous explosion in photography in the mainstream art market, led by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, and Cindy Sherman, among others. I was in Helsinki along with two other London-based writers to meet four photographers and acquaint myself with their work in anticipation of 'Magnetic North: Current Installation Photography' at the New Gallery, Walsall, curated by London-based American writer and curator Caryn Faure Walker.

The photographer's gaze has often been linked to the gaze of a voyeur. Looking at Parantainen's Fire, 23.2.1997, Helsinki, Finland, one might conclude that this voyeur stands transfixed in suicidal resignation. On the right, a staircase and two windows bright with daylight.  On the left, a door leading downstairs, a door engulfed in raging, orange flame. Above, a light bulb glows feebly. The three light sources provide points of reference, from natural light in the window, to a comforting, domestic light, to the creeping hellishness posed by the flames. Light is usually portrayed as a source of life and goodness, even divinity. But for Parantainen, the light of flame embodies a ravaging beauty and horror.


The power of the sublime

Perhaps the strongest image in the 'Fire' (1) series features a combined kitchen and study, a typewriter, table, lamp, cooker, fridge and other quotidian elements all aflame, perhaps with a desire for self-destruction. The image represents a state of mind for the artist, the foreground table covered with a manuscript of some sort, a spilt glass of wine, a typewriter, a lamp-suggestions of a simple, contemplative life. Parantainen told me that the manuscript was in fact his doctoral thesis, and this was a ritual destruction of his dissatisfaction with his academic work on fire and the sublime. Through this photo, he seems to be killing his own desire to control and categorise flames — and, by extension, his own promethean urges — intellectually. The power of the sublime both repels and sado-masochistically attracts by its sheer incomprehensibility, by a fear that the ego will be swallowed up by something greater than itself. Yet a strange calm haunts these photos, as if by setting a structure alight and photographing it in a single take, Parantainen hopes to smother and control, by rational means, his own destructive urges. And despite the looming violence of the flames, the images share something of Magritte's deadpan feel, as if ceci n'est pas un feu ought to be scrolled across the bottom of each picture. 

Parantainen emerged from a lull in production in the late 90s to create a new series of composite images called 'The Mystery of Satisfaction'. Despite the bathetic title, these new works are a violent change of direction, and a compelling one. One photograph depicts an old, torn reproduction of a painting of Venice. The world's most romantic city, an emblem of wealth, courtesans and sensual delight, is portrayed as a faded, decaying fiction. The image is at once gorgeous, nostalgic, and heart-wrenchingly bitter. In another, a Siberian tiger leaps at the spindly legs of its prey, the rest of the deer's body cut off by a delicate, sheen curtain. The project developed after a year or so of a self-described 'domestic hell' from which Parantainen emerged determined to make a series that reflected his feelings about the struggle for power in relationships. 


Laid-back attitude

To meet Ola Kolehmainen, a collaborator with Parantainen in the 'Fire' series and a photographer also exhibiting in 'Magnetic North', we drove to YLE, the hub of Finnish radio and television broadcasting. Prompted by the director's interest in his work, YLE had bought and permanently installed a few of Kolehmainen's photographs, and the artist was taking us on a tour of its quiet halls to view some of his work in situ. The first piece, 'Pyramidi: Portaikko-Trappan' (Staircase)(2), depicts a staircase, an image that Ola Kolehmainen spotted while in Tokyo, snapped it with a small camera, and returned later to take it with his large-format camera. The title gives a sort of metaphorical status to an image that might otherwise be straight architectural documentary, and stunningly banal. The ritualistic and religious connotations of 'pyramid' lends the back staircase of this hotel rather heavy-handed significance, and with a word the photographer has transformed how we perceive his work.

Rounding a corner on another floor, Kolehmainen showed us an enormous photograph of a metallic grid. In the lower left, a small limb of a tree about to bloom sneaks into the frame of the picture. The building and title of the piece is Institut du Monde Arabe, the well-known Parisian institute designed by Jean Nouvel. When Kolehmainen talked about the piece, he mentioned small details, metaphoric possibilities, things that he has noticed and then felt compelled to photograph. He never conceives of a photograph before he sees something, he told us. He sees it and sets up his camera. In fact, his intention in Paris was to photograph churches, but was distracted by the gleaming grid of the Institute. This laid-back attitude to his process marks the strength of Ola Kolehmainen's approach. He's interested in visual experience, recording objects and scenes he has witnessed and sharing them, every detail intact, with an audience. Thus Kolehmainen suspends conceptual rigour to favour a sense of play and visual delight, and the viewer is invited to let the images sift and transform within a relatively small, post-minimalist conceptual framework. 


People under hypnosis

Marjaana Kella concentrates on photography's most ubiquitous genres, landscape and portraiture. Her portraiture is perhaps the stronger work, especially the 'Reverse Portraits', a series depicting, from the back, the heads and shoulders of her subjects. If faces are the undeconstructable marker of identity, the back of a head is a generalised type, a ball of hair that one sees everyday on the street. And yet that head-the particular colour and style of hair-hints at an identity, and carries the pathos of countless lives unknown and unknowable. The unknowable other is also investigated in her series of portraits of people under hypnosis (3). According to psychoanalytic theory, hypnosis uncovers memories buried by shame or the unconscious, and bringing them to the conscious mind through hypnosis provides a therapeutic return to childhood experience. Yet hypnosis may act as a conjuror, a way for the hypnotised consciousness to improvise and invent an entirely new identity. Hence we see exoskeletons, shells of people, reduced by hypnosis to bodies with form, but eviscerated of soul. In this way, Kella plays with the idea of the portrait as revelatory of identity — we are left with our assumptions about the being before us and all our ideas of identity and our projections of personality are stripped away. The face, in this series, becomes a mask, something that half reveals and conceals the identity within.

Kella carries concerns about the visible and invisible into her landscape studies. In Mountain, Campo Cecina, the valleys of a mountain range are covered by low clouds. In Monte Sumbra, a mountain range is barely visible, a ghostly silhouette hovering over most of the composition. Indeed, because of the way Kella plays with ideas of surface and depth in both genres, the landscapes themselves might be considered a form of portraiture. In each case, she exploits the potential of a traditional genre to depict a person or place, a reflection of the viewer's concerns and anxieties, or an unknowable void.   


Suite françaises

Elina Brotherus is the youngest of the photographers in the show, and, I think, the most generous and ambitious, and winning the Fotofinlandia prize last year has helped establish her reputation. We met her at Kiasma, Finland's National Museum of Contemporary Art, and she took us to the floor where her work was being installed for the ARS 01 exhibition. The work on display came from 'Suite Francaises', and the images trace the process of moving to France and learning a new language. One photo she poses behind a bicycle in a beret, a post-it note that says, 'La bicyclette vole du Cur'. In another, she sits alone with a post-it the reads 'contente enfin?' fastened to her chest. A cliche about learning a new language suggests that one gains a new personality, and through these photos Brotherus documents the partial loss of her Finnish identity through the adoption of new self in France.    

Brotherus's series 'The New Painting' gathers much of its meaning through a dialogue with the history of European painting. From the New Painting: Horizon 6, for instance, displays an uncanny resemblance to Caspar David Friedrich's Wreck of the Hope. Although From the New Painting: Horizon 7 is a straightforward landscape in Iceland, the image is reminiscent of an Yves Tanguy painting in which the rocks look like molten blobs receding into a mist-occluded horizon. Homme Derriere un Rideau, an image of the backside of a man between a curtain and a window, brings to mind Caillebotte's  Man at his Bath. Femme a Sa Toilette (4) revels in a whole tradition of woman as model to a male artist, especially Bonnard's countless images of his wife, Marthe, drifting weightlessly, awash with shimmering colour, or Degas's women preening themselves. In Brotherus's version, however, the artist pulls herself into a clenched ball, and the camera picks out ribs and muscles. Rather than present herself to a male spectator, she steadfastly resists the gaze and rolls up into her own, interior world. By titling a series of photographs 'The New Painting' and developing a broad range of reference and subject matter, Brotherus reveals a chutzpah and ambition that distinguishes her from her contemporaries.


Albania of the North

In the catalogue for 'Magnetic North', Mika Hannula describes Finland of the 80s as an 'Albania of the North', an isolated, insular country.  Thus Esko Männikkö's photos gathered much of their power from Finland's status as a faintly exotic backwater where laconic men led austere lives in simple, chilly huts. As the country emerges from relative obscurity it loses what audiences discovered in his photographs-distinctiveness from other cultures, something peculiarly Finnish. But does Jeff Wall's work show Canadian and Andreas Gursky's German sensibilities? Perhaps some, but this is secondary to their success. There is little I could describe as distinctly Finnish in the work I saw in Helsinki, or in 'Magnetic North' the exhibition at The New Gallery, Walsall. Most of the photography I saw stems from a documentary tradition, but expands on notions of that tradition. Where once documentary photography gave a face to a minority culture or captured a moment, now it plays with perception. Thus the photos are neither documentary nor conceptual, but about visual experience, about looking. As a result, the work must appeal to an international, art-savvy audience.

Visiting Finnish photographers, one gets the impression of a vibrant, mutually-supportive community that would benefit from an external audience and international patrons. If I may exaggerate the situation, however rich and interesting contemporary Finnish photography appears, it may be in danger of being killed by the institutional machinery that brought it into the world. A brief journey leads from the Helsinki University of Art and Design to permanent installation at the Finnish Museum of Photography, and, unfortunately, it's a trip that foregoes international venues for internal validation. But these are the problems endemic to small communities. The show at the New Gallery, Walsall, which travels to New York, should expand the audience for Jyrki Parantainen and his fellow Finns and push them, wailing or confident, into the international scene. Then the paternal cradle-to-grave clutch of the institution will release its offspring to send them snapping and exhibiting wherever and whenever they can.

(1) Jyrki Parantainen, Fire, 22.2.1998, Helsinki, Finland, Duratans print and freestanding lightbox, 130 x 175 cm

(2) Ola Kolehmainen, Pyramidi: Portaikko-Trappan (Staircase), 1998-1999, duratans print, acrylic light case, 170 x 160 cm

(3) Marjaana Kella, Hypnosis: Ola, 2000, C-type print, Diasec, 127 x 97 cm

(4) Elina Brotherus, From the New Painting: Femme a Sa Toilette, 2001, C-type print on aluminium, framed 80 x 60 cm

1 October 2001

Craig Burnett is the picture editor for Modern Painters magazine, where he contributes as both a writer and photographer. A London-based Canadian, his poetry has appeared in Canadian Literature and Rampike.


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