The works in ARS06 – which span five floors of Kiasma’s complicated, angular, concrete building – have been retrospectively gathered under the title ‘Sense of the Real’. However, few works in the show are actually snagged by this wide theoretical net. The exhibition conjures neither an atmospheric ‘sense’ nor a palpable, or even literal, connection to ‘the real’. The catalogue essay by curator Tuula Karjalainen mentions such inspirations as ‘a union between good and evil, beautiful and ugly’, but in general the show’s aspiration to universal appeal makes its repetition of themes and motifs so apparent that only redundancies are left to identify. Such sprawl may be the product of a nagging dilemma: this massive survey exhibition has been mounted in Finland seven times since 1961, yet it remains unclear whether its purpose is to bring international art to far-flung Helsinki or to showcase local talent to the Finnish community. The show’s focus is inevitably blurred by these opposing objectives.
Gerda Steiner and Joerg Lenylinger have transformed the central atrium into a taxidermic tableau of animals gathered around a pond (Swan Lake, 2005): a chipper rabbit stands on its hind legs while a lazy goat is caught mid-graze. But the bucolic scene is conspicuously spoiled by scattered rubbish and pollution. Such romantic and finely crafted depictions of ‘beautiful decay’ recur throughout the exhibition: from Petah Coyne’s sculptures of copiously sprouting leaves and spindly tendrils (Untitled #1111, 2003–4, and Untitled #1163, 2002–4), which count berries, feathers and pearl-headed hat pins among their media, to Tabaimo’s animated video of a floral tattoo wilting off of a man’s body petal by petal (hanabi-ra, 2003). These delicate, crumbling scenes occasionally drift toward the grotesque, best exemplified by Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Sex 1 (2003), a lifelike human carcass strapped to a maggot-infested tree. Unable to top this, similar works seem almost derivative: Berlinde de Bruyckere’s limp and faceless Speechless Horse (2005) barely elicits a gasp, and Adriana Varejão’s sculptures of spilling intestines, such as Blue Tiles in Live Flesh (1999), are so laboured that they appear merely decorative.
If a coherent theoretical strand emerges among the works, it is the rift between the artists’ fabricated fantasy worlds and that of the everyday. Few works successfully transcend or confuse either realm; rather, artistic craftsmanship is most often employed to create isolated microcosms. Mariele Neudecker’s sculpted mountain ranges submerged in water tanks (Think of One Thing, 2002) and Walter Martin’s and Paloma Muñoz’ series of miniature horror scenes trapped inside snow globes (‘Traveller’, 2004–5) are the most literal depictions of these cloistered worlds. There are also multiple versions of corrupted paradises, often exemplified by the orgy – from the violent (in AES+F’s mural of shirtless teenagers wielding swords, Last Riot 1, 2005) to the sexual (in Lars Nilsson’s video In Orgia, 2004, depicting group sex outside an abandoned housing estate). Yet all this gratuitous sex or violence makes a much less pertinent statement than that of privileged ennui: the pairing of Edouard Levé’s ‘Transfers’ (2004) – a series of theatrical photos of psychological struggles among the bourgeois – with Muntean/Rosenblum’s similarly stagy configurations of lounging, disaffected teens in Untitled (‘We didn’t make plans…’) (2005) is a case in point.
After walking through endless rooms of literal, overworked installations – abstraction, photography and the legacy of Conceptual art are largely dismissed – the few ephemeral or subtle displays distinguished themselves. Susan Philipsz’ Four Part Harmony (2006), in which her voice periodically echoes in a stairwell, is a revelation of the way art can briefly, almost miraculously, manifest itself. Monika Sosnowska’s The Fountain (2006) – a drip in the ceiling and a subsequent stain on the carpet in the top-floor corridor – is a statement distilled using the most minimal, unexpected means.
The exhibition’s singular view detrimentally portrays artists as disconnected from the world. Time after time you are asked to imagine the artist as lonely or self-absorbed: at the helm of an arctic icebreaker, alone on the beach meditating or painstakingly sculpting flowers from wax. Rarely are they depicted engaging with reality. One remarkable exception is The 1st Complaints Choir of Birmingham (2005), an exuberant amateur chorus assembled by Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen to sing about the working-class English city. The result is a tribute to the everyday – to spotty bananas, faulty computers and delayed buses. Rather than relying on shock, horror or awe, this work relies on others’ voices to remind us what a ‘sense of the real’ could actually be.