BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 01 JUN 15
Featured in
Issue 172

Erkka Nissinen

De Hallen, Haarlem, the Netherlands

BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 01 JUN 15

Erkka Nissinen, Polis X, 2012, video still

Arnold Schoenberg is hungry, but he can’t find his yoghurt. Dressed in a monk’s habit and a leprous latex mask, the avant-garde composer waddles out of his front door in search of lactic sustenance. The sentient flowers in his garden can’t help him, so he calls on his neighbour, who informs him: ‘Karlheinz Stockhausen stole my spoon!’ Later, after finding a flaccid cock secreted in a cabbage, Schoenberg fetches up on a spot-lit stage and begins pelting a drum kit with potatoes, only to see Stockhausen emerge from behind a boulder, bellowing his own name, spooning gobbets of yoghurt into his mouth and decrying his snack as ‘fucking shit’. Stockhausen collapses, and Schoenberg takes his spoon, scraping milky residue from around his fellow composer’s mouth. ‘This is really good yoghurt,’ Schoenberg declares, apparently satisfied, and with that, Erkka Nissinen’s video Vantaa (2008) draws to a close.

Like the palindromic title of his odd and brilliant show at De Hallen, ‘God or Terror or Retro Dog’, Nissinen’s works are concerned with looping logic, bootless searches for meaning and the absurdist humour to which these things give rise. Combining fragments of philosophy with deadpan puerilities, glossy HD footage with purposefully clumsy costumes and performances, the only concession these narratives make to order is the percussive soundtracks that drive them. In Rigid Regime (2012), a slyly funny look at cultural exchange, the Finnish artist plays a Forrest Gump-ish version of himself, helicoptering into a nameless dictatorship to ‘inspire the local community’. We next see him (now played, unaccountably, by an Asian actor) in the office of a ‘penis doctor’, who cures his ‘annoying optimism’ by mowing him down with a golf cart. Nissinen announces: ‘I totally accept this situation’, and is buried in a desolate lot. As though to explain the historical factors that led to his interment (our species’ biological drives, its spiritual yearnings?), the artist solemnly informs us that: ‘Early Man sometimes had sex with his wife, sometimes with various other women, and sometimes with the Christmas tree.’

Set in a hulking Babel of a skyscraper, Polis X (2012) features coprophagia, hybrid cars, corporate teambuilding and a plumber contemplating Platonic solids. The video only concludes when Nissinen, playing a kind of Amish-Elder-turned-Goth, once again cleaves to the grave, climbing into a coffin beside a corpse in order to erase ‘the boundary between death and sexuality’. Perhaps the best work here, Tilaa mass tilassa mass litassa maalit: ali tila (Material Conditions / Inner Spaces) (2013) explores the social contract via a crew of cleaners whose hobby is crossing the road, and who access their ‘inner space’ by plunging their heads into a bucket. That the video is also a Tarantino-esque crime caper, and features a horny CGI postman who insulates his home with undelivered letters, only adds to its strange bite.

In a blacked-out gallery, Nissinen presented a selection of minor, seldom-shown holdings from De Hallen’s modern art collection: canvases by inexpressive expressionists, sculptures by insignificant practitioners of significant form. In a recorded, singsong voice-over accompanied by a strummed guitar, Nissinen claims to be the author of them all. As he explains that a particular painting was made ‘when I started to drink a lot’, or that a drawing is about ‘pastoral justice’, or that a metallic object is broadcasting a ‘psychic message’, a single spotlight blinks on above it. His ditty, he suggests, is the mood music that plays inside every artist’s head, swinging from the biographical, through the political, to the nebulously spiritual. It’s an effective swipe at both creative self-regard and curatorial orthodoxies but, like Nissinen’s videos, it also points to something far funnier, and more painful: the only way we have to make sense of our senseless world is through our own, senseless selves.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.