Rock Castles and Glass Palaces: Helsinki’s ‘Post-Exhibition’ Turn

If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not need an address at all

BY Kristian Vistrup Madsen in Critic's Guides | 15 FEB 18

In the late 1990s, Kati Sinenmaa, a physicist and eccentric polemicist (judging from her blog) found herself homeless. On the back of her bicycle, she transported large stones excavated from the construction site of Kiasma – a new museum for contemporary art designed by the prolific museum-architect Stephen Holl – to a forest in the Helsinki suburb of Pasila. From these boulders her own ‘Rock Castle’ slowly emerged. 

This year, Kiasma celebrates its 20th anniversary and the nation of Finland its 100th. Like Dorian Gray’s portrait, Sinenmaa’s granite formation continues to expand in the forest, the anarchic inversion of Holl’s sleek glass curve. A kind of anti-institution, it poses questions born (literally) from the foundation of this and any other museum laying claim to the term Contemporary Art: what does ‘contemporary’ exclude, when does it end, and what comes after it?   

Kiasma, Helsinki. Courtesy: Finnish National Gallery; photograph: Petri Virtanen

This is really a question of which type of structure – physical, organizational, financial – best nurtures and accommodates artists and their work as it naturally morphs to reflect our time. A new annual commission in a public-private partnership between Kiasma and the Kordelin Foundation, a private arts and science benefactor, is presented as a fresh bid: one artist has one year to make one work, which will show at Kiasma, before becoming part of its collection. The inaugural recipient is Maija Luutonen, an Helsinki-born and bred artist, very much at the heart of the city’s art scene. In 2012, Luutonen was also the premier exhibitor at SIC, an artist-run space she co-founded with eight other artists in a disused wharf building in the city’s West Harbour district.

That Luutonen’s selection for the Kiasma-Kordelin commission comes just as SIC – like Sinenmaa 20 years before it – finds itself on the brink of homelessness, is illustrative of an art scene that is gentrifying in more ways than one. When SIC first started, there was nothing in the West Harbour. Today, a towering hotel is its nearest neighbour, and masses of new apartment blocks have sprung up, serviced by a now-extended tram line. The city of Helsinki recently sold the complex – also home to artists’s studios and other galleries – and SIC, along with everyone else, have two months to pack up.

Maija Luutonen, In Ur Pt, 2016, 240 x 140 cm, acrylic on paper, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and SIC

Far from an unfamiliar scenario, the eviction happens to coincide with the city announcing plans to launch a biennial of public sculpture in 2020. Albeit unrelated, this coincidence points to a tendency in the art world to prioritize glitzy branding-opportunities rather than support the day-to-day lives of artists and existing community-built structures – especially given that these are the (highly cost-effective) vessels bringing oxygen to what might otherwise be a fairly hermetic scene.

Across town, in the recently-bohemian, ex-working-class neighbourhood Harju, another artist-run project space, the five-year-old Sorbus, is in a similar scramble for survival. Last summer, they harvested the rowan berries from the trees that line their street to make wine. They have enough funding to stay in their modest shopfront for another year but are selling 40 bottles of their homemade booze to sustain their programme. Many Finns know Sorbus as the uber-cheap drink preferred by homeless alcoholics, and as such – I find out over an extraordinarily chic shawarma in Harju – they chose the name as a kind of high-culture provocation.

André Chapatte and Otto Byström, performance view, 2017. Courtesy: Sorbus; photograph: Ari Toivonen

But Sorbus is also Latin for the family to which the rowan tree belongs, and, in the Finnish translation, the ‘sour grapes’ of Aesop’s fable, so famously out of the fox’s reach. At the prospect of leaving their spaces or downsizing their activities, the response of both SIC and Sorbus is like that of the fox: the grapes might just have gone sour anyway.

Both platforms were established as fully-funded alternatives to the old-fashioned system of artist’s unions, where exhibitors are required to pay rent for the duration of their show. Since their inception, however, the collectives have formed extensive international networks, exchanged work and spaces with each other, and other similar groups across Europe. The most interesting arts initiatives and initiators in the city, I am told, are increasingly ‘post-exhibition’; not tied to any location or format, but discursive, occasional and circumstantial. If the transition from modern to contemporary art was first and foremost marked by the construction of new and different buildings, such as Holl’s Kiasma, what comes after it might not need an address at all. This is as much a testament to the creativity of the art scene, as to its necessary dexterity in adapting to the escalating neoliberal climate.

Shawné Michaelain Holloway, ‘Sub Not Slave’, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: Sorbus

Not at all adapting, rather mindlessly drilling forth, is Kiasma’s new neighbour Amos Rex – the spectacular subterranean venue of the long-established private collection Amos Anderson set to open this August. Mining 13,000 cubic metres of rock, a 2,000 square metre large exhibition space has been excavated beneath the Lasipalatsi (Glass Palace), a functionalist gem originally built as commercial infrastructure for the cancelled 1940 Summer Olympics.

The price tag of the pit is EUR€50 million, and in it Amos Rex will display its small collection of post-impressionist paintings alongside an incongruent mix of temporary exhibitions ranging from the Japanese light-collective teamLab, who will break in the space with a simulated waterfall, to travelling shows of Egyptian mummies. The newspaper Helsingin Sanomat has noted the construction site’s resemblance to The Death Star in Star Wars, a moon-sized space station with the ability to destroy an entire planet. However, it is less a WMD than 19th century entertainment palace with 21st century technology. From this dig, Kati Sinenmaa could have assembled Helsinki’s landmark Rock Church.

Digital rendering of an aerial view of Amos Rex. Courtesy: Amos Rex, JKMM Architects

Though too slow in responding as the institutions may be when compared to the agile project spaces, with brick and mortar comes a different kind of responsibility, too. Under the controversial centre-right government coalition with the ultra-nationalist True Finns Party (subsequently split into the less 4chan-inflected Finn’s Party and Blue Reform), the extent to which the national galleries, Kiasma and Ateneum (which houses the national collection up to 1970), ought to take some sort of stance has been under dispute. When late last year Ateneum hung a banner on their facade reading ‘Refugees Welcome’, it was seen by some as an unnecessary politicization of what should be an aesthetic realm. Contrarily, the museum’s senior curator, Sointu Fritze said, the action helped show people how the collection was always already politicized, anyway.

Meanwhile at Kiasma, director Leevi Haapala in this regard is apprehensive, and his programme is a departure from the more expressly combative one of his predecessor. So, when Blue Reform’s Sampo Terho, Minister for European Affairs, Culture and Sports, took to the stage last week, as the museum filled to bursting for the revealing of Maija Luutonen’s Kordelin Commission, and the fresh collection display ‘There And Back Again’, all Haapala wanted was for things to go as smoothly as possible. When I spoke to him at the end of the night, he wore a pleased smile. Terho had not changed the speech the museum had prepared for him outside of his refusal to address the crowd, as is otherwise customary, in both Finnish and Swedish. He seemed to enjoy the exhibition, Haapala relayed, and was not interrupted by hecklers. Crisis averted. After all – as is abundantly clear from the majestic balcony of Kiasma’s much-photographed and art-free foyer – we are not reporting from underneath a rock in the forest. What I read from Haapala’s relief: don’t throw stones if you live in a glass house.    

Main image: Tuomo Tuovinen, ‘Whatever Makes You Happy’, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: Sorbus

Kristian Vistrup Madsen is an arts and culture writer based in Berlin, Germany.