With Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery’s pioneering photography exhibition debuting the “Helsinki School” last year, and Sanna Kannisto just finishing up her solo exhibition at Aperture Foundation, it seems that Finnish photographers may be poised to be the hot new items on the New York photography scene. Introducing ten Finnish photographers and video-artists, an exhibition presented by the Finnish Cultural Institute out on Governors Island this summer, though presenting works of the same medium, show diverse conceptual approaches and highly inventive installation strategies.
I’m not generally inclined to visit shows presented by cultural institutes espousing the best and brightest of their nationality, though it’s an excellent way to learn of artists to whose work I’d otherwise never be introduced. Truth is, no matter how global the art world may appear to become, with its exponential growth of biennials and art fairs, one’s experience of contemporary art will probably still tend to be very regionally influenced. For instance, an artist who has had a major career retrospective at SFMoMA, may still be little known in New York, unless the exhibition traveled to MoMA here. The artists you see pop up in group shows all over the city here don’t necessarily show in LA, and vice versa. This regionally-imposed obscurity occurs even between the two coasts of the continental US, not to mention between national borders.
Fittingly, the exhibition on Governors Island, curated by Leena-Maija Rosse and Kari Soinio, deals precisely with issues of borders, invisible or imposed, of bodies crossing borders and tracing thresholds. Though it’s only a five-minute free ferry ride, a journey is involved to visit the exhibition, and stepping onto Governors Island provokes a moment of displacement in itself. The gallery, unlike the gloss of the Helsinki School show or the precision of the Kannisto exhibition at Aperture, is shrouded in near darkness—no crisp clean white box here, rather the exposed brick of the repurposed military building. The reason for the darkness is the predominance of video works; the photographs on view then are selectively lit, but their dark surroundings affect the readings of these works.
I was not familiar with any of the artists on view before visiting the exhibition, but a few stood out sharply, with strong work and cogent conceptual underpinnings. Marja Pirilä’s composite photographs of schoolchildren, using the same technique as Francis Galton’s in his photographic investigations into the phrenology of the criminal, explore the problematic concepts of national identity, archetype, and stereotype. Minna Suoniemi’s film, Miss Kong (2008), of a middle-aged woman jumping rope in a bikini, isolates her body parts and shows them moving in slow-motion, revealing a sort of clumsy bodily consciousness. Elena Näsänen video, Wasteland (2009), filmed in Australia, follows a group of women across an expansive landscape, on a search, a hunt, or some instance of trespassing; when they reach a gate the screen goes black, but one can hear the action continuing—they’ve crossed some threshold, and the viewer cannot hold them any longer.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is Minna Rainio’s and Mark Roberts installation, Eight Rooms (2008), which comprises of a spoken word narrative over videos appearing on eight screens circling the viewer, each screen showing a view of some humble hostel bedroom, each in different states of cleanliness or disarray. A cleaning woman appears in one “room,” coming in and making the bed, smoothing out the blue blanket, fluffing the pillows, closing the windows. As the video progresses she appears in the different screens, while some of the others then suddenly appear slept in, mussed up, in a nod to Mierle Laderman Ukeles: the endless cycle of maintenance. The video installation is not, however, what it seems at first—as you watch the cleaning lady patiently rearranging the rooms the subject of the narrative sound element becomes clearer; the speaker is talking about the experiences of women who have been trafficked across borders for prostitution—the drudgery of woman’s work, indeed. The layers of meaning and the slow reveal of this installation evoke an intensely emotional response. It’s a powerful work of art, one I won't forget soon.
(*Images: Bodies, Borders, Crossings, installation views, photos by Kari Soinio: Raakel Kukka, Childhood Bed -- Dream, 2009, Video triptych, Editing Cvijeta Miljak, sound design Tatu Virtamo, duration 8 min. Marja Pirilä, installation view of the series I Am, 2009, inkjet prints. Minna Rainio & Mark Roberts, Eight Rooms, 2008, Eight-‐channel video installation, duration 15 min.)