Ingela Ihrman. The Giant Hogweed. 2016. Photо: Jean-Baptiste Beranger.

Man Overboard?! 0

The new programmes at the Kiasma museum and the upcoming Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

Sergei Khachaturov

Back in Moscow after a tour of Helsinki, a city I happened to visit by invitation of the Kiasma museum and the ArtPress agency, I realised with desperate clarity the magnitude of the drama that is the absence of a modern and ambitious museum of contemporary art in the Russian capital. The existing institutions of contemporary art, housed in extant buildings adapted as exhibition spaces, of course, are all great in their own right: the branches of MMOMA, the Garage, the National Centre for Contemporary Art, the Multimedia Art Museum... However, in the contemporary situation of communication with space, a crucial role is played by passionate new architecture that hosts various projects based on the principle of rhizome or quest, which presumes navigation along multidirectional trajectories and even between levels within a labyrinth-like museum. 

That is exactly the experience offered by the Finnish Kiasma museum with its new programmes. As we all know, Kiasma has been around for twenty years now. Designed by the American architect Steven Holl, it is part of the Finnish National Gallery, financed by the government, municipality and private foundations. Essentially, Kiasma is more than just a museum of contemporary art; it is a multicultural centre ‒ a social media platform, theatre, library, etc. According to the director Leevi Haapala, the museum holdings comprise approximately 9 thousand works. Some 100‒150 items are added to the collections every year. The museum is open to various new ideas and trends.

Alma Heikkilä. In a Good Mood. 2016 (fragment). 184 x 130 см. Foto: Alma Heikkilä 

It is one of these trends, currently very much in demand by the new art, that is featured in a new programme presented by Kiasma and the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. 15 March 2019 saw the opening of a solo exhibition by Alma Heikkilä (through July 28), a member of the programme of collaboration between Kiasma and the Alfred Kordelin Foundation, an independent organisation of support for science and culture, named after a Finnish entrepreneur and philanthropist. The foundation has been active for a century. Subject-wise, the exhibition by Alma Heikkilä also seems to serve as a gateway to the Nordic Pavilion. It is dedicated to the global ecological crisis, the ecosystem, post-humanism and the age of Anthropocene.

Ane Graff. Mattering Waves (1). 2017.  21 x 48,5 x 62,5 см. Phoyо: Paula Abreu Pita, Courtesy of the artist and Entrée 

The final section of the new exhibition by Pavel Pepperstein currently on view at the Moscow Multimedia Art Centre is focusing on the subject of ‘man as a frame for the landscape’. Now, that is the current fashion for biological research through artistic means in a nutshell ‒ an accurate description of all these colonies of bacteria, autonomous ecosystems, etc. A somewhat more radical way of defining the bio-fashion would be the traditional nautical shout of ‘Man overboard’. Consistent exclusion of everything that is too human or smacking too strongly of ambitions for the position of a principal player on the stage of the Universe ‒ that is a definite trend in the contemporary thought. To name but one example, ‘After Finitude: An Essay on The Necessity of Contingency’, a book by the young French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, could very well serve as the theoretical basis for the new programme of the Nordic Pavilion and the exhibition by Alma Heikkilä alike. In this book, the philosopher deals with the eternal questions of metaphysics as well as the legacy of great-granddads Kant and Hegel, the ideas of correlations between the world and the subject’s thought. We can only think about things that we construct in our own consciousness, things that we relate with through our own reason. This outdated phenomenological position is rejected by Meillassoux ‒because we are unable to make any judgements in the realm of the exact sciences, natural sciences from this relative, correlational position. We cannot think about the prehistoric period, about the life forms that are not included in our sensual and rational experience (bacteria, dinosaurs, space aliens). Meillassoux throws overboard everything that is too human ‒ all the subjective aspects of knowledge. He reinstates the rule of the fact and the reality of objective knowledge irrespective of the subject. And the definitive role in this reassembly of knowledge about the world is played by the principle of contingency as the equality of realisation of random, non-necessary possibilities. And this is where our noosphere is invaded by the heavy stomping and roaring of dinosaurs; we are attacked by a whirlwind of bacterial colonies; cultivated mould spreads, leaving its Petri dishes... And we look on from the corners of our frame, watching this spectacle of non-human perfection...

Alma Heikkilä. Warm and moist | decaying wood (деталь). Phоto: Petri Virtanen / Kansallisgalleria 

These practices, exceptional in terms of presence of the anthropomorphic scale, are also projected on the realm of contemporary art. They define both the ‘Weather Report: Forecasting Future’ programme of the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and the exhibition by Alma Heikkilä centred around microbes and bacteria. 

The same question that was raised regarding Meillassoux’s critique of classical philosophy applies to the new art programmes of the post-humanist and Anthropocenic age, namely: what is the instrumentarium for exploring these real ‒ presented as a given ‒ facts of the life of the world in absence of man? In other words, what is it that guarantees trust in communication regarding a world radically breaking with humanism? Or, simpler still: what exactly, which organ of the human body should we use to perceive infusoria, molecules, the nanoworld as a work of art? Lest we fall into quackery... Because, the rest of it notwithstanding, we are still human, and the apparatus of perception we come equipped with is a human one...

Presumably, there are two possible approaches guaranteeing trust in communication with the Anthropocenic art. First: write the experience of communicating with microorganisms and ecological mutations into our own personal history, thus imparting a personal, confidential, even intimate scale to it. Works by the Israeli artist Michal Rovner come to mind here. She transforms crowds of people into microscopic bacterial colonies contained in Petri dishes. The crowds move chaotically, more than reliably speaking of the broken link between the times, of humanity as a restless wanderer. It is inversion, substitution, interchange of humanist qualities and ones lacking an anthropomorphic status that we refer to regarding Rovner’s art. A mention of Pavel Otdelnov’s art would not be out of place here. He transforms the entropy of the abandoned Soviet chemical industry into the history of a new Anthropocenic catastrophe. We find this particular catastrophe genuinely excruciating, because the artist’s personal biography, the story of his family which worked in the industry makes us empathise and believe in it for real. 

The second way, excellently played out by the new Finnish projects, is presenting a mysterious ‘other’ life as a process of creating the exhibition as such, engaging the presentation space to maximum intensity, turning it into a laboratory of transformation where various changes take place all the time ‒ as they should in a proper lab. The general image of Kiasma lends itself particularly well to this approach ‒ the rhizome-like museum with its transparent membranes of the separate halls/cells, the free wandering from level to level, from room to room.

Alma Heikkilä creates her paintings with acrylic on polyester. As if under a microscope, they show the strange life of an organism’s cells or a forest with its population of insects and layers of vegetation. What is wonderful is the sensitive way in which the artist responds to the space of the museum. One of her works is attached directly to a window, and daylight is streaming right through the surface of the painting. Another seems to carry on in the craquelure, fractures and colour lines of the floor and the walls. In other words, the Kiasma museum itself is presented here as an organism that is being examined. And it is not a process of viewing the show that we are involved in but of actual creating an exhibition as a laboratory with constant transformation of images. And that is why for this kind of art it is important that it is not housed in the walls of an old mansion with pre-programmed enfilade-style principle of movement and hierarchical presentation but in a rhizomatic building capable of answering the challenge of the new era of Anthropocene. Nice to know that an upcoming programme, currently being mounted by the Kiasma museum (curator Saara Hacklin), will also focus on the mutual transformation of the biomorphous and anthropomorphous. Entitled ‘Coexistence.Human, Animal and Nature in Kiasma’s Collections’, it will feature many Scandinavian and Baltic artists, as well as the duo Olga Florenskaya and Alexander Florensky, opening on 26 April 2019.

nabbteeri. Ethnographies of a homespun spinelessness cult and other neighbourly relations: Dead hedge. 2019. 3D-model. Phоto: nabbteeri, Courtesy the artists 

Last but not least, in the light of this exhibition of post- and non-humanist art, a very significant conversation about the Nordic Pavilion was proposed during an event hosted by Kiasma ‒ a meeting with the curator and director of the museum Leevi Haapala, co-curator Piia Oksanen and contributing artists Ane Graff, Ingela Ihrman and the art duo nabbteeri (Maria Teeri, Janne Nabb). The artists promise to populate the space with hybrid objects of organic and non-organic nature. The viewers will see plants strolling around the Giardini, a performance by flowers, constructions of biological assemblage and, finally, compost where waste decomposes into all sorts of new mixtures and substances. 

Very important words were said by Mr Leevi Haapala about the interaction of the exhibition programme with the architecture and surroundings of the Nordic Pavilion. Designed in 1958 in the style of second post-war modernism by the Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn, the pavilion is a slatted construction with transparent walls opening to the gardens. The actual architecture seems to respond very hospitably to mounting an exhibition that is an open laboratory exploring the subject of natural metamorphoses. Ecological and temporal traumas that have left their mark on the architecture of the pavilion and ecosystem of the Venetian Giardini will also become a subject of research. We have been promised a therapeutic effect.