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Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2003

In between art and life

Young Finnish artists on show in Kyoto


Special to The Japan Times

"Gokann," the umbrella name given to three exhibitions of contemporary Finnish art now showing in Kyoto, is an accommodating term. The Japanese title was chosen for its multiplicity of meanings, all derived from typing in "g-o-k-a-n-n" on a computer then pressing the kanji-convert key. Those varied meanings are: "five senses"; "sense organs"; "sense of language"; "compatibility"; and "language stem" -- as well as more nebulous connotations covering pretty much anything to do with our relations to the world and to each other. Still, if the term is broad, so too is the range of artwork it is used to cover: 80 pieces from 26 artists working in a variety of media.

News photo
"Topography of fear: Caloniuksenkatu, Helsinki" (2001) by Ari Saarto (above); installation view of "To Turn Around" (1998) by Jan Kaila.
News photo

Put together by curator Megumi Matsuo and exhibition coordinator Marjatta Hanhijoki, "Gokann" is the fruition of three years of preparation and the rejoinder to the Artists' Association of Finland's exhibition of Japanese contemporary art that showed in Helsinki in 2002.

The first part of the show to open was Voice Gallery, exhibiting Sally Tykka's video piece "Power," which begins with the words "I wanted to make a work about my mother -- all I could think about was my father." This is a rather literal battle of the sexes: A large man and a petite woman fight it out in a boxing match lasting four minutes and 15 seconds. There's no knock-out and no winner. It's not an especially original take on the subject of personal relationships, but there are some thought-provoking touches. Our emotional vulnerability is suggested by the way the woman is stripped to the waist. Interestingly, neither combatant seems especially bent on securing a total victory.

Feminist issues get another airing in some of the works showing at the Fleur Gallery at Kyoto Seika University. This exhibition groups pieces by 10 artists under the title "Darkness Besides Brightness." Showing there is Aurora Reinhard's "Boygirl," a series of video interviews with girls who look like boys who describe how they have come to see their own identities. The artist notes, "Femininity and masculinity are outfits more than characteristics," but this kind of exploration of androgyny and ambiguity has been well-trodden in feminist art for more than a decade now, and there are no new ideas here.

Also exploring female experience are intimate photographs by Elina Brotherus. With titles such as "I Hate Sex" and "Divorce Portrait," and similarly unsubtle symbolism (in the latter the artist stands on a bridge as she contemplates her wedding ring), these works draw on the artist's personal experiences to convey tentative emotional states and vulnerable moments.

Relief from such intensity is at hand in Marjaana Kella's excellent portrait photographs of people under hypnosis who cannot, therefore, (self-)consciously pose for or address the camera. In "Niclas 1," the subject smiles or smirks, whereas in "Niclas 2" a single tear roles down his right cheek. In both, the model is physically present but mentally somewhere else, removed from us by the distance hypnosis creates. These portraits intrigue by, ironically, revealing less than we might like.

In contrast, Ari Saarto's work adds more than we might like by investing urban spaces with a threatening psychological edge. His series of photographs titled "Topography of Fear" features deserted and claustrophobic urban locations where there is no visible danger, yet the mood is menacing. Saarto's work mimics the observational eye of security cameras -- mostly nothing happens, but the surveillance is there in the first place because some kind of threat is sensed.

A final standout here is Liisa Lounila's exquisite video "Popcorn," which uses a pinhole camera and a film technique called temps mort in which simultaneous exposures picture a subject from different angles. These, when edited together, create the effect of a camera circling its subject (think of those scenes in "The Matrix" where the camera seems to move 360 degrees around Neo as he's frozen in a midair leap). Lounila disrupts a linear perception of time by her nuanced and slowed-down treatment of an everyday subject -- a popcorn fight between friends.

Over at Kyoto Art Center is "Views as Minds," displaying the work of 15 artists. Here, too, everyday objects are subjected to unusual treatment. Of note is Oliver Whitehead's "Meltdown," a video showing a plastic toy soldier doing just that. The soldier's rigid limbs begin to tremble and fold in on themselves as the temperature rises, and the overall effect is reminiscent of those romanticized war films of an earlier era in which heroes die elegantly in emotion-laden slo-mo scenes.

A more complex framing of the everyday is found in Jan Kaila's "To Turn Around," in which clothes and toys rescued from flea markets are arranged around the floor and walls of the gallery, interspersed with TV monitors showing images of water running through sewage pipes. The clothes and toys seem heavy with nostalgia, yet the sewer images convey the idea that these once treasured objects are now merely waste. The clothes and toys are immaculately clean -- but along with the dirt, all traces of everyday use have been washed from them, along with their stories and histories.

The work of many of the Finnish artists now showing in Kyoto seems to stand at a crossroads between lived experience and its artistic appropriation -- a crossroads brought vividly to life in Roi Vaara's performance piece "Artist's Dilemma." This shows the skin-headed and tuxedo-clad artist in a desolate arctic environment, standing at a solitary sign post with arrows pointing in two directions, one to "art," the other to "life." Vaara seemingly cannot make up his mind about which way to go, so he wanders back and forth at the cold and lonely intersection between the two. Or maybe he just vacillates around the signpost because there really is no separating art from life.

This dilemma is common to most all the Finnish artists showing in "Gokann." And though the works on show are uneven, this grouped exhibition has been put together well -- it's wide-ranging but not overwhelming, and leaves visitors with much to think about.

Voice Gallery (tel. [075] 211-2985) is now showing "In Order of Appearance" by Juha Maki-Jussila till Dec. 7. Closed Monday. Kyoto Art Center (tel. [075] 213-1000) is showing "Views as Minds" till Dec. 9. Gallery Fleur ([075] 702-5230), is showing "Darkness Besides Brightness" till Dec. 14. Closed Wednesday.


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