‘Traversing the body as a dividing line’
20 September – 8 October 2023
How I Wrote
Few tasks are less rewarding than problematising a genre that has not been defined. I was told: ‘Any kind of writing will do.’ Is it meaningful even to try to move beyond the perfunctory if you are expected to perform a function?
My writing is supposed to be an act of solidarity (with artists from Ukraine who have found a wartime refuge in Finland) and simultaneously a demonstration of decolonial reason (that their work merits being written about for reasons other than day-to-day politics), so what are the difficulties? The ‘soft’ is pitched against the ‘hard’, the ‘warm’ against the ‘cold’. In themselves all are positives, but they mustn’t turn out semi-rigid or lukewarm.
As a writer I might as well follow the unwritten rules: mention every participant in a group show; address the basics of ‘what is this, what does it mean and why should we care?’; offer any critique as a kind of praise, pay the respect of having looked and listened, so that no-one feels unseen or unheard.
Why I Judged
My first memory of the site that is now Titanik dates from my first visit to Finland, in July 1986, when I was in Turku to study Finnish. Once every week there was public afternoon dancing, iltapäivätanssit, by the Aura river, and I would lean against the iron rails to look at the elderly people swirling across the daylit quay with expert restraint. They were of the generation born in the first quarter of the twentieth century, which meant they had gone through war.
War, a war of survival against an all-too-predictable invader, was also the premise of the exhibition I have been asked to respond to. All six artists are from Ukraine and have done paid residencies in Finland during 2023, facilitated by a consortium of arts organisations and coordinated by HIAP, the Helsinki International Artist Programme. Whether they would have worked in this country under other circumstances we will never know.
These were the givens of the exhibition, and they reflect the new reality trying to blow up one of the strongest bastions of the post-cold-war order: agenda-setting and taste-making in the contemporary art world. True, there has been an increase in visibility for artists from Ukraine after 24 February 2022, because of political will and because many artists, women in particular, had to flee and find opportunities to show elsewhere in Europe.
At the same time it has been hard to shake off a sense of suspended judgment when it comes to what these artists are actually showing. There is the aesthetic minefield of activism, solidarity and good intentions. There is also a political necessity to compensate for the low visibility assigned to artists from Ukraine in the old post-cold-war accommodation with Moscow (quite literally, since that is where most artists representing the Russian scene lived and worked before the war).
As someone with a long engagement in the ‘borderlands’ where Europe’s western and eastern identities crash against each other – much of which was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania before 1795 – I believe that art and artists must always be judged for their own merit. This has achieved more for the international standing of, say, Lithuanian artists, than any programme to ideologically or aesthetically re-educate the West. Whenever it is fair to prepare the ground for judgment by studying the specifics of content and context this must be done, but room must also be made for the act of judgment itself: lightning-fast, incisive, formidable.
What I Saw
Thankfully, aesthetic judgment is also always subjective, which allows us to ignore it when we must. In acknowledgment of this point I have repurposed the mid-century term ‘-ism’ as a shorthand for conveying my impressions of this exhibition. It goes without saying that -isms are contentious, and that hardly any artist wants to be associated with them, but they do have explanatory value.
As is clear from the exhibition title, the curators proposed ‘body’ and ‘boundary’ as metaphors to guide them and us through the selection and presentation of works. By and large this approach appears to have resonated with the participating artists. I will briefly comment on them in their alphabetical order of appearance throughout the modest but pleasantly proportioned gallery, which I visited on a cloudy afternoon in late September.
Polina Choni: Folklorism
Taking guidance from her background in fashion design, Choni has created two lines of work to articulate rage over ecocide as a weapon in this war of attack and attrition. Her scorched earth is fashioned from dough, wood, charcoal and soil. There is a tree-of-life silhouette with blackened birds and eggs, a bread mask with grass pushing up through empty eye sockets, a sculpted image of ashen wheat ears on a lump of singed wood. There are two additional sets of silhouettes, their cut-out paper shapes borrowed from Ukrainian folk art but dyed with ink made from substances scraped off a burnt Russian tank. The literalness of both approaches is an active choice, referencing current affairs but also the potential for productive and meaningful revival that any living aesthetic tradition contains.
Alexandra Krolikowska: Symbolism
MONOLITH, made in collaboration with Matthew O’Toole, seems calculated to collapse the artistic and political use of this particular -ism. The video uses imagery that promises to reverberate with alternative meanings but may just signify exactly what we expected. It splices together footage of twelve black-and-white shots of clenching fists and the various cuffs (from vyshyvanka blouses to city jackets) that encase their wrists. Exploiting the self-evidence of the symbolic hand-gesture, Krolikowska puts on a show of unity in unified tones of grey to simultaneously lift spirits and make us understand how and why they are burdened. A work meant to perform in the present moment but also to wrap that moment in the cloak of the cinétract of 1968 or of its 1920s Soviet forebears.
Maria Kulikowska: Vitalism
Here we are offered photographic documentation of a performance on the female bodily experience – defying and celebrating it – in times of profound trouble. The artist’s female body is pictured in a moment of suspenseful rest, inhabiting the liminal space between water and rock, sunshine and air. She is somewhere in the fortress archipelago of Suomenlinna, with its own history of Russian Imperial occupation. She has festooned her bared flesh with bought flowers and is lying, Ofelia-like, in what looks and feels like late afternoon light. Yet the exuberance of the staging does little to answer the fundamental question that work of this kind usually raises: Can the bodily experience of one subject be meaningfully conveyed to another subject, which may or may not share its physical and mental attributes?
Stanislava Ovchinnikova: Documentalism
Similar questions are being asked in the video My Mother Told Me Not to Look Men in the Eye, and also in earlier works where Ovchinnikova addressed the long-term embodied consequences of trauma, fear and other strong affects. Here she has used video documentation of therapy sessions with survivors of sexual assault. We encounter the body as a receptacle of all that impacts on it, long after the physical dents are gone: as live memory but also as independent thinking and acting subject. It is as if, in the fifth-century definition of Christ’s divine and human natures, the body were ‘two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation’. Ovchinnikova insists that fixating the gaze on the surface of the body will literally make us see both of these.
Sergii Shaulis: Modernism
By this I mean the modernist belief in the redemptive power of technology that manifests itself in another insistence: that visitors to the exhibition should use a VR headset to access an animation of half-exploded anthropomorphic sculptures as they appeared in a Kiev gallery. I also mean the metaphorical approach to sculpture made evident in the crafted explosions of bodies and all their possible meanings and referents. War is presented, on the one hand, as a magical realism to be cast in bronze and, on the other hand, as a reality more real than the entire culture that embeds Virtual Reality as a presentation format. This happens often – in fact it is the logic behind any war memorial sculpture – but is it the way to commemorate today’s still-unfolding war?
Anastasiia Sviridenko: Intimism
The least defined of the -isms is the one that withdraws from grand gestures and ideological battlefields and therefore puts the individual practitioner’s ethical and aesthetic choices under the magnifying glass. I always felt sympathy for intimists and their quest to extract artistic value from privacy, precisely because it exposed them to criticism that often seems unfair but cannot be dismissed out of hand. How can you choose to cultivate your garden when the world is on fire? Sviridenko’s eclectic use of paper, canvas and wood wins me over. I find myself immersed in her low-intensity visual fields, especially the pencil drawings with their silhouetted figures for which she leaves the paper open or smudges it with little concern for technical brilliance. While self-absorbed, her figures also seem to be looking for each other, for community or communication.
Anders Kreuger kirjoitti tekstin vierailtuaan Traversing the body as a dividing line -näyttelyssä. Lue lisää näyttelystä.
Teksti on osa vuoden 2023 TITANIK-julkaisua. Kirjoittajat vierailevat näyttelyissä ja tuottavat tämän jälkeen niiden kanssa resonoivan tekstin. Aiempia tekstejä on luettavissa täällä.
Anders Kreuger wrote the text after visiting the exhibition Traversing the body as a dividing line. Read more about the exhibition.
This text is a part of this year’s TITANIK publication. Authors are invited to produce a text responding to each exhibition. You can read the earlier contributions here.