#FocusFinland: Your Crash Course on Finland’s Contemporary Art Scene

In the nineties, Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist coined the term “Nordic Miracle” to encapsulate the creative generation emerging from new art centers in Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, and Finland; among them, the city of Helsinki. Nearly two decades later, on the occasion of the Spanish international art fair ARCOmadrid’s regional focus on Finland, Artsy checked in with Leevi Haapala, a curator at Helsinki’s Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art and curator of the Finnish section of the fair, for an update on Finland’s artistic vanguard. Sure, we’ve kept our eyes on Finnish artists—watched as Eija-Liisa Ahtila has pioneered her way through moving image, Pilvi Takala brought home the Emdash award at 2013’s Frieze London, and awaited artist duo IC-98 to represent Finland at the 2015 Venice Biennale—but Haapala brings us in for a closer look. He describes a buzzing gallery and museum scene, a new collector base, and the emerging generation of artists he’s captured in #FocusFinland, for which he’s organized 13 galleries and over 20 artists in the largest assembly of Finnish galleries to date.

Artsy: Why has Finland been given such real estate at ARCOmadrid? What distinguishes the contemporary art scene among other emerging international scenes?

Leevi Haapala: The Finnish contemporary art scene is witnessing a new, vibrant upswing. Economic situations, like Finland’s stable triple-A credit rating, have had positive effects; although Finland is a small market area (only 5.4 million inhabitants), we have artists who are highly educated, well connected, and supported by different private and public funds.

Artsy: And what distinguishes Finnish art? What characteristics do people think of when they consider Finnish art—and are they accurate?

LH: In a globalized world it is hard to say if there is a special character called ‘Finnish,’ but I believe that it has something to do with Finnish mentality: its straightforwardness, black humor, and unpretentiousness combined with hard work. Quite often international curators and critics are aware of Finnish lens-based media art and the use of new technologies, especially female video and media artists and photographers; and regarding content, topics such as silence, clean nature, fresh climate, and democracy. But those do not give the whole picture—we also have a very strong painting tradition! Legacies of body-oriented expressionism and hard-edge modernism live side-by-side, both with a conceptual twist. We have good sculptures as well: on one hand, clean Neo-Pop objects and critiques of consumerism, and on the other, a very material-oriented approach which recalls traditional wood carving and storytelling. Overall, Finnish art is quite analytical, but not cold or based on one-liners.

Artsy: Can you talk us through a few highlights from #FocusFinland? Do you feel the artists you’ve chosen capture the current moment in Finnish contemporary art? Which of these artists should we watch out for? (We see IC-98 will represent Finland at next year’s Venice Biennale.)

LH: My focus is on the emerging generation born mid-’70s, early ’80s, (of course with some exceptions!). From my point of view, the three rather loose subject matters of #FocusFinland are the strong presence of global visual culture on a local level; deconstructed and reconstructed nature fantasies; and a sense of melancholy postponed into the future. I’ll give one example of each category:

First, Jiri Geller’s perfect and seductive handmade Disney fantasy sculptures lift craftsmanship to  another level. His sculptures are elemental and essential, fascinated with death and violence, critical of the fake and phony, and ever-aware of just how dark the world can be.

Second, Anna Rokkawill present a large sculptural installation at Sinne’s booth. The triangle-shaped structure is reminiscent of a dwelling, where ebbs and flows of another era are visible in the outer walls of the hut. The ambiance recalls an apocalyptic vision or hallucination; she creates psychedelic spaces with different materials and their glowing and fading colors.

Heta Kuchka’s installation fits into the third category, with a sense of melancholy. In the Focus Pavilion she presents A Portrait of a Young Man. It is a wide-screen video installation in which a hundred young men sit in the army sauna squeezed in next to each other, forming a surface of bare skin. The viewer will start to recognize individuals as the men start reacting to the heat and leave one by one. Finally there is only one young man left, capturing a portrait of a young man.

Artsy: Can you describe the local art scene in Helsinki? How is it changing, and how is it gaining strength?

LH: The Finnish contemporary art scene is much more visible than it was in the mid-’90s. With the establishment of Kiasma, the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1998, contemporary art has become an everyday, natural topic of conversation. Art education at the university level is strong; the gallery scene is broader, as well as increasingly specialized; the grants systems has established a firm basis for both making art and doing research in the field. Finnish artists participate in exhibitions around the world and curators have better networks than ever before. Furthermore, there is a new generation of art collectors for whom contemporary art is a way of life.

The three other key players in international contemporary art are Frame Visual Art Finland, whose mission is to increase awareness and visibility of Finnish visual arts; Helsinki International Artists Programme (HIAP), an international residency programme for artists and curators; and the IHME Contemporary Art Festival, which produces a public art project by an internationally renowned artist every year (this year, they’ll present Yael Bartana’s True Finn).

Finnish art museums are undergoing positive changes. The opening of EMMA, the Espoo Museum of Modern Art, in 2006, brought more visibility to contemporary art. The Helsinki Art Museum will see major renovation of its venue Tennis Palace; the artist-led project Checkpoint Helsinki functions under the auspices of the Helsinki Festival; and the Amos Anderson Art Museum has launched plans for new facilities to open in 2017. Guggenheim Helsinki has presented their second proposal to the City of Helsinki for a museum combining contemporary art, architecture and design. An international architectural competition for a new museum building in the harbour, in the heart of Helsinki, is set to be the first phase of the project. And outside the capital, the Serlachius Museum in Central Finland will be opening an extension dedicated solely to contemporary art in the summer of 2014. It is surely a good idea to keep an eye on the Finnish art scene in the coming years!

Artsy: And where do galleries cluster? Can you describe the local gallery scene? Are there still quite a few artist-run spaces?

LH: The gallery scene is very lively. Almost all galleries are in the city center or within walking distance. Commercial galleries exist side-by-side with artist-run spaces and galleries belonging to artists’ associations. The Finnish Art Galleries Association has 29 member galleries, of which 23 are located in Helsinki. There are some galleries of interest in cities like Turku, Tampere, and Oulu.

In the Opening section of ARCO there are two young Finnish galleries which represent new geographical extensions to the city center. SIC Gallery is located in the new neighborhood Jätkäsaari by the sea in West, and graffiti gallery Make Your Mark represents the creative industry in East. We have many artist-run spaces in Helsinki like Galleria Huuto with two premises, SIC, Forum Box, Kallio Kunsthalle and Oksasenkatu 11 among others.

Artsy: Can you tell us about your role at the Kiasma? How does the museum work to bring contemporary art to Finnish society?

LH: I work as a curator for collections and have also curated several exhibitions in the past few years, like current ones “Mika Taanila: Time Machines” and “Erkki Kurenniemi: Towards 2048,” both in collaboration with my curator colleague Kati Kivinen. I’m also a member of our acquisition board. We acquire some 150 pieces each year, mainly from Finnish artists but also from abroad. Even though the collections are Kiasma’s heart, we show three big exhibitions every year plus four smaller ones. In April we’ll open an in-house curated retrospective exhibition by Chilean-born American artist Alfredo Jaar. We also go outside of museum walls with outward loans to Finnish and European art museums, and with special projects like Heimo—meaning ‘tribe’ in Finnish—last year. In that project, Kiasma and the School of Activism asked six artists to take a challenge and collaborate with youngsters based on their initiatives and what activities are lacking in their surroundings in six towns around Finland.

Portrait of Leevi courtesy of Pirje Mykkanen and Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki

Learn more details on the collateral program of Focus Finland, featuring film screenings, artists-in-residence studios, curated solo and group exhibitions here.

Finnish Galleries at ARCOmadrid: AMA, Galerie Anhava, Taik Persons, Showroom Helsinki, Make Your Mark, Forum Box, Galerie Forsblom, Heino, Helsinki Contemporary, Korjaamo Galleria, Sinne, Photographic Gallery Hippolyte, and Sic.

Explore the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art on Artsy.

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