Photo of Curator in Chief and Collections, Arja Miller, courtesy Kansallisgalleria / Finnish National Gallery Aku Häyrynen
To find the latest in media art, many look to Finland’s cutting-edge galleries and artists. The small Nordic country has gained international attention in recent years for its buzzing, innovative new media and video art scene, perhaps witnessed best in its capital city. At this year’s Moving Image Art Fair in New York, four of Helsinki’s top nonprofits and galleries will be exhibiting works by some of their most prominent artists. Among the six participating artists is Finnish duo IC-98, represented by AV-arkki, who will also be representing Finland at this year’s Venice Biennale.
Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Arja Miller, Chief Curator of Collections at Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art and a member of Moving Image’s Curatorial Advisory Committee, about Finland’s thriving contemporary art scene, her thoughts on this year’s fair, and the highly anticipated reopening of Kiasma’s renovated galleries.
Artsy: I’d love to start with a bit of background on the history of media art in Finland. How have Finnish artists embraced new technology and why do you think media art is able to have such a strong following in Finland?
Arja Miller: We have a really big tradition of video art, and encourage different ways of making art and experimenting. Perhaps the most recognized international names are Eija-Liisa Ahtila and Salla Tykkä, who are both masters of storytelling, although their narrative styles are quite different.
I suppose using different technologies is natural for us Finns, but the quality is always top priority. And I have to say, many Finnish artists have a lot to say, and they say it with a very personal touch. But the key element for the Finnish success within media art is that media art education is very high quality here.
Artsy: What is the current video art scene like in Finland?
AM: The video art scene is very exciting at the moment. There are also many galleries, in Helsinki for instance, that show young talent. We also have a lot of artist-run galleries, which make it possible for young artists who are experimenting to have different platforms to show their work at an early stage.
We have very interesting short-film artists and animation artists. I think one special feature in our current scene is the multitude of different approaches we have to media art. Also combining documentary and fiction into so-called “docufiction” is a new genre for some artists. We also have strong media artists such as Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen who make collaborative works by inviting people to participate in their projects. A special quality among some video artists in Finland is their special relationship to music and sounds in that they create a special atmosphere by using sound as a key element in their work.
Tuomas A. Laitinen, who will be at Moving Image Art Fair, is also known as a very captivating DJ. There are lots of artists who even compose soundtracks, and in doing so, create an original artistic language. One such artist is Petra Lindholm.
Artsy: Can you tell me generally about the Kiasma Museum, and the role it has played in establishing the local art scene, and specifically how the museum is making strides to collect and promote media art?
AM: We are the major contemporary art museum in Finland, and we have a large collection comprised of over 8,000 works. When Kiasma was founded in 1998, media art was one of our main foundations. I would say that over 500 works in our collection are media art, comprised of works by Finnish artists and international artists. Our technical staff is specialized in installing media art and all its different needs. Of course it’s changing all the time, so that puts a little bit of pressure on us.
Artsy: Moving onto the Moving Image Art Fair, I notice that four Finnish galleries are participating in the Fair. Can you talk about what we should expect to see from the Finnish exhibitors?
AM: I’m so happy about this. So many of the galleries were ready to support their artists and to participate in the fair. There will be strong original voices indeed, and probably some surprises. IC-98, an artist duo represented by AV-arkki, a nonprofit distribution center of new media art, creates very detailed pencil-drawn animations, which are simply amazing. This is definitely IC-98’s time. They will also be representing Finland in this year’s Venice Biennale.
Another artist that will be at Moving Image is Pink Twins, represented by Gallery Sinne. They mix sound, image, and computer programming in a very special way to create a unique artistic vocabulary. They are also excellent live performers.
Finally there’s Tuomas A. Laitinen, represented by Helsinki Contemporary Gallery. He deals with topical global issues through a variety of approaches including film, sound, lightboxes, and installation. Although the installation for this event will most likely be fairly simple, in a more sustained environment, like at a museum, Laitinen creates highly unusual spatial installations. For example, in his recent museum exhibition in Finland at EMMA, he used innovative sound technologies and high-tech costumes in a provocative way.
Artsy: As a member of the Curatorial Advisory Committee this year, can you talk about what your role was in the process leading up to the fair?
AM: I feel very privileged that I have been a part of the process. All of the artists showing at Moving Image also have works in Kiasma’s permanent collection. I know them all and have worked with them on several occasions. So, of course it was quite easy for me to call them up and suggest, “How about a chance to participate in the Moving Image Art Fair in New York?” And that’s how it started. I contacted their galleries, and then Moving Image Art Fair did their part. In the end, I’m just happy to have a part in this.
Artsy: Going back to Kiasma, the museum has been closed since September 2014 for renovation and is opening this March—in just a few weeks! What kinds of changes will visitors find in the reopened museum? I’d love to hear about the programming you have lined up, especially anything involving video art.
AM: Yes, there has been a lot of renovation at Kiasma, technical improvements, and some renovation to the exterior as well. We will open a new museum shop, and later on, a research center that will give the public access to our digital archives.
Major work was done to Kiasma’s majestic lobby, where the original glass ceiling was restored. Kiasma is a great piece of architecture, so I’m really happy about all these improvements. With regard to programming, we will open with three exhibitions. The first is a very extensive retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe, and will be one of the largest exhibitions of Mapplethorpe’s photography. It will be co-organized with the Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York and Grand Palais in Paris.
The two other exhibitions are curated mainly from Kiasma’s collections, complemented with a couple of loans from artists, and will also include Finnish media artworks. On the 5th floor we will present “The Elements,” which deals with the notion of natural elements and our relationship to them. Among others, we will be showing Liisa Lounila’s 7BPM (2014), which depicts a nocturnal thunderstorm. Lounila’s piece is a large projection that premiered at Moving Image in New York last year.
The other permanent collection exhibition, “Face to Face,” deals with contemporary portraits, and how this very traditional genre of portraiture is treated in contemporary art. It feels like a very relevant topic, especially today when we all use phones to take photos of ourselves, and then share them. I think this is a time to raise this question of how we confront each other, and how it changes the question of what is a portrait?
In “Face to Face” there will be two very compelling pieces of media art. The first is from Adel Abidin. He was born in Baghdad, and then moved to Finland to pursue his studies. This was maybe 12 years ago, and he ended up at the Art Academy in the Time and Space department to specialize in media art. His new work, Michael (2015), referring to the “King of Pop” of course, draws a very interesting portrait of the icon of our times.
There will also be a video installation by Heta Kuchka. Some years ago she did a very interesting and ambitious project in a hospice for Alzheimers patients, resulting in a very beautiful portrait of eleven elderly individuals in the series “Present.” She depicts each person as they listen to music to show how the music travels into their memory, creating the means to connect with individuals who otherwise are mentally lost to the world.
Artsy: As we’ve discussed, new media and video art are very exciting, but some might find such forms difficult to collect. What advice do you have for collectors who are interested in video art, but are unsure of how to start?
AM: I absolutely encourage people to collect video art. At home, I don’t think it requires a projection or installation, or anything quite so demanding. Of course, you can do that if you have the premises for it. Under a staircase can be a perfect place for a certain type of installation. But there are also many pieces that only require a simple monitor and works beautifully, for instance, on a flat screen. I guess what I mean to say is that everything is possible, of course, depending on the work. I also want to encourage the collectors to talk with the artists or the gallerists about different options on installing the work at home. There is always a solution.