Mona Hatoum

Exhibition Review Kiasma Helsinki 07.10.2016 – 26.02.2017 It is not often that we might wish an artist’s work to have become less significant. Sadly, however, the contemporary horrors of the world …

Source: Mona Hatoum


Mona Hatoum

Exhibition Review



07.10.2016 – 26.02.2017

It is not often that we might wish an artist’s work to have become less significant. Sadly, however, the contemporary horrors of the world stage continue to resonate deeply in the work of Mona Hatoum. Following its display in the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and Tate, London, the exhibition of Hatoum’s work – the first solo show to be held in Finland – opens today in Kiasma, Helsinki. While not exactly billed as a retrospective, the exhibition stages a stunning account of the range, depth, and longevity of Hatoum’s artistic engagement in some of the most distressing socio-political issues of the last forty years. Hatoum’s visceral early performances of the 1980s, in which she explored the experience of conflict-driven diaspora, take on a renewed significance in this current climate of forced migration from the Middle East.

Hatoum’s background is full of the complexity that defines her artistic exploration of identity. She was born in Beirut in 1952 to Palestinian parents from Haifa and travelled to Britain in 1975, shortly before the onset of civil war in Lebanon, which separated her from her family. Between 1979 and 1981 she studied at the Slade School of Art in London, the city where she still resides, and yet has made much of her work in residencies across the globe, often utilising local traditional craft methods in situ. Mobilised by intense cultural dislocation, and the aggressive socio-political meltdown taking place in late-70s Britain, Hatoum began to work with performance and video, taking advantage of the directness of the media to engage her audience and to articulate a profound sense of personal, social and cultural anxiety. She rose to prominence in the 1990s with works that were both formally and physically impressive as well as politically incisive, drawing on personal experience to address problems of migration, displacement, racism, and the oppression of women. This exhibition shows the extent to which, twenty years on, Hatoum’s critique is still razor sharp, her conceptual poignancy and material dexterity appearing stronger than ever.

The contemporary backdrop of forced migration and war in the Middle East inevitably presents a vivifying stage for Hatoum’s œuvre. Numerous early works on display in Kiasma, in which Hatoum conveys experiences of separation and loss, the violence of war and the traumatic, desultory effects of diaspora, alert us to the extent of the devastating protraction of misery in this conflict-ridden zone. Hatoum’s works, however, also have a universal tenor. Hot Spot (2006/2013), for example, presents the entire world as a danger zone. A large, steel-framed globe perches precariously on a plinth, its landmass delineated by highly-charged, violently crackling orange neon tubes, referring to both the current climate of border rage and global warming. The work is characteristic of the aesthetically accomplished and yet threatening physical presence of so many of Hatoum’s objects. An initially incomprehensible and yet immensely alluring pieces is Socle du monde (Base of the World, 1992-3), a massive black, textured block standing two metres high in the centre of the upper floor of Kiasma. What appears on approach like a block draped in sumptuous quilted fabric, on closer inspection begins to defy recognition. We encounter a moment of optical and tactile confusion that is both tantalising and unnervingly uncanny. Is it silk? Is it dirt? Is it charred wood? The work in fact is made from large blocks of magnets which the artists has coated with swirling patterns of thickly applied iron filings. A video screened around the corner records how Hatoum ‘paints’ clumps of the dark matter onto the magnets with a brush-like instrument, conveying a further sense of the sensuous and tangibly pleasurable process employed in the object’s construction. Such a work is exemplary of Hatoum’s highly effective control of paradox. Playing on an iconic 1961 work of the same title by Pierro Manzoni (a sleight of hand in which a metal plinth for a sculpture is turned upside down, implicitly making the entire world its object), Hatoum appropriates the Italian’s Duchampian wise-crack and takes it in another, perhaps more female, direction, disarming the rationalising eye with sensory confusion and thereby compelling us to a (denied) reliance on touch in our attempt to understand what is actually before us. Feathery yet sharp, soft yet metal, even ambiguously animate or inanimate, the magnetised Socle du monde simultaneously attracts and repels us.

On the matter of repulsion, the exhibition at Kiasma contains one of the most iconic art works of the 1990s, Hatoum’s Corps étranger (Foreign Body, 1994), an installation consisting of a tall cylindrical structure of three metre diameter, onto the floor of which a film spliced from endoscopy and colonoscopy videos of the artist’s various orifices is projected in a large circular format. The work lures the viewer into the darkened space with flickering, ambiguous images, accompanied by amplified bodily sounds. On entering we are physically cramped and sensorially overwhelmed by the vertiginous descent into the bodily cavities over which we precariously stand and stare. In 1994, pre-internet, this work physically immersed us in an experience of live, visceral, clinical porn. It was an event that no gallery-goer from that period has forgotten and it is undiminished in its nauseating power of engagement.

An adjacent video of an early performance work titled Don’t smile, you’re on camera! (1980), in which Hatoum discomforts her audience by filming its members up close, draws our attention not only to the continuity of the artist’s confrontational relation with her audience but also to her interest in surveillance, having been alarmed on her arrival in London by the ominous presence of CCTV cameras everywhere. By exposing an area of the body presumed entirely unseen, Corps étranger reveals Hatoum’s prescience of our current age of saturated intrusion.

While the theme of surveillance ensures the ongoing effectiveness of this work on its twenty-first century audience, it is also paradigmatic of a strong feature of Hatoum’s œuvre that draws its force from a very primal dynamic. In the 1990s Hatoum’s work was much analysed in terms of the binary of attraction-repulsion, leading to extensive theoretical exegesis via Julia Kristeva’s writings on abjection, such as her publication The Powers of Horror (1980). Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan, Kristeva defined the child’s abjection of (revulsion at) the mother’s body as a necessary stage in the development of the individual subject, as well as the stage by which the child enters the Symbolic order, or the realm of language. With reference to anthropological analyses, Kristeva’s key point was that this process of separation is never fully complete, and that the integrity of the subject is forever threatened by the lurking presence of the abject (represented in faeces, bodily fluids menstrual blood, fallen hair, and other such unspeakables of uncertain form), from which as civilised beings we constantly attempt (hygienically, ritually) and fail to remove ourselves.

The troublesome matter of the abject is literally woven into Hatoum’s œuvre through her continuous use of her own hair, perhaps most potently in this exhibition in the work Keffieh (1993-9). The well-known black and white woven head-dress of Palestinian resistance, the keffieh is a particularly male accessory to conflict, and yet Hatoum reinscribes it with distinctly female overtones by weaving the intricate black grid pattern out of her own hair (the date suggests six years of hair weaving). Typical of Hatoum’s disruption of expectations, it is also characteristic of the polysemic dimension of her work; the hair-woven scarf blurring the boundaries between male and female, passive and active, domestic and military.

Boundaries, therefore, and their uncertainties, are essential tropes within Hatoum’s work, be they those which delineate the individual body from its waste or which demarcate geographical borders, and by extension, race, gender, nationality and identity. What Hatoum’s work emphasises, however, is that such boundaries are never exactly clear, but are blurred and muddied, they slip and disintegrate within the daily processes of our lives (eating, sex, toiletries, etc.) and the global movements and interactions of people, colonialism, war, migration, etc. Attempts, therefore, to identify (self or other) by exactly separating and distinguishing are revealed as ultimately impossible, desperate and fearful of a threat to what is really an illusion of coherency. The spectre of primal abjection so troubles every attempt at absolute distinction that such efforts embodied, rationalized and taken to extremes begin to emerge as pathologies (hygiene compulsions/racism).

Hatoum thus refers much in her work to a fundamentally associated chain of signifiers – child-mother/individual-homeland – having in her early performances of the 1980s physically enacted the dissolution of bodily/psychological integrity as a migrant in London severed from family and home. In the video installation Measures of Distance (1988), Hatoum reads excerpts from her mother’s letters sent from Beirut, which tell of the constant shelling that disrupts daily patterns of life and family visits, and which express the pain of a mother’s separation from her daughter. The adjacent work, a monochrome short film titled Changing Parts (1984), allegorizes the trauma of physical and geographical dislocation. Again beauty and horror combine in a work which begins with a serene and intimate mood, constructed with long, slow shots of a homely tiled bathroom interior – mother’s hair brush, father’s shaving brush – to the harmonious accompaniment of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suit No. 4.

Gradually, however, familial harmony disintegrates; the restful bathroom is substituted by the movements of an indistinct, wavering body, floundering in some dark matter (clay) which is smeared across a transparent screen; Bach breaks up, drowned out by vague military-sounding North American-voiced radio waves. Ever relevant, Hatoum’s latest exhibition comes at a time of heightened tension in Europe, not least in Finland itself, which is undergoing an ugly internal conflict over the issue of racial/national borders. With its paradoxical encounter of aesthetic pleasure and sensory, physical disturbance, Hatoum’s work conveys a vital expression of the subjectivity of those who are displaced, dislocated, and severed from the comfort zones of identity, family, homeland.

While this may sound unremittingly dismal, there is also great wit and humour in Hatoum’s work. This is frequently conveyed through knowingly surrealistic references, particularly associated with the neo-dada legacy of Marcel Duchamp’s subversive objects. A concisely curated corner of the exhibition displays numerous objects in glass vitrines. One, titled Natura morta (medical cabinet), from 2012, consists of a glass-fronted metal cabinet containing twelve richly-coloured, beautifully crafted, mirrored Murano glass baubles. Again, Hatoum’s arresting combination of beauty and horror is immediately effected by the hand-grenade shaped form of the objects and the wry, morbid implication of the title. The cultural signification of these objects is carried further, however, through how the French word grenade refers both to an explosive device and a pomegranate fruit, a rich cultural symbol of the Mediterranean Middle East from where Hatoum originates.

Other objects moulded by a blackly surrealist humour are a viciously spiked colander that recalls Man Ray’s 1921 object Gift – a regular flat iron affixed underneath with menacing row of nails. Another typically surrealist abrasion between object and title is presented in the works titled Eyecatchers (1997), three delicately constructed spectacle-like objects in which lenses have been substituted for trap-like cylindrical protrusions. The eye recoils squeamishly at the direct physical affect of the cage-like shapes. Hatoum says that the idea came to her in Japan, from a dynamic between sexual allure and constraint of looking, and then took the form of traditional bamboo fishing nets, the local makers of which she asked to construct the objects. Next to it is T42, two conjoined white tea cups and saucers that recalls Meret Oppenheim’s droll surrealist intervention in household objects from the 1930s, and yet its title both refers to a classification of amputee disability and a military tank. Associations abound in Hatoum’s work, animating her objects through cultural and historical oscillation.

Maintaining the distinctly feminist legacy of Cahun and Oppeheim’s surrealism (and of course Louise Bourgeois’ powerful sense of the domestic uncanny), Hatoum’s political charging of household objects is actualized in the installation Home (1999). A collection of shiny steel domestic appliances has been wired-up in an electric circuit on top of a table (ambiguously wooden-topped but the metal frame and wheels suggestive of a sinister medical context). A fence of taught steel cables protects viewers from this death-trap table, that surges with illumination and buzzes violently as the amplified electric current charges through the normally homely utensils. Hatoum evokes here the rallying cry of vanguard surrealist Claude Cahun, who addressed the 1936 Exhibition of Surrealist Objects in Paris with a text titled “Beware of Household Objects”, as well as Martha Rosler’s classic feminist performance Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), in which the demurely aproned artist enacted violent gestures with kitchen utensils. The return of a female repressed is an undercurrent to Hatoum’s work that is as equally charged as this perilous table top.

The word play relating domestic objects to violence and division is perhaps a little strained in the work Grater Divide (2002), a two-metre high cheese grater hinged in the manner of a domestic screen. Nonetheless, the section of the exhibition represents Hatoum’s concerns with torture and incarceration (having domestic as well as martial implications). There is a brutal minimalism to these works, formally resonant in the horizontality of pieces like Daybed (2008), a broad black steel ‘bed’, its surface punctured violently outwards to resemble the narrow side of a cheese grater. This allusion to minimalism in Hatoum’s work is significant in that it situates her work historically in relation to a crucial shift in the late 1960s away from the minimalists’ insistence upon the formal autonomy of the work of art to the more content-driven character of what became known as post-minimalism.

Hatoum’s work corresponds to this movement in that it sought to retain much of the material presence, the physical affectivity of mass and large spatial dimensions achieved by minimalism, while at the same time negating formal autonomy by inscribing works with socio-political semantics. Much influenced by the work of Eva Hesse (1936-70), Hatoum has developed her own carefully balanced, bold and yet nuanced dynamic between the formal attributes and the semantic and tactile resonance of her works. Quarters (1996) or Impenetrable (2009) represent the stripped down aesthetic of this dynamic; the former consisting of an imposing arrangement of what appears to be steel-framed shelf-like bunk beds, precariously five beds high, and the latter consisting of hundreds of rows of barbed steel wire, suspended from the ceiling by invisible fishing thread so that the finished form floats in space like a transparent cube. The defining tension of the piece arises from the binary of aesthetically satisfying, minimal, kinetic form and the menacing mass of sharp-edged steel.

The extent to which Hatoum submerges the viewer in a paradoxical appreciation of minimalist aesthetics and overwhelms them with unnerving spatial and sensory experience is apparent in the well-curated intersection of the rooms containing the electrically charged Home and the installation Light Sentence (1992). The latter merges references to minimalist and kinetic art with an oppressive physical sense of constraint, as the viewer stands in a restricted room before a corridor of wire mesh lockers. In between the lockers, a single bare light bulb is suspended on a motorised cable, which very slowly lowers the single light source down to the floor and back up again. The slight movement of the bulb casts undulating, intricately gridded shadows across the white walls, leaving the viewer destabilised and slightly giddy with a nauseating sensation of both movement and constriction. The viewer is enveloped in physical associations to all manner of social and political horrors, made even more uncomfortably acute by the deadly buzzing sound of electricity from the adjacent room, the noise palpably rattling through the wire cages.

Hatoum has an immense skill at drawing us physically into proximity with the experience of fear, threat, severance, and disquieting ambiguity. Experiencing the extraordinary and long developed range and depth of her work impresses upon us the political and human necessity of empathy. After all, are our lives so unquestionably and deservingly stable that the troubles of conflict, incarceration, migration and oppression are those of an indistinct, unwelcome Other? In the large-scale floor piece, Map (1999), Hatoum represents global instability in the form of a world map made up of thousands of clear glass marbles, some of which have rolled away, no longer demarcating borders but slipping off into the oceans, their frontiers undone by gravity, motion or, implicitly, political absent-mindedness and the errant recklessness of the child’s game.

Hatoum’s Helsinki exhibition opened on the same day on which National Poetry Day was celebrated in the UK, a day on which Michael Rosen and Annemarie Young launched a book of poetry aimed at children, titled Who Are Refugees and Migrants? What Makes People Leave Their Homes? And Other Big Questions, which addresses identities of the same and the other on a basic humanising level. Herein, the British-Jamaican poet Benjamin Zephaniah writes: “We can all be refugees / Sometimes it only takes a day / Sometimes it only takes a handshake / Or a paper that is signed.” Mona Hatoum at Kiasma not only reflects the remarkable career of one of the most significant global artists of the last fifty years, but also reaches out with a call for empathy and engagement with the struggles of those who are only ‘other’ by the grace of God.

Choi Jeong Hwa: Happy Together


Exhibition Review

Donna M. Roberts

Choi Jeong Hwa

Happy Together





True to the old-school Pop tradition of blending sincerity with irony, Choi Jeong Hwa is an ambiguous artistic character. Attending the opening of his first exhibition in Finland this week, the South Korean artist cut a quietly charismatic and curiously graceful figure as he accompanied press around the opening of his exhibition, Happy Together. Imagine, if you can, a Buddhist monk crossed with late ‘70s ironic pop group, The Buggles, and you’ll get a picture of Choi; short, dapper, with over-sized specs, art-world savvy and yet emanating humility. The first of many paradoxes about this artist’s work is apparent in the figure of the man himself. Dispensing the Buddhist wisdom of love and participation across the medium of gaudy plastic colanders piled in decorative columns by school children, Choi Jeong Hwa certainly knows how to play an art scene needy of public engagement and brandable, photogenic works.


Described by the museum curators as a “plastic jungle”, Happy Together is an exhibition of colourful constructions made from artificial and natural materials. We are welcomed with an over-sized bouquet of bright silk inflatable flowers and depart through a room filled with a shiny pink inflatable (nearly) flying pig, titled Love Me. According to the gallery wall tag, this work “is a shiny herald of consumerism that plays with the aesthetics of 1980s neo-pop”, making it clear that this is an artist very fluent in the visual semiotics and installation narrative of pop art. Here’s the rub though. There is again something playfully paradoxical about such a work; quoting the puff-ball depths of ‘80s Koonsian kitsch, Love Me also reflects the pop folklore of Choi’s native Korea, where the pig is a symbol of affluence and abundance. A conspicuous observation is further offered in the same wall tag, which proffers that despite the knowing pop referencing of the porcine balloon, “in Choi Jeong Hwa’s hands it becomes silly and lovable”.


Any viewer who by now has the feeling that there is something more than meets the eye to Choi’s work, will find this tag somewhat quizzical; perhaps revealing more about the cultural politics of museum wall tags than the work itself. It’s 2016, and eight years after a global market crash, at a time when rapacious Asian tigers are beginning to look very much like bloated reproductions of their historical Occidental counterparts, this short-winged, failing to fly, inflatable pig is surely more than “silly and loveable”. While in part Choi’s work does express the all embracing humanism of the exhibition title, this final work reveals another explicitly critical dimension. In a very informative essay in the exhibition catalogue, the British curator and art historian David Elliott tells us that Choi was very much influenced by the Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre, whose monumental Critique of Everyday Life argued against the capitalist banalization of everyday life through developing a greater consciousness of significant moments. Countering life’s reduction to a zone of consumption, Lefebvre declared: “We have to rediscover real love, behind the love that is all protestation, real freedom behind illusory freedom.” Choi’s radicalism is subtle, his humanism heartfelt, and his embrace of participatory art is rooted in this well-constructed hybrid of Marxist critique and genuine Buddhist compassion. In Choi’s work, Eastern philosophy and Deleuzean critique meet in the revelation of immanence.  Choi’s critique is very welcome, especially at a time when the West is stupefying itself with cod-spiritual mantras of “wellness” and “positivity”, all rubber stamped by governments eager to spin away anxieties they’ve created with superficial and perniciously deluding self-help remedies to further shackle people to life-reducing cycles of work-and-spend.


The encounter of East and West is a strong feature of Choi’s art, and one which introduces a polysemic richness to his work and its place within a globally corresponding history of art practice and social critique. Perhaps the beauty of Choi’s work, and the marker of his lack of cynicism, is that viewers are free to respond to his art on a superficial level. Yes, you can just find the pig “silly and loveable”. We can take pleasure in the brightly-coloured simplicity, and delight in the post-modern-rag-picking-street-market-stall spontaneity of the artist’s choice of objects and materials. We can also participate in the on-going construction of works in a way that makes active sense of Choi’s pop ecology. Open Flower, for example, consists of small plastic, connectable forms that Choi calls “plastic flower seeds” which the viewer can piece together: they “do not bloom by themselves, until they meet all of you”. This is pop-Buddhism at its most accessible. After all, the artist notes, plastic is only another transmutation of originally natural substances. A playful, participatory creative act turns plastic into part of an organic process. The Buddhist laws of impermanence and transmutation thus meet the cheapest ends of particle physics, redeeming even this gaudy, non-biodegradable substance through its original and metaphorical organic identity. The artist stated of the exhibition: “This exhibition is one kind of ritual which serves and takes care of three elements in our lives: human beings, nature, and love.” Earnest stuff indeed, and yet the clear consciousness of consumption and material excess reflected in Choi’s work denotes another level of ecological anxiety in his work.


In the middle of the exhibition, a number of works arranged in a circle in the centre of a dimply-lit room enable us to take a breath away from the gaudy joy of plastics. These works, with titles like Alchemy, Iron Age, and Alchemy, Wooden Age, or Karma and Relatum, present Choi’s more meditative reflections upon materials. Wooden bowls, rusty nails, and ground glass (notably, from Dom Pérignon champagne bottles) are presented like relics of a pre-historic era. The artist’s sculptural sense for morphology and the essential and recurrent forms of nature carry us to another realm in which the underlying connectedness of things is expressed through everyday objects. Microcosm and macrocosm, the cosmos, nature, salad bowls, and the people who use them, are all inter-related in Choi’s visual and social universe.


This calming interlude seems significant within the “plastic jungle”. Choi has stated that he is drawn to colourful plastics because they remind him of the area of Seoul in which he grew up, Gangbuk, which is brimming with street markets selling cheap, mass-produced goods. He has a genuinely celebratory attitude to popular culture, and to the lives of the people who buy and sell the goods he includes in his works. In spite his (apparently late development of) art-world savviness, he still considers himself a “meddler” in art, something of an outsider, who in no way identifies with the cool, wry detachment of the often cynical character of historical pop artistry. Nonetheless, his urban, Korean sensibility, as well as his manifold career in the worlds of art and design, fits very neatly into both a Western art scene eager for the art of Asia and a no less niche fascination with its popular culture and urban vibrancy.


Choi’s disquieting comments on nature serve in some way to confirm a stereotype of the modern Asian metropolis as high on mass-production, low on natural greenery. According to David Elliott, Choi once said: “I feel strange when I see a real tree or flower. Nature is so rare in Korea these days that I’m actually afraid when I encounter it. I’m afraid of the ‘real’. Maybe all I can deal with is an idea of nature immune to destruction, so I make an artificial one to look at and enjoy.” While this paradoxical aphorism might remind us of Warhol’s passing provocations, it nonetheless belies a genuine anxiety at the state of relations between the artificial and the natural. We might even be led to interpret Choi’s professed attempts to “harmonise” this very contemporary dichotomy as more of an anxious symptom than optimistic solution.


With works entitled Happy Happy and Love Me, the exhibition Happy Together deals a perfect sleight of hand. It ticks the big “Asian Art” cultural box; it’s family friendly; it appears to be promoting art as a means to “wellbeing”; and it charms us into a rich and accessible intercultural exchange. What more could the Helsinki City council ask of Kiasma? At the same time, however, through the conspicuous excess of these public friendly features, Choi invites (but never pushes) us through the looking glass of all this accessible rhetoric of “happiness” and “harmony” to confront the currents of anxiety that feed into our far more general needs for easily consumable pop panaceas. Choi’s spoken English is not fluent, but it’s far less ambiguous than his art.  When I asked him about the paradoxes of his work, especially how the apparently earnest elements of Buddhism are offset against the clearly sardonic allusions to the “happiness” discourse and the bloated pigs of affluence, Choi nodded seriously in agreement: “You understand. It’s very dark, very dark.”


Published in Finland Today

April 2016







We Have Inherited Hope – the Gift of Forgetting: Pekka Jylhä

Pekka copyExhibition Review

Donna M. Roberts


Pekka Jylhä

We Have Inherited Hope – the Gift of Forgetting

Helsinki Contemporary – until 3.04.2016



When I visit contemporary art galleries in Helsinki, I often find myself a lone viewer. The other day, however, Helsinki Contemporary was full of people; the conversations suggesting that their visit had been prompted by recent media attention to the works on show: “Are you shocked?” one middle-aged woman asked her companions as they left. The buzz around this exhibition of new works probably stems from a media focus on Until the Sea Shall Him Free, Jylhä’s life-scale coloured sculptural rendering of the drowned body of three-year old Syrian refugee, Aylan Kurdi. The sculpted child is posed as captured in the heart-breaking photographs taken by Nilifur Demir in September 2015. I thought it a paradoxical reflection of the unabsorbable saturation of viral images that exhibition goers might anticipate shock in a secondary representation of Demir’s truly shocking original image of the child washed up like flotsam on a Turkish beach. Like the image of the burning Vietnamese child, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, in the 1970s, or those of the starving children of Ethiopia who haunted our living rooms in the 1980s, the picture of Aylan – and the artistic responses to his death – seem emblematic of our incapacity to respond effectively to the human disasters of this decade.


The collectively shaming reiteration of this image is now equally as viral as the original, and Jylhä stands alongside Ai Weiwei as a contemporary artist compelled to engage in the public process of traumatic repetition apparently necessary in our attempts to come to terms with the reality of what this isolated image represents. What is shocking clearly lies in part in the space between this reality and European civilization’s inability to reconcile it with the continuity of a life of Saturday afternoon gallery visits, shopping, and coffee shops. In a number of recent works, Jylhä captures this modern condition of the paralysis we experience alongside collective grief in the face of disasters, particularly those which, for a moment, seem monumentally terrible until they are superseded by the next media wave of horror. Jylhä’s work engages us in thinking about the process of witnessing that is inscribed into the reiteration of Aylan’s image: from Demir’s first sighting of his body, to her photographing it, to our viewing, over and over, the photographs that she took as the only way to “express the scream of [Aylan’s] silent body.” What, then, can an artist add to the original experience of viewing such media imagery? Can it ever lead to more than a form of vulgar, pop commentary? This is a question that Jylhä asks of himself as much as of his viewers.


His answers are tentative, softly spoken, in gestures that claim value only in as much as they reflect our broader collective sense of inadequacy. Although the ten new works displayed in Helsinki Contemporary appear to be presented as a thematic series, they were made as individual pieces. They nonetheless correspond to one another both in their theme of disaster and the delicate, organic materials such as white goose feathers used throughout. According to the artist, the works were created “one misfortune at a time,” and represent his responses to a series of recent high-profile horrors, including the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris and the deliberate downing of the Lufthansa flight 9525 in 2015. Discreetly titled 24.3.2015, the play between title and work here is very revealing. Viewing a miniature plastic plane ploughing into a mountain of goose feathers (an Icarian symbol here), the image resonance of 9/11 comes to the fore. “What happened on 24.3.1015?” viewers whisper. Despite the international terror elicited by the German crash in 2015, it would appear that already, only one year after, viewers struggle to recall the significance of the date in the title. It seems that the dates of some violent deaths are indelible and some not.


In the title of the exhibition, “We Have Inherited Hope – the Gift of Forgetting,” Jylhä borrows a line by the Polish Nobel Prize-winning poet, Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) that refers to how the ability to forget is vital for human survival: “We’ve inherited hope – the gift of forgetting, you’ll see how we give birth among the ruins.” Clearly, however, Jylhä is concerned with the paradoxes that arise from this primal skill. While making the sculpture of Aylan, he pondered the expression “lest we forget”, and although the work is expressly a commemoration of the child’s death, Jylhä points to the failures of our will to sustain attention to events recounted by forms of media that are inherently ephemeral.  Our will to memorialise arises exactly from our ability to forget. At a time when the current daily news prompts anxious parallels with the 1930s, Jylhä’s meditation on the dynamic of memory and forgetting, and the media’s role in it, is most poignant.


The play between collective memory and the ephemerality of media attention is manifest in Jylhä’s recent works through a very deliberate choice of organic degradable materials. The work titled We Have Inherited Hope – the Gift of Forgetting, for example, consists of delicate bones, cat skulls and snake vertebrae arranged in the circular form of a ticking clock. While his use of organic materials is longstanding, Jylhä is an artist known in Helsinki for his monumental public sculpture, most notably Source, a stone, bronze, and steel memorial to former president Urho Kekkonen, installed in 2000 next to Finlandia House. A melancholy sense for the memorial seems to run throughout his work, apparent also in the piece titled Waiting (2010) which stands in Kaivopuisto: a golden figure of a windswept young woman scanning the horizon, recalling the wives who would wait along the coast for their sailor husbands to return home. While this monument to the fragility of sea-faring life stands sturdy in large scale bronze, Jylhä captures the vulnerability of the current marine passage of refugees in one of the most affecting works in the exhibition, Journey, which renders a miniature inflatable dinghy in white goose feathers. The effect of this fragile vessel being displayed to the side of Aylan’s little form is deftly articulate. Similarly, the piece titled Sorrow of a Pen, represents a large-scale fountain-pen made of feathers, a plume though mightier than the sword visibly bleeding thick red gouts from its quill. “At its best a sculpture resembles a poem in space.” Thus Jylhä stated in conversation with curator Mikaela Lostedt. However, before the lyrical play between title and object, it is Jylhä’s material poetics which most impress. Lyricism and visual wit deliver the lightness of touch to the serious technical mastery of materials that underlies even the most apparently ephemeral of these works.


Some viewers might justifiably ask if and when a poetic response is appropriate in light of the real, bloody, material mess of the events to which Jylhä’s work refers. Poetic responses are valuable in their insightful and affecting communication of shared meanings, emotions, and symbols, and yet the melancholy poetics of these new works might for some be too directly realised. Some might suspect an overly-explicit relation between work and title, for example. Arguably, however, the strength of Jylhä’s works lies to a large extent in the critical tension between sentimentality and horror. The point at which political or poetic obviousness is a weakness is open for debate, and is perhaps an inherent question surrounding the synthesis of pop art and political critique that is at work in our current stage in the history of media (in the manifold sense). Pop art and its legacy is part of Jylhä’s sculptural sensibility. The apparent ephemerality of gesture in the construction of these works belies a profound engagement with the formal history of sculpture and object making. This is notably reflected in the playfully alchemical transposition of shapes and materials throughout Jylhä’s oeuvre: bronze forms artfully masquerading as helium-filled balloons, molten-looking steel captured in the form of a water-splash. In the current exhibition an over-sized, cream leather-look purse distends from the wall like some bloated form of bathroom plumbing. Curiously, the ambiguity of its title and translation – in Finnish Peseytyminen and in English Ablution – further carries Jylhä’s Duchampian humour: is there a reference here to money laundering or, as with Duchamp’s Fountain, is the artist playing with various bawdy symbolic, as well as material, correspondences?


There is a work in this exhibition, though, which stands alone from the disasters and melancholia. High on the wall, a stuffed white hare tip-toes stealthily towards the gallery door. Slung over his shoulder is a white leather-like (yet aluminium) swag bag, filled with long, brightly illuminated crystals, the reflections from which dance across the ceiling, tracing the creature’s aery path. This work, titled Make Her Path Light and Pure, contains one of many stuffed white mountain hares that have appeared in Jylhä’s works over the years, and symbolises for the artist human life, its magic and fragility: “It is a reminder of threatening dangers and it is a sensitive and fragile symbol of nature that needs shelter.” Like Lewis Carroll’s threshold-crossing white rabbit, the Aztec drunken rabbit deities Centzon Totochtin, and Joseph Beuys’ shamanistic hare, Jylhä’s animal is a liminal thing: a creaturely other that is yet identifiable with mankind, a humorously-formed and deeply animal symbol of our longing for transcendence, transversal, and sublimation. Both it and the sculptor are adepts of processes of transformation, and here it acts as a reminder of the mythic structures that bind us beyond vernacular horror. The imagination takes the high road.


Published in Finland Today

March 2016

Riika Hyvönen – Roller Derby Kisses

RollerDerbyKissesExhibition Review

Donna M. Roberts

Riika Hyvönen: Roller Derby Kisses

Gallery Saariaho Järvenpää

Merimienhenkatu, 31

Helsinki 00150

February 2016


A sexy pop homage to the gutsy girls’ world of Roller Derby


These five large-scale, multimedia works by Finnish artist Riika Hyvönen hang like a proudly sassy and very sexy homage to the gutsy girls’ world of roller derby. While displaying images of women’s heavily bruised bottoms might at first sound like cause for anxiety, the erotic exhibitionism of these works comes directly from the heart of this racy all-girl subculture. If this is exploitation art, then it’s entirely in keeping with the audaciously and self-consciously erotic world of roller derby itself. “I objectify the girls completely,” the artist admits, “but in the same way as they objectify themselves”. Hyvönen is keen to stress how the perception of such bruises in mainstream culture is out of touch with their reception inside the derby community, where they are flaunted proudly to fellow participants. “They are love bites and badges of honour”, Hyvönen has affirmed, adding how she feels “deeply honoured to be able to turn some of them into art”.


Hyvönen, herself a roller-girl who recently completed her BA in Fine Arts from Goldsmiths, University of London, has worked with images sent to her via internet from women around the world keen to show-off their extraordinarily florid derby trophies. One girl posting on Hyvönen’s Facebook page “I have a really beautiful bruise on my bum. Do you want to see a pic? It has 12 colours and is the size of my head.” Clearly a passionate participant in the derby world, its community, and what she calls “the mezmerising subculture that has sprung from it”, Hyvönen treats the injuries as delicate traces of the women’s experiences on the circuit, psychological as much as physical indexes of this high-octane contact sport. If, as the artist says, “our skin tells the stories of our lives”, then Hyvönen has, with great affection and humour, captured not only the intense physical reality of roller derby, but also unabashedly conveys the fetishistic aura of this feisty subculture. With that sassiness characteristic of the activity, Hyvönen’s work expresses how, like most sports both for its participants and fans, roller derby is far more than just a sport. Amongst other things, it is about beauty, particularly the roughhousing challenge to conventional notions of female beauty, and appropriate behaviour, that the girl-on-girl sport represents.


Hyvönen’s works, some huge at over 2 metres square, have their own physical impact on the viewer, especially after first viewing them on the screen where their curvaceous three dimensions are flattened into mere 2D images. These are impressive, boldly fleshy 3D relief constructions that, while wearing their constructedness as openly as the roller girls wear their bruises, nonetheless delight in an erotic, illusionistic materiality. The softly textured skin-toned leather is stretched tautly over rounded butt-shaped curves of wood, overlaid a few millimetres above with another jigsawed MDF curve in the form of fluorescent micro-shorts that curls to a deliberately sensual point between the arrestingly realistic butt-cheek forms; illusorily yielding skin under the mimetic surface of spangly, sequinned lurex, or satin fabric. The bruises that adorn the smooth vellum of the buttocks blossom like deep-space constellations or haemorrhaging tie-dye patterns, some bearing the criss-cross imprint of fishnets worn at the time of impact. For Hyvönen, the internal tincture of theses trophy-blooms invite hallucinatory images, the dreamy immersion of visual analogy epitomised by the dialogue of Polonius and Hamlet or the works of artists from the Renaissance to surrealism: “Their psychedelic figures’, Hyvönen muses, “are capable of taking forms as mystical as the clouds, pictured for centuries in art.” For the cover of a 1947 surrealist exhibition catalogue, Marcel Duchamp created a single 3D relief breast from foam rubber backed with black velvet, invitingly titled Please Touch. The viewer might be disappointed that Hyvönen does not follow suit. She does, however, tantalise with the tactility of her works which, with the trashy spangle of their materiality and the confident reveal of their anonymous subjects’ butt-selfies, evoke both the fetishy cropped female forms of pop art and capture a highly contemporary attitude in the way women record, display, and enjoy their own bodies.


Published in Finland Today

January 2016








Teemu Kivikangas: The Aleph

AlephExhibition Review

Donna M. Roberts

Teemu Kivikangas: The Aleph

2-31 July, 2015

Hippolyte Photographic Gallery

Yrjönkatu 8-10 (Courtyard), 00120 Helsinki


An innovative, interactive installation, that combines gaming technology and the fantastic literary imagination of Jorge Luis Borges to create an aesthetic experience of infinite spatial intrigue.


Kivikangas’ installation is an inventive virtual elaboration of a short story by the Argentine master of fiction, titled The Aleph: a melancholic tale that weaves together the classic Borgesian themes of love, poetry, time and space. Harnessing the spatial effects of gaming technology, Kivikangas – a professional games designer – has created an imaginative impression of the Hispanic colonial mansion of the story, through which the viewer navigates freely via mouse. Four screens reveal different aspects of this evocatively rendered interior which, in the story, houses deep in its basement the mysterious metaphysical point known as ‘The Aleph’: ‘a place where all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist’. The fictional punctum of the story is playfully reconstructed through a multi-screen experience that simulates the notion of ‘interactive’ story-telling developed by Argentine writers like Borges and Julio Cortázar. Although we have some control over our view-point, a non-interactive screen scrolls different, slightly unattainable perspectives, introducing a rather sinister David Lynchesque dimension of surveillance. On this aspect of the work the artist commented ‘I was almost surprised how visionary and relevant Borges’ ideas on surveillance, archive, seeing and recording, etc. felt, and thus a highly contemporary medium felt like a good one.’


There is, however, immense pleasure in participating in this installation, not least because the house is beautifully rendered by Kivikangas, its external courtyard perfectly capturing the crepuscular light of the Argentine capital as it glances through palm trees and ornate balustrades. According to Kivikangas ‘the work is patched together from thousands of different photographs’ taken while the artist was resident in Buenos Aires. They are effectively animated here in a space that is both lucid and uncanny. To those familiar with the writer’s work, the installation plays on Borges’ seamless merging of fiction and reality, his creation of labyrinths of space, time and imagination. In The Aleph, Kivikangas interprets the potentials of fiction through the spatial and perceptual potentials of video gaming, which makes for a very absorbing experience, both aesthetically and imaginatively. Through a process akin to single-player video gaming, we are drawn directly into the superbly constructed space, compelled to explore the intricately rendered paintings, prints, and arcane objects such as Egyptian antiquities, astrolabes, and chess boards – a classic Borgesian metaphor for the infinite game of life.


As we manoeuvre through corridors, stairwells, and antechambers we find typed pages from Borges’ story placed on surfaces like clues, telling of enigmatic characters such as the long-dead beauty Beatriz Viterbo who haunts the house in photographs and memorabilia, and who around one corner is wittily evoked by a rendering of Rossetti’s portrait Beata Beatrix. Kivikangas has sharply reproduced Borges’ cabbalistic sense for mystical symbols and the semiotic play of the ‘text of the world’ echoed in tapestries and the gorgeous Moorish patterning of the ceramic tiles that weave together the ‘skin’ of the house as both fiction and spatial reconstruction.


In many ways, Kivikangas’s work is about the processes and pleasures of looking as well as the technical innovations within the history of image construction. There are many delights here for those with an interest in art history and the study of perception. In one room, copies of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosene Atlas are hung next to monochrome photographs (of the mysterious Beatriz?), presenting a mise-en-abyme of the constant relay of images that occurs throughout the recursive history of representation. Renaissance prints of camera obscura are here juxtaposed with old box cameras, a telescope in one room is mirrored by a microscope in another, thereby echoing the Borgesian play between microcosm and macrocosm, the correspondences between the internal and external structures of the world that are as much the subject of science as fiction.


This is an incredibly engaging installation that re-interprets ancient themes through the most contemporary of media, and the cool, calm space of the Hippolyte gallery is a perfect distraction from the streets of Helsinki this summer.



Published in Finland Today

July 2015


Peter Greenaway comes to Espoo with story of queer Eisenstein in Mexico

Donna M. Roberts

The British auteur, Peter Greenaway, will be this year’s major red carpet figure at the Espoo Ciné film festival (21-30.08.2015) with his latest venture about the iconic Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. First screened at the Berlin Film Festival in February, Greenaway’s film is a characteristically creative interpretation of the short period Eisenstein spent in Guanajuato in 1931 during a tour of Mexico, and stars a number of Finnish actors, including Elmer Bäck as the wild-haired Eisenstein.

Greenaway’s films are largely considered an acquired taste, and the director is known for his unashamed delight in theatricality, visual spectacle, and lush cinematography, as well as his relish for unabashed sexuality – which seems to infuse his films with the bawdy spirit of the historical paintings of his adopted country of residence, the Netherlands. Eisenstein in Guanajuato is no exception. Greenaway has chosen to focus on two aspects of the Soviet director’s life and oeuvre that are perhaps least well known – his journey in Mexico and his homosexuality. The film tells the story of the ten days Eisenstein stayed in Guanajuato, according to Greenaway largely engaged in a passionate physical relationship with his guide, the anthropologist Jorge Palomino Cañedo. In one erotic scene, Cañedo is depicted deflowering Eisenstein on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, after which he comically inserts the Red Flag into the director’s ravaged posterior. The interlude in Guanajuato was part of Eisenstein’s fourteen-month adventure in Mexico, during which he filmed over 250 miles of reel for an ultimately unfinished project titled Que Viva México! Greenaway distills into his film something of the spirit that so engaged Eisenstein in his experiences of Mexican festivals and rituals, giving us a taste of how the famous Guanajuatense tradition of the Day of the Dead celebrations might have looked in November 1931.

Although some critics have already rejected Greenaway’s rather buffoonish and naive image of the Soviet director – who Greenaway claims as his idol and ‘the greatest cinematic practitioner we have ever seen’ – the film has garnered much praise for its visual appeal, its raucous character, and for drawing attention to a little known and yet significant period in Eisenstein’s life and work. Greenaway may well over-simplify Eisenstein’s experiences in Mexico, but he essentially uses the passion of Eisenstein’s affair with Cañedo to symbolize what he sees as the enormous impact the journey through Mexico had on his work from the mid-1930s onwards. For Greenaway, this impact came through Eisenstein’s experience of the sensual, communal, and participatory nature of life in Mexico as he saw it.

Eisenstein’s journey to the Americas makes for a fairly surreal tale. (For those interested in reading further, a good account of it is detailed in Masha Salazkina’s In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein’s Mexico). After a failed attempt to make a film in Hollywood on the promise of Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Eisenstein – through the assistance of Charles Chaplin – was offered financial backing by a socialist author, Upton Sinclair, for a Mexican project which was underwritten by Lenin and ended abruptly in late 1931 on the orders of Stalin, who feared the great director might be deserting his homeland. Beginning his travels in December 1930, Eisenstein first encountered the extraordinary festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City and shortly after filmed scenes of devastation in the wake of an enormous earthquake in Oaxaca. The sections he filmed for Que Viva México! included scenes of marriage and funeral in ancient and traditional communities, ceremonies of love and death, and terrible sacrifices consistent with his view of Mexico as ‘lyrical and tender, but also brutal’. No doubt also influenced by his friendship with Diego Rivera (another native of Guanajuato) and Frida Kahlo, Eisenstein constructed an image of Mexico that is no doubt still familiar to many who visit the country, including Greenaway: one in which the ancient and the modern, the lyrical and the violent co-exist in a stunning balance.

Interpreting Eisenstein’s Mexico experiences as pivotal in a humanist shift in the director’s work, Greenaway offers the theory that while Eisenstein’s pre-Mexico films were largely about ideology, his post-Mexico work was about people. It was in Mexico, according to Greenaway, that Eisenstein ‘learned about sex and death; he became humanized’. Again, although critics have opposed Greenway’s over-emphasis on Eisenstein’s sexual adventure in Mexico – some arguing that Eisenstein’s diaries tell of a far more worldly and sexually experienced life prior to his journey – Greenaway’s intention is to provide a sense of the reinvigoration and renewal that Eisenstein underwent in the Americas. At one point in the film Greenaway has Elmer Bäck pronounce this experience of revelation with a witty reference to Eisenstein’s 1927 film October: Ten Days that Shook the World, saying of his stay in Guanajuato: ‘I will consider these ten days that shook Eisenstein’.

On a personal and artistic level, Greenaway, born in Wales in 1942 and a resident of Amsterdam since the mid-1990s, clearly identifies with Eisenstein’s experiences as a cosmopolitan figure influenced by the differences in social and sexual mores often encountered when living abroad. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film has provoked the ire of the Russian film foundation for its focus on the homosexuality of this most iconic of Soviet directors. Greenaway, no doubt, is thoroughly enjoying this provocation of Putin’s imposition of current official Russian homophobia, which he has described as ‘a political and social phenomenon invented by a man who’s scared and wants to be in control’.

Significant from the Finnish perspective is that Greenaway’s film is partly funded by the Finnish production company Edith Film, and stars the three founders of the Finnish-Swedish theatre group based in Berlin, Nya Rampen: the lead actor Elmer Bäck, Rasmus Slätis who plays Grigori Alexandrov (Eisenstein’s assistant director who finally released a version of Que Viva México! in 1979), and Jacob Ohrman who plays Edouard Tisse (Eisenstein’s cinematographer).

Given Espoo Ciné’s long tradition in screening films about gay and lesbian relationships, the participation of Greenaway and the screening of his film at the close of the festival is not only a mark of the festival’s exceptional international profile, but is also another committed gesture from the organizers to the support of queer narratives in cinema.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato is screened at the Tapioloasali in Espoo Ciné on Sunday 30.08.2015 at 20.00. Tickets 8.00€. The film is in English and Spanish with Finnish and Swedish subtitles.

More details about the Espoo Ciné programme can be found at

Official Trailer for Eisenstein in Guanajuato can be found at

All Greenaway quotes taken from article published in The Guardian 30 March 2015 by Carmen Gray titled ‘Greenaway offends Russia with film about Soviet director’s gay love affair’.