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