Photo: Annukka Vähäsöyrinki
In May, the Venice Biennale, a major contemporary art event that takes place every two years, will open for the 57th time. Finland will be represented by a joint creation by artists Erkka Nissinen (b. 1975, Finland) and Nathaniel Mellors (b. 1974, Great Britain). The exhibition is curated by Xander Karskens (b. 1973, Netherlands), artistic director of the Cobra Museum of Modern Art, whom I now await in a cosy, if not slightly grungy café called The Green Elephant at the edge of Amsterdam’s city centre. Our earlier email exchanges and the choice of meeting place suggest that Karskens, who is the former curator of contemporary art at De Hallen Haarlem and who, among other projects, curated the ARCO Madrid International Contemporary Art Fair’s Netherlands programme in 2012, is an easy-going and approachable character.
Our meeting place is located near the Rijksakademie, a reputable residency organisation, where Nissinen and Mellors became acquainted with each other’s work in 2007. Now, ten years later, the Rijksakademie has offered the artists workspace to create their biennale exhibition The Aalto Natives. Until now, their creation has rather secretively been described as “a video installation that includes sculptural elements”. The curator rushes straight in from having been working on the preparations for the work and begins by telling me how this biennale collaboration came about:
“I have worked with both artists for years on exhibitions, artistic commissions and book projects, and have produced solo exhibitions for both Nissinen and Mellors at De Hallen Haarlem. Nonetheless, The Aalto Natives is our first collaborative project. Nissinen and Mellors’ art is brought together by their sense of the comic, but the productional structures of their creations and their artistic practices are quite different. The Aalto Natives is a perfect merger of these individual practices”, explains Karskens so excitedly that he knocks over the salt shaker – more than once.
The Venice Biennale is the most important meeting place for the international art world, and receives approximately half a million visitors during the seven months that it is open. Originally a platform for the identity formation project of nation states, the history of the event dates back to 1895. The Giardini di Castello parkland is the heart of the biennale, which houses different states’ exhibition pavilions, including the wooden Finnish pavilion, completed in 1956 and designed by Alvar Aalto, and where Nissinen and Mellors’ creation will be displayed. Since 1980, the old Arsenale docks have also been used as exhibition spaces and, even outside the official biennale spaces the city is filled with contemporary art.
“The national pavilions and the many side projects present a diverse spectrum of contemporary art. Even though one should critically look at its proximity to the market and its outdated nationalist model, it is still a significant platform for creating new contemporary art discourse and, as one of the different ecologies that form an art world, it complements other major contemporary art events like Documenta in Kassel or other smaller biennales with particular geopolitical features.”
In celebrating the centenary of Finland’s independence, this biennale exhibition gives rise to questions around national identity, but The Aalto Natives blows away the cobwebs of the prevailing construct of Finland. The Finnish biennale creation is produced by Frame Contemporary Art Finland, who put out a call in the autumn of 2015 for the creation of a new work by artist-curator partnerships. According to the selection committee, Nissinen, Mellors and Karskens’ proposal was selected for its “fascinating, surprising and artistically diverse content”. For Karskens, the trio’s strength is their international background, which allows the exhibition to situate its questions in a global context, where our shared realities are as much determined by Trump as they are by Brexit or the Syrian crisis.
“This work is a playful, satirical commentary on national identity and the formation of culture and precisely because of this, I think it offers something profound to the biennale’s programme. The work’s sense of the comic is rather idiosyncratic, and not likely to everyone’s taste. The transgressive and scatological nature of it produces, to quote Nathaniel Mellors, ‘a not very funny kind of funny’.”
Supported by Frame Contemporary Art Finland and the Dutch Mondriaan Fund, The Aalto Natives will also be presented at the Cobra Museum of Modern Art in Amstelveen and the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki after the biennale. The biennale also includes Finnish video art at Finland, Sweden and Norway’s joint Nordic pavilion, which is curated alternately by each of the three host countries. This year, the programme is led by Mats Stjernstedt, the director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, and Finland is represented in the joint pavilion by Mika Taanila and Pasi “Sleeping” Myllymäki.
After lunch, we proceed to Nissinen and Mellors’ studio at the Rijksakademie, where we find the artists bustling about their work surrounded by a group of Rijksakademie staff members. The work’s creation is already at an advanced stage and many of the folks at the academy try to catch a glimpse of it in passing. Karskens greets each person by name.
“The work will become a visually spectacular engaging experience. There is an enormous amount of art on display at the Venice Biennale, and because of this context of spectacle we felt it is a good idea to present something that will provide a sense of fun and wonder for the visitor. Even if a spectator spends only a minute in the Finnish pavilion, he takes will be able to grasp in its essence”, Karskens explains.
It is the curator’s hope that the work encourages re-readings of how the comic can develop critical positions in contemporary art versus explicitly political practices that often point fingers and become didactic.
“When art is made functional, it loses something elementary. For me, a great work of art holds a mystery that cannot be unravelled.”
Karskens observes that satire is being re-valued as a critical tool in political and societal discussions, precisely because it uses clichés as a technique to criticise. Exaggeration and enlargement are able to highlight something profound within the status quo.
“Our interest is the political impact of comedy and how it becomes an excellent tool for challenging universal narratives and national stereotypes. Art, like other cultural production, is able to generate change in the subjectivities and perspectives of the viewer by way of affective strategies.”
After the interview, I ask to take a photograph of the trio in the garden. Immediately and without a word, the men slip into various poses in a surprisingly coordinated fashion. “Let’s try to look as tall as Xander,” Mellors urges Nissinen. The attached picture shows the result of this exercise, which, in the end, is one of the more traditional ones that came out of this little photo shoot.
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For some years now, I have tried to live my life with this principle in mind: because everything around us is constantly in transition, almost anything can become a reality. By this I mean our fears as well as opportunities, both the positive and negative ways of thinking about the future of our world. Personally, I would like to believe that we are capable of moving towards a better tomorrow, even if reality as filtered through our daily newsfeed often seems to contradict this.
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