Annukka Vähäsöyrinki: Mobile Home(less) – Constructing an Idea
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31 October 2017

In 2015, together with the Finnish cultural institutes of Paris, London and Berlin, we began planning a large-scale project centered around the theme of home. We could hardly imagine what a journey it would be. As Finland celebrates its 100th anniversary of independence in 2017, the idea of home felt like a poignant theme for such a large-scale collaborative project that was simultaneously topical and timeless.

At the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux we decided to concentrate on the antithesis of home: homelessness. Hence, we named the project Mobile Home(less). In the spring of 2016 we had an open call for visual and community artists working in Finland and the Benelux countries. Altogether we received 50 proposal submissions, from which an international jury selected the work Street View (Reassembled) I-III by Anssi Pulkkinen. Pulkkinen’s proposed concept captivated the jury with its ambitiousness, but also raised questions and doubts. Pulkkinen’s vision was to create a moving installation from three houses that were destroyed in the war in Syria.

For economical and productional reasons Pulkkinen’s original concept was scaled down from three house ruins to one. In spring 2016 we immediately began work to acquire a war-torn house ruin from Syria and get it to Europe. The house would serve as the basis for Pulkkinen’s installation of a home constructed upon a trailer, which would be moved around Europe. We invited the Finnish-Syria Friendship Society (SSYS) as a partner, as they provided invaluable help in finding and locating contacts and logistic know-how needed to bring the house ruin to Europe. Messages and pictures were sent back and forth via WhatsApp between the artist, the institute, SSYS and our partners in Syria. Updates on the ruin, schedules and the general security of Syrians were in turn exchanged in Finnish, English, Swedish and Arabic. Receiving real time pictures depicting the destruction of Syria felt immensely absurd while sitting in an office in Brussels. While all this was happening, we watched soldiers patrolling in the streets outside our office windows, a common sight in Brussels in the past year. Despite open questions about the project’s production and content issues, it felt important to materialize the project right here and now.

When a suitable house ruin was finally found and bought from the owner, the practicalities and challenges of transporting the ruin and debris across the Syrian border to Europe started. Border crossing issues of the debris to some extent reflected the reality of people escaping war. The journey of Pulkkinen’s work is also in itself important, as it reflects the possibilities and limitations of freedom of movement. Our Syrian production partners researched and mapped harbour lines to Lebanon and Turkey and tackled permit processes for over six months. In spring 2017, the ruin and debris of the Syrian house finally made it to Antwerp harbour via Turkey. During the project we heavily questioned our role as a western artist and a cultural institution, who are privileged enough to transport material out from a war zone.

The construction of the installation commenced months behind schedule in the premises of Verbeke Foundation, a Belgian private art museum, in northern Belgium. The touring exhibition was pieced together rapidly in mere few weeks, and we must thank our partners BOZAR, Verbeke Foundation, Göteborgs Kulturkalas and Habitare Fair for their flexibility and courage to include the work in their summer and autumn 2017 programmes. The work reached approximately 22 000 people in four months and attracted extensive media coverage both in the Benelux and Nordic countries. The installation took upon itself different meanings and interpretations at various venues, but the strongest reactions came when it was exhibited at interior, design and furniture fair Habitare in Helsinki. The commercial context of the fair juxtaposed with the conventional way of displaying the work raised criticism and questions concerning the ethics behind the installation.

Ethical issues were on our minds as well and we often contemplated them with our Syrian partners. We were fully aware that the project could garner criticism of political propaganda. It was vital for us and the artist to handle the idea of homelessness in an abstract and universal way, instead of personifying the previous inhabitants of the ruin as victims of war. Already in his submitted proposal Pulkkinen focused on several aspects. Among other viewpoints, he proposed a commentary of the boundaries between reality and presentation. We see the war in Syria constantly in the media, but Pulkkinen wished to bring a piece of concrete homelessness to our own everyday life and urban environment. With his work Pulkkinen aims to comment on the utopian ideals of freedom of movement, as the house ruin on wheels bears connotations of both living voluntarily in a mobile home, being forced to leave your home, and life between homes. The installation can also be interpreted as the house ruin on a symbolic flight, whereas the people have stayed.

We had the chance to explore the installation’s various contextual aspects with different audiences, as organised discussion events were held in Brussels, Amsterdam, Helsinki and Gothenburg. People with first-hand experience from the war in Syria, artists, researchers and writers were all invited as participants to the discussions. In addition to these discussion events, we assembled a collection of essays regarding the installation named Home Reassembled. The essay collection approaches the installation and its themes from a multitude of perspectives. In addition, our initiatives invigorated discussion and vibrant dialogue on social media.

Pulkkinen’s art concept was overly ambitious, as it tackled an extremely difficult subject that can be highly elusive: the concept of home and homelessness. In hindsight, the fact that this idea materialized is truly amazing. I am amazed of the tenacity, warmth and bravery of the people of war-torn Syria. I am amazed that such a large group of art professionals and people from other fields of expertise helped the project in its various stages. Both Finland’s centenary year and the institute’s Mobile Home(less) project will come to a close, but the installation will keep on touring. The artwork will next be seen at the Reykjavik Art Festival in June 2018, and again in Finland at the Wäinö Aalto museum in late 2018.

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Annukka Vähäsöyrinki

Annukka Vähäsöyrinki was the programme coordinator of the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux during 2015–2017 and in charge of producing the Mobile Home(less) project.

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