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Helsinki School

Gallery Taik Persons

Intuition and Analysis – Jyrki Parantainen

Throughout his career, John Cage emphasized the importance of intuition and analysis, and the relationship between the two. Both are needed in artistic processes, yet never at the same time. They are different ways of thinking. Without intuition, you rarely make decisive moves; without analysis, you always have your head in the clouds. The latter generally leads to disaster. Though creativity requires blind trials and failures, critical contemplation helps make sense of these later on. Or to put it briefly, in the words of Samuel Beckett: “Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.”

Every so often, new ideas seem to arise as if by chance. This could be a dream taking shape in somebody’s mind—or even in the minds of two people. The dream could be a desire for change with respect to tradition. It could also be some crazy, unrealistic idea, the brainchild of genius. The history of ideas meets their enactment in the present, and together they gallop off towards a vision of the future.

Regarding the phenomenon we know today as the Helsinki School, initial steps towards this project more or less followed the path just described. There was a big picture, there were a few good questions, and one person had enough idealism to share with another, and, in turn, to pass on to a third. Soon the circle of like-minded souls grew, reaching more people, more artists, more dreamers. It quickly became clear that the focus of this growing circle lay on photography and centered on the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, as it is called today.

In Finland, discourse on cultural history is relatively recent and peripheral. Likewise, it makes sense that, as an art form, photography is still an emerging field. In a country often perceived as “distant” and “small,” great potential is gained from those few individuals who have been brought together by a similar sense of will and curiosity, by their faith, strength, and especially—well—what can only be called their madness. These characteristics are sufficient to create a foundation for the future. We still find the same qualities in the generations that have followed these pioneers, and this points to the main principles of teaching and learning within the Photography Department, where all of this once originated. The attitude in question is similar to a virus that may change in a versatile world but never disappears. If you ask how this attitude can be taught at a school, no short answer is available—as is true of art in general. Essentially, we take an avid interest in supporting individualism and openness rather than providing strictly defined role models. In class, we discuss how everyone has gone about their course projects. This dialogue continues outside the classroom. We exchange ideas and share our thoughts on art, our passions.

Labor and faith
The Helsinki School is now nearly twenty years old. Its story comprises a vast collection of episodes: comedies and tragedies, games of survival and systems of learning, visionary thinking. A sense of deep faith has prevailed in the face of uncountable moments of doubt. Failures, trials, and successes; risks and opportunities alike; long-term planning, yet a great deal of improvisation as well; all these aspects are enmeshed in the same package. What a mess! Naturally, there are always people who cannot see anything positive in this kind of equation—which, in a way, is understandable. In the end, I think the Helsinki School is still alive because it is idealistic enough, and because there are enough people involved who are sufficiently foolish and at the same time sufficiently critical.

Developing this kind of highly motivated community is not possible in committees or offices. The reality is that on most days, you need to be willing to jump into the unknown at any given moment. And on the days in between, you have to sit down and write, draw, think, discuss. Two steps forward, one step back. Phone calls. Traveling. Shows. Fairs. Curators. Bars. Photographs. Brains. Feelings. More phone calls. Tablecloths. Tissues. Napkins. And money!

Napkins
Finnish film director Aki Kaurismäki is known for his manuscripts, which sometimes fit on the cover of a cigar box or a napkin. We all know those legendary stories from Paris about writers and painters who created their masterpieces in restaurants and cafés with the help of absinth and tablecloths. When Cubism raised its head, Picasso and Braque spent much of their time in cafés and studios alike, and their numerous collages bear material witness to the places they frequented in the form of napkins, matchboxes, and the like. “One must not imitate what one wants to create,” Braque is said to have remarked cleverly at the time.

Throughout the history of the Helsinki School, people have always used an enormous amount of textile, wood, and paper, often inscribed with names, dates, drawings, and floor plans. The largest sketch is larger than a table; the smallest is a drawing that fits—literally—on a hand. Everyone who has ever been involved with a Helsinki School exhibition, book, or event is mentioned somewhere, at some point. This kind of perpetual creation—you can’t take it seriously if you don’t know what’s going on. The moments in which these sketches and ideas came about are located somewhere between utopianism and realism, yet in the end they are often very close to the real world.

Stumbling
Two more thoughts from Samuel Beckett: “When you’re in the shit up to your neck, there’s nothing left to do but sing.” And: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” How much wiser can one be?

Initial steps abroad were not always civilized in the early years. They still talk about two Finnish artists dancing wildly on the tabletops in a high-class restaurant in the middle of Stockholm. The two are sweating heavily, even though neither is wearing a shirt. Some of the customers are slightly astonished by the show; others continue to enjoy their drinks and try not to pay attention. At the same time, in the same city, another man is sleeping half-naked in an unlocked pickup truck in the midst of a heap of bubble wrap. His teeth are not brushed, and his dreams are filled with colorful images and adventures. The truck is obviously standing in a traffic jam. In a basement in the middle of nowhere lies another sleeping man. The floor is made of stone; beside him stand more than seven rusty bicycles that have not been used in a long time.

Outsiders might think there is something terribly wrong with Sweden. My wild guess, however, is that this is no more true of Sweden than anywhere else. In fact, the Stockholm Art Fair was one of the first significant events to draw attention to the Helsinki School within the international art world. One cloudy weekend, Per Gessle of the rock band Roxette fell in love with art photography from Finland and bought a whole wall’s worth of works without blinking an eye. During the same period, an incident that seemed like an episode from a bad film occurred in a large parking lot: caught by a sudden gust of wind, thousands of Swedish crowns that had just been earned from art sales went flying out of somebody’s hand, dispersing into the air like an expanding cloud. Thanks to many anonymous helpers, the money was gathered up again afterwards. Time and again, people surprise us with their honesty and good will. That’s beautiful.

Rumor has it that Finnish artists are often drunk or out of line—which of course would be nothing to be proud of. The rumor might be true to some extent, but for the most part it’s not. For example, an artist could suddenly become very angry and decide to take revenge on his colleague in order to compensate for his own failures. Alternatively, he might be just as likely to throw off his clothes and go for a swim in a public pond. This kind of behavior is not necessarily brought about by alcohol. For the artist’s work is frequently stressful and burdensome. It is filled with uncertainties, and this can often be quite frightening. The artist may at times feel like the white carrier pigeon in W. G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz: the bird’s wing is broken, but driven by some strange faith or ambition, it is still able to struggle home—late, perhaps, yet still in one piece.

In England, at the New Art Gallery Walsall in the West Midlands, a group of artists and curators were immensely pleased with the success of an exhibition opening and the release of a new book. The show was held in a brand-new, architecturally impressive museum. Later, the group found itself in a small hotel room, where the participants continued to share their experiences. Good wine, tasty snacks, and a lot of cigarettes, cigars, and smoke. When the tardy fire alarm system finally reacted, only two people were still awake (and still smoking away), while everyone else had already gone to sleep. Within minutes, nobody in the hotel was sleeping anymore. Instead, everyone stood shivering outside on the street at four o’clock in the morning, wondering how big a fire they had just managed to escape and what would happen to their suitcases and clothes. Finally, the situation returned to normal. Certain people, however, were no longer welcome to stay at the hotel. In spite of these events, nothing could spoil the positive outcome of the exhibition, Magnetic North, which turned out to be one of the first bold steps that Finnish photography took in the international art scene back in 2001.

Breathing
Before the Taik Persons Gallery opened in Berlin, and before the Helsinki School began to exhibit at other galleries and museums, events were usually held in temporary venues. In other words, a suitable location had to be found for each show, which was then installed from scratch, and finally unhung and wrapped up again. Nobody has been able to calculate the quantity of paint, nails, and screws that were used in that period, or the total number of people involved in the work. One thing that cannot be denied is the sum total of experience, knowledge, and practical skills that were acquired along the way!

If location is important, so is timing. When the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma opened in 1998, hundreds of curators, gallery owners, and art experts from institutions all over the world came together in Helsinki. Thanks to the fact that this first Helsinki School exhibition featured one main show and one subsidiary show simultaneously, the doors to the international art world started to open up properly for the young movement. These were the doors that have enabled its artists to go from Tokyo to New York, from Paris to Daegu, from Washington to Milan.

The film American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) addresses several themes, among them individual freedom and the effort needed to break away from one’s normal condition. One of the main characters, Ricky, constantly records the world around him with a video camera. The most beautiful shot in his enormous collection is a sequence in which a small plastic bag “dances” between a wall and a tree. The wind whirls the bag up and down, and it continues its soundless and delicate ballet as if it would never stop.

This scene represents a moment in which an everyday object is transformed into a free, significant, shining actor in the art world thanks to the supporting, suitable wind that accompanies it. The Helsinki School has been and continues to be a similar supporting force for its artists. They, in turn, have put their trust in a common ambition, a shared belief that their struggles will be worthwhile—and so they succeed in pushing their ideas forward. This is something nobody can simply erase.