Axel Straschnoy 27.1.2014
I came to Finland from a system close to the one Jussi Koitela describes in his text as desirable; being educated as an artist in Argentina and having done the first part of my career there, I was used to participating in curated group exhibitions more than to staging my own solo shows. This meant working in a constant relationship with curators and having my work contextualised. I, of course, never paid neither rent nor a participation fee but, as a general rule, neither did I get funding for my work.
When arriving in Finland the shock was obvious. You go from a system in which exhibiting your work is a collaborative endeavor, in which the curator is your first interlocutor, to one in which you are mostly alone with your work. The scale of the work you need to exhibit also changes. One could participate in a group show with a small piece but organizing a solo show implies either bringing several such pieces together, hopefully with some common denominator, or increasing the size of your own projects. And as a newcomer it is not always so easy to find funding and the galleries charge rent.
The lack of a critical discourse is also shocking to a newcomer. This is of course connected to on one hand the the above described situation and to the missing figures of the curator and of the critic. The reaction of the newcomer is the traditional one: “why can’t this be more like it was home?” Which in Koitela’s terms would be: why can’t the galleries be for free and have a program, and why can’t we have more curated situations?
Of course, it was not all bad news. The existence of a wide funding system was very much welcome. And eventually, through working and doing projects I did have more access to it, even staging a solo exhibition in a paid gallery (Boxes at Muu in 2011).
However, through being kotiutunut in Finland I started seeing things in a different way. It seems to me, that the issue to be discussed is not so much “why the Finnish art scene is not more like that of, say, Berlin or Paris or London?” but, “why is the Finnish art scene not more like itself?”.
The majority of the work done in Argentina is mid-size and wall mounted, as a result of a scene in which the only funding comes through gallery sales, and of a market which is small and, when it exists, is mostly directed to home decoration.
Having shortly lived in France, I noticed that the French system, as the Finnish one, enjoys wide state funding. But this funding comes through institutions: museums, FRACs, FNAC, etc. This means that as an artist your work can either be bought or commissioned by an institution. In comparison, the money directly available to artists is minimal. In addition, there is a strong internal market with a good number of collectors. To reach this market or to be bought by a state institution one needs to work with a gallery – and it is often to galleries that curators go to look for artists.
Beyond regional idiosyncrasies, it seems to me that the majority of the work done in Finland does not look so different from the work one can see in France. That is, that the material support of the pieces or requirements for their display seem the same, as well as the potential salability of the works.
I will put forward that there is a relationship between how art is funded and what kind of art is produced, namely that there is a connection between the infrastructure and the superstructure. Now, the question comes to mind: why, in a context in which artists receive their funding directly, have to pay to exhibit, and have almost zero chance of getting anything sold, the art produced looks like that produced in places where the exhibition space is not only free but is your funding source and there is a likelihood of the work being bought?
Given the fact that the white cube has been criticized for decades, why is most of the work being produced still addressed to it? Namely, what is the benefit I receive as an artist from exhibiting in a rented space such as Muu, Hippolyte, Forum Box, Huuto, etc. as opposed to exhibiting, say, in my grandmother’s barn, in a bar, in an abandoned building, on construction site, etc. when in many cases a different space would be part of the meaning creation of the piece, of the experience provided to spectators. Why, when the white cube is something you need to pay for and which does not bring with it an assurance of sales, would you even make your work to that kind of space? While it can easily be understood that the white cube suits certain pieces, it cannot be the case that it suits almost every work produced.
I remember having a chat with artists in New York a few years back. To them, an artist-run space was the ne plus ultra of the achievements; it meant having a space which is not run from above but from below. In Finland we seem to have achieved that but it has not had any noticeable effect on the work produced. In fact, the effect we have seen is a negative one: the lack of a discursive sphere and of contextualization of productions, to the point in which the more traditional setup is being asked for.
It seems to me, therefore, that the question is less how can the scene become more like a traditional art scene but how can we exploit the particularities we enjoy to create something different, something which is not available elsewhere, which includes the discursive component for its own good, but also because the scene, being noticeably different, will need to be interpreted to those abroad. Mexican Muralism comes from the great work of its painters but also from a particular alignment with the ruling party that gave the muralists the needed walls and funds to execute their works. What peculiar work would come out of the Finnish scene?
Axel Straschnoy is a visual artist based in Helsinki.