Kallio Calling – Otto Maja and Iiu Susiraja

15.7.2011 Jenna Jauhiainen

A joint review of Otto Maja’s Rikoskumppanini (My Companion in Crime), Geezers the Shop 2.7. – 28.8.2011, and Iiu Susiraja’s Taide löytyy jääkaapista (Art is in the Fridge), Galleria Alkovi 29.6. – 31.7.2011.

Helsinki was bathing in sunlight on Saturday the 2nd of July, a day dedicated to Gay Pride and a variety of other festivities around the city’s many parks. I had been invited to Otto Maja’s exhibition opening in Kallio, so I rode my bike through hot streets in the early evening to reach Pengerkatu 22. I know Otto Maja’s work from way back, having been greatly impressed by his incorporation of experience gathered from years of making street art into digitally processed works exhibited online. So, my expectations were high.

When I arrived on the spot, the title of the exhibition, which could be translated as My Companion in Crime, suited well the growing street party going on outside Geezers the Shop. The small shop is dedicated to providing fashionable gear as well as materials for street artists. The wall behind the counter was filled with spray cans on sale and a DJ was entertaining the crowd gathered mostly on the street outside of the small and hot interiors of the shop and exhibition space. With a cold beer in my hand, I sweated remarkably as I went through Maja’s works displayed on two walls.

I know quite a few artists who have run from the rather hectic city of Helsinki to work in solitude provided by the vast Finnish outbacks, and Otto Maja is one of them. I am not the least surprised to see drawings of figures inspired by animals, done in a style of controlled rawness contradicting the rather effortlessly achieved perfection of digitally processed illustrations which also belong to his line of works. In two of them, one depicting a pig and another two small birds, the animals are suggestively dressed in tuxes and bow ties, with blackened eyes. Masking or hiding the eyes is a rather common practice in portraits of street artists, aiming at concealing the identity of the “common criminals” of today’s aesthetic crimes. The best, in my opinion, of the small black and white works is an illustration with an eye mask resembling the eyes of an owl, held up by a firm illustrated hand.

The framed drawings are also framed by extra “frames” painted on the wall, an amusing detail and a reminder of the genre of street art the works lean to. Painted onto the back wall two big black and white humane figures compose the space for framed colorful illustrations of masked beings with a hint of religious pose and symbolism, and a few photographs of Maja creating the same figures to both outdoor and indoor locations. I am very pleased to see the seamlessness of his work and style, and how well it translates from the streets to a well lit gallery space of a shop set up to fulfill the growing needs of those who continue the battle against the illegality of beautifying urban space.

After viewing the Maja’s works I stepped outside to Pengerkatu, a street notorious for its porn shops, where some twenty people were gathered to drink cold beer provided for the occasion. Maja’s friend from elementary school, Juha Pekka Tapani Heikkinen, played a gig together with his acoustic guitar. His songs were humorous accounts of our digital age and the growing pains of us twenty-somethings.

His forceful voice took over the open space of the street, attracting the people passing by to stop to see the bunch of people sitting quietly on the ground, listening and smoking cigarettes. I have been obsessed by Aki Kaurismäki’s second movie, the hilarious Calamari Union, for the past weeks and I remember becoming quite amused when thinking about the pilgrimage of the Franks away from Kallio as I sat there, observing. Something must have happened in the past nearly thirty years, or maybe the people around me were just hiding their will to escape to Eira by content smiles.

After spending few hours outside of Kallio in the parks of Töölö and the center, I returned at the time of the twilight, around midnight, to see Iiu Susiraja’s Art is in the Fridge photography exhibition. I had decided to see it in the nighttime because, well, it is possible – the exhibition runs 24/7 in a window gallery, Galleria Alkovi, which is located on a small square dominated by a snack bar in the corner of Helsinginkatu and Fleminginkatu.

I sat down on the ground next to the exhibition window, and all the photographs I took and all the notes I wrote on the spot were done while a strong scent of piss lingered into my nostrils. There were drunken people roaming around as well as an ambulance on the other side of the square, picking up those who had injured themselves by excess partying. Sober as usual, I amused myself greatly by feeling a weird sense of support from Susiraja’s dull gaze in a photograph where she has her two middle fingers raised for the outside world, middle fingers with small sausages tied to them. She also appears to be commenting, accidentally or not, the penetrating smell of piss through the image where her nose is held tightly closed by a clothespin and two herrings.

Her photographs are just the right size to take full control of the space provided, and she herself is a staggering model for her images especially when considering the neighborhood of Kallio, which has grown to be the home of not only alcoholics but hipsters in the past ten years. Susiraja’s presence in her photographs possesses a sense of absolute confidence with a twist of something I am a bit reluctant to call purity. If she were to walk the streets here, she would most likely be confronted by idiotic drunken comments aimed at her weight. But from behind the glass, from the photographs, she dominates without a doubt, purely, surely.

Artists tend to, more consciously or not, identify and define themselves through their work. Art is in the Fridge appears to be an ironic, in your face statement that culminates to foods used as essential parts of her photographs, foods which all of us at least at times have in our very own fridges – hamburgers, sausages, bananas, cucumbers, even herrings. It is almost as if she was saying, “this is me, I eat, and unlike you I make art of myself and what I eat.”

I am usually not a friend of artistic products which deals with the person of the artist, but in the case of Iiu Susiraja it did not even cross my mind as being the case. Her talent for self-representation combined with her compositional skills drive over her persona, reaching an ethereal dimension which in the past week has made me want to drive my bike under her watchful, confident eyes again. Apparently the tide has really turned since Calamari Union – no more running away from Kallio, but a longing to return there.