Modernism 2.0

The exhibition Slow at Helsinki Kunsthalle is about form, material and craft. What does this have to do with slowness?

Ilkka Halso, Kivikaytava, 2011.

The critical decade of the 1960s changed our relation to institutions. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, new museology worked to make the power structures of museums transparent. Over the last decade we have witnessed an upsurge in discussions about the museum, featuring issues from the role of education to the cheesiness of museum shops.

Lately a new theme has entered the world of museum debates. Slow culture (slow food, downshifting) is hitting museums. Especially in the United States, museums have taken an initiative towards meditation. A recent issue of Art News (Oct 2011) tells us that since 2007 the Baltimore Museum of Art has been giving meditation classes, that Buddhist monks teach on a weekly basis in the Tampa Museum of Art, and that the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has together with the Rubin Museum of Art in New York joined the same trend. This has been tested in Scandinavia at Norrköping Art Museum.

Lauri Rankka, Monet (The Thickening), 2011.

Pertti Kukkonen, Kyynel (The Tear), 2011.

So, Kunsthalle Helsinki has a readymade context for its move into giving yoga classes. The reason for these classes is SLOW, an exhibition characterized by three dimensions of slowness: SLOW features works that are slow to make; the techniques required for the execution of the works exhibited take a lot of time to learn; and, in the end, the knowledge of this might – this is at least what the Kunsthalle hopes through its anonymous presentation texts – push the viewer into a more meditative experience.

For someone with an eye for art history, the works seen in SLOW might raise some eyebrows. Wasn’t this kind of experience commonplace some decades ago? We witness one of the ways modernism has been making a comeback lately, through new forms of packaging. It is not hard to explicate which features of SLOW cause this experience. This is a set of finished objects – not processes or discourse. There is no information flood, and it is mostly about form and material. Craftsmanship has an important role in the execution of the works.

Lauri Rankka’s (1950) wooden sculptures are somewhere between geometry and ornament – but in a manner that avoids kitsch. There is also no relation to mathematically inspired modern art. Rankka’s work could be said to be a mix of minimalism and organic forms. Right in the first hall, a huge birch cube, hanging in the air, introduces the sub-themes of weight and the presence of materiality to the exhibition. Pertti Kukkonen’s (1954) statues, which resemble natural shapes from termite skyscrapers to speleothems, are made of colored concrete. Meditation comes easily to the mind already in the first room. We see big, sleepy, and heavy objects, and it feels natural to concentrate on form and material.

Jaakko Pakkala, Kaaret (The Arches), 2011.

Jaakko Pakkala’s (1948) graphic wall plates are decorative, smoothly colored, shy cocktails of echoes from Fernand Léger and tribal art, which add a layer of depth and harmony to the whole show. Ilkka Halso (1965), who has been associated with the so-called Helsinki School of photography, differs from the others with his photographic (or photorealistic) works, which feature warehouses filled with plants and trees, magnified versions of everyday plant shops. He is famous for his digital photo fantasies, which are here a bit more down to earth than the roller coasters he’s best known for. Though Halso’s vision is strong, and somewhat related to the work of the others, he remains a bit of an outsider to the show as a whole.

To some extent SLOW is only re-packaging traditional modern art – and sadly, the information given by the Kunsthalle does not really explain if the statement of slowness is given by the artists or if there is a curator who has been working this out. If we forget Halso, this exhibition could have been a part of the exhibition cycle decades ago. And shouldn’t art give a critical eye on the commercialized trends of its era? In the end, what is wrong with modernism?