Moving Questions About Gender and Sexuality

Public Hair, the latest exhibition at Kallio Kunsthalle, is a playful, if slightly superficial, attempt to tackle vital issues of gender and sexuality.

Nutty Tarts, performance at opening, 2012.

The new Kallio Kunsthalle is a refreshing addition to the Helsinki art scene. The twenty-four square meter space opened in the former working class neighborhood of Kallio in the autumn of 2011. The exhibitions are curated under different themes and concepts, which is still rare for an artist-run space in Helsinki. In another atypical and much welcomed move, no rent is demanded for organizing an exhibition. Instead, artists are requested to donate a work to the Kunstalle. Having a collection also sets Kallio Kunsthalle apart from its peers.

Kallio Kunsthalle is a non-profit gallery run by artists, scholars and the Association for Healthy Lifestyles. The latter is an organization that aims to prevent the harm caused by substance abuse and promotes temperance and improved public health, as well as social equality and security. The gallery is located right next door to their offices, and during normal working hours one picks up the key to visit the space from their café.        

Sasha Huber, Mr. Sasha Huber, 2012.

Sasha Huber, Black Skin, detail, 2012.

Public Hair is the latest exhibition at the Kunsthalle. It focuses on hair, which initially might sound rather simplistic, but it does raise vital questions about gender and sexuality.

In a new series of c-prints, Sasha Huber makes public the private event of cutting her long, thick, curly hair. The photographs document the haircut, which drastically transforms her appearance. She goes from looking traditionally feminine to appearing more masculine, her short-hair paired with a business suit. Tears well in her eyes as her long hair is cut short for the first time in her life. The piece, Mr. Sasha Huber (2012), shows Huber outside her comfort zone. The hair becomes a signifier of gender, but the piece is not only about that.

Next to the photographs, one of Huber’s well-known works on wood with staples is displayed––an image of a bear entitled Black Skin. All the staple-portraits have been realized through the violent act of “shooting back”: a process that uses a semi-automatic staple-gun and involves thousands of staples. Often people have thought that Huber’s staple-works are made by a man, since her first name can also be a man’s name. The piece depicts a polar-bear cub whose skin is black underneath the fur. Black skin is a hidden, and yet elementary, energy-conserving feature of this particular endangered species in its otherwise white and melting world.

Marko Suomi, Ehkä???????? 45 Uusimaa, Lace.

Marko Suomi’s contribution to the exhibition is a framed series of penises made of lace. Suomi is a skilled lacemaker, which has a certain paradoxical quality with respect to the artist’s masculinity. The technique is mainly practiced by women and is usually associated with not only repeated patterns, but purity and innocence. This creates an absurdist contrast with the source of inspiration for the works on show here: Internet advertisements in which men publish images of their penises to attract potential partners, be they straight or gay. Suomi and Huber’s work in the exhibition involves a dialogue between technique and concept, creating semantic depth for pieces both conceptually and aesthetically.    

Heidi Lunabba, Studio Vilgefortis, Installation, 2008-.

Heidi Lunabba’s video piece involves her offering free beards or moustaches to everyone––be they a woman, man, boy or girl. Lunabba mainly works with social and community art projects, often inviting public participation. This piece, called Studio Vilgefortis, was first realized in Bologna, Italy in 2008. The title refers to Wilgefortis, a saint of the fourteenth century, who because of an unwanted marriage prayed to God to become repulsive to her husband. In answer to her prayers she sprouted a beard that soon ended their engagement, but also lead her father to have her crucified. Wilgefortis was venerated by people seeking relief from tribulations, in particular women who wished to be liberated from abusive husbands. Heidi provided the audience with free moustaches at the opening performance at the Kallio Kunsthalle.

Rakel Liekki, Cut out gender!, detail, 2012.

Raakel Liekki’s work often deals with themes related to pornography and tackles questions of beauty and the attraction to different genders. Due to her status as a retired adult entertainment star, Liekki has seen a lot of hair. Here she exhibits a series of drawings of hairy women, placed inside the “Kallio Contemporary Art Museum”, a glass-covered 160x120cm table within the Kunsthalle space. A fascinating dialogue is successfully created between the work of Liekki and Lunabba.

The show culminates in the toilets, where a video work shows Petri Saarikko growing and shaving his beard. In fact, the entire exhibition was inspired by Saarikko’s ongoing project, Shaving the World. It is a travel-story based around the process of growing a beard, shaving it off and leaving it behind. Starting the project in Rio de Janeiro in 2009, he has since left beards in over ten diverse locations around the world. The video documents Saarikko being shaved in barbershops in all of these cities. His last beard was left in Tromsø, Norway, north of the Arctic Circle.

While the exhibition has both serious and playful aspects, the overall impression is that it is only skimming the surface of these depths. Nevertheless, the exhibition successfully, and in unexpected ways, raises some serious issues to reflect upon.

Petri Saarikko, Shaving the World, 2009-, Installation video duration 5:40″.