Nina Beier reminds us that no relationship should be considered unexpected in the 21st century.

Nina Beier, China, hand painted porcelain vase and hand painted porcelain Dachshund, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and STANDARD (OSLO), Oslo. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

If a tree falls in the forest but no one hears it, does it make a sound? And, if no human eyes look at Nina Beier’s art, does it exist? Beier’s installations consist mainly of minimally handled everyday objects whose implications aren’t fixed to any specific theme. Her starting point is that the viewer is capable of thinking, reflecting, and analysing to the extent that her art only takes shape when it enters the mind of an outside observer. At best, this gives rise to a productive uncertainty; at worst, it leads to cynical comparisons with the tale of the emperor’s new clothes.

Beier made her breakthrough just over a decade ago with the performance piece Tragedy (2011), in which a live dog plays dead on a Persian carpet. Although she lives in Copenhagen, her work has not been widely exhibited in the rest of the Nordics. But now the time has come for the mid-career retrospective Parts at Kiasma in Helsinki, making a case for the Danish sculptor’s place in a contemporary Nordic art canon.

The exhibition relies on themes that can be summarised by various buzzwords: (post)colonialism, late capitalism, power structures, anthropocentrism, and carbon footprints. Still, the amount of text is modest – even unassuming. The giant white walls are almost completely empty and silent, calling to mind a recent remark by The New Yorker’s art critic Jackson Arn who wondered what would happen if all the Whitney Biennial’s wall texts were thrown into the Hudson River. His own ruthless assessment was that it would reveal how much of the biennial’s work relies on text to function both substantively and aesthetically. The same phenomenon has long been at work in Europe, for example at Documenta 15 in 2022 or last summer’s Helsinki Biennale.

Enter Nina Beier. Together with curator Piia Oksanen, she has compiled a presentation that is best understood by interpretation, not reading. At first glance, this creates a distance. The works are few and at ground level: sheets of asphalt are trays for halved Mars candy bars (Mars, 2018); mounds of dirt are adorned with large suggestive seeds from the rare double coconut palm (Female Nude, 2015); massage chairs are occupied by copper wire and essentially worthless one- and two-cent coins (Manual Therapy, 2016/2024); and plastic bags are filled with crushed stone (Building 2009/2024). Small remote-controlled SUVs stuffed with blonde wigs made from human hair drive around in jerky and confused patterns alongside two mechanical bulls sadly juggling containers of infant formula (Auto, 2017 and Beast , 2018/ 2024).

In general, the presentation isn’t playful enough to be read as cheery absurdism. Beier’s process involves amassing various everyday objects and rendering these readymades alien: sinks, false beards, and headrests from car seats are transformed into unpleasant things. Inevitably, the installations ask us to consider the existence of the objects themselves. In the context of the exhibition, they cease to be utilitarian objects, and the fact that everything can be seen but not touched evokes a kind of frustration. What is all this? The everyday seems uncomfortably complicated and processed. All these commodities are made up of so many parts, so many materials and manufacturing techniques.

The global production chains that created Beier’s accumulated artefacts are the exhibition’s most tangible theme. Outside, half a candy bar would be trash, but in the exhibition hall it takes on a serious form. The torn plastic packaging, the chocolate shell enclosing the exposed nougat and caramel… every part of the ultra-processed sweet has its story. Few people are unaware that the history of chocolate is linked to colonialism and slavery, or that cocoa beans are grown on deforested land and harvested in poor conditions. In order to consume, we have to repress morals and ethics, but Marsbriefly breaks down internal barriers and clouds our conscience with uncomfortable thoughts.

Nina Beier, Female Nude, Coco de Mer (a seed of the endangered Lodoicea palm) and industrially fertilized soil, 2015. Photo: Petri Virtanen.

Chocolate is just one of the materials with which Beier discreetly highlights modern slavery and the vast distances between producer and consumer. In Manual Therapy, most of the copper scrap that the massage chairs tirelessly knead is derived from electronics, while the giant high-tops in Human Resource Industries (2013) are mass-produced. Who did the mining work that makes our new phones possible? Who made our trendy trainers? And where does the human hair – all that thick, wavy hair flowing out the toy car windows and sweeping back and forth across the floor – in Auto come from?

Such questions hang in the air, unspoken, without judgement or blame. My thoughts turn to designer Thomas Thwaite’s attempt to reproduce a cheap toaster from scratch in The Toaster Project (2009). After nine months of work and spending more than GBP 1,000 (SEK 13,400), the result was a grotesque lump. The same kind of dry humour can be found in Beier’s work. Most of the time, that is. Sometimes it goes wrong, as in China (2015), a collection of large porcelain dogs and vases with angular holes cut here and there. As soon as Beier’s art takes on the guise of superficial Pop Art, its intellectual potential vanishes. It becomes stylised and toothless.

Throughout her career, Beier has often dealt with Europe’s colonial history, which, with a few exceptions, she treats in a stripped-down and austere manner reminiscent of French film director Claire Denis. Both are white Europeans who, without making a big show of it, map the power dynamics caused by colonialism. But both also spent formative childhood years in sub-Saharan Africa. They have no illusions about being white saviours, perhaps because they do not believe there is such a thing as a righteous person.

Yet this aspect of Beier isn’t on view at Kiasma, which I interpret as a conscious decision by Oksanen, with the Finnish audience in mind. While this may seem controversial, it is actually an astute move that raises questions about how national background correlates with an individual’s ability to analyse images. For example, Oksanen has chosen to show the version of Female Nude in which the ambiguous giant seeds are resting on mounds of dirt rather than the version in which they are pounded into the rattan seats of bistro chairs. This is a perfectly logical decision given that Finland was a poor agrarian society until the mid-20th century, so the average person can hardly be expected to perceive the colonial charge of rattan to the same degree as someone raised in the immediate shadow of the former European empires.

Nina Beier, Mars, chocolate bars, asphalt, 2018. Photo: Petri Virtanen.

In a text in the recently published monograph Nina Beier Works, Laura McLean-Ferris writes about Daisy Hildyard’s essay collection The Second Body (2017) in relation to Beier’s work. The same reference happens to haunt me as well, because Hildyard’s crystal-clear descriptions of each individual’s global impact are closely related to Beier’s work. Hildyard writes: “money, bodies, and chemicals are moving around the globe in different configurations. They set off complex interactions, and so it becomes impossible, in a technical way, to rule anything out of a relationship with anything else.”

This is not only a figurative, but also a literal description of what’s going on in the exhibition: from May onwards, Beier’s fountain Women & Children (2022) – comprising eleven appropriated bronze sculptures whose eyes have been drilled out and through which cascades of water flow into a pool – will grace Kiasma’s courtyard. The work has been called Beier’s magnum opus, and it will move permanently to Helsinki with the help of funding from the Danish New Carlsberg Foundation. Since Carlsberg owns two of the most popular Finnish beer brands, I guess we can thank the brewery’s faithful consumers for their cultural contribution. Indeed, no relationship should be considered unexpected in the 21st century!

Regardless of the layers of irony that sediment as Beier’s social criticism moves through the international art market, Parts is a smart and stimulating exhibition, if a little too stiff to single-handedly carve her name into Nordic art history. The fountain could therefore make a real difference, because with it Beier has the chance to carve out her own niche in the readymade tradition. The work is not a glossy tourist attraction, but will grow into the surrounding city and be attributed countless new meanings by its inhabitants. That is always an achievement.

Nina Beier, Women & Children, bronze sculptures, fountain, 2022. Photo: Timothy Schenck.