Espoo Museum of Modern Art – EMMA – opened ten years ago in Finland’s second biggest city Espoo, yet has only recently become a major influence on the national art scene. In spite of being part of the capital region, the museum has had difficulty reaching art audiences and tourists of culture. The long expected extension of the underground system is currently a construction disaster, which has increased the necessity of patient and long term work with audiences.
When EMMA opened, the choice of name was subject to discussion. Contrary to museums of contemporary art, a museum of modern art was perceived as representing a broad historical perspective. This has materialized in institutional collaborations around international names such as Kazimir Malevitj, Salvador Dalí and Antoni Tàpies, including interesting presentations by, among others, Shirin Neshat, Anette Messager and Yang Fu Dong. The most current contemporary art has thus far been represented by a private collection, Saastamoinen, which comprises the majority of the museum collection. Continuous and comprehensive acquisitions and presentations of new Finnish art have resulted in necessary updates to the contemporary collection.
The museum’s first decade is now celebrated with its first international group exhibition. It is the first of a series of exhibitions titled In Search of the Present, which is scheduled for iteration every 3 to 4 years. Museum director Pilvi Kalhama’s ambition appears to be that the series will “sound out the pulse” of the present, which has up until now been the task of the so called ARS exhibitions.
Besides the notion of the contemporary, however, the new exhibition considers the more methodological question of the group exhibition as form. A group of 23 artists have been selected to represent the diverse origins and artistic practices of the present.
The curators claim to explore “the nature of human beings that inhabit a global digital world and their relationship to the environment, themselves and other human beings”. Three themes have been outlined in english. The new me is said to describe the way we develop ourselves and our identity using extreme methods. Digital mankind wants to treat digitization as not merely changing the individual, but humanity as a whole. Nature kingdom wants to tell about humanity’s often failed attempts at forceful domination over nature and the animal kingdom.
Consequently this is yet another narrative about the geological age where earth is permeated with human activity, mainly through disruptions of natural ecosystems. It is also a time when everything can be viewed as post: postinternet, posthumanism, post-representational, postvisual, and so on and so forth.
Calling the new exhibition series In Search of the Present refers to author and prominent cultural figure Olavi Paavolainen (1903–1964) and his collection of essays with the same title, Nykyaikaa etsimässä, from 1929. Paavolainen who was of Baltic, Swedish and Karelian origin, represents mythical modernity from a Finnish perspective, where time is an open possibility. However, a close reading of Paavolainen shows that he also represents fictional ambivalence, the pitfalls of heroic narration, and identity play.
This multifaceted understanding of the present is not visible in the exhibition’s discourse. The installation, with its excessively charged pedagogy and associative wall texts in large print, as well as its rigid architectural disposition, prevents much potential interaction between the works. Paavolainen’s style could, to a greater degree, be coupled to works by individual artists. The works by Elke Silvia Krystufek, Elly Strik and Akram Zataaris can be viewed with regard to the notion of ambivalent fictionalization, just as the works by younger Finnish artists Artor Jesus Inkerö and Saija Kassinen. The play with first person characters in dialogue with the technology of representational discourse appears, for example, in Kassinen’s interactive digital tableaus, where the viewer is drawn into the narrative through multiple senses.
Several important artists are represented in the exhibition. Names such as Klara Kristalova, Berlinde de Bruyckere, Harun Farocki and Camille Henrot are rarely shown in Finland. However, significant Finnish artists such as Sasha Huber and Anne Tompuri are includes as well. Tompuri’s series of black tinted paintings, with their analogies to nature, are a strong contribution to the exhibition. These works succeed in alluding to a sublime native forest mythology, while offering only an unfamiliar darkness.
Overall, however, the curatorial process appears to have been random selection, rather than in depth analysis. For example, Johanthan Monk’s calendars on cloth feel forcibly comical, the airplane-like installation of Berglind Jóna Hlynsdóttir disappears, and the poetry of Ben Okri is left without context.
In Search of the Present shows, yet again, that the group exhibition is a demanding form of exposition. The exhibition adamantly reveals feeble curatorial approaches, unexploited architectural qualities and missed encounters between works. Yet despite its obscurity, the exhibition offers a thought-provoking resistance. EMMA has entered the present in a new way, and the artist selection is broad enough to contribute a qualitative artistic material for discussion. In Search of the Present is most effective when one forgets the curating, disregards the exhibition’s guiding notions and views it as an open proposal for contemporary discussions.