How can the works of two artists communicate with each other in order to form a dialogue? The question may seem pedantic when asked in connection with the photographers Elina Brotherus and Hannele Rantala’s exhibition Dialogue at the Ateneum in Helsinki because it is, after all, about the back-and-forth between two artists. But from a purely semantic perspective, Dialogue is not a conversation between parties, but rather short and solitary monologues, intertwined like two song loops.
The works are based on common so-called ”assignments.” Brotherus has applied this method in her practice for years and has then often used famous event scores as a guide for her photographs. With Rantala as an equal party, the Fluxus inspiration is diluted, and the assignments become distinctly polyphonic as each artist’s respective syntax is still there. “Make a piece that has to do with measuring things,” is one of the tasks Brotherus has come up with. Rantala is more elaborate: “Dear friend, Turn off the lights in the room and see what remains. Build a labyrinth and see what you find in its centre.”
The fact that Dialogue is built around assignments that Brotherus and Rantala worked on separately means that the structure of the exhibition can be compared to the letter Y. The bottom line symbolises the task, while the fork represents the inevitable result: two artists, two very different interpretations.
What’s most fascinating is how different Brotherus and Rantala interpret the instructions they have given themselves and each other. An assignment that calls for a psychological self-portrait prompts Brotherus to revisit a childhood photo and construct from it a short and powerful autobiographical series, while Rantala chooses to portray herself in the form of a sheer white cloth photographed against a black background in a way that makes it resemble both a beautiful baldachin and a freshly skinned animal hide hung out to dry. When the subject is the moon, Brotherus takes the opportunity to travel to a distant shore to photograph herself in the light of the full moon. Rantala, on the other hand, takes a close-up of a round seashell. Dialogue may not be a dialogue in the true sense of the word, but the totality is far more sophisticated than a visual ping-pong match.
To complicate things even more, another concept lies inside the exhibition. An atypical assignment devised by both Brotherus and Rantala reads: “Select pictures by forgotten women photographers and create parallel works.” In itself, this starting point could easily fill an entire museum. Indeed, several galleries are dedicated to this assignment, and the borrowed image material consists of photographs taken by women photographers during the 20th century (the most famous of them is probably the Swedish-speaking Finnish poet Edith Södergran, although not for camera-related reasons).
The only jointly executed work in the exhibition, Art Lovers in a Museum (2020), was created as a parallel to a photograph by and of the duo Kuvasiskot (Margit Ekman and Eila Marjala) from 1961. Brotherus and Rantala’s image is an attempt at a humorous self-portrait taken in the Sinebrychoff Art Museum, but it fails to capture the spirited and chic atmosphere that permeates the original. The artists create smarter and sharper works when they work separately.
Brotherus’s characteristic imagery is well suited for these parallel works. She paraphrases Södergran’s eerie self-portrait in a mirror from 1917 in a – rare for her – black-and-white photo and poses as a clown in a faithful depiction of Nancy Pietinen’s Women Bathing (1952). Rantala is much more cutting and varied in her choices and incorporates a welcome brutality in the photographs that have been made in response to the meek retro images. A studio photograph of a little girl next to a doll gives rise to the crassly titled Copies of My Eyes on a Plate (2020), which depicts exactly what the title describes. In this part of the exhibition, Rantala chooses to follow the links that lead into darkness. Ina Roos’ much-reproduced portrait, taken in 1917, of Södergran wearing a hat adorned with a bird’s wing is placed next to the diptych Uncertain Memories I-II (2018), in which each image depicts a pale feather against a black background.
Absence is the most prevalent theme Rantala’s photographs, and the inexorable passage of time that the archival photographs symbolise evokes a controlled rage with hints of deep sorrow. Inlaid between two old photos of women cleaning is the visually unassuming series Before Necessities (2021), which documents Rantala sweeping in public places with which she has a personal connection. The images are captioned with texts that are among the best parts of this exhibition. “Everything in life always happens in the wrong order and at the wrong time,” she declares in one of these autobiographical and unapologetically depressing fragments.
She is equally ruthless in the biography mounted on the wall in the first gallery. Next to Brotherus’s very ordinary third-person presentation, Rantala has created a chronology that is a work of art in itself. After the neutral introduction “1952 I am born in Helsinki,” the tone quickly changes. “1969 I hitchhike home from Savonlinna. The driver tries to rape me. I talk my way out of the situation.” “1971 I get excited about integral calculus. I think I might become a physicist. I don’t.” “1986 I learn a lot about fear.”
The list is very revealing, and I’m reminded of the ways that women photographers who’ve grown up with and on the internet communicate with the viewer about their insecurities and life experiences. In her book Unprofessional (2021), for example, the Danish artist Matilde Søes Rasmussen also writes a chronology of her life in a similar way, but with very different end results: “At age 22 I become very interested in cooking and cocaine / At age 27 I become very interested in sex.” There are different kinds of honesty. The unpretentious kind is the best policy.
Brotherus’s works are also worth considering from a similar perspective. It is noteworthy that the best parts of the exhibition are found in sadness, and that the event score concept generates seriousness, not playfulness. The seriousness is neither political nor historical, but could be described as existential sincerity: Who am I, what am I? Knowing that these issues are too awkward for a visual dialogue, Brotherus and Rantala wisely decided to do their own thing, hoping that everything will come together in the end – which it does. Easy, neat, and right seldom serve as guidelines for a good exhibition; to abandon that in favour of sprawl is the crucial artistic choice here.