Leevi Haapala, PhD, Museum Director, Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma
March 24, 2016
Nationalistic agendas are very strong in many European countries, and unfortunately Finland is no exception. The rise of nationalism also has its influences on the art world, where international activity has been one of the key elements. Today I can also hear echoes of polarised populistic discussion when visiting different board meetings and panels. ‘Should we support all artists living and working in Finland, or just Finnish artists?’ Public debate and the political climate in Finland have long been defined by a spirit of consensus and a striving for unanimity. Yet, with only one valid truth accepted at any given time, this climate of perpetual consensus sometimes grew to be suffocating.
Over the past year, Kansalaistori Square, Helsinki’s new outdoor public meeting place behind Kiasma, has been the stage for various demonstrations supporting everything from same-sex marriages to multiculturalism, as well as anti-racist rallies. Our immediate context is a melting pot where many agendas and people from all walks of society meet, collide and interact, and Kiasma strives to highlight a varied spectrum of themes in its seasonal programme. The ‘Demonstrating Minds’ exhibition, which opened in October 2105, is an international survey of political art, and it looks at how critical thinking and social consciousness manifest both locally and globally in contemporary art and in relation to art history. Answers that the artists give us in the form of works of art are more on a personal level. Each one of them is taking a stand by provoking even more complex and specific questions.
International politics has always influenced the art world: how artists work, travel and collect influences, and also how art history has been written in different times and revisited in the light of current topics and research results. In February 2016, the Ateneum Art Museum opened a large survey exhibition, ‘Japanomania in the Nordic Countries 1875–1918’. Now it is possible to see Nordic golden age classics with a Japoniste twist – the signs and visual elements have been there even if we haven’t noticed them. At the end of the 19th century Japonisme took Europe by storm, spreading out from the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris. It was part of a wider interest in the so-called Orient. Orientalism, a concept of the difference between East and West, between Orient and Continent, was created through an understanding and awareness of differences in cultural practices which that era’s Western anthropologists, historians and artists from different fields carried into their works.
In the current situation, there is still on-going mutual interest between these cultures. Even if we lose a lot of meanings in cultural translation, thanks to individual researchers we have now more knowledge and vivid interpretations. And after all, we like to rely on recognisable aesthetic and visual qualities that are shared between Japan and the Nordic countries, such as sophisticated minimalism and nature references. Still, we could ask: Should art have a nation? Or does art belong to some specific region? Is there Finnish art, and if so, does it include Nordic qualities or does it come, for example, with Japoniste influences?
In January 2016, Frame Visual Art Finland commissioned a survey from the Foundation for Cultural Policy Research Cupore. One of the key notions highlighted in its report, From Cultural Influences and Exports to Dialogue and Networking, is how the nature of international activity in contemporary art has changed significantly. It has moved from cultural diplomacy between states towards multidirectional and multidimensional activity within networks. Internationality is also an integral part in Kiasma’s activities in terms of our acquisitions policy, research orientation, and especially programme making.
In the current Internet era we are living in a far-reaching world, and can share a feeling of being in different places at the same time. Our mindset has gradually changed. I would say that the art of our time – all times? – and also new art history writing, go hand in hand with global art life and international activity. The development of digital technology has substantially influenced the nature of international activities by making communication easier, even making it possible to move works in digital format across borders. We not only reflect cultural influences in art or exhibition-making, but actively produce it in our daily professional lives as curators, researchers and museum directors.
Featured image: Installation view of Suohpanterror, Checkpoint n:o 169, 2015, a series of posters on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma exhibition ‘Demonstrating Minds: Disagreements in Contemporary Art’, 2016.
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen
Download the PDF of the report, From Cultural Influences and Exports to Dialogue and Networking from the Frame Finland website: