Finnished with modern art

Exchange student braves Helsinki’s Kiasma Museum

The Kiasma (2008) in Helsinki, Finland.
Supplied by Wikipedia Commons

When I saw Finnish modern art for the first time, “I don’t get it” became the most applicable phrase.

The language barrier disappeared between my Japanese roommate, Fu, my French next-door neighbor, Kevin, and I, once we saw human hair threaded through a piece of toilet paper — one of the pieces from Mona Hatoum’s featured exhibit at the Kiasma Museum in Helsinki.

After the hair incident, we were regretting our attempt at Finnish culture.

Kiasma, the Finnish museum of modern art, offers free tickets on the first Friday of every month for the culturally ambitious. “Free” was the main selling point when we made the best of the city’s few hours of sunlight.

But if Helsinki is a city-sized Ikea, then Kiasma is the edgy kitchen. The gallery was crowded with sculptures and pieces from Hatoum, a Lebanese-born Palestinian artist with a penchant for unusual materials, including hair.

My roommate, Fu, made an effort. I caught him with some grave-faced Finnish art fans nodding at knots of hair before he called it quits. Meanwhile, my next-door neighbor skipped the room altogether.

He made the right decision — the first room tested your commitment before delivering. The gallery was full of Hatoum’s powerful work afterward, including an entire room dedicated to lines of barbed wire hanging from the ceiling.

Most of her post-hair pieces were dedicated to household items: strainers with screws and nails sticking out of them, a wheelchair with sharpened handles.

I still didn’t “get it” but I was finally on board with the weirdness. Her pieces became overtly political, criticizing everything from unemployment in the United Kingdom to domesticity. Once the work had clearer objectives, I appreciated it instead of rolling my eyes at Fu.

But I still had my limits and skipped the performance art section once I caught a glimpse of a video inspecting the inside of a mouth. It looked like pre-surgery footage a doctor may use and I left in case I was right.

We eventually caught up with our neighbor in the in-house gallery downstairs. A line of mostly blue and white vases was arranged down the middle of a room and he was sniffing each one. The piece was called Babylon by Morten Skriver and Christian Skeel.

It turns out that each pot had a different scent, mostly falling between vanilla and musty perfume. The middle pot was a sum of all the smells, which the plaque said mirrored the diversity of ancient Babylon.

Fu’s face soured after smelling a rotten-egg vase.

Later, we turned into a darkened room with a flashing, neon tic-tac-toe board on the opposite end. Entitled, Wall Street by Tuomas A. Laitinen, the installation felt pretentious but oddly accessible. Laitinen’s 2009 work looked like an abstract jab at financial markets after the 2008 crash. 

Fu stared at it. I stared at it. It was consuming without being entirely clear, which we guessed was the point.

Fu and I joined our neighbor at Hatoum’s Map. It was a world map made entirely out of marbles and took up most of the room’s floor, alongside an anxious security guard, worried that I was within poking distance.

As the visit wore on, I started to accept the art as more evocative than meaningful. The pieces were more concerned with instilling feelings rather than coherent thoughts or arguments. One sculpture, Memory Flowers by Brian Eno, sold the point. The “flowers” were speakers sticking out of the ground, playing ambient music. The music invited you to consider how music interacts with memory.

Being immersed in the fine art of another culture can be jarring. While many of the pieces came from around the world, the collection was assembled for a Finnish audience.

Hatoum’s obscure work fit into an evolution of Finnish art that we were arriving to only halfway through the party. 

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