The 2013 Turku Biennial takes a look at the notion of idyll in a Nordic context. Curators and artists from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland have been invited to view the theme from different angles.
The theme ‘idyll’ can be seen in an historical context (the word dating back to antiquity; the Greek ‘eidúllion’ meant a small, harmonious image depicting the beauty of the countryside or nature) but not without forgetting how clichéd or provocative the notion if the idyll can be today. The four local curators, Laura Boxberg, Eeva Holkeri, Silja Lehtonen and Johanna Lehto-Vahtera have worked alongside Power Ekroth (SE), Karolin Tampere (NO), Ellen Friis (DK) and Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir (IS) in inviting fifteen artists to make new pieces for the exhibition. As is stated in the press release, they have examined idyll ‘from close up and from a distance; from inside and outside; for better, for worse’.
Past and future
At the entrance to the exhibition, the visitor is met with shattered pieces of glass and ceramic objects. The work of Heidi Hove (b. 1976) is arranged like a scientific display in a glass case, the way one might see archaeological findings. Her starting point is a childhood memory of cutting her foot on a shard of glass in her parents’ garden, a shard that turned out to be one of many, left there by the previous owners of the house. Those shards are on display along with Hove’s reconstructions or interpretations of the original objects. Her work is a quiet examination of a sharp disruption to a child’s play. The shattered pieces form a strong image that sets the tone for an exhibition that parodies and subverts the notion of idyll.
Joar Nango (b. 1979) and Tanya Busse (b. 1982) have taken the birch tree as their basis for the Nordic notion of idyll. With self-made devices camouflaged into different environments in the Turku area, they have extracted 30 litres of birch sap. The piece’s physical form plays with simple shapes reminiscent of Nordic architecture and imitates the look of the birch tree. Once the material was collected, Nango and Busse literally boiled it down to a small, crystalline sculpture. In so doing, they have distilled the essence of idyll from nature, from the scenes reminiscent of paintings and even film.
The youngest artist in the exhibition is Emil Ásgrímsson (b. 1985). Through animations, he presents a fascinating universe that combines the aesthetics of computer games with tangible collages and storytelling in Icelandic. His is a welcome take on idyll that effectively combines old and new. The work presents beautiful landscapes in a mysterious world, not held at a distance but sincere, coming from an artist who has grown up with digital images.
Reflections on motherhood
Mom and Jerry, a duo who consider themselves wandering works of art, have created a rich mixed-media installation: collages adorn the walls while sprayed objects fill the middle of the room and surround several monitors displaying video material. The room is lit by a disco ball, a blinking sign with changing text, and the flicker of screens. In one of the videos, Mom and Jerry visit the opening of the show Lights On! at the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, drinking beer and sitting on a bench that is part of an installation by Gardar Eide Einarsson.
The installation is irreverent and outrageously funny down to the smallest detail. The catalogue entry, from Jerry’s ‘Dad’, writing from prison, is censored, but published on the web. His letter tells the story of how he discovered he had a son through international art magazines, and gives glimpses of a less-than-idyllic past on the streets of Copenhagen. Mom and Jerry’s work is often about the art world, but in this context, it is also very much about the family. Their energy is contagious and the installation a lively contrast to the white cube.
Elina Saloranta takes the opposite approach in her video piece, Morning. The video has its starting point in 17th century Dutch genre paintings, widely popular up until the end of the 19th century. In the video, a family is having breakfast: a mother with her newborn, a father and a three-year-old child are sitting around a table. The artist herself is the mother in the middle of the scene, the others are her real family members. Saloranta plays along, following tradition, but is in fact subverting it by being in two positions at once. The work mirrors art history and the past hanging, as it does, opposite the genre painting Maternal Joy (1868) by Adolf von Becker, on loan from the Finnish National Gallery. On another wall is a large text with a title that imitates the presentations of art historical museums. These subtle means convey a delightfully ironic take on idyll.
A text by poet Riina Katajavuori in the Turku Biennial catalogue makes smart observations on Saloranta’s work with a feminist undercurrent; the father of the scene is compared to the silent protagonist of Western films. The madonna-like mother, holding her newborn, listens to the older child, answering questions and comforting him. Katajavuori’s language is warm and playful, with a subtle irony that brilliantly matches the piece itself. Jenny Wilson’s 2009 album Hardships! comes to mind, with its modern gospels revolving around motherhood. In both cases, a well-known format carries a truly subversive message: the everyday kitchen scene as presented by the mother is regarded as essential subject matter for art.
The exhibition catalogue presents a vast material that includes introductions by the curators from all five countries, presenting the artists they have invited. Other writers have been invited to reflect on single pieces or artistic practices in short essays. These are mostly from the field of art, including significant scholars such as Gertrud Sandqvist. Riina Katajavuori’s entry, mentioned above, is a refreshingly original literary contribution that also manages to place the piece in an art historical context.
With eight curators and a theme that allows for very different interpretations and connotations, one cannot expect the individual pieces in the exhibition or its attendant publication to interact much with each other. The Turku Biennial team has, however, made a good job of the goal they set: to present new art guided by a common theme. The result is an enduring range of individual experiences. Many brilliant pieces are presented here, with very refreshing takes on the theme of idyll, showing the (Nordic) world in a new light. Were the exhibition only more coherent, a more profound understanding of what the idyll is all about, could be possible.