A Finnish IPO
Ars Fennica at Scandinavia House

I COME TO SCANDINAVIA HOUSE WITH A PARTICULAR BIAS. Before we get to Ars Fennica, it is only fair to explain.

My paternal grandmother was a Lutheran farm girl from rural Sweden. When she emigrated, she took with her all the skills of country women of her generation. Before Swedish Brandy became a record label, she distilled her own from the fruit of a peach tree in the yard. She had a Swede’s genius with fish — pickled, poached, salted, smoked — and grew horseradish as a courtesy to herring pudding. She knotted and chain-braided rugs from woolen rags and painted remembered designs over the lintels of doors.

The Wanderer, 2007, Elina Merenmies

My grandmother was a gifted needlewoman who knitted, crocheted and tatted wearable art without pattern books. She relied intuitively on an inherited design tradition matched in distinction only by Aran Islanders. Her creativity was the most fertile kind, born of necessity and cultural memory.

So I look to Scandinavia House for some whisper of regional character, something that touches the nerve center of Nordic sensibilities. “Ars Fennica,” now on show, is a tutorial in just how quixotic my expectations are. The synthetic folklore of contemporary image-making routs any hint of the ancestral soul.

Ars Fennica is Finland’s answer to Britain’s Turner Prize. It is awarded annually by The Ars Fennica Foundation, established in 1990 by entrepreneur Pertti Niemistö and his wife Henna. The couple were double-barreled collectors of contemporary art and lavish promoters. [Pertti died in 1999, Henna in 2004.]

Despite squeaks and whistles about “encouraging artists in their creativity,” the prize was explicitly created to secure international contacts for the Finnish art world. Ars Fennica is best viewed as a marketing event, stage-managed as a cultural one and couched in the rhetoric of connoisseurship.

The Turner Prize is supported by Tate Modern and Channel 4, Britain’s major network. Ars Fennica is backed by the newly minted prestige of the Hämeenlinna Art Museum (an historic brewery renovated to house the Niemistö collection) and covered by MTV-3, Finland’s prime network. The shortlist for the Turner prize was set at four artists in order to fit comfortably into an hour-long television profile of the candidates. Ars Fennica follows suit.

The award includes a monetary prize of 34,000 euros, or nearly $50,000, an impressive catalogue with commissioned encomiums and an exhibition tour of three Finnish art museums (not to mention debut in New York). While cash is nice, the tour is the true prize for artists and collectors: The market value of the work bumps up at each stop, an invitation to speculative buyers. In its way, Ars Fennica is an art world version of an initial public offering.

On view are the 2007 finalists: photographer and video artist Elina Brotherus, sculptor Markus Kahre, painter Elina Merenmies, and painter Anna Tuori. The winner, Mr. Kahre, was chosen by dealer Glenn Scott Wright, co-director of Victoria Miro Gallery, a London pacemaker.

Scandinavia House is the last stop on the itinerary. Bodies of work already exhibited in Finland, and documented in the catalogue, were edited down to fit the limited gallery space at Scandinavia House. All benefit from the pruning.

Ms. Brotherus is the only artist who brings a northern inflection to the exhibition. She photographs land’s end, a compelling sight in Finland’s extreme latitude. But her tongue-in-cheek effort to mimic painting conventions constricts the emotional weight of her subject. Titles like “Low Horizon Line” or “Very Low Horizon Line” shift attention from the stark Finnish terrain to her own ironic detachment. With the line of a running fence offered as an equal horizon, finisterre loses its dread . When the artist places herself — back to the viewer — against primal vistas, the work fades into a pale, mocking impression of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous “Wanderer in a Sea of Fog” (1818).

“Beigneurs” is her 3-screen video of young people skinny-dipping in Finnish lakes. She films them in the spirit of dorm-mates taking pictures of each other in the shower. Frontal nudity is cheerfully offered as a local delicacy.

Elina Merenmies blots and smudges ink drawings of trees into hallucinatory forest-scapes. Hansel and Gretel and rings of faerie folk might have rambled in the same haunted brushwood. Her results are less felicitous, however, when she applies similar techniques to faces, many of them taken from historical masterworks. Blotches, dots, stains and smears disfigure her sources with trendy welts, weals, scabs and scars — more Stephen King than Francis Bacon. The gallery’s edited down presentation minimizes the extent of her flirtation with grotesque stylelessness. Ms. Merenmies risks dissolving a refined talent in the acid of fashionable shock.

Anna Tuori’s adolescent gothicism is surprisingly amateurish. Her Perilous Realm looks, at first, like a tub of melting Häagen-Dazs. But trolls lurk in the vanilla swirl. Nihilism is the flavor du jour; there is a canker on every birch. Ms. Tuori’s world, “joyfully out of joint and darkly warped,” is said to bypass “the unilateral rules of puritan morality.” The posture sounds just right for television. Bad painting and worse drawing can be politely skirted except when they are offered as the pride of a nation.

Ars Fennica winner, Mr. Kahre delivers art that, in the publicist’s blurb, consigns “materiality” to the background. Put plainly, this means art made more for the purpose of being reported on than looked at. What you see are a few hooks for press agentry: the obligatory video, an installation that hinges on a mirror planed to deflect your reflection, and tastefully crafted pseudo-scientific whatnots.

One piece, however, slips the conceptual noose and delights. A motorized, simulated millstone is inscribed with a simple manshape repeated around a central deposit of loose sand. It revolves like a perpetually turning hour glass, figures filling and emptying with each revolution. Mesmerizing.


“Ars Fennica” at Scandinavia House (58 Park Avenue at 38 Street, 212-879-9779).

A version of this review appeared first in The New York Sun, February 7, 2008.

Copyright 2008, Maureen Mullarkey

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