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Every year, the Finnish Painters’ Union organises a large-scale exhibition of works, hung in the impressive creative space of the former cable factory in the Salmisaari district of Helsinki. The exhibition consists of 1,579 works by 600 or so artists, some established and some amateur, and all works are for sale. While most works consist of traditional oil on canvas, watercolour, gouache etc., there are also some textiles, multimedia pieces, prints and photographs on display. Hung in the huge space, it’s an impressively scaled event, where, if one looks closely, one can find rare treats like the Rembrandtesque etchings of Paula Rubino, the grotesque cartoon-like paintings of satirist Tapio Tuominen, and the melancholy photographic landscapes of Eeva-Liisa Isomaa.
Admittedly, for an art critic, this phenomenon is rather disarming. By any critical standards, the works on display are very hit and miss. It is certainly a long time since Ingres called drawing “the probity of art,” but many works remind us that the discipline inherent to figurative representation cannot be skipped by a leap into expressive colour. Abstraction is not the refuge of poor draughtsmanship, and textural materiality won’t make up for lame composition. However, although it might in another context be appropriate to dismiss the majority of works as amateurish daubing, as a whole the exhibition delivers a very affecting experience. It is not simply due to the scale of the exhibition, which is certainly unique in Helsinki, but it is due to the effect of the mass impact of manual human effort that one leaves this show feeling uplifted and impressed. One would have to be very cynical not to be touched by the rareness of this experience.
[alert type=white ]One would have to be very cynical not to be touched by the rareness of this experience.[/alert]
Even for people who visit galleries often, this event stages something special; not because it is replete with ground-breaking art, but because the displaying of such a mixture of works with minimal curatorial style creates a genuine collective happening. Individually, many of the works on show would not garner much attention, and yet en masse they conspire to create an event that, arguably, has more political and critical clout than most professional galleries could muster. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this event constitutes a site of resistance. It is perhaps paradoxical, but this is in part due to the individual works having a clear price tag.
For most of us, the only time we walk around a space this large looking at things for sale means that we’re in a mall, a hypermarket, or a DIY store. As consumers, we are conditioned to the established market value of things (however problematic it might be): a Black & Decker hammer drill costs around €70, the cheapest Omega watch will set you back around €2500, etc. We are astute at shopping around for bargains, and consider it a little victory when we acquire something at a knock down price. Although the market price of consumables is relatively fixed, the world of commercial art presents us with a real conundrum about the relation between price and value. Many of these works won’t sell, but affixing a price to them dignifies the expenditure of time, materials, and individual effort that each participant has invested, even though the artistic value of their products is often questionable. At a time when artists of all modalities are being beaten down by a reductive cultural economics that confuses the cost and the value of human creativity, this show proves that it’s not just the big-hitting artists who represent a resistance to the dangerous philistinism of this era. Everyone can contribute.
Most people don’t buy original art works, and most of us wouldn’t have a clue how to set a price on them. In this event though, the mass effect of the individual pricing of disparate objects destabilises our grasp of any homogeneous sense of “market value” and ultimately turns us to another non-monetary sense of worth. All the works on show at the Sales Event are individual, made by individuals. If you go to see this exhibition, you may not be able to afford anything, you may only admire a small number of works, but, if you enter with an open heart and mind, you will find it both moving and a politically significant manifesto about collective effort.
[alert type=white ]If you go to see this exhibition, you may not be able to afford anything, you may only admire a small number of works, but, if you enter with an open heart and mind, you will find it both moving and a politically significant manifesto about collective effort.[/alert]
Postscript: Where lurks the ethnic diversity?
Generally speaking, the works on display in the Sales Event represented different levels of engagement with traditional western art forms. Despite the democracy of the show, I felt it conspicuous that there were no works by non-western participants. (I’ll gladly stand corrected if so.) The repetition of western genres, styles, and techniques would suggest a cultural homogeneity which is not actually representative of contemporary Finland. Given that the adjoining Finnish Museum of Photography is currently staging a superb exhibition about migration and identity, titled Homeland, one feels that the Painters’ Union would benefit enormously from cultivating more opportunities for non-European migrants to become engaged in artistic displays. Maybe such a development could make the 2017 Sales Event an even more culturally rich experience.
[alert type=red ]Given that the adjoining Finnish Museum of Photography is currently staging a superb exhibition about migration and identity, titled Homeland, one feels that the Painters’ Union would benefit enormously from cultivating more opportunities for non-European migrants to become engaged in artistic displays.[/alert]
For those with another hour to spare, the exhibition Homeland is part of the Festival of Political Photography 2016. The work of about twelve photographers documents the lives of people who have been displaced, deported, or exiled, who have migrated due to financial necessity or war, who have been abandoned in political no-mans’-lands, or who exist as non-legal vagrants on the “liquid border” of the Mediterranean.
The various projects offer moving and disturbing insights into the current and historical conditions of migration and diaspora. The colourful traditional clothes of Congolese families expose the drabness of their adoptive Pudasjärvi home; Rwandan and Albanian refugees are juxtaposed with landscapes and domestic interiors of abandoned homelands. An impressive ethnographic project by Sanni Seppo and Kerttu Matinpuro documents the lives of the people in the Sahrawi refugee camps in the Western Sahara, first created as a short term relocation site for people displaced by the Moroccan invasion of their homeland in 1975. With their plight abandoned by the international community, generations have now grown up in a strip of arid desert cut off from the sea by a mined wall.
Seppo and Matinpuro reveal how their administrative invisibility crushes the hopes of Sahrawi people, most poignantly, with a quotation from a young boy, Hamdi: “When I grow up, I’d like to be a footballer, but I can’t. The Sahrawi’s do not have a country that I could play for.” Notably, the show ends with a series of photographs by Ben Kaila and Risto Vuorimies of Finnish migrants who moved to Sweden in the financial turmoil of the 1970s.
With images of how an ice-hockey suit and a Finnish flag stuck onto a radio set symbolise the fragile grip on a sense of homeland, this series offers a timely reminder to Finns of when they were forced to seek work and and a place to re-establish their families in other lands.
In different ways, both Homeland and the Sales Event offer means of representation and expression of resistance to the pressure of certain pernicious socio-economic rhetoric blowing through Finland.
Merikaapelihali, Kaapelitehdas (Cable Factory), Tallberginkatu 1, 00180 Helsinki