The Drowned Refugee Aylan Kurdi and Other Horrors on Display at Helsinki Contemporary
When I visit contemporary art galleries in Helsinki, I often find myself a lone viewer. The other day, however, Helsinki Contemporary was full of people; the conversations suggesting that their visit had been prompted by recent media attention to the works on show: “Are you shocked?” one middle-aged woman asked her companions as they left. The buzz around this exhibition of new works probably stems from a media focus on Until the Sea Shall Him Free, Jylhä’s life-scale coloured sculptural rendering of the drowned body of three-year-old Syrian refugee, Aylan Kurdi. The sculpted child is posed as captured in the heart-breaking photographs taken by Nilifur Demir in September 2015. I thought it a paradoxical reflection of the unabsorbable saturation of viral images that exhibition goers might anticipate shock in a secondary representation of Demir’s truly shocking original image of the child washed up like flotsam on a Turkish beach. Like the image of the burning Vietnamese child, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, in the 1970s, or those of the starving children of Ethiopia who haunted our living rooms in the 1980s, the picture of Aylan – and the artistic responses to his death – seem emblematic of our incapacity to respond effectively to the human disasters of this decade.
[alert type=white ]The picture of Aylan – and the artistic responses to his death – seem emblematic of our incapacity to respond effectively to the human disasters of this decade.[/alert]
The collectively shaming reiteration of this image is now equally as viral as the original, and Jylhä stands alongside Ai Weiwei as a contemporary artist compelled to engage in the public process of traumatic repetition apparently necessary in our attempts to come to terms with the reality of what this isolated image represents. What is shocking clearly lies in part in the space between this reality and European civilization’s inability to reconcile it with the continuity of a life of Saturday afternoon gallery visits, shopping, and coffee shops. In a number of recent works, Jylhä captures this modern condition of the paralysis we experience alongside collective grief in the face of disasters, particularly those which, for a moment, seem monumentally terrible until they are superseded by the next media wave of horror. Jylhä’s work engages us in thinking about the process of witnessing that is inscribed into the reiteration of Aylan’s image: from Demir’s first sighting of his body, to her photographing it, to our viewing, over and over, the photographs that she took as the only way to “express the scream of [Aylan’s] silent body.” What, then, can an artist add to the original experience of viewing such media imagery? Can it ever lead to more than a form of vulgar, pop commentary? This is a question that Jylhä asks of himself as much as of his viewers.
His answers are tentative, softly spoken, in gestures that claim value only in as much as they reflect our broader collective sense of inadequacy. Although the ten new works displayed in Helsinki Contemporary appear to be presented as a thematic series, they were made as individual pieces. They nonetheless correspond to one another both in their theme of disaster and the delicate, organic materials such as white goose feathers used throughout. According to the artist, the works were created “one misfortune at a time,” and represent his responses to a series of recent high-profile horrors, including the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris and the deliberate downing of the Germanwings flight 9525 in 2015. Discreetly titled 24.3.2015, the play between title and work here is very revealing. Viewing a miniature plastic plane ploughing into a mountain of goose feathers (an Icarian symbol here), the image resonance of 9/11 comes to the fore. “What happened on 24.3.1015?” viewers whisper. Despite the international terror elicited by the German crash in 2015, it would appear that already, only one year after, viewers struggle to recall the significance of the date in the title. It seems that the dates of some violent deaths are indelible and some not.
[alert type=white ]According to the artist, the works were created “one misfortune at a time,” and represent his responses to a series of recent high-profile horrors, including the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris and the deliberate downing of the Germanwings flight 9525 in 2015.[/alert]
In the title of the exhibition, “We Have Inherited Hope – the Gift of Forgetting,” Jylhä borrows a line by the Polish Nobel Prize-winning poet, Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) that refers to how the ability to forget is vital for human survival: “We’ve inherited hope – the gift of forgetting, you’ll see how we give birth among the ruins.” Clearly, however, Jylhä is concerned with the paradoxes that arise from this primal skill. While making the sculpture of Aylan, he pondered the expression “lest we forget”, and although the work is expressly a commemoration of the child’s death, Jylhä points to the failures of our will to sustain attention to events recounted by forms of media that are inherently ephemeral. Our will to memorialise arises exactly from our ability to forget. At a time when the current daily news prompts anxious parallels with the 1930s, Jylhä’s meditation on the dynamic of memory and forgetting, and the media’s role in it, is most poignant.
The play between collective memory and the ephemerality of media attention is manifest in Jylhä’s recent works through a very deliberate choice of organic degradable materials. The work titled We Have Inherited Hope – the Gift of Forgetting, for example, consists of delicate bones, cat skulls and snake vertebrae arranged in the circular form of a ticking clock. While his use of organic materials is longstanding, Jylhä is an artist known in Helsinki for his monumental public sculpture, most notably Source, a stone, bronze, and steel memorial to former president Urho Kekkonen, installed in 2000 next to Finlandia House. A melancholy sense for the memorial seems to run throughout his work, apparent also in the piece titled Waiting (2010) which stands in Kaivopuisto: a golden figure of a windswept young woman scanning the horizon, recalling the wives who would wait along the coast for their sailor husbands to return home.
While this monument to the fragility of sea-faring life stands sturdy in large scale bronze, Jylhä captures the vulnerability of the current marine passage of refugees in one of the most affecting works in the exhibition, Journey, which renders a miniature inflatable dinghy in white goose feathers. The effect of this fragile vessel being displayed to the side of Aylan’s little form is deftly articulate. Similarly, the piece titled Sorrow of a Pen, represents a large-scale fountain-pen made of feathers, a plume though mightier than the sword visibly bleeding thick red gouts from its quill. “At its best a sculpture resembles a poem in space.” Thus Jylhä stated in conversation with curator Mikaela Lostedt. However, before the lyrical play between title and object, it is Jylhä’s material poetics which most impress. Lyricism and visual wit deliver the lightness of touch to the serious technical mastery of materials that underlies even the most apparently ephemeral of these works.
[alert type=white ]Jylhä is an artist known in Helsinki for his monumental public sculpture, most notably Source, a stone, bronze, and steel memorial to former president Urho Kekkonen, installed in 2000 next to Finlandia House. [/alert]
Some viewers might justifiably ask if and when a poetic response is appropriate in light of the real, bloody, material mess of the events to which Jylhä’s work refers. Poetic responses are valuable in their insightful and affecting communication of shared meanings, emotions, and symbols, and yet the melancholy poetics of these new works might for some be too directly realised. Some might suspect an overly-explicit relation between work and title, for example. Arguably, however, the strength of Jylhä’s works lies to a large extent in the critical tension between sentimentality and horror. The point at which political or poetic obviousness is a weakness is open for debate, and is perhaps an inherent question surrounding the synthesis of pop art and political critique that is at work in our current stage in the history of media (in the manifold sense). Pop art and its legacy is part of Jylhä’s sculptural sensibility. The apparent ephemerality of gesture in the construction of these works belies a profound engagement with the formal history of sculpture and object making. This is notably reflected in the playfully alchemical transposition of shapes and materials throughout Jylhä’s oeuvre: bronze forms artfully masquerading as helium-filled balloons, molten-looking steel captured in the form of a water-splash.
In the current exhibition an over-sized, cream leather-look purse distends from the wall like some bloated form of bathroom plumbing. Curiously, the ambiguity of its title and translation – in Finnish Peseytyminen and in English Ablution – further carries Jylhä’s Duchampian humour: is there a reference here to money laundering or, as with Duchamp’s Fountain, is the artist playing with various bawdy symbolic, as well as material, correspondences?
There is a work in this exhibition, though, which stands alone from the disasters and melancholia. High on the wall, a stuffed white hare tip-toes stealthily towards the gallery door. Slung over his shoulder is a white leather-like (yet aluminium) swag bag, filled with long, brightly illuminated crystals, the reflections from which dance across the ceiling, tracing the creature’s aery path. This work, titled Make Her Path Light and Pure contains one of many stuffed white mountain hares that have appeared in Jylhä’s works over the years, and symbolises for the artist human life, its magic and fragility: “It is a reminder of threatening dangers and it is a sensitive and fragile symbol of nature that needs shelter.” Like Lewis Carroll’s threshold-crossing white rabbit, the Aztec drunken rabbit deities Centzon Totochtin, and Joseph Beuys’ shamanistic hare, Jylhä’s animal is a liminal thing: a creaturely other that is yet identifiable with mankind, a humorously-formed and deeply animal symbol of our longing for transcendence, transversal, and sublimation. Both it and the sculptor are adepts of processes of transformation, and here it acts as a reminder of the mythic structures that bind us beyond vernacular horror. The imagination takes the high road.
Pekka Jylhä: We Have Inherited Hope – the Gift of Forgetting – until April 3 2016
Address: Helsinki Contemporary, Bulevardi 10, 00120 Helsinki
Opening hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday 11–17,
Thursday 11–18, Saturday, Sunday 12–16