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“Northern Spell: Contemporary Finnish Photography”

At the Embassy of Finland to April 21

“Northern Spell,” a show of 16 medium- and large-scale color photographs currently at the Finnish Embassy, is a rare bird indeed: a diplomatic exhibition of officially sanctioned art that has more to offer than bland flattery of the national spirit. Not that governmental PR aims aren’t being advanced, of course. Since the fall of the Soviet Union rocked the economy of its Nordic neighbor, Finland has attempted to reposition itself with respect to the rest of Europe. It joined the European Union in 1995, and it has poured money into remaking itself as a hi-tech contender. It has also sought to compete in international-culture circles, and in advancement of this aim it has established photography as its premier contemporary art form, largely by funding a program at the University of Art and Design Helsinki UIAH (formerly the University of Industrial Arts Helsinki) that trains students in the production of polished, technically advanced camerawork.

The choice of medium and aesthetic are telling: Photography is seen as a “modern” medium, but its art status is secure, so state sponsorship of it is unlikely to rattle even more conservative Finns. And the high production values and superficial coolness of temperament advanced by the UIAH register as desirable traits to collectors and trading partners accustomed to German dominance of the European markets for art and everything else over the past few decades. Just on the evidence of the art made by its graduates, the UIAH program that trained “Northern Spell”‘s Marjaana Kella, Ola Kolehmainen, Andrei Lajunen, and Jyrki Parantainen owes a debt to Bernd and Hilla Becher, conceptual documentarians whose classes at the Staatlichen Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf have produced such names as Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth. But it is in the Finns’ departures from the Germans’ deadpan style that they find their own place on the international photo scene.

They just shouldn’t count on getting much help mapping out their turf from the organizers of “Northern Spell.” The show is a reduced version of “Magnetic North: Current Installation Photography in Finland,” which appeared last fall at the New Art Gallery in Walsall, England. The curatorial provenance is both a good thing and a very bad thing, because that cohesive selection of work by five young Helsinki artists (the youngest, Elina Brotherus, isn’t in the present show), was accompanied by one of the worst museum catalogs in recent memory. Divisions of labor exist for a reason; a catalog’s editor should not also be its primary essayist. But editor and Artscribe magazine co-founder Caryn Faure Walker saw little reason to rein in the worst impulses of London-based American writer and curator Caryn Faure Walker, and associate editors Jane Becker and Susan Butler appear to have been unable to help.

Consequently, on top of a number of trivial but irksome copy problems, we have the critical hobbyhorse of the Platonic shadow rearing its weary head in Graf 3, and hard on its heels a go-nowhere reference to Freud. Soon, Walter Benjamin is ready for his close-up on behalf of the Frankfurt School, and Paul Virilio is quick to reprazent tha Lef Bank. Duchamp enters invisibly through a French window, and sometime before it’s all over, Wittgenstein conducts a fireside chat, thankfully sans poker. Walker’s philo-theoretical notebook dump needn’t have spelled disaster, had only a stern hand prodded her fragments into some semblance of order—and did not the work she was ostensibly addressing create the impression that the 20th century might not even be the best time in which to root the discussion?

Germany, however, remains the best place to start. And the best guide is probably Robert Rosenblum. His groundbreaking 1975 survey Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, which posits a Germanic/Nordic lineage of metaphysically oriented art-for-life’s-sake in opposition to the aestheticized Parisian strain of art-for-art’s-sake, takes up its timeline with Caspar David Friedrich, whose early-19th-century encounters with the coastlines and mountains of the Northern landscape were rendered as gateways to the immaterial world of the spirit. Kella’s Mountain, Campo Cecina (2000) is virtually a remake of Friedrich’s Mountain With Rising Fog; in both, a dark foreground of tree-covered slopes hems in a middle ground that is cloaked in mist, with higher peaks looming at an inaccessible distance.

Drawing the Norwegian Edvard Munch and the Swiss Ferdinand Hodler into his history, Rosenblum suggests that their precipitous images position the viewer “at the very fringe of the earth, surveying the pure and boundless blue of ether and water ordered upon the most elemental vertical and horizontal axes.” Relocated to the hills, the description could apply to Friedrich’s and Kella’s pictures, as well, and it could serve Kolehmainen’s Air (2001) virtually unaltered. The most notable difference is that the terrestrial rim is absent from this photo of the boundary between cloud layer and featureless sky, in which vaporous white shades up in layers to deepest blue. It re-enters the image, however, via a reflection of the gallery space that also places the viewer in the picture, as palpable as Friedrich’s Woman in Morning Light but turned back out of the scene like the youth in Hodler’s Look Into the Beyond (1905), who stares at us with the clouds behind and beneath him.

Like Air and Mountain, Campo Cecina, Kella’s Park, Herttoniemi (2000) is displayed sandwiched between sheets of highly reflective plexiglass. And like them it turns the juncture between near and far into a psychologically charged divide. Rosenblum notes that many Northern Romantic scenes juxtapose a nearly tangible foreground with a mystically indistinct background. Whereas Mountain restates this formula precisely, Air and Park invert it. The white band at the bottom of Kolehmainen’s near-abstraction dematerializes the feet of the viewer, tipping him into the sublime, where his imagination is already projected. Likewise, Kella’s green vista draws him into its depths, as the gravel path on which he supposedly stands drops away beneath him.

If there’s one main criticism to be levied at Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, it’s that the idea of visionary portraiture is not nearly as well developed as that of divine landscape. Although Rosenblum contributes a sizable treatment of Paul Klee, his neglect of 1919’s Absorption, a portrait bust of a figure, usually taken to be the artist, with constricted features and closed eyes, seems a strange omission. An imagined correction, combined with Rosenblum’s consideration of Piet Mondrian’s Passion Flower of circa 1901—in which a woman, her eyes shut in a meditative trance, tips her head up and back in an attitude of spiritual striving—leads into Kella’s series of pictures of people under hypnosis.

Two of the artist’s female subjects offer “Northern Spell”‘s most striking images, as well as, I’d guess, the impetus for the show’s name. Hypnosis: Ritva (2000) could almost be a Pieta: A middle-aged woman, her long graying hair falling across her shoulders, her hands nestled in her lap, wears an expression of profound despair; a man’s hand, disembodied, rises from the bottom edge of the picture to rest consolingly above her knee, but she is unreachable, her grief hermetic and unassuageable. In Hypnosis: Marja No. 2 (2000), an older woman, prim in a navy suit with epaulets, is in the grip of ecstasy. Her wedding-banded left hand rests on her knee; her right is pressed across her face, cradling her jaw and cheekbone and thrusting back her head. Just as Klee’s Absorption has received both political and mystical interpretations, Kella’s hypnosis portraits are multivalent. Even if we have complete trust in our reactions to them, it’s impossible to know whether their subjects are dredging up private memories or, susceptible to suggestion, creating extreme emotional states out of whole cloth.

By the time Mondrian painted Evolution, in 1910-1911, the blossoms over the shoulders of the woman in Passion Flower had become six-pointed stars from the divine geometry of theosophy. Their hexagonal symmetries are recapitulated in Kolehmainen’s Institut du Monde Arabe No. 12 (2001), a shot of the inside of the building’s south face, which is covered with tens of thousands of photomechanical diaphragms that control the flow of sunlight. Confounded by glassy highlights and insistent structural crossings in the foreground, the viewer can’t distinguish what lies outside the cameralike “eyes” of the building. In another image from the same series, sunlight, brilliant and formless, cuts through the interstices of a gridded screen on the building’s courtyard facade. It doesn’t seem irrelevant that the photographer was intending to shoot churches on his trip to Paris when he instead came across architect Jean Nouvel’s High Tech homage to Islamic ornamentation.

In Parantainen’s The Mystery of Satisfaction No. 4 (2001), a more destructive light seeps through the cracks in a cheap German lithograph of Venice. Apparently a relic retrieved from a fire, the print is torn and darkened with soot, its depiction of a city of dazzling surfaces having succumbed to the elemental force of flame. Though he supplants Northern Gothic architecture with Venetian Gothic, Parantainen here maintains the Northern Romantic obsession with ruins. In two diptychs from the same series, museum displays of stuffed animals frozen in combat (two zebras) or pursuit (a tiger and a deerlike creature) are paired with translucent curtains of, respectively, red gel and white, shirred fabric. Romantic subjects of violence, concealment, and luminosity are pursued, but where Parantainen missteps is in assuming that his animals have more to say about wildness than about conventions of taxidermy and museum display.

Threats of personal destruction are more effectively handled in Hospital Beds (1997-1998), a panoramic diptych of junked metal-framed gurneys, beds, tables, and chairs by Lajunen, who died from a brain hemorrhage in 1999, at age 30. A corpseless, apocalyptic reminder of man’s fate, the photograph lies directly in the line of Friedrich’s shipwreck picture The Polar Sea and British war artist Paul Nash’s Totes Meer, which envisions a graveyard for Nazi fighter planes as a sea of metal carnage.

Although it would be questionable to shoehorn into an unabashedly spiritual mode Parantainen’s The Mystery of Satisfaction No. 3 (a shot of a tentlike fake-fur environment whose trompe l’oeil manipulation of scale outstrips its air of mystery) and fruitless to do likewise with Lajunen’s two smaller pieces (a close-up profile of a policeman’s torso, a metal wall marred by what appears to be dried spit), the overall identification of recent Finnish photography as an heir to the Northern Romantic tradition is strengthened by considering what was left out between Walsall and Washington. Parantainen’s documents of fires consuming sets of scholarly domiciles he constructed in abandoned buildings pointedly include one image in which flames engulf his thesis about fire and the sublime. Kella produced a portrait series in which her sitters were seen from behind, their faces turned away, as in so many pictures by Friedrich and Munch. And Brotherus, who is starting to show elsewhere in the United States, is the most emotionally (and physically) naked of the bunch. Her From the New Painting: Femme a Sa Toilette (2001) owes more to Van Gogh’s Sorrow than to the sunny voyeurism of French bathing scenes. And the unearthly vistas of her Horizon pictures (2000) from the same series resonate with the paysages planetaires of Hodler, Friedrich, and Max Ernst.

But the most daring thing about Rosenblum’s argument, from an art-historical perspective, is his insistence that emotional links take precedence over formal ones. Just as his readers are cautioned against “clocking [van Gogh, Munch, and Hodler] by Paris time” simply because “their mature style was dependent upon a pictorial language developed first by French masters,” viewers of “Northern Spell” should be warned not to make too much of the similar dependence of contemporary Finnish photography on the style of the Dusseldorf School. To do so would mean getting the geography pretty near right—and the time frame wrong by as much as a couple of centuries. CP