A cool show at Shiseido with the Helsinki School

by Lucy Birmingham

Finland may seem like a cold, distant land better known for Nokia and reindeer than photography and art. But the Helsinki School, an art cooperative formed about 15 years ago, is heating up the international photography and video art world. Showing in Asia for the first time, the Helsinki School’s photography exhibition at Shiseido Gallery in Ginza till Aug. 9 is wowing viewers with works by four female members.

Titled “Internal and External Landscapes,” the show is celebrating the 90th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Finland and Japan and the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Shiseido Gallery, which has been a pioneer in supporting female artists. The Helsinki School has only about 60 members, who are carefully chosen from among graduates and faculty of the University of Art and Design, Helsinki, and are given education and support throughout their careers.

“This was a collective long-term strategy designed by myself and executed with the help of the university,” says Timothy Persons, the charismatic director of the Professional Studies Program at the university and chief curator for Helsinki School exhibitions. “We take our best students and introduce them to the international community.”

In Finland, a country of only 5 million where education is free, developing one of the best photography programs in the world is not just a pipe dream. The university has about 2,000 students and the photography department, with bachelors and masters programs combined, is kept at about 60 students, despite the 400 to 800 yearly applicants. (Thirty percent of the masters candidates are from abroad.) Persons established Gallery TaiK in 1995 as an exhibition space for Helsinki School members and then moved it in 2003 to Berlin, now considered Europe’s culture center. Gallery TaiK curates and produces six to eight museum shows a year and has helped produce 15 books for its primary artists through major publishers; separately, the Helsinki School has recently released its third coffee-table book. Members also exhibit works at prestigious art fairs such as Paris Photo and Art Forum Berlin.

Tiina Itkonen is one of the Helsinki School’s most established artists and an important choice for the Shiseido show. Her sublime images of Greenland’s icebergs and sea-ice landscapes as well as her intimate portraits of the local “Inughuit” or Polar Eskimos living on the island’s northernmost shores, have helped define the Helsinki School’s artistic approach — combining photography and conceptual art. Itkonen has been photographing this sparsely populated, frozen region since 1995.

“I became fascinated with the landscapes. They change all the time because the icebergs move, split and turn around,” she says, pointing to the work “Iceberg II.” Unlike Finland, which is thick with forests, there are no trees and no big houses so views are unobstructed. “You can see far away in all directions. It’s a very peaceful feeling.” The area has been suffering from global warming, changing the Eskimos’ ancient hunting traditions and culture. “Ten years ago it was safe to hunt with dogsleds on the ice for 10 months. Now it is only four months,” says Itkonen. Her work will be shown at the World Climate Conference in Copenhagen in December as an illustration of global warming.

Water has also been a major theme in Susanna Majuri’s enigmatic works since 2002. Finland has over 180,000 lakes, so water, both beautiful and deadly, runs deep in the Finn subconscious.

“In Finland, children are taught that water can be dangerous,” explains Majuri. “It’s a strong symbol in our folk tales with stories about ‘dark water,’ so I’m sure this has influenced me.” Majuri’s work titled “Kaksonet” is ringed with mystical fear and love, as two faceless bodies float and embrace above a winter landscape, midstream between life and death. Majuri printed photos on huge plastic sheets that she attached to the bottom of a swimming pool, while her models hovered above. “I invite people into my work with hints, but they have to follow their own story,” says Majuri. “I allow danger but also hope.”

In Anni Leppala’s sensitive, wistful images of girls, the models are friends and family, such as her sister. “Every image is a kind of self-portrait,” she says. In “Yearly Growth,” from the series “Possibility of Constancy,” a girl hides her face amid evergreen trees sprouting new green growth. In Finland’s three- month growing season, time is precious.

“I am working with the possibility of illusion, being able to make something stand still and be constant,” she explains.

The delicate Orientalism in Sandra Kantanen’s work reveals her time spent traveling in China, including a year studying Chinese landscape painting at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. She was also invited to Japan as an artist-in-residence at the Aomori Contemporary Art Center in 2008.

“For the longest time, I’ve been trying to combine painting and photography,” says Kantanen. In “Untitled (Sakura I),” she scanned film negatives and then digitally “painted” them. Kantenan says she “destroyed” the images to “bring them to the surface of the paper.”

“We have this strange image of nature, romantic and idealized,” she says. “But the truth is, in China most of the landscapes are destroyed, so there is a big paradox in how we look at nature and how it actually is,” she says.

“Photography deals with showing things but I want to emphasize that it doesn’t show anything but your own perception and imagination.”