It's A Set Up: KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Art

Helsinki

Sparkles (2008) & The Wonderful World of Abstraction  (2009): Left to right: Maiju Salmenkivi: Sparkles (2008), acrylic,  alkyd, oil on MDF board. Jacob Dahlgren: The Wonderful World of  Abstraction (2009). All photos courtesy the Finnish National  Gallery/Central Art Archives/Pirje Mykkänen.Left to right: Maiju Salmenkivi: Sparkles (2008). acrylic, alkyd, oil on MDF board. Jacob Dahlgren: The Wonderful World of Abstraction (2009). All photos courtesy the Finnish National Gallery/Central Art Archives/Pirje Mykkänen.

By Nadja Sayej

It's A Set Up
KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Art
To February 20, 2011

When I found out that Jeff Wall’s Man in Street (1995) was in this show, I thought: “Oh, shit.”

I walked right past it.

For those hard-pressed to figure out the Finnish contemporary art scene, It’s a Set Up is a distracting show that will leave you breathless.

This sprawling, five-room exhibition, featuring video, sculpture and installation from 41 artists from Finland, Sweden, Hungary, Switzerland, Turkey (and that one Canadian, Mr. Wall) provides an enchanting introduction for newcomers to the Nordic art scene. There’s a stack of old-schoolers with a splash of recent grads to decode the lineage in between — one clay sculpture at a time. But, it’s not so boring.

Ei (2003): Pekka Syrjälä: Ei (No), 2003.Pekka Syrjälä: Ei (No), 2003.From design-infused plastic sculptures to navel-gazing self-portraits, the Finnish art scene is alive and well, and kicking ass. While this show may not capture the buzzing scene in its entirety, it is a snapshot into the bubble that there’s been vague rumblings about, but most of us haven’t discovered yet. It’s a first step towards figuring out why we might find multi-coloured ribbons dangling from the ceiling or nonsensical marquees floating on the wall.

And, why isn’t there as much hard-edge abstraction in this show, considering Finland is known for its mastery of design, and as the home (and burial spot) of famed architect Alvar Aalto? Helsinki will be crowned the design capital of the world in 2012, and is probably peppered with more celebrated design outlets than the art scene gets noticed.

That’s not to say that some artists here find a way to get noticed. Finnish artist Pekka Syrjälä spells out the word “No” in Finnish, offering a clever rebellion in what could pass as design itself. The piece calls to mind the simplicity of a played-out IKEA world with a cursive whimsy that is poetic.

Others speak for themselves. Swedish artist Meta Isaeus-Berlin’s piece I’m Not at Home is a cracking dough sculpture that sits across nine tables with a lonely light bulb hovering above. It is only here that one can see the meditative power in clearing one’s cluttered head space with overwhelming chunks of modern soil — an escape, nevertheless, that proves to be endless in the land of the midnight sun.

But, the best works play between the world of design and art. For example, The Wonderful World of Abstraction by Jacob Dahlgren is a rainbow ribbon playground that one can touch and walk through, just like a design museum.

Nadja SayejNadja Sayej is the host of ArtStars and is out to uncover the Seven Unsolved Mysteries of the Art World — one country, one art scene at a time, Gonzo-style. She writes for the New York Times and the Globe and Mail. Follow her adventures at Twitter @ArtStars.