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Aki Kaurismaki, a still from “The man without a past” (2002)

I’ve watched The Man Without a Past (2002) by Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki many times in the last couple of years. I first watched it two years ago during my stay in Helsinki as curator-in-residence at Helsinki International Artist Programme (HIAP). It was around the same time, in early February 2016, when an article by Simon Tomlinson was published in the Daily Mail, reporting the words of Finland’s President during the opening of the legislature’s Spring term: “Migration is a serious problem, Europe, Finland, the Western way of thinking and our values have all been challenged by it.

Since then, I have watched this movie ritualistically, as a means to exorcize new forms of austerity that are arising in different areas of Europe and the USA, that are starting to be normalized as legitimate within our democracies. Considering these themes are unrelenting in our hostile political climate, I guess I’ll be watching it again soon.

The Man Without a Past tells the story of an unnamed middle-aged man, who is violently attacked by a group of three criminals when he arrives to town, after a long train journey from nowhere. Known to sow terror in the streets of Helsinki, these villains ambush him from behind with a baseball bat, knocking him out cold. The beating causes the visitor to completely lose his memory.

As a stranger, no one knows anything about him, not his name, nor where he came from.  Totally marginalized and rejected by a city that shows itself to be initially violent, skeptical, generally inflexible, and not inclined to open up to foreigners, the man has a hard time trying to put together the pieces of his life and to rebuild a routine. From one day to the next, his outlook for the future grows increasingly bleak. Yet, he starts over again, from scratch, despite difficulties and sacrifices, the man slowly reclaims his life, mostly thanks to  a small community of marginalized families living in a containment camp. They support his search for a job and place to live, giving him much needed human company, enough to restore his faith in others.

Over time, his memory returns. We are nearing the film’s end, when he is triggered to remember his past. This break in storyline is forged when his new identity and life collide with his old one, generating an introspective process that leads him to question, self-consciously, which of the two versions of himself he is, and which of them he wants to be. The answer is right in front of his eyes. The events he lives through divulge the hostilities that make up the city and himself. It is a torturous, relational path that guides him to change himself as much as it does his perception of the city. The city of Helsinki evolves, too. With him, it becomes, indeed, entwined with the man, showing an unexpected harmony that he finally finds among the people, that projects as compassion, empathy, and mutual belonging. Crucial is the scene when he meets the three attackers again. They are violently kicking another guy who is on the ground and screaming. The criminals recognize him, and, as they approach to beat him again, people of the containment camp come out of nowhere and to assist by encasing him in a protective wall built of friends.

The more I watch this movie, the more readily it brings to mind words like “negotiation” and “harmony.” These are uncanny, gut reactions, thoughts and cravings, formed in opposition to the palatable and prevailing feeling of oppression the film expresses. My feelings and thoughts about the film as born out of the “roughness” of recent years, the political and social chaos of xenophobia, racism, persecution, and the rise of far-right and neo-fascists aligned with Nazi positions and the resulting discrimination of marginalized minorities, immigrants, Roma communities, asylum seekers — all those who are considered an unwelcome presence.

The rise of extreme and unconstitutional ideologies are becoming a real and concrete threat to the unity of the European Union.  In October, an article in the Independent, Before our eyes, Italy is becoming a fascist state by the paper’s Deputy Managing Editor and former Economics editor, Sean O’Grady, describes Italy as an “hostile environment” for migrants and asylum seekers because of restrictive measures launched against them, such as the decision of Italy’s  Minister of the Interior to shut ports to migrant rescue ships, and more recently, on  January 22, to hurriedly evict, through a military raid, hundreds of asylum seekers from Castelnuovo di Porto, Italy’s second-largest refugee reception. This article cast a broad story by outlining the unfortunate, and unequivocal truth of this hostility as a shared status all over the Europe Union:

In Poland, in Hungary, in the Czech Republic, fascists run whole countries. In places such as Austria and Denmark they either share power or are close to it. In France the National Front is re-inventing itself, Macron almost a last hope for French democracy. In Germany we know what has happened; the rise of the AfD has pushed the two main parties into an uncomfortable permanent grand alliance, squeezing the life out of the social democrats, and leaving the neo-Nazis as the unofficial opposition. The same appears to be happening in Sweden.

Yes, Sweden as well, with its homogeneity being disrupted, its mythology as “open, prosperous, liberal, tolerant Sweden” is melting away. As reported by the Guardian’s European affairs correspondent Jon Henley, Sweden “is facing a right-wing populist insurgency.” On my recent travels in Scandinavia, as part of the Curatorial Program for Research (CPR) 2018, I was exposed to these issues by locals in Sweden, who sounded these concerns loudly.

There is a groundswell: Sweden, the USA, and now Brazil are additional pieces of this alarming puzzle of nations, with modern histories anchored by ideological rubrics responsible for setting up a scenario for widespread hate expressed against vulnerable communities, groups of people who battle the challenges of surviving war, dictatorship, and endless stretches of desert. These refugees survive in body, but as people they are facing an existential death, dying emotionally and physically. Once they arrive at a safe destination, they are humiliated by extreme race-based restrictions and harassment within their new home community. These experiences do not align with the definition of what a “community” is, its intrinsic idea of unity and mutual belonging.

With an awareness of this lack of principles, and contradicted terms, one wonders what kind of unity is possible. What harmony can we negotiate when our principles are born from geopolitical concerns instead of a commitment to humanity? By chance or choice, many of the artists I’ve met in recent years seem to respond to these issues by developing a language that, though not explicitly, but rather, evocatively, gives shape to a vision of harmony we need if we want to tackle the unfortunate and turbulent moment in which we live.

Mikko Kuorini, “Julia’s Wild” (2012), seven-inch record made out of concrete, containing a reading of Louis Zukofsky’s poem “Julia’s Wild” (1960). Technical realization of the record by Topi Äikäs. Installation view from 2013 at CAC, Vilnius (photo by Valentinas Klimasauskas)

I am specifically interested in the work of artists that develop ways for a  “negotiation with the outside.” What might read as an abstract concept, has a number of concrete elements that might harness ideas to counter the major debates on geopolitical disruptions rooted in and argued by those who wish to fester fragmentation and disunity.  For this reason, it is the work of Finnish artist Mikko Kuorinki that pops into my head. On the morning of February 5th, 2016, I took the tram from Helsinki Cathedral Square to  his studio in Vallila, a north central neighborhood in Helsinki. Kuorinki’s practice tracks how we understand the world and our place in it. He often uses found objects and words to examine the relationship between the individual and one’s physical reality. I am intrigued by his poetic ability to find beauty in everything he incorporates into his work, in the unlikeliest of forms, and in unimaginable formats, including, for example, the aesthetics of gym equipment or truck carpets.

Mikko Kuorinki, “Truck carpets” (2012), on permanent view at SIC Helsinki since 2015, leatherette, various colors, sizes and shapes (photo by Tuomas Linna)

“Truck carpets” make up an ongoing series of site-specific installations realized by the artist in multiple venues including in 2015 at the SIC gallery in Helsinki, and most recently at Vermilion Sands, in Copenhagen. It consists of a series of truck carpets installed close to architectural features (parapets, pair of columns, etc.), which meld in a poetical juxtaposition of forms, colors, and materials, harmoniously coexisting in one visual moment. It is almost as if this association has always existed as we see it, and the elements, which constitute the work, were designed to align the way the artist has positioned them. Our role as visitors is to witness this encounter, to perpetuate the uniqueness of this status. What happens in his work is an embrace encouraged by a practice wherein opposing forces unify each other, giving life to a visual “oxymoron” that is aesthetically possible, even if ordinarily not acceptable.

Mikko Kuorinki, “Julia’s Wild” (2012)

The work, which best fits this idea of harmonization within conflict scenarios is “Julia’s Wild, which Kuorinki realized in 2012. It consists of a seven-inch record made out of concrete containing a reading of Louis Zukofsky’s 1960 poem, “Julia’s Wild.” In this case, the visualization of this idea is dramatized by a nagging physical response felt when the record needle scratches the rough texture of concrete, which, because of the fragile nature of the small components, risks breakage. This dialogue of materials conflicting, one against another, is fundamental to how this work represents through formal strategy and visuality, the possibility of creating harmony even if all that surrounds pushes the object towards its destruction. That is, in fact, what happens when a delicate poem barely sounds from the speakers, competing with the sound of a record being scratched, instigating a formal and conceptual polarity where opposing forces find mutual dependence, even in radical and hostile environments. By contemplating this mechanism, that allows harmony to manifest through opposing interpretations, Kuorinki proposes that there all the different efforts to belong, integrate to build a context. A place formed through conflict alongside coexistence. The record player’s needle resists the record’s roughness, just as the “man without a past” faces the hostile community, and much like — back in the real world — where migrants help create new communities in old places.

Mikko Kuorinki, “Julia’s Wild” (2012)

Kuorinki references a poem by a leading American poet who was a part of the Objectivistic group, a group of poets with strong modernist ties that during the 1930s used poetry as a means to achieve a more vivid understanding of reality. These expressive modes treated the poem as an object, looking to compositional structure for new interpretations of the poetic.  By using a line from Shakespeare’s, The Two Gentleman of Verona (“Come, shadow, come, and take this shadow up”) as a point of departure in “Julia’s Wild,” Zukofsky rearranges each of the words to create different formulas for the same line. Kuorinki focuses on the outcome of this redistribution, the sense of the line change, leading to varying interpretations, as well as consequent uncertainties and ambiguities.

My jockeying between travel, art, current events leaves me at loose ends. Interpretation is weighed down. The art and news casting shadows in all directions. The film and the artwork loses integrity, because their original status is constantly compromised by a negotiation with contemporary conditions, changing their use, sense, and meaning. And within this withering condition, under the pressure of destruction, they generate unlikely and unimaginable forms of poetry and beauty. The resulting experience of this struggle instigates forms of resistance that make us face what it is to fight, to exist, to co-exist. It does not matter how absurd, tough, or even meaningless our goal is; it doesn’t even matter how uncertain and ambiguous our achievement is. What counts is to let our vision of unity, harmony, and empathy continue to regenerate and resist, whatever hostile environment rears its head — in the same vein as in the Kuorinki’s works, where limits are tested, knowing the experiment might move to the destruction.

Julia’s Wild by Louis Zukosky

As shadow, how, and take this shadow up,
As shadow shadow, come and take this up,
How, shadow, how, and take this shadow up,
How, as a shadow, and take this shadow up,
How, how and shadow, take this shadow up,
As, up, like shadow and take this shadow,
And up, like, take shadow, as this shadow,
And up, like, like shadow, take this shadow,
And as a shadow, as up, take this shadow,
Come up, as this shadow, and take shadow,
Up, this shadow, come and take shadow, as
This shadow, and take up as a shadow, as
Take and how, shadow, as up, this shadow,
Up, come and take shadow, as this shadow,
Come up, take shadow, and as this shadow,
Come and take shadow, come up this shadow,
Shadow, shadow like, come and take this up,
How, shadow, take, and how this shadow, up,
As shadow, how, and take this shadow up,
How, shadow, how, and take this shadow up.

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Alessandro Facente

Alessandro Facente is a New York-based independent art critic and curator, and currently curator at Artists Alliance Inc.