Finnish Pavilion - 57th Venice Biennale

What is the point of a national pavilion?

This is the question that sticks in my mind whenever I’m at the Venice Biennale. Most specifically in the Giardini, but to greater and lesser extents throughout all the 86 national participants of the Venice biennale, the set up of a grandiose exhibition space for each nation to proffer its artistic elite can make you feel like an audience member at a territorial beauty pageant. Obviously, i’m speaking here in the broadest of terms, but, as many of the presentations in the Giardini appear to be flatlining into a generic monoaestheic, it makes you wonder what is the point of presenting exhibitions, in this context, based on the proviso of nationality? It’s not as if, going through the pavilions, there is an inherent sense of cultural specificity. That’s not say anything against the quality of the works to be seen, but, were many of these presentations exhibited in the pavilion of another nation, they would not look culturally out of place. There is not an inherent cultural style unique to many of these presentations.

And then there is the buildings themselves. The facades now appear to be a parade of dissonant collections of stereotypes and cliches, each conforming to a reductive pantomime portrayal of national narrative; Germany’s domineering Teutonism, Britains colonial Classism, Russia’s Revivalist green walls and decorative flourishes. Though built at the beginning of the previous century, most likely, in all jingoistic earnestness, they still continue in celebrating the late-victorian taste for the ‘Exposition Universalle’ and the bravado of a select group of superpowers showing off their wares. Together, it all leaves me thinking that the presentation of practices and artists based solely on the basis of nationality seems, at best, outdated, a retrograde system through which to tie the biennale together.

However, amidst all this bombast and keeping-up-with-the-jones’ architecture, tucked behind the cafe and a couple of box hedges, is a relatively small and unassuming building by the Finninsh architect Alvar Aalto. Clad in blue wooden panelling, this early modernist building looks like a garden shed that lost a fight with a freight container. Until 2007, unlike the other pavilions, this modest space was initially built to be rented out to various different countries not included in the great disparate cavalcade of design that forms the rest of the Giardini, but has since been reclaimed by the Finnish arts council to host their presentations at the biennale.

For the 57th Venice Biennale, the Finnish presentation ‘The Aalto Natives’, a collaboration between the artists Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen, focuses on the cliches of nationhood, through origin myths, history and national identity. Not only is the representationally itinerant building a suitable context for this video installation, but the collaboration, involving the Finnish Nissinen and the British Mellors, offers both a simultaneous inside and outside perspective on, in this case, cultural identity. Whereas much of the Biennale (probably through the intentions of the respective national arts councils and not those of the individualal artists themselves) is intrinsically set up to reinforce and celebrate national identity, this collaborative installation by Mellors and Nissinen thoroughly picks apart the idea in order to question the way in which we use fictions and narratives to form a sense of group affinity.

As an example, the work begins with a CGI render of the Aalto pavilion, space ship-like, flying over an endless ocean in which a cocktail sipping neanderthal bobs about in a rubber dinghy. Looking through his binoculars, this Pre-Historic (Pre-Finland) figure spots a fag smoking duck collecting wingfuls of sand together in a pile and, under the instruction of an sculptural animatronic puppet in the gallery, is requested to form it into land;

Neanderthal – ‘I fucking hate land’
Atum – ‘Duck, can you make it more… Finland shaped?’
(the duck pauses and nods)
Neanderthal – ‘Land’s the beginning of the end’

This section in the opening few scenes was, the artists have said, taken from a trip in which they visited a museum in Helsinki and ended up looking at works depicting the 19th century epic Finnish folkloric poem Kalevala that begins with a creation myth in which Finland being born out of the egg of a duck. The Kalevela, like all origin myths, legends and nationalistic folk stories, uses narrative story telling as a means to propagate and reinforce the sense of nationhood. Stripped down, the tales are, in the most authentic of senses, super natural, the sense of the absurdity and heightened fiction (in this case the earth-giving, birth-giving duck) can be at once familiar and meaningful to the initiated (in this case initialed being Finnish people brought up on these stories) and simultaneously unfamiliar and meaningless (to people unfamiliar with finnish folklore). Throughout the work, the artists look at the way in which the hermetic nature national narratives, much like modern media, use the manipulation of fiction to reinforce a sense of patriotic ideology by allowing it to bolster a sense of meaning to that community alone, it’s short reach imbuing it with added meaning. By both building up with one hand and tearing down with other, the Aalto Natives shows up the the fact that national identities are fictitious, that cultural identity is a collection of stories told to us, not a geographical location. Essentially, over the course of the work, Mellors and Nissinen are asking us, what is the point of a national pavilion?

Made up of two animatronic sculptures with projectors tied to their heads and the main video, the Aalto Natives tells the story of two supernatural/extraterrestrial beings Geb (a giant talking egg) and Atum (a cardboard-box of ‘someone else’s DNA’ attached head to the shoulders of a human sacrifice) and their revisit to check up on the progress of ‘Finland’, a land that they had previously created out of nothing. The world that they find before them, having not progressed in the utopian state that they had envisaged, provides a narrative environment for a genuinely funny satire on a variety of different topics. In his book ‘Nationalism: Theory, Ideology, History’, Anthony D. Smith claims that there are several things that need to be in place in order to create a sense of collective nationalism, a physical homeland, a degree of autonomy in its citizens, memories of glory and defeat in battle, special customs, historical records, common languages and scripts and sacred centres. Alternating between conversations between the animatronic puppets and the onscreen animation, the Aalto natives sends up all these facets of national identity through a series of vignettes, poking at the pitfalls of cultures built on rationalism and the fetishisation of progress.

The artists use a variety of different types of animation throughout the work, costumes, claymation, cgi, hand-drawn storyboard cartoons and, most prominently, hand held cloth puppets. These puppets, superficially derivative in appearance to the muppets, help maintain the anarchic and breathless pace that the work keeps up from beginning to end. The mental and imaginative leaps between characters and scenarios could, in other hands, quite easily stray off the path from the absurd into the cringing realm of the forced wacky. But the use of the puppets holds everything together. The indoctrination of the illogical, through years of children’s telly, creates a familiarity with the ever surreal scenes, allowing you to go along with the work. This, quite literally, allows Aalto Natives to exist in its own world and resisting obvious and unnecessary direct cultural/specific comparisons to public figures or political persuasion. There is no clumsy ‘Ah, this bit must be about such and such…’ for example. The satirist is often viewed as a cynic, the hoister of petards unwilling to stand in front of the firing line but the puppets stop the satire from being cynical or caustic. It is, essentially positive. Whilst inside the pavilion, watching the work, people were engaged and, and lets be honest this rarely happens in galleries, genuinely laughing because it was actually funny. Because of this, at least in my own experience, I was kept engaged from start to finish, something i will admit to not usually being when it comes to video works that span almost an hour in length.

With an ever increasing amount of stress and significance being laid at the feet of national identity, the Aalto Natives successfully works its way through unpicking the way in which these narratives are formed. It doesn’t reach a conclusion, nor does it seem that it has any intention of aiming towards one. Instead, after having demanded your attention for the duration of the whole piece, through both its visual and satirical wit, you are spat back out into the hustle and bustle of the Giardini’s flag waving swagger with a different way of looking at the other nationalistic offerings.