Opening speech at the Narratio exhibition, Norrtälje konsthall, 21 September 2013, Katarina Kieri
Two things happen at the same time when I walk around Helena Mutanen’s Narratio exhibition: The first is, of course, that I start looking and reading, this in turn sets in motion things inside myself, memories are awoken, associations arise, questions occur. When I see Abandoned Island – the photographs on the right as you come in – I immediately think: I’ve been in a forest like that. Core – in the room to the right – evokes a purely physical sensation, you feel it in your chest, as a chaffing between your ribs, as a shortness of breath, as a pain, as something you can’t get away from. The installation Grandmother’s Lot – in which my maternal grandmother’s plait hangs in the kitchen window in Kaunisvaara in Torne Valley. My grandmother, born in 1900, still had her long, very fine hair well into the 1970s, I remember how she sat on the edge of the bed in the evening, plaiting it; my grandmother was very small and it was a thin, thin plait, but that is precisely how big it is in my memory, and it was there in the kitchen. I make further associations. I look at something lying beneath the window, on the planking floor or the bridge. I see brains connected together with rope. I think about memories, about how we each individually carry our own memories, and how we carry them together with others with whom we are connected. Or perhaps even bound up with, how we take these memories further, how they are transformed on the way, like in Chinese whispers, in which the meaning that was whispered first has become a totally different one by the time it is finally spoken aloud. I think of how we hold onto the memories we need, and get rid of those we do not need. How life changes and, suddenly, we still need those memories, those narratives. In the three films that are being shown in the innermost room Helena Mutanen’s mother retells, re-creates, events from her own, her parents’ and her paternal grandmother’s life, we get to go along with her, back to the second half of the 19th century, we get to listen to the memories and, in that same instant, they become our memories, too; we can lay our own brains there on the planking floor, lump them together with the other brains. That, as I said, is one of the things that happens inside me. I begin to remember, I begin to make associations. From this I take on board the parts in which I can recognise something. I am perplexed by those that raise questions.
The other thing that happens, at exactly the same time, is that I begin to think about artistic creation itself, about the artistic process itself. Back to Abandoned Island, four photographs. I look at them. My interpretation of this is that these are old photographs and recently taken photographs; my interpretation of this is that the old ones are blurred and the new ones are sharp. I think: Memory is blurred, but memories are sharp. Consequently: Memory is blurred, but images of memory are sharp.
Memory is clearly totally inescapable in a creative work. Memory contains everything; everything we have been involved in, everything we have experienced, seen and thought, right from the beginning until now; from birth right up to the things we have seen just a couple of seconds ago, and which are now there in our memories. It is this that, as an artist, one has to dip into, consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly.
There is an exercise that I often do on writing courses. You start by putting pen to paper and writing: I remember. And then you write something that you remember, something far back in time, or right now. Then you write as much, at as much length, as you want or can, until you are satisfied. When this is exhausted, you again write: I remember and grab onto the next memory that pops up. I usually call this fishing in the well of memory. The formulation I remember is the baited hook that you lower into the well of memory, and then you see what you will get out of there, what will attach itself to your hook. This writing exercise was, naturally, the first thing I thought of when I entered the konsthall and saw the Fisherman installation at the entrance. Hooks hanging on a branch over some water; and what do we find on the tree trunk to which the hooks are connected if not a brain, the place where the whole of our life is found gathered together? As to what impulses lie behind the work in Helena Mutanen’s case I, naturally, have no idea, but it immediately took me onto the track of the memory fisher. Not all our memories are crystal clear, many are, of course, entirely forgotten or buried, and some of them are there only as blurred images, like a fragrance, like an atmosphere, a feeling, a fear. But when we, nevertheless, set about formulating them, in words or images or shapes, they immediately acquire contours, become sharp. The memory is blurred, but the image of the memory is sharp. It is the artistic process that makes it sharp, which gives it depth, or which diverges from the memory itself, which goes its own way; a new, a totally different, perhaps even a truer way. The artistic process makes art out of material, gives us a new access to reality, gives us a new access to unreality.
‘Sharp’ is also a term, a formulation that comes to me when I walk around Helena Mutanen’s exhibition. ‘Stability’ is another. ‘Carefully considered’ a third. And I think there is something in the exactness, for example, in the distance between these two tree trunks and in the length of the line, further marked off by a clothes peg, which opens up my own channels of association.
The way that all the works stand and hang so steadily and stably, gives me a chance to go into them and investigate them, using what is there in myself.
Katarina Kieri, author
The Inexistent Karelia of My Memories Not Any Closer, until 30 September 2012 in Gallery Sculptor
Art. A low-tuned lute plays a melancholy tune by itself. The heavy notes echo like raindrops in the gallery where everything is dead and monochromatic. The twigs of dry pinewood are pale and grey, like bones gnawed by the wind, a skull stares from a tangle of roots. The Karelia of memories has seldom seemed so bleak.
The Finnish debut exhibition of Helena Mutanen (b. 1965) is gripping. Mutanen is the daughter of a family that relocated from Karelia to Sweden, where she was born and raised. In the exhibition in Gallery Sculptor, she searches for her roots which she has only heard about in her mother's sad stories. The title of the show, Not Any Closer, suggests that she does not wish or is unable to go any further than this.
The symbolically charged installations in the gallery create an atmosphere that is simultaneously distancing and oddly prosaic – a world in which reality is inseparably entwined with dark images. The works communicate a sense of homelessness, but also a sense of belonging to a place the artist has visited only in her imagination. In the exhibition, brains, entrails and charred hearts are transformed into grotesque symbols of an identity in search of its place, while also imparting a measured intensity to the subtle and reserved installations.
An impressive show which gives hope that Mutanen would continue her quest in Finland also in the future.
Harri Mäcklin Helsingin Sanomat / Helsinki Times Sept 2012
Konsthallen / Hamnmagasinet Varberg 18 April–17 May 2009
In the centuries old conception of the transformation, gothic horror romanticism (think Frankenstein) meets modern gene technology. The notions of the alternated nature includes both science and imagination, both popular culture and philosophy. Helena Mutanen has her starting point in nature, in her materials and forms, but transforms it to art. There is nothing unusual about that. The idea itself of art is precisely creative proficiency, that is to say, the transforming or refining of nature through skill and modifying techniques. But here we can also detect a strong element of the history of ideas: the notion that the monstrous is a warning to mankind to refrain from interfering or manipulating God’s creation, and above all, to refrain from challenging death.
Helena Mutanen’s objects are reminiscent of a broad range of sources from the memento mori art of the Middle Ages and the Baroque period, to the contemporary death-flirting subcultures such as Goth, Punk and Emo. It is no coincidence that Mutanen has been influenced by David Cronenberg. The same transformations from machine to man, and the technological to the organic are present in his films as well. In the installation presented at Konsthallen Hamnmagasinet, entitled White Remains, the tree trunks painted in white can resemble bones. The wax larvae can naturally allude to corpse maggots, but the piece also offers broader, more complex associative paths. Here we encounter both a direct experience as well as something to be processed over time in an afterthought. Everything reminiscent of death is reminiscent of life as well, and acts as a reminder for us to value life as it is so transient. Heritage and environment together dictate how we are formed, and it is precisely this “together” aspect that Mutanen conveys with her hybrid creations. Brain folds presented as wall medallions in path-like arrangements, as though someone has left a sign either offering direction or warning us. A series of keys coiled like a DNA-spiral or deformed spine offers the viewer a similar sign to interpret. DNA is the code for life, the key to identity, if you will, but constitutes at the same time the changeable core of evolution: it is through genetic changes that something new can arise. The works constitute a form of linguistics and concrete material that interact resulting in a truly singular expression. Everywhere crossbreeds between nature and biotechnical variations appear. The works are like objects in a curiosity cabinet but with an additional aspect of black humour to them that especially appeals to a young audience. Mutanen offers her art a personal context that highlights an outlook on life as well as a personal history: the dual identity of the artist as both Swedish and Finnish, and the notion of one’s origins as something changeable and constantly questioned. Helena Mutanen received her artistic education at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, and has exhibited in numerous galleries throughout Sweden. Björn Gunnarsson Freelance Art critic / writer
Every day unlike any other
Everyday life and art have always had an intensive love-hate relationship. Everyday life forces art into a corner, but when art eventually sits there glaring out into the room, it discovers one exiting idea after another. Helena Mutanen’s work as an artist has always, in one way or another, had something to do with everyday life, from the mostly small objects that are her work materials, to her ambition to yank the inner lining of human existence inside-out by way of her prosaic microcosm. The materials at her disposal include both found objects she just happens upon, as well as items she has held on to for years or that have played an important role earlier in her life. The collectors who created the curiosity cabinets of the 1700s lived in the hope of offering structure to the world by organising even the strangest of objects in a logical system. Helena Mutanen has also allowed herself to be inspired by this pedagogical passion for collecting, and often chooses to present her works as
items in a museum collection. But she has long since abandoned the logical system and pedagogical approach. Instead, she looks for contexts that are not visible, mainly because no one has bothered to look in the right places. Her humorous and slightly absurd feel for impossible combinations – a ball with teeth, a spiral staircase leading up to the roof of a glass dome, a seashell with fake eye lashes – are at times reminiscent of her artist colleague Dan Wolgers, but the mood in Mutanen’s work is a completely different one. Skulls and various other skeletal parts are the props she uses in her existential drama where much of the hilariousness and discomfort is inspired by old artistic traditions. She boldly spans a bridge between the sensuous Baroque and Romanticism with its ethereal perception of oblivion. Death is a part of everyday life. We can confront the grinning skull with a smile, but this hardly makes it less disturbing. In one of her latest works, a video loop, a thin white sheet flutters across a road leading off towards the twilight horizon. On the soundtrack we hear the suggestively
heavy “You’re a Ghost on the Highway”. A genuine sense of fear never really kicks in, but this was never the intention either. The fact that the sheet is hanging on strings is as obvious as the journey is fictional. The film deftly incorporates itself in the same museum or diorama aesthetics as the rest of the artist’s works. We are entertained and shudder at the same time, and the feeling is, oddly enough, entirely manageable. But the core of existence is always personal. Lately, Helena Mutanen’s own life story has become increasingly present in her art. A string instrument without strings is used as a conveyer of Finnish kantele music (a memory from the artist’s childhood), and in a box decorated with seashells lies the anatomical model of a human heart. Personal sorrow and loss is added as an accent to the more cultural history based memento mori that has previously appeared here and there in her exhibitions. The grinning skull gives way to a more multi-dimensional sense of melancholy, an enlightened insight that everything, including memories as well as physical existence, has an end.
Perhaps one can even talk of a conciliatory motive in Helena Mutanen’s recent art works. With the diametrically different
objects that together create a whole, the fear of death abating into melancholy, and the heart that identifies itself as anatomy rather than a worn out symbol, it is more than likely that that which lies waiting at the edge of the forest in Mutanen’s road movie is in fact the key moment of insight when one can both smile and cry over creation and our wretched life roles.