...and all structures are unstable
Discussion with Vesa-Pekka Rannikko on the Background of “And All Structures are Unstable” and the Specific Roles of its Elements
This discussion with Vesa-Pekka Rannikko began at his studio in Helsinki. Based on the questions that arose on this occasion and Vesa-Pekka’s answers to them, we met in March at his prologue exhibition for the Venice Biennale at the Forum Box Gallery inHelsinki. In between the meetings, we carried on our discussion by email.
The exhibition in Helsinki included a scale model of Rannikko’s work for the Venice Biennale. The entrance to the exhibition was faced with black and white painted panels slightly larger than the wall elements of Alvar Aalto’s pavilion in the Venice Biennale grounds, a series of paintings and three video projections of an exhibition mounted by the artist in 2010 in the same space and filmed by him.
How did you begin the project and the related process in this situation? How did you launch the actual work, take the first steps to chart the situation?
The whole idea for this work arose from my interest in fiction and how the structure of fiction can be applied to the reality that it seeks to depict. The work on the biennale piece proceeded from the situation and venue of the exhibition. I considered the whole biennale as a system with my own role as part of it. I saw the whole system as a play or spectacle, with artists milling about representing different organizations, states, themselves and associates. The role of the artist emerged in this connection. I also considered in concrete terms the Giardini grounds in Venice as a fair area and a kind of village of national stagecraft. Of course, the Finnish pavilion by Alvar Aalto took on a major role in this connection.
What were the main things that you noted about the Aalto pavilion and its opportunities as a venue?
The Aalto pavilion is quite a strange building, a small space resembling a temporary work site shelter. By it’s name, it is identified strongly with its architect and the Finnish state. At the time when it was created, it had a markedly national role. The pavilion has later been used by other countries (Portugal, Argentina and Iceland). When I began to plan the work, it emerged that the pavilion has no actual site of its own. Instead, it was placed in the grounds through an obviously open agreement. In legal terms, the whole building doesn’t even exist The structural properties of the building were important for preparing the work. It represents functionalism in both form and execution. The wooden structures of the pavilion were originally planned to be dismantled, the idea being that after each biennale the building would be put away in storage and reassembled for the next exhibition. For reasons of building technology, however, this was not possible, and the pavilion remained at its site in the park. The building’s functional appearance is stagecraft; it presents itself as structurally functional, while being only an image or representation of this. The triangular structural supports of the exterior and the wall elements are decoration.
How would you describe the pavilion in its leading role?
The pavilion is quite small. Like many works by Alvar Aalto, it can be sensed easily with the body. It is of human scale. While containing a kernel of rationality, it is also definitely a personal work of architecture bound to its designer. I also began to consider the pavilion as a body, a combination of its functions and shell. The outer perimeter is its variable structural element and can be disassembled and redefined if necessary. The interior is the stage that is filled when exhibitions are held.
I took as my starting point the structural elements of the pavilion. The pavilion is dimensioned and assembled in accordance with its wall elements. I copied the structure of the element, enlarging it slightly. I painted it in black and white to make it resemble a comic strip or an architectural drawing. At the same time, the element became optically unstable; its stripes created
a perception of movement changing the element into an image of itself. Optical perception is a highly corporeal experience. In this situation, the element placed itself in the spaces of both perception and the physical structure. It became an illusion of itself.
I chose the element because of historical reasons associated with it and the ways in which it is understood in a broader context. The concept of elements is a structural solution provided by functionalist architecture that still influences building at the everyday level. Elements introduced standardization and related scale to ways of treating space. In functionalism, however, the relationship with the human body is an integral aspect. Consider, for instance, Le Corbusier’s or the Finnish architect Aulis Blomstedt’s systems of measurements proportioned to the human body.
The use of elements also provides freedom to modularize the design. It permits impermanence, the variation of structure according to need. It has no single correct permanent form. At the biennial, the elements are assembled to create a façade or stage scenery covering the entrance and part of the pavilion. It will be built to represent an unfinished state. Like the pavilion itself, it has a dual function. On the one hand, its function lies in its structural form (cover, protection) while on the other hand it has the role of representation, which means that when reconstructed it will reflect the whole biennale as an event. It is also drawing that functions optically. The façade also becomes stage scenery for the public entering the pavilion. The public turns into performers.
Could this also involve a kind of theatre, a small theatre of intimate scale within the spectacle of the biennale as a whole? The original temporary nature of the pavilion also suits the idea of a theatre, where the scenery is usually re-assembled according to the performance. Perhaps it was imagined back in the 1950s that the “play” to be performed in it would always be approximately the same, i.e. paintings and /or sculpture?
The dramaturgy of exhibitions in the 1950s was obviously different than today and was based on the idea of objects in a space. The pavilion could thus be regarded as scenery in the drama of the biennale. But if we consider it as a permanent piece of stagecraft, and the space created by it from a national or visual perspective, it is unchanging.
Reversing the idea, this also contains an interesting note on functionalism as a style. As architecture, it halted time. By reducing the building to a machine, it also created a kind of rational timelessness. In photographs from the time of the first functionalist buildings, the setting tells more about the period than the building itself. The building evokes the changing of the environment, just like a theatrical performance employs the same scenery from one year to another although the surroundings change and become old. This was also evident in an interesting manner in the pavilion’s first exhibition in 1956, featuring paintings by Helene Schjerfbeck (1862 – 1946). The new, up-to-date pavilion displayed works of art whose style referred to the turn of century rather than the postwar era. Pictures of the first exhibition are interesting particularly because of this chronological conflict; the works and the venue do not seem suit each other. They are chronologically in different spaces.
You address the pavilion more in terms of an event rather than an object, while also speaking of the structure of events and space in novels. How are the mutual relationships of the pavilion and the additional parts that you construct and install constituted? In other words, what is the plot of the space in this situation?
The space is a venue for performing, a field or ground for events, activated with the acts placed within it. As such, the space is also a field of perception as a multisensory physical act. Presence is markedly verb-like, all choices are possible, but decisions must be made here and now.
The structure of the novel derives from the idea of the artwork as a metafictive structure. I borrowed this literary term for my thinking because it alters the meaning or nature of artistic work to the image. A fiction of a fiction, the illusion of an image; overlapping structures negating each other and revealing deeper layers. In a construction of this kind, the work of art loses its concrete nature at the level of the image and its presence. The work that I am making for Venice is polemically entitled “And All Structures are Unstable”, which specifically points to the metafictive structure that I sought in the piece as a whole. Its constituent parts waver, lie and cheat, pretending to be stable while giving way under closer inspection.
The pavilion piece is built as an event. It begins with perception; the viewer observes the façade built in front of the pavilion. While preventing the building from being seen, it is also an illusory, sketchlike structure. Furthermore, the façade involves an optical effect, underlining its role as stage scenery. This scenery is left unfinished; it represents a building site. The viewer moves through the scenery, passing behind it to the pavilion. The façade reiterates the role and structure of the actual pavilion, presenting the structure of the exhibition in relation to the biennale as a whole. Within the pavilion, there is a conceptual “backstage”, a space behind a performance. It is here that the imaginary exhibition is then displayed, in other words elements constituting an exhibition but in fact only part of the whole exhibition.
The structure of your piece can be described as both a novel and a play taking place in a theatre. Its manner of organization could also be compared to the structure of an essay. How do you emphasize these aspects?
I regard the work as fictive in content. It is simultaneously both denotative and concealing in nature. I would rather regard an essay as presenting a claim and arriving at a conclusion. I feel the novellike structure permits things to remain open. This is turn allows a situation of setting out from somewhere but not necessarily arriving at any preordained place. Of course, this piece, too, leads somewhere, but I really don’t know if it expresses any conclusions.
This total work also contains other elements, which include both components of the building and standardized projections of video images. The structure of both involves the idea that they can be assembled, taken apart and rearranged. I feel these modules can be put in any order whatsoever, and I regard the entity composed of them as being a continuous proposal at some level. I explore the possibilities associated with structures of this kind. The elements concerned are performers “acting” and rearranging themselves in each space and situation. They also age and display wear, thus accumulating time in themselves.
This also involves the idea that behind the elements there is a fictional exhibition and its related narrative, where repainted discovered paintings appear as part of the video film. Painting over gives paintings a new role. They represent themselves as part of a play presenting the construction of the exhibition. The actual exhibition will not be on show in the pavilion; there will only be a video insallation of it. The paintings serve as elements similar to the wall elements of the exterior. Both construct an overall image through representation.
You have also made performances. Has this stage ended or transformed in your present work? Have any of your performances been crucial for your present work?
The ideas of taking on a role that belong to performance and are associated with the state generated between performing and my own presence are continuously present in my work. In my sculptures, for example, I often give the work itself the role of performer, whereby the physical presence of a piece in an exhibition finds a parallel with its visuality.
In the present piece, I have returned to the idea that was central to my work in the BAR group (Stig Baumgartner, Björn Aho, Vesa-Pekka Rannikko). In 1998 – 2001, we created a series of works called “Method”. They were live installations operating in the interstice of performance and installation. “Method” was continuous process similar to this exhibition entity. The principle of the BAR group was to make the ways of thinking of three artists collide and to create a single performance-installation from them. We presented “Method” three times, with each work being a continuation of the preceding one.
I also find distinct references to earlier works of mine, such as the video piece “Brick Wall 2005” and exhibitions at Galleria Leena Kuumola in Helsinki in 2001, where I cast a work in plaster (“Sculpture #1”) onto the wall. Later, I cast the same piece again for another exhibition (“Sculpture #2” ). In principle, this work is endless and transformable. It grows with each performance and accumulates its own history of being performed. It is a performative sculpture.
Louis Althusser has noted that we catch the moving train of the world and Gilles Deleuze points out that “grass grows from the middle and not from top or bottom.” (See Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les presses du Réel, France, 2002, 13) You also speak of incompleteness, of winding up in the middle of a situation in your own work.
The notion of time is important here, and the acceptance of incompleteness. The situation that one represents with a work of art is not conclusively defined. Instead, it either remains as preformed in each case or unfinished, whereby the active role of the viewerbecomes involved. I have the habit of using languages as such and letting them become mixed. As such, parallel or overlapping, they seek to create interstices of language and the language that they create jointly cannot be defined in detail.
This seems to concern the sensing or awareness of an intermediary state, the dialogue between a kind of “present actual” and a simultaneous virtual or mirror image created as its repetition or reflection, from which something new will arise in the mind of viewer. This encounter of the actual image and its virtual reflection has been beautifully described as the “crystal-image” (Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze). Do you feel that, as an artist, you would know something of the new image forming in the mind of the viewer which might be called the“third image”, following the same logic as for defining the “thirdspace”?
The idea of the “crystal-image” is interesting. In a way, it crystallizes the moment of communicating with art, it is in a way art in action. It also allows the experience of art to be shared and when succeeding in this it defines its value. Either an image is formed or then it isn’t. I consider the experience of a work of art to be transformable. The work is followed in time through movement. Changing situations within the work influence the intensity of experiencing it, identification with it, or its recognition. In this case, the formation of a “third image” is not continuous. Instead, the viewer takes hold of some parts of the work while excluding others.
I construct the parts of my works as if they were chapters in a book. They are opening spaces or holes through which the viewer can enter the work. Through them, the viewer is led into a network of possibilities and routes to immersion in the layers of the work. Layered structure is the important consideration here. The structure leads, often through repetition, ever deeper into the work. '
The open spaces are of markedly different type, whereby the order of the languages does not basically define entrance into a work but provides alternatives to it.
I try to keep the exhibition situation as something that changes. It often includes concrete change, as in my exhibition at the Turku Art Museum in 2009, or change is illusory and imaginary, as shown, for example, by my black and white illusion sculpture. I often seek to combine an arrested state with ongoing change.
My exhibition “Bird and Library” at the Turku Art Museum was the first in which I implemented my notion of a narrative and novel-like structure of this kind.
This work was based on the exhibition venue and a permanent exhibition of works by the animal sculptor Jussi Mäntynen in connection with it. Another starting point was a photograph of the city of Viipuri in 1942, which is now in Russian territory. Behind Jussi Mäntynen’s sculpture “Elk” in the foreground of the picture is the Viipuri library designed by Alvar Aalto. I became interested in the contradiction and spatial context contained in this image.
Although the library and the statue are formally highly different, they both referred to the imagery of Finnish identity. Alvar Aalto’s modernism stemming from nature was combined with Mäntynen’s heroic depiction of nature in the spirit of our national epic, the Kalevala. This parallel opened up a fruitful chain of thought, with the present exhibition as its current result. The fact that the picture had been taken during the Second World War also pointed to a factor that still defines Finnish identity.
The exhibition in Turku was a spatial work in two rooms. The art museum’s Studio contained a cube assembled from sheets of A4-size paper. The cube served as a stand for a fragment on concrete. Behind the cube were copies in MDF sheeting of Alvar Aalto’s famous stool bearing part of the concrete fragment. The concrete piece followed the form of the famous bird-shaped ceiling of the Viipuri Library. The fragment was also a paper-weight keeping some of the sheets of the paper cube in place. Attached to the ceiling at one end of the room was a wind machine creating an artificial gust of wind at regular intervals to scatter the sheets of the paper cube around the space. At the opposite end of the room was a video monitor showing, through the grille of a window, a jackdaw fleeing its nest. The room next to the Studio was reserved for a permanent exhibition of work by Jussi Mäntynen. A black and white illusory sculpture was placed in it.
This work was in a similar way structurally fictive, mixing distinct forms of representation and including the viewer as part of the communicative act. Once again, the important thing was time, keeping the viewer present in the space where the work was displayed. Here, it was done with the aid of artificial wind. At the same time, there was a reference via the viewing experience to history and the visual meanings of the work. The role of viewers changes within the piece: they must encounter idioms of different kinds and assemble an entity from them. Viewers must change their perspectives and begin their viewing “anew”. This work is not permanent, either formally or in terms of content.
The work for the Venice Biennale contains a similar structure. It proceeds from a building that is bound in its own way to the national context, history and the present. The structure of the work underscores the temporary nature of the building and its representational nature.
The viewing of the external structure leads into the work, marking the beginning of the visual encounter with it. The viewer’smovement through the structure carries this on, while turning intoa bodily experience at the same time. The interior of the pavilion encloses while opening to the viewer precisely this space and the illusion of the space experienced with it. It is through them that a new project and space are created in which viewers may place themselves and became part of the play. All these parts and structures are imitations, replicas – in other words the viewer is led through fiction.
This comment brings to mind minimalist sculptural or element installations in which the viewer is given the task of creating “sentences”, as it were, from the displayed words/forms/ elements. This, in fact, originally launched discussion on the “theatricality of contemporary art”, which was criticized by Clement Greenberg, the high priest of modernism at the time, and his student Michael Fried for not keeping to the modernist notion of pure genre (painting or sculpture). If this is the structure of the actual exhibition, what then are the elements and spatial solutions that viewers should note,in addition to this spatial structure, in order to participate in the narrative taking place?
I specifically aimed at making structurality theatrical, which alters the used elements both as part of the whole exhibition and as themselves to be part of the fiction. Each part of the whole is misleading, ambivalent, transforming and converted into an image.
An essential part of the whole is the imaginary exhibition inside the building. This is based on found amateur paintings that I have repainted. My principle was to paint a copy of the work of an anonymous artist in black and white on the original work. The original painting is distanced to gain a new meaning as the ground of a new painting. Its painterly presence changes. The painting becomes a performer to which I assign a new role. At the same time, it becomes a collaboration between me and an anonymous artist. The work no longer has any specific subject or author.
At the biennale prologue exhibition at Forum Box in Helsinki in March this year, I used these paintings as performers in an imaginary exhibition. I had previously mounted an exhibition of these works in the same space. The exhibits included joint works by myself and several other painters. I made a video of the mounting and compiled into a separate work.
I displayed these works at the prologue as three coinciding video projections. The projections partly overlapped to make the themes and colours of the images form a kind of “third space” in the central part of two projected surfaces. Some of the images are projected obliquely on the wall, creating the illusion of perspective. Each projection is toned to a distinct colour. The image is viewed at the moment of projection and the colour jointly created by the projections exist only for the duration of this encounter.
In the projection, the space of the events in the video, the visual space of the painting and the changing colour space of the tones alternate as the predominant elements. The viewer’s experience of space ranges from concrete colour-bar illusions to narrative elements. The “live” overlapping image of the three projections also parallels events taking place at different times into a single overall image. A similar visual structure was applied, for example, in Early Renaissance fresco painting, as in the frescoes by Piero della Francesca in the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo. The elements, figures and colours of the image appear in several different situations within the same picture. A similar narrative form is sometimes used in illustrations for children’s book.
There will be a similar work of art in the Aalto pavilion in Venice. It will be filmed before the exhibition in the empty pavilion. I will use the interior of the pavilion as the backdrop of the paintings. The starting point will still be found paintings that have been painted over, but the videotaped performance will be a narrative, fictive event that will be dramatized and recorded. While the frame of reference of the narrative is the mounting of the exhibition, the story expands to an imagined area. The documentation of constructing the prologue exhibition expands to the areas of imagination and illusion.
How would you describe the time involved in presenting this work? Literature, as we know, has its own concept of time compared, for example, with painting or sculpture. Do you want to pass on a specific experience of time to viewers?
The experience of time has to do with the relationship of the body and the gaze. In a traditional exhibition of painting and sculpture, time is formed by the joint effect of the gaze and the movement of the body. By applying this literary structure, I introduce narrativity, combining it with this haptic-perceptual experience. My purpose is to expand the routes along which the viewer moves. The parts of the work, with their exterior and interior space, open up routes for entering the work, viewing, moving about and interpreting. Viewers end up in time defined by the artist, but by assembling the parts of the work, they can choose their own rhythms of movement.
In a sense, this becomes a reading experience in the traditional sense of the term. The way in which a book is held while the reader’s gaze follows the text is quite close to the idea of a narrative installation which is my aim. Touch, the turning of pages, following an abstract system of signs with the gaze, its personal interpretation to be linguistically comprehensible, immersion in the content and accepting the time of the text. The interruption of reading with the lack of attendant time at an event or moment where one realizes the presence of one’s body in this situation. The act of reading can be said be comparable to what I seek in an installation. A certain mixing with the viewer’s bodily time mental and perceived time. At the same time, I still try to keep these elements apart and not aim at any single conclusion. Instead, I let things become mixed to form a novel-like entity.
In my installations, I like to apply different media to achieve a variety of language. The importance of the medium and its manner of reading are emphasized when I create the parallel of a concrete structure and, for example, artificial wind, or an immaterial moving image. Media are read in different ways, with viewers having to change their perspectives. I also seek to create distance, make things abstract and to create a space between the viewer and the work. The work is experienced, viewed and interpreted while its structure is visible. Although I deal with fiction and illusion, I rarely apply any direct experienced illusion in which the viewer does not know how an experience is produced.
What is the significance of process for your work, the idea that everything is changing all the time?
Presenting process places the work in the midst of a situation in progress. It does not define for the viewer just one place from which to view the piece. The viewer’s role is activated and he or she becomes more clearly part of the work. Both the viewer and the work are in an unstable state. The feeling is like being on shaky scaffolding.
In some of my works, change is evident as concrete events, artificial wind, the transformation of a sculpture, the endlessness of a video piece etc. On the other hand, I have also often moved the process to become an image by distancing it. The situation of viewing is removed from a bodily event. Time in the exhibition space and the work are different, whereby the nature of time itself comes forth. This happens, for example, in my black and white sculptures, such as Icelandic Lava Rock (2009). The lighting painted into this work imitates the way in which photography arrests time. As a result, the piece moves temporally into a different space than that of the viewer outside it. The conflicting nature of this event leads to an undefined viewing situation; the time of the viewer and that of the work do not meet. The work represents a situation in the midst of an event. Although the process of achieving form has been arrested into a photograph-like image, it retains its presence in space.
You explicitly use space and its experience as a means of artistic expression. As you have mentioned, this naturally involves the bodily experience of space and time. The explicit creation of distance, the resulting optical variations and illusions and human physical presence appear to be central elements of your art. What is the background of this emphasis on physical experience in your art?
The desire to address these themes is ultimately related to the quite mundane feeling of a hiatus between the body and the environment. The boundary of the body is marked by the length of one’s arm, while the gaze carries it further. In my works, I have combined elements from the area of sight with that of the body. For example, in my plaster sculptures, in which I made light and shade part of the works. The purpose here was specifically to reinforce the work, to remove it from the mere three-dimensional experience of form and to link it to another context. The appropriated object of the gaze and bodily experience are combined, making the viewing situation uncertain. This also makes viewers aware of the body and Giardini before the Aalto pav ilion. the gaze in relation to it. I have, in fact, considered perception asa kind of physically violent action for taking possession of the distant object of the gaze.
In the video piece for the Venice Biennale, a similar mixing of elements takes place in the projection situation, where paintings documented with video are projected in a superimposed manner. The optical painting visible for a moment is an act taking place in the space, approaching through its colours an undefined haptic experience. The mixing of projections is the physical action of light in the space, in these terms an immaterial sculpture in the middle of a moving visual narrative. The action originally contained by the video is subjugated to the “fresh” visual action in the midst of the work.
Your exhibition in Venice is in fact the second stage of a threepart series of exhibitions that you are preparing. The first stage was the above-mentioned “Storage” exhibition at Forum Box in Helsinki. You still plan to continue this process. You have a broader vision of the entity to which these two exhibitions belong. Could you tell us something more about this?
The three stages are related to the idea of a novel-like structure. The individual exhibitions are related to each other in a manner similar to chapters in a book etc. The first exhibition is a prologue, the second is the actual story, and the third is perhaps an epilogue. Each part is based on the preceding one. The idea here is not to imitate the literary tradition in three-dimensional space but to present the notion of continuity. The content of meaning of each exhibition is both independent and in relation to the one that precedes and follows it. They make reference, creating the opportunity for something new to take place in the next stage.
Do you already know what, and where, the next chapter of this “novel” will be? Will you continue your “recasting” of the same elements in new roles?
The idea of the work entails the assembling of new entities from its parts. After the roles performed in Venice, the parts of the work can appear, for example, transformed and changed, as the next chapter, as old stage scenery, a monument etc. The element-based structure permits this, but the ultimate form of the work depends on the venue where it is displayed. In similar fashion, also a video piece employing elements will always take its venue as the starting point and comment on it. In principle, a work could live on for a long while depending on opportunities to display. I want to keep the work open.