”I rely on the world for aid”
by Otso Kantokorpi
Veli Granö has become known for documenting, studying and even speaking up for a different social reality. He has documented, among other groups, folk artists, collectors and scale-model enthusiasts – people following their own paths and building their own worlds. For Granö, this long project has meant not only a presence in the institutional structures of the art world. It has also produced documents of broader exposure, such as books and televised documentaries and video works.
Onnela (A Trip to Paradise), an exhibition of photographs documenting folk artists, toured Finland in 1986 and came out in book form in 1989. Granö returned to this theme together with other photographers in Itse tehty elämä – ITE / DIY Lives (2000) an illustrated book published in connection with an exhibition of folk art that toured the country. Onnela and the ITE/DIY project finally launched research into folk art in Finland, and a museum related to this theme has been established at Kaustinen. Of the individual artists, Matias Keskinen (1922-1997) came forth as a subject of interest. Known for his massive sculptures, among other works, Keskinen collaborated with Granö in preparing the documentary film Matias Keskisen kuviteltu elämä (The Imaginary life of Matias Keskinen, 1991) which has been presented on television in Finland and at international festivals. There was no shortage of material, because Keskinen – as if in anticipation of many strategies of contemporary art – had been documenting himself in various roles, creating for example the imaginary film company Ajan Filmi, whose premises in Helsinki, however, mainly served as a shelter for homeless people.
Esineiden valtakunta – (Tangible Cosmologies) from 1997 is an illustrated work (including a CD-ROM) by Granö on collectors and the worlds that they create. It appeared in 1997. Like folk artists, the most passionate collectors have constructed their own private worlds from the objects that they collect, such as toys, firearms, vehicles or tools, often things that are experienced as worthless in themselves in Christian-capitalist systems of values. The associations produced by these worlds and their chains and processes of signification gain reality, are reified, just like any other socially constructed reality.
In many recent works Granö has broken down the linear narrative by using film and video collages and installations of various kinds are, Ihmeellinen viesti toiselta tähdeltä (A Strange Message from Another Star, 1998-2002), Tähteläinen (Star Dweller, 2000-2001), Kirsti (2002) and Meet You in Finland, Angel (2003). These works carry on a similar thematic of a certain alienation and the different worldviews that if produces, albeit with a highly different focus. In his earlier works, Granö can be said to have focused on everyday life and the micro-level, on the world of objects and goods through which people create or reinforce both identity and worldview and assign meanings to them. It is a world lived in and experienced, a presence that can be approached both historically and phenomenologically. Artworks and objects are tangible physical items that can be arranged as well as historical evidence, narratives in which idiosyncratic biography and the psychology of the individual are crystallized through the history of the community, nation and world into clusters of different forces. It is by no means far-fetched to call the bear sculpture of a folk artist a totem, or the treasure of a collection a talisman. In A Strange Message from Another Star, Star Dweller and Meet You in Finland, Angel, absence, or its possibility, replaces presence in lending meaningfulness. It is an awareness of a different reality, a utopia, a desire to be elsewhere, the knowledge that “I do not belong here” or that “I belong somewhere else”. Kirsti, in turn, deals with forces that are channelled into this world through a person from somewhere else, even though in Kirsti’s story, too, there is a strong awareness of a different kind of reality and an aim to find an alternative for her earthly human life.
Installation requiring space and often complex arrangements has brought also works – and above all their themes – back into the art world. This resembles Granö’s earlier oeuvre that remained “more purely” in the art world and was installed in galleries, as in the exhibitions Union (1991), The Solar Eclipse (1992), The Illuminated Room (1994) and The Lost Expedition (1995). In these contexts Granö outlined the lived and experienced world in which the artist himself and the rest of us live in various ways – in relation to the icons of modernism as in the installation The Solar Eclipse. At issue here are the complex coordinates of history and present and speech and silence within which meaning should be found for life.
The rejection clearly separate objects and linear narrative and moving between the art world and the mass media will expand both fields to produce an effect reminiscent Wittgenstein’s family resemblance: “And the strength of a thread does not lie in the fact that a fibre runs throughout the length of the thread, but in the fact that there are many fibres on top of each other in the thread.” In this manner, the means and context of presentation create a hermeneutic pendulum movement in which various socially constructed reality – and art, too, is largely a so-called matter of faith – and means of understanding can, at best, expand the horizon of understanding. Granö is quite aware of the influence of different conventions of representation on the viewing situation, and he also utilizes this methodologically. Although the work involves the artist’s own interpretation, the viewer will, for instance, make his or her own interpretation of a video installation in an art museum or a television programme watched on the sofa at home in completely different way – even though the works could be identical as such in their internal form.
A more important problem, however, is the relationship of the document to the original theme. “Dealing with an interview made by oneself and editing a film that one has shot, the relationship with the original reality is quite loose. When I made the video A Strange Message from Another Star I felt quite guilty. How to recount life? I made a story out of it, with a certain logic, structure and culminations.” Granö has addressed the presentation situation and its various possibilities with an installation of the name. How are tales told and how can they be told? “Might there be some other way to tell the same story, yet not so fixed. I wanted to include authorship; the installation includes materials that I used when filming, such as my sleeping bag and camera.” This means that the result contains not only the actual material but also the presence of the person who is the subject and the author. This use of the documentary meta-level is at once alienating and a rhetorically direct statement: this is what happened; these are real people. The alienating element is a familiar method used in art to break down the self-evident, the automatization of the gaze, in which slowed and impeded reception achieves seeing instead of looking. In the words of Tolstoy: “But if no one saw or saw without being aware of it, or if the whole complex life of man passes without awareness, then, in a sense, that life never really existed.”
The same alienating effect applies to Star Dweller and Meet You in Finland, Angel in which Granö set out to outline first the story of a woman, to which he later combines another story, that of the woman’s spouse, to complement Strange Message from Another Star. In Star Dweller , for example, the levels of narrative created by the videos, photographs and the installation are, however, more complex, because ”the essential point here was this completely different world view. She has produced the whole universe, civilization..” The tragic story of a lost child also placed specific requirements on the form: ”It is however extremely painful and intimate when the viewer encounters it. I didn’t want to make any womb-like space; the viewer cannot be endlessly manipulated with emotional issues.” No less important is the fact that for Granö the problem of documentary form is not a theoretical question concerning the problems of narrative per se, but one that concerns the requirements of the material. How can this particular narrative be told? The general level, however – and thereby broader interest – is always composed of special cases. Granö thus deals not only with individual narratives but also with the interface of the conscious and the unconscious specifically through the adopted methods and forms. ”It is never in one place. Our reality continually seeks to mark a boundary. ” Such boundaries are culturally self-evident, unconscious common knowledge that Granö seeks to bring into view. His work thus involves ”the questioning of the self-evident”.
As said earlier, in all of his work Veli Granö has been interested in intermediate terrain between the presence and absence, in the layers of time and place in human experience. In his recent large-scale, site specific installation Islands (2004) Veli Granö, by using a train and a railway as a metaphor, goes further and explores the vulnerable space of human memory, which continuously combines and separates, starts and comes back. A number of elderly people from Pori, a small town on the Western cost of Finland, tell their personal reminiscences. These pre-recorded remeberings are combined with real-time black and white video material of a surrounding space.
But who are these people and what are the lives to which Granö is drawn? And why does he do so? Is it just a freak show in which the artist makes use of a group of strange people? Granö neither preaches nor makes propaganda. He does not tell us that there are different kinds of people, asking us to understand them. In fact, he has sought the company of his peers. ”I’ve always looked for people who are like me in a certain way… collectors and folk artists. I’ve learned much more from them than I’ve ever learned from art or art exhibitions. They have discussed and thought about these things. Their artistry is based on much more than a social calling or demand. They are committed. That thing inside them is always true and strong. I rely on the world for aid.”
How about morals? Granö’s own commitment? He never uses the people that he films and photographs without their permission, “but it is much more important that the language that you use is such that it gives them satisfaction, even though it could be read in a different ways.” Utilization – if such a word can be used – is mutual. Granö’s own status as an artist is also a channel through which the objects of his interest – mostly people marginalized in the social sense – can find new playing fields, audiences, other realities, and also recognition. Art has traditionally made it possible to outline different worldviews, experiments, play, anarchy and the testing of rules. The rationality of art differs from technocratic rationality, or the rationality of globalized market forces, which makes exceptions a subject of ridicule, unable to function or excluded, thus permitting only one reality. It would be patronizing to imagine that Granö’s objects of interest could not stand being such objects. At issue here is interaction and mutual commitment. In many cases the situation is even reversed: ”They sometimes think that I work for them. I perform services for them; I promote their cause.” For example, The Imaginary Life of Matias Keskinen, Granö’s long video piece on the life of the original artist Matias Keskinen must no doubt have felt like an artistic victory for the artist – and by no means in any futile or “make-believe” way. I can confirm this with the experience of the innocent viewer. Matias Keskinen’s creative power and joy brought out ripples of laughter in me, and there were tears in the shocked viewer’s eyes when Keskinen’s giant-sized monument to President Kekkonen was destroyed as a result of inexpert and negligent handling – when politicians wanted to make a world in their likeness, their own social construction. Contrary to Marx’s dictum, wrong consciousness is not based solely on relationships of production but also on emotions, and its objective background does not reside solely in the physical world but also in socially constructed reality. And it can also be changed.
We must not forget, however, that Granö is an artist instead of a preacher and although he seeks a broader interface through books and television, his audience is primarily an art audience. Granö does not make compromises to achieve popularity or success. Art is his field, although the heroic state of artistry is alien to him. He does not believe in innovation or in creating new things: “This conception is based on experience.” But even as a social artist, Granö is nonetheless an individual, in whom the public and the private are crystallized like in a piece in a collection. Life as lived but also the endlessly complex strands of history. It is useless to pretend that Granö does not also reflect upon himself, his own traumas and dreams: “Art is some kind of blooming of a narcissistic disorder. Of course it has a personal link. I use the document like someone else would make paintings.” Documentary, however, ensures that art will not remain narcissistic introspection alone. And it is in the document that Granö sees the future of art.
The writer was Chief Editor of Taide (Art), a Finnish art magazine based in Helsinki now free curator and art critic.