‘Different traumas’ – Maija Helasvuo’s sculptures
I am in Romania, in the centre of the medieval town of Sighisôara, climbing the hundreds of steep steps to the church and protected from the rain under a long covered way. Later I recall the wooden shapes of the Lutheran church on the hill, the cracked figures on the pew doors and the time-aged votive chest. I hear time flowing organically through the seasons and the centuries. Urban culture easily destroys all things organic, erecting its own new geometric signs. Steel, bronze – or plastic – do not rot. Wood rots, it moulders and decays. Though paint may slow the decay of a Finnish wooden church, it too is part of the world like we frail humans. I feel that Maija Helasvuo’s wooden sculptures - as though turned by a huge powerful hand – enter this world.
Maija Helasvuo’s journey to being an artist was saturated with culture. “I marched with my parents from one church to the next.” Functionalism, modern art, architecture, design and folk crafts, all were admired in the Kaj Franck spirit. An architect father and an art teacher mother could hardly fail to influence the background from which the sculptor strained to break loose. The artist does not vacillate on her journey into the past and via it into the present, to a belief in existence and the absence of this belief, likewise its mercilessness – and its humour.
As a mundane, arte povera material, wood trivialises the holy and eternal in sculpture, but as an art form retains its potential to tell about strength and weight. Modern sculpture hones and patinates its material to express lightness and immateriality. I’m thinking in particular of the many Finnish sculptors from Pullinen to Tapper. However, through her organic world view and its various dimensions, Helasvuo takes her stand without avoiding the impression of weight. It is as though the artist repudiates her own rules by appealing to the possibilities of lightening the imagined weight of wood. Weight is connected to the absurd as with the colossal utility objects in the Hunger series from 2000. Or with the work Coincidences, which caused the Karjalainen magazine’s critic Leena Leskinen-Myller to label Helasvuo “the Eeva Ryynänen of the grotesque.” Ideas pop up from the way we appraise and use different varieties of wood: the common alder, aspen and pine, like the more valuable woods, provoke motifs and spur the sculptor’s imagination, producing hamburger boxes from oak and spoons from pine.
In recalling our conversation, I add to my own list: mother rejection, mother substitutes, symbols, substitutions, autarchy, autistic withdrawal, sublimity. Are these the modern resources of male authorship? It is true that the state of sublime (terrifying) alienation (from oneself/nature) has mainly been charted by men, such as Samuel Beckett, Surrealist, painters like Barnett Newman and Cy Twombly, and theoreticians like Adorno, all ultimately powerless against the growing sublimity of modern urban space that, for example, Sophia Coppola so finely epitomises in her film Lost in Translation about the urban landscape of Tokyo. The global sublime is a cultural contradiction impossible to translate, covered (as an impossible) unity beneath the imagined surfaces. The cultural sociologist Jean Baudrillard talks about the collapsing structures of early signification. The sublime vanishes from the path of simulation, in the culmination and dizziness of the sublime. The sublime can no longer be linked to the dark starry night, the landscape of the full moon or the mercilessness of natural phenomena. The sublime has been transferred to the power structures made natural by man, in which the individual’s relation to tradition and the past is broken. Similarly, the future is fractured into modern fragments. By seizing man’s corporality as the measure and model of art, Maija Helasvuo sculpts open the contradiction between the continuity of tradition and modern fragmentariness.
For Helasvuo, the grinder, chisel and axe are her pencil and eraser. I try to think of her work as forms erased from some hard substance. Form always means something, but different things. As the object of our observation, form means what we can read into it. To literacy belong repetition, feeling, conjecture – and remembering. Helasvuo is not a non-figurative artist because the shaping of a figure is not simply a question of finding a figure but its expressivity. Nevertheless, the connection to abstract art is ambiguous, mischievously close. In contemplating Helasvuo’s work, art researcher Tutta Palin suggested that the artist is capable of giving a precise expression to the unstable, a kind of uncertain abstraction. In her text, Palin constructs an analogy between the concrete and the stable, the abstract and the uncertain, which the critic Marja-Terttu Kivirinta uses in her review of Helasvuo’s work. And if one might add: a transition to informalism in art. Here, however, informalism is both an apt and an inapt term because the relationship between the synonyms abstract and non-figurative is shattered in a curious way in Helasvuo’s art. The first, non-figurative impression soon acquires the accentuated presence of figurative aspects which soon develop into surprisingly realistic features. Admittedly, we do not need much to awaken our memory of the physical environment around us: away from the uncertain and the abstract towards the concrete. Another condition for interpretation is, as with Cranium-Femine, some supplementary knowledge about the analogical foundation of form. Besides interpreting obscurity in both the force of weight and form, we are also compelled to expand and separately adapt the concept of abstract to Helasvuo’s output.
Working in a studio, the sculptor chooses from all the work processes and skills that have appeared during the history of this art form, ultimately concentrating on only one competence for giving and signifying form. The frailty and suffering of individual existence, its history and mundanity, converge in the marks left by the axe on wood, the forms and narratives, which through their friction create in Maija Helasvuo’s works a metaphorical strength.
- Jan-Kenneth Weckman
Leena Leskinen-Myller, Ihmepuusta Tähtikeinuun, kritiikki Wunderbaum-näyttelystä, [From miracle tree to star swing, review of the Wunderbaum exhibition], Karjalainen 23.10.2004.
Baudrillard, Jean, Ekstaasi ja rivous, Helsinki, Gaudeamus 1991. Finnish translation of L´Autre par lui méme, habilitation by Panu Minkkinen.
Palin, Tutta, Tuki ja tarve – konkreettisen ja abstraktin kohtaaminen Maija Helasvuon 1900-luvun lopun ja 2000-luvun alun veistoksissa [Support and need – the concrete and abstract in Maija Helasvuo’s sculptures from the late 1990s to the early 2000s], exhibition catalogue Machtproben, Tuttlingen, Saksa, Ars Häme, Galerie der Stadt Tuttlingen 2002.
Kivirinta, Marja-Terttu, Kainalosauvoja vammaisille – Maija Helasvuo antaa veistosmuodon epävarmalle [A crutch for the crippled – Maija Helasvuo gives the sculptured form a sense of uncertainty], Helsingin Sanomat 25.1.2001