Need and Support:
The Meeting of The Concrete and the Abstract in the Late 1990s and Early 2000s Sculptures by Maija Helasvuo
One of the problematics that have recently attained hightened actuality in the field of contemporary art has to do with trying to grasp the ungraspable. It feels, right now, increasingly important to reflect on the possibilities of giving precise visual expression to what is vague, unstable, or ambivalent. How could this be realized so that the expression itself would not be insecure and indefinite? Can the artist, in fact, address the state of helplessness without becoming helpless and inarticulate him/herself?
The sculptural works of the recent years by Maija Helasvuo partake in this discussion in a very graspable, down-to-earth manner. Her supports - for the chin, the thumb or the hand, for instance - bring up the question of bodily helplessness in a warmly playful tone. The wooden supports look comfortable in spite of their very slender legs. Albeit close to being visually unbalanced, they are strong in their structures. A support of hers made of metal can, on the other hand, look very delicate and unassuming. One only dares to lean on such a paradoxically light support once one has been granted the information that it is, indeed, quite firm. Even though the visitors to a show are not encouraged to touch the sculptures with their hands and bodies, it is possible to ”touch” and explore them visually. In the terms of art theory, we could say that they produce a viewing position that is bodily located in place and time, with respect both to historical time and to social situation.
The corporeality of the viewer should, in fact, be something self-evident in the context of sculpture where the three-dimensionality of the work of art forms an obvious spatial continuum with the viewer. The spectators who are used to frequenting art shows are, however, at least partly, trained to use a distanced gaze through which works of art take form in a sort of a neutral ”non-space”, resembling the standard-size illustrations of art books. The Support series on which Helasvuo has worked since the year 1997 makes the viewer reflect on the relationship between bodies and spaces: Whom are these supports made? Who can use them? Am I of the right size? In our daily life different kinds of supports tend to be manufactured after individual measures or, one can at least choose between different standard sizes. On the other hand, many things that we need, including garments, mould themselves after their user. Even objects made of wood become inscribed with marks of usage. A sitting mark worn into a stool in the course of time touches us in its intimate bodiliness even when the stool has ended up an anonymous and impersonalized object in a museum.
But Helasvuo’s Support series raises further questions. Do I need this? What is, ultimately, absolutely necessary? The three-part work called Hunger (2000) also comments on the baffling inconstancy and cultural variability of human needs. Nutrition, one of our so-called primary needs, can become so matter of course to us, that it is transformed into a cultural surplus or even into an object of industrial design. This does not mean to say, however, that the newly created needs would not be acutely felt on a personal level.
The Fourth Day of Breast-Feeding (1998) can, of course, as well be associated with nurture and human needs. This work refers to bodily weight in general and, more specifically, to motherly nursing. In fact, the concept of the ”locks” of the fourth day of breast-feeding which prevent the milk from coming and make the breasts as hard as stone, is most probably only known to women who have themselves nursed an infant. This concept is an excellent example of the specific locatedness of our bodily existence; there is no generic, abstract human body, there are only specific ways of being in the body that take shape in lived experience. Different individuals are therefore differently situated with respect to, for instance, the classical nude to which some ot the details of the organic forms of Helasvuo’s art seem to refer. In this way the re-concretization of the abtracted, classical body has important political implications. The Group (1998-1999), for example, includes two female torsos that have been stretched into a balance at utmost risk.
Insolence (1999) is similarly constructed according to a very special delicacy of balance, conveying the co-existence of infirmity and firmness; even the greatest security is based on constant work of supporting and on the principle of carefully concentrated balance. Its materials also contradict each other in a strained manner when the everyday nature of the plastic-surfaced textile, identified with women, challenges the woodwork that is traditionally coded masculine. The juxtaposition of these materials is historically anachronistic and associatively arrogant, yet visually fresh and easily accessible. The same kind of joyful ambivalence characterizes many of Maija Helasvuo’s sculptural works.