Art taked weird turns at the Helsinki’s HAM

“This reminds me of those school trips we’d take to churches, temples and mosques at a kid… Some of the pieces are way too scary… ” said my friend as we walked from exhibit to exhibit, “I really wonder what these artists were thinking…”

We walked on to another exhibit?

“Bloody Hell!…. Oh, I thought it was Emily from the possession film…”

“Wait, maybe there’s a feminist message here? Maybe it’s not meant to be ‘Emily’ and more like women can look beautiful and stand tall?”

“Dude… Seriously… ”

“We are in one of the most progressive parts of the world… Then again isn’t art about seeing what you want to see?”

And that started a while different conversation.

That throw away conversation was made in reference to the school excursions that Singaporean school children take to religious institutions to learn about the various major religions that form the tapestry of the island nation. As you can imagine, most school children don’t take too well to religion. And it seemed in this case, us former school children didn’t immediately warm to the art on display.

HAM, is the rebranded name for the Helsinki Art Museum.

The Musuem showcases modern, contemporary pieces from local artists and not classical works, so don’t expect paintings from the Dutch Masters or the Nordic School. Expect interpretive work, modern work, abstract work. Modern contemporary art is a relatively controversial field, not everyone can appreciate it because it is so different from our layman conception of art. In fact the majority impression is that it is not.

To be fair though, this is not criticism that has just emerged criticism against the direction of art already happened two decades ago. Every generation of art and artists tends to come up against public sentiment, only to sometimes be discovered and appreciated after death. Vincent Van Gogh may be famous now, but he received generally acclaim only when he was close to his deathbed (at a grand old 37 years old). Others like El Greco, Johanes Veermer and Claude Monet had a similar reception during their lifetimes.

Having said that art is too subjective to allow absolutes (some disagree) and one person’s art may be another persons agony, we felt that rather acutely. But art should make you ponder, reflect and think and the works at HAM certainly made us do that.

HAM flagship location is at a cultural centre known as Tennis Palace (Tennispalatsi in Finnish), a building designed in the functionalist form in preparation for the 1940 Summer Olympics (which were cancelled due to World War II). There is no sports played there today, but movies in 14 large theatres. And a few museums, HAM being one of the few free ones (selected exhibits are paid though).

While it has a physical location, HAM bills itself as more than just a conventional museum, it is in their words, ‘a Musuem the size of Helsinki’ because half the more than 9000 pieces of art in its care are on display all over Helsinki – in parks, streets, offices, libraries etc. The idea of turning the daily drag into an accessible artistic adventure is an admirable one, authorities in Stockholm do it through its metro system, those in Gdansk, Vilnius and Georgetown do it through their street art. Public art however is usually admired for aesthetic reasons rather than intellectual ones so I’m guessing those pieces hung in public places aren’t as weird.

Go to HAM and decide for yourself.


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