Saturday, May 24, 2008

From Helsinki, In Haste

Internet access is ridiculously expensive at the hotel here in Helsinki—20 euros per day (that’s around $50, by my calculation!) or 7 euros per hour, so my plan is to write my blog offline and find an hour or tow here and there to post it, hopefully with pictures. I imagine it could well be the same in St. Petersburg and Moscow, so bear with me.

A hasty early breakfast at our B & B before our car arrived to take us back to Heathrow. We were happy to have made the choice we did, partly because we had enjoyed Windsor so much, and partly just for the break in the journey. Heathrow provided us with the usual airport hassles, the check-in line, the security line, but turned out to be relatively tolerable, and the process left us enough time for a cup of coffee and the newspaper in the huge visitors’ lounge, lined—of course—with the usual array of absurdly expensive duty-free boutiques.

A thankfully dull Finnair flight from London to Helsinki. Lunch arrived in the form of meatballs swimming in gravy, with a few vegetables thrown into the pool. We took one look under the aluminum cover and declined. I read a couple of really interesting articles in the currant Atlantic monthly, including one truly fascinating piece about the Obama money machine—especially good reading since the way that money has flowed to his campaign has a lot to say about the wider issues of who he is as a candidate and what his candidacy has to say about his vision for the future. I ended up even more clear in my support.

We arrived in Helsinki with no further incident that the shrieking of several babies gifted with unusually powerful lungs, and made our way easily through immigration and customs and at the baggage claim hooked up with our friends with whom we had planned to share a ride into town. The hotel Kamp turns out to be capacious, luxurious, and we were delighted to find that tipping “is not a custom” here in Finnland. We had only a few minutes left to unpack before congregating with our tour group from the Fellows of Contemporary Art down in the hotel lobby, where we were greeted by out Helsinki tour guide, Iiro (roller “r”, please), a man of great stature—physical, that is—and booming voice, who led us out to the elegant Senate square at the center of the city.

From Iiro, we learned perhaps more about the history of Finnland than tired minds were able to absorb, but the square was quite beautiful in the late afternoon sunlight

and we enjoyed the opportunity to get a flavor of the city. A brief stop at the lovely state library, with its high, vaulted ceilings and quiet reading areas, then on for a brief tour through the increasingly chilly streets.

A brief respite on our return to the hotel, before drinks in the bar and dinner in the hotel restaurant. A convivial event, with the whole tour group seated at four tables. Much pouring of wine and merriment all around. Ellie chose the fish (pike—didn’t appeal to me) and I had a much too generous steak. Ate the whole thing. Certainly a lot better than airplane meatballs.

Saturday, May 23, 2008

A poor night’s sleep for Ellie, who suffered what I suffered from the night before, and many of our party last night also: waking at two and finding it impossible to get back to sleep. Time change, I guess. I slept reasonably well—thanks, probably, to the sleeping pill I took before going to bed.

A good buffet breakfast at the hotel, then a moment to catch the breath (and wash the body) before meeting up with our group to start the day’s excitements. First stop, the Gallerie Forsblom, perhaps the preeminent fine art gallery of Sweden, with an exhibition of contemporary Finnish painters called “All Colors,”

and a solo show for the Russian artist Irina Zatulovskaja. In the color show, I was drawn to some wild paintings based on mythical beasts (apologies to the artist for not recalling his/her name.

In the upstairs gallery, Zatulovskaja showed a number of simply executed, folk-art type paintings on founds sheets of metal and ends of wood.

From there, on to the adjacent town of Otaniemi to visit the new museum EMMA (Espoo Museum of Modern Art)

in a lovely wooded area surrounded by birch trees, elm, and sycamore. EMMA’s director, Markku Valkonen arrived to greet us and give us a personally escorted tour through the museum’s major contemporary collection, on quasi-permanent loan from the Saasamoinen Foundation. We were greatly impressed by the quality and diversity of much of the Finnish contemporary collection, shown in the context of such prominent international artists as Anthony Gormley and Jannis Kounellis. Of particular appeal to me personally were two adjacent installations, a long, low salt house by Wolfgang Laib and a lovely, dense assemblage of burnt wood boxes by David Nash.

Also on display, an interesting installation by the Finnish artist Maaria Wirkkala composed of multiple auto windshields arranged on the gallery floor, mostly cracked or shattered, with the reflection of the green trees from the exterior landscape and a superimposed video of a journey down the freeway. By the same artist, a finely constructed ladder of glass, one rung near the bottom broken, with a simple shadow cast against the wall behind it.

Lunch at the EMMA cafeteria, followed by a bus tour of the garden city of Otaniemi

and its technical college, with buildings and residences designed by Aalto, Saarinen and other prominent Finnish architect-designers. A stop at Avlar Aalto’s airy studio and, shortly after, at his house, where we admired not only the architecture but the wonderful detail of furniture and accessory design. Mid-century, but with greater warmth, we thought, than the clean interiors and exteriors of Schindler and Neutra. Both tours charmingly led by a young Finnish-bred Irishman whose name I never caught…

A bus ride, next, to the not-yet-opened (to the public at least) Korjaamo Cultural Factory and Gallery (a renovated industrial building dedicated to the arts) and met with the artist Hikki Marila, whose large-scale, highly expressive paintings took off from the tradition of Matthias Gruenewald’s famous altarpiece and Durer’s praying hands. Fine work, I thought.

The next stop was certainly one of the highlights of the day, the Gallerie Anhava, hung with a superb exhibit of the black and white photographs of Boston-based Finnish artist Arno Rafael Minkkinen, who photographs his own nude body in the natural landscape, creating images where land, sky, water, trees and rocks seem to form a continuity with the human form.

The artist was on hand to talk to us about the work, and gave a fascinating account of the risks and joys involved in making it. “What happens inside your mind,” goes his aesthetic philosophy, “can happen inside the camera.” “No one,” he explains, “is looking through the lens” when he makes his pictures. He trusts the camera to do the looking for him.
Thence to our final art stop of the day, Kalhama and Pippo Contemporary,

where we saw the multimedia work of the artist Heli Rekula and were treated to champagne and strawberries to wrap up the day’s activities. Ellie and I chose to leave a wee bit early, and enjoyed a walk back to the hotel through the busy city streets. This evening, we are promised a more formal dinner at Chez Dominique.


MandT said...

We are thoroughly enjoying your trip! As for those East European meatball units swimming in gravy and jostled against the debris of vegies, one can only imagin the whole was actually drowning and you were saved by a judicious rejection of the flood! We look forward to more accounts. Peace MandT

robin andrea said...

Quite an impressive and informative post, Peter. It's grand to see Helsinki through your eyes. I hope the trip continues to be an interesting and educational journey. Enjoy!

khengsiong said...

From you picture, it looks like it is still pretty cold in Helsinki. This is end of May...

citizen of the world said...

That's quite a post for being "in haste," Looks really beautiful. On that cruise ship, I had to pay 20 euros an hour!

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Peter, I’m catching up on your trip. All I can say is WOW!