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Into Finn Air

It‘s 3 in the morning and the streets of Helsinki are crawling -- in some cases, literally -- with inebriated 18-year-olds wearing sailorlike graduation caps. It’s about as dark as it would be in L.A. at 5:30 or 6 a.m., which is to say not very, and the low sky is scattered with meandering sea gulls -- silent, eerie partners to this annual revelry. Although I‘m some 8,000 miles from Hollywood Boulevard, I am nonetheless recognized as The Man to Whom the Impossible Truth Must Be Spoken: A 30-something blond man who appears typically drunk steps up to the curb and into my face, eyes me significantly and bellows over the din, ”I . . . AM . . . MARI . . . LYN . . . MON . . . ROE’S . . . SONNNN!!!“

Everything is global these days, even -- perhaps especially -- insanity.

I‘m not sure where the kids started celebrating -- though I had stepped over one in a shopping plaza that afternoon (public drinking seems neither illegal nor particularly frowned upon) -- but for me and several Euro art types the night had begun around the corner at Kiasma, the new contemporary art museum built on a thin strip of land between the old post office and the statue of the Finns’ stop-the-Russians hero Marshal Mannerheim.

On the 13-hour flight over the pole, from San Francisco, I had found myself wondering, Why Finland? It‘s awfully far away, after all, and Helsinki was, I’d heard, somewhat pedestrian. I‘d also heard from a German friend who had spent her youthful summers in one of the ubiquitous Finnish cabins-on-a-lake that you could get as good in, say, Wisconsin. But what I found in Helsinki, for better or worse, was a kind of comfort, and ease. The airport outside town was nice and clean and not-too-big, and from that everything else seemed to take its cue. (The Finns themselves seem -- perhaps especially to a traveler from a large, multicultural American city -- at ease with themselves.) But comfort and ease you can find in Santa Barbara for a lot less trouble (and nicer weather). So, again, Why Finland?

The answer lies, perhaps, in its architecture and design. If Europe in general provides a sense of what it would be like to live in a culture to which the arts matter, Finland is a land where design is essential. You wouldn’t necessarily know it looking out over the city from the rooftop bar of the Hotel Torni, but it‘s there, in Eeliel (father of Eero) Saarinen’s train station, or Arvo Aalto‘s Finlandia Hall. It’s at the shop called Artek (a company originally formed to hawk Aalto‘s wares), or the Marimekko store, where you can buy the clean and colorful lines in everything from potholders to expensive dresses. And it’s there in the cool Temppeliaukio Church, carved out of a rock dome in a Helsinki residential neighborhood, a rather extreme example of the Finnish inclination to link architecture and nature.

Sometimes, tourism is not wrong; out of it, you can glean representative meaning. With a few other tired souls, I took a break from the contemporary art and joined a tour of Hvittrask, the old Saarinen country home and studio, and the Fiskars scissors factory turned arts colony. Among the residents were a cabinetmaker, Kari Virtanen, who had produced dozens of beautifully hand-built chairs for Kiasma, and cutler Upi Antilla, whose knives are made to be used but deserve to be displayed. The soulful work of these two men reminded that some ”simple“ crafts can resonate with so much more art than anything found in so many galleries, so many museums.

And sometimes art is wrong. Among the works opening Kiasma, which included a Tony Oursler video figure, a Polly Apfelbaum floor installation and photographs by Esko Mannikko, was a multimedia performance by Seattle-based video artist Gary Hill and dancer Meg Stuart -- a performance so exhaustingly cliched, pretentious and boring as to be remarkable. And long. Perhaps the artists assumed ”Kiasma“ to be a Finnish twist on ”chasm“; in fact, it‘s a faux-Finnish twist on ”chiasma,“ a bridge between, a crossing over -- and was so dubbed by the museum’s American architect, Stephen Holl. Bad art is a rallying point if nothing else, of course, and afterward I met up with a group of critics and curators -- French, German, English -- some of whom noted with glee that they had been sitting at the back of the theater and were thus able to flee after five minutes.

The night progressed: a double-decker bus ride to a restaurant, strangers acting silly in the front rows upstairs; bottles of wine consumed; aimless chitchat; bus ride back; a bar at the top of a strange, Russian-style hotel; an equally strange commingling of journalists and much of Kiasma‘s top brass (notably all women, notably still celebrating at 3 a.m.); aimful chitchat (”What mattered this year in art?“ -- these Europeans never grow up); followed by a perverse battle of intellectual wits between an aggressive German curator and a meek British critic that seemed to me a bit too much like World War II but in the end translated into some bizarre sexual dance; and then the serendipitous meeting with Marilyn Monroe’s lost son.

After which I made it back to the Hotel Torni and into bed. Outside, the party wound down. Kids walked by, talking on their Nokia phones. Sea gulls floated overhead. Inside, I waited for the ceiling to stop dancing.

The following week, Gary Hill received a MacArthur ”genius“ grant.


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