Criticism in Finland Over Country’s Venice Biennale Selections

The decision by Frame Contemporary Art Finland, the nation’s commissioning body for the Venice Biennale, not to issue an open call for its 2024 pavilion has been met with disappointment by some Finnish artists. In the forthcoming 60th edition of the Biennale, the Scandinavian country will be represented by artists Pia Lindman, Vidha Saumya, and Jenni-Juulia Wallinheimo-Heimonen, who have been selected to exhibit in the pavilion in a presentation curated by Yvonne Billimore and Jussi Koitela, both employed at Frame as associate curator and head of program, respectively.

According to Frame’s announcement, the exhibition will bring together three artists whose practices are informed by their embodied experiences of structural, environmental, and social imbalances in the world. “Their artworks celebrate the pleasure of the personal as a powerful means of inhabiting, imagining and remaking more plural worlds,” the statement reads.

But keeping the decision in-house has been a letdown for some members of the local art community. Timo Tuhkanen, a composer, artist, poet, and founder of Microtonal Music Studios in Helsinki, found it “ethically very questionable and quite unheard of that a commissioning organization curates the biennale pavilion themselves.”

This, he said, creates a “bad image” for the pavilion. While Frame notes in its press release that the organization’s previous head of program was assigned to curate the Finnish pavilion in 2015, Tuhkanen told Hyperallergic that he feels the decision upends the “normal open-call procedure.”

A source at the Venice Biennale, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to make comments on the subject, told Hyperallergic that the in-house appointment of a curator or selection of an art project was not a breach of the organization’s bylaws.

The Finnish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2022 (photo by Ugo Carmeni)

Raija Koli, Frame’s director, acknowledged that the decision was bound to cause disappointment but said she thought it was “perfectly appropriate” to assign its own staff to curate the exhibition, particularly given the high costs that have to be met with a limited budget. When she joined Frame in 2013, the Biennale of that year opened in early June, but now it opens in mid-April and runs through November, leading to rising costs.

“The Biennale exhibitions are quite expensive projects, also because the Biennale keeps extending the opening time,” Koli told Hyperallergic. Another difficulty with open calls is their lengthy and onerous selection process, which adds to the pressure, she noted.

This is compounded by the fact that Finland needs representation in two pavilions: one bearing its name and another it shares with Sweden and Norway in the Nordic Countries Pavilion in the Giardini venue of the Biennale. The 2013 edition was the last time Frame also commissioned the project for the Nordic pavilion. Finland’s Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma has since been the commissioning organization for this shared space. Frame has to manage this, including paying rent for the pavilion, with a budget of €500,000 (~$539,775), including a special fund of €140,000 (~$151,137) allocated by the the Ministry of Education and Culture. This puts a strain on the fundraising capacity of the organization in a country with little tradition of corporate sponsorship.

Yet, as in 2013, 2017, and 2019, there will be an open call for the 2026 edition of the Biennale. The process will begin in June of next year.

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Installation view of Pilvi Takala: Close Watch at the Finnish Pavilion for the 2022 Venice Biennale (photo by Ugo Carmeni)

Concerns surrounding conflicts of interest of a very different sort have beset the selection process of other countries in advance of the 2024 Biennale. Esra Sarıgedik Öktem, who was selected to curate Turkey’s exhibition, resigned a few weeks ago citing “conflicts that may arise” as her gallery, BüroSarıgedik in Istanbul, represents Gülsün Karamustafa, the artist chosen for the Turkish Pavilion. Her resignation came in response to the Istanbul Biennial’s announcement that it had rejected Defne Ayas as the next curator of its event in favor of Iwona Blazwick, who at the time was a member of the organization’s board.

Reactions to Frame’s announcement are nuanced among the Finnish artistic community. Jenna Jauhiainen, a Helsinki-based artist, said she thought Frame made a strong selection this year, but admitted that “we could use a lot more transparency when it comes to any kind of decision-making in the arts, especially when we are talking about publicly funded institutions, including Frame.”

And not every artist in Finland thinks that open calls are the best way to select the Biennale project. Eero Yli-Vakkuri, an artist based in Helsinki, acknowledged he was “biased” because he recently worked with both Billimore and Koitela, the Finnish pavilion curators, as a part of the Rehearsing Hospitalities program. “The way I see it, Frame Contemporary Art Finland has experimented with various models for organizing Venice biennial affairs over the years,” he said. “They even had an open call a few years back, which I thought was a lame way to organize it, but I of course applied too.”

“Instead of being a one-off project, this iteration builds and expands on the work the artists, curators, and the institution have been engaged in for many years,” Yli-Vakkuri continued. “I think this is an interesting experiment and I have higher than usual expectations for the project.”

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Venice Biennale 2022 (photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr)

Riiko Sakkinen, an artist who has lived in Spain since 2003 but is still most active professionally in Finland, does not think open calls are the best way to select the art that will represent the country at the Biennale. “Hundreds of artists waste their time to develop complex projects that will never take place,” he said, though adding that “many artists feel that Frame has been a very closed system for the last few years, very different from what it was 15 or 20 years ago.”

One artist who requested anonymity said that Finland, being a small country with a robust welfare system, projects an image of egalitarianism that does not necessarily match reality. “It can be a very hierarchical society and connections in high places can really go a long way,” the artist said.

Tuhkanen hinted at that, too. “The Finnish art scene has been unable to respond to this controversial decision publicly because of the powerful position Frame has in the Finnish cultural scene,” he told Hyperallergic.  

Other figures of the Finnish art scene believe the problems transcend the decision-making process at Frame. 

“The real issue with the Venice Biennale is the problematic future of the rising water levels and tourism in the historic city,” said Laura Köönikkä, CEO and founder of Finnish Art Agency and former artistic director of Frame. “Even though the art world is raising questions and making exhibitions about climate change it refuses to point out the extremely problematic setting of the biennial.”

According to Köönikkä, “national participants are indirectly part of the problem.” Participating countries are paying a high price for pavilions in a mass venue, she said, “even though there is no guarantee for the participating artists to have more working opportunities or recognition in the art world.”

She concluded her reflection by asking whether this course of action is sustainable. “Instead of focusing on your own national pavilion, what is the change we want to make in our future to make work in the arts sustainable for the world and for the artists and curators?”

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