Alumni Spotlight: Jenni Nurmenniemi
We caught up with curator Jenni Nurmenniemi fresh off the plane from South Korea, where her latest project, the exhibition Fictional Frictions at the Gwangju Biennale had just opened. Our conversation with the Mobius Program alumna and HIAP – Helsinki International Artist Programme curator revolved around themes of rethinking ecology, deep time and the role of art in today’s society.
“Getting to participate in the Gwangju Biennale was definitely the biggest surprise of this year”, Nurmenniemi says. “We hadn’t anticipated that! I think we got invited because HIAP has had quite an active presence in the South Korean art scene in recent years. I have been spending a lot of time in Seoul and Gwangju in the past two years, and last year I also curated a group show at Art Sonje Center in Seoul.”
The Pavilion Project is a brand new initiative of the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea. For its first installment HIAP, represented by Jenni Nurmenniemi, was invited to participate with their own exhibition, located at the urban Buddhist Temple Mugaksa. The exhibition Fictional Frictions (on display until November 11, 2018) explores the biennale’s this year’s theme Imagined Borders and features new commissions and recent artworks by four South Korean and two Finnish artists: Jungju An and Sojung Jun (Black Night), Maelee Lee, Mire Lee, Nestori Syrjälä and Elina Vainio.
Curating the exhibition provided Nurmenniemi with an intriguing opportunity to combine works by both artists that she has had a long working relationship with and newer acquaintances, and creating dialogue between these as well as the historical Mugaksa Temple milieu. Dialogue and communication are words that Nurmenniemi throws into her sentences often. In her view, a lot of the potential of artworks lies in their ability to act as conversation starters or spaces that foster new connections.
“Art and art institutions can, at their best, create and offer these kinds of liminal spaces for conversation”, Nurmenniemi describes. “In a way, they exist a step removed from other frameworks of our society such as work, education, politics or entertainment.”
Navigating the juncture of art and politics is always a balancing act, which Nurmenniemi is well aware of. As a curator, she has to be mindful not to push an agenda too strongly but to let the artworks do the talking. Still, a certain continuum of ecologic commentary in her work is impossible to miss. It was present in Nurmenniemi’s Mobius project in 2015, and now at the Gwangju Biennale Pavilion exhibition that addresses the topic of change, which in the 21st century is intrinsically linked to climate change.
It has been a busy year for Nurmenniemi since 2018 also marks the end of the five-year-long Frontiers in Retreat residency project that she ran at HIAP. The project took artists to remote, unique residencies to study the intersections of art and ecology, and made Nurmenniemi herself more critical about the concept.
“I realized that ecology is not a theme. Instead, it’s a way of understanding connections and co-dependences that make all life on Earth. It is an intersectional issue that cuts through all aspects of human life, with questions of biology, economy, politics and social issues all tangled up together.”
The ecological perspective can help us build bridges between different disciplines, such as art and science, and perceive the world in a less fragmented and fractured way. One of these new ways of understanding the world is the concept of Deep Time, a long-standing fascination of Nurmenniemi’s, that was first introduced into her work in the Deep Time Séance Mobius project in New York. The immersive experience featured a site-specific video installation and live music performance by artists Tuomas A. Laitinen and Matti Ahopelto, circulating energy objects by artist Jaakko Pallasvuo, and narrative work by artist Tatiana Istomina.
The concept of Deep Time, first coined by Scottish geologist James Hutton in the 18th century, offers a non-anthropocentric way of understanding time.
The Deep Time Séance installation studied the geological history of our home planet through the circulation of matter; timelines so long and slow compared to the span of human history that they are almost incomprehensible. The exhibition Fictional Frictions at the Gwangju Biennale continues the exploration of these topics by bringing into focus the relation between slow, massive geological processes and dramatic events that transform societies rapidly. Nurmenniemi’s aim was to create an exhibition that, through interlacing layers of different conceptions of time, could speak to audiences from different cultural backgrounds.
“To me, the concept of Deep Time is interesting because it shows that phenomena that in the Western conception of time are regarded as eternal, are in fact constantly changing. That notion carries transformative power. It shows that the categorizations and taxonomies that Western science nurtures are not as fixed and clear-cut as we often like to think.”
On a more prosaic note, Nurmenniemi stresses that the art world is seriously lagging behind when it comes to addressing ecological issues, such as climate change, in practice.
More focus should be put into the ways that different institutions operate, and how their ecological impacts could be better taken into consideration. This is why HIAP has recently launched a 3-year collaborative project with Finnish art residency center and collective Mustarinda, aiming to together develop viable practices for post-fossil societies and forms of culture.
Here, again, the layered thinking that is signature to Nurmenniemi is present, like in the thematical construction of the shows that she curates, or the detailed site-specificity of the exhibitions. She sees culture and nature as closely intertwined and is always striving to address complexities, co-dependencies, and entanglements through art.
“I’m interested in challenging the dualistic ways of thinking, getting beyond the binary divides in all sectors of life. An important part of critical ecological thinking is recognizing that the world is not built upon simple dichotomies, but that everything exists on a spectrum.”