MARGARET O’BRIEN, RECIPIENT OF THE 2014 TBG+S / HIAP RESIDENCY AWARD, DESCRIBES HER EXPERIENCE IN HELSINKI.
Why is it so difficult to start anything new? It has taken me three days to write that sentence and I’ve sat looking at it for the last two hours, unsure how to proceed. Including my time at college I’ve spent most of 20 years starting something new. But it never gets any easier. I’m wondering why this is, and if, actually, it becomes harder. I think the beginning of the beginning feels increasingly difficult to negotiate, or perhaps it is simply a knowing familiarity with that stage of unknowingness. It’s not that I don’t have things I want to say or question or critique; I think it’s our job as artists to think critically and to apply this facility. Rather, it’s how to beat a track into the newness, to start to learn it and to learn from it – to get through the noisy, static outer layers and into the core.
This is the stage I was at starting the Helsinki International Artist Programme (HIAP) residency in May: both excited and daunted. I was thrilled to have been given the opportunity to go, after being selected as part of the Temple Bar Gallery + Studios / HIAP partnership residency award, but I was also anxious about how to use the time in the best way*. The first stages of creating new work can often involve meandering around on the periphery, looking for a way in that makes sense. Whilst I understand that this is a very necessary part of my working process, it can be frustrating and seem never-ending at times. I can’t make for the sake of making and I don’t believe in doing that. There is enough clutter in the world, so the making has to be some kind of enquiry, even if that is sometimes not very clear.
Because the work is always lurking in my head, I stay connected to its evolving conceptual nature. Its material form, however, changes drastically from piece to piece, usually prompted by an experimental approach to materials that involves a considerable learning curve with each new piece. Before I left for Helsinki, I intentionally started testing a new material and set myself two main objectives for the residency: to resolve the technical challenges of working with the material in the way I intended and to establish a sense of possibility relating to the physical form it might take.
HIAP have two residential premises, with the larger number of studios on the island of Suomenlinna and three studios in Kaapelitehdas (the Cable Factory), where I was staying. The Cable Factory is a huge cultural warehouse in a former Nokia cable factory on the industrial outskirts of Helsinki. It is a small city, so travelling to the centre is a five-minute metro ride or ten-minute cycle. I preferred to cycle when it wasn’t raining (which it was – a lot!) Though slightly larger, the studios at the Cable Factory reminded me of my studio at Fire Station in Dublin: open plan with a large working area, lots of big windows and a mezzanine sleeping area. I immediately felt at home.
I was glad to be located in the Cable Factory because of its urban surroundings and vibe. Suomenlinna is a beautiful fortress island, with well preserved heritage and listed military architecture, but so far in my life as an artist, I have struggled to make work in places that don’t have the edgy restlessness of the urban. Ironically, towards the end of my residency, I did site some test works on the island of Suomenlinna and on another island called Lammassaari, home to a vast and isolated nature reserve. Both sites are protected environments: serene, and far from the industrial context of my studio surroundings.
Kaapelitehdas is described as five hectares of culture and it is, with every kind of creative practice housed there, including dance, theatre, music and art. The space is alive from morning to late night with various events and gigs, bands, parties, collections, deliveries and, occasionally, a line of food vans. The only period during my stay that the space was quiet was at Midsummer, a big holiday in Finland on the Summer Solstice when most people leave the city.
It can be quite noisy in the Cable Factory because of all this activity, but this didn’t disturb me particularly. My usual bodily rhythm was completely upturned by the long daylight hours. Helsinki has very few hours of darkness during the summer months and it never gets truly dark, even at night. It reaches a beautiful blue twilight about half an hour after midnight, and remains at this light level until approximately 3am when the sun starts rising again. Very quickly I fell into a pattern of sleeping anytime from 4am onwards. Some mornings it was 6am or 7am. Years ago this was a very natural rhythm for me, but it’s a difficult one to sustain with work the following morning, and I generally struggle now when I have to operate within another timeframe. In Helsinki, however, it was a luxury to work into the small hours when everything is quiet and everyone else seems asleep – like being alone in the world for a short time. It created a space for me to engage with the work in a complete way that is often difficult to achieve in everyday life, with so many other demands pushing in. This is the value of residencies: the space and time to connect so fully with research, practice, writing or ideas.
The relationship between Helsinki, the Baltic Sea and its archipelago is remarkable. Hundreds of islands are scattered around the coast, some of which are inhabited and some not, some accessible by foot and some not. The sea connects the people of these territories and it is very much a part of everyday life there. The water is travelled on as frequently as the tram or metro and ferries are crowded during peak times. Growing up on the west coast of Ireland not far from the Atlantic, I have always felt a deep connection with the sea and its overwhelming, moving immensity. I was acutely aware of its presence in Helsinki not least by its frequent visibility, rendering it almost a part of the city’s architecture. Working with installation and often site-specifically, the material conditions of a particular space are always highly informative in directing aspects of my work. In Helsinki it was impossible not to consider the space of the sea, its shifting bodily mass, its intangibility – a psychological entity as much as a physical one. In many ways, these circumstances resonate with concerns about the immateriality of space that have permeated my practice for a number of years.
The artists also on residency there were from all over the world – Australia, Canada, Croatia, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, Norway, Scotland, United Kingdom and United States – and their practices are as diverse as their nationalities, including everything from abstract painting to documentary photography, glassmaking and sustainable practice. As a group we connected very well, which doesn’t always happen, but it makes for a much richer experience. I developed a genuine fondness for people and place, and for the staff at HIAP, who are incredibly warm and generous. They make being a stranger in a new city very easy to negotiate, and provided an information document detailing every aspect of the Helsinki and the surrounding areas: transport, supermarkets, bars, clubs, restaurants, festivals, as well as a comprehensive list of galleries and museums including websites, admission fees and contact details. For a city the size of Helsinki, which is similar to Dublin in that respect, there are a large number of art galleries. Some are commercial and independently programmed, whilst many are programmed democratically by an artists’ union, rather than curatorially led. One might argue that this is a fairer system for artists, making opportunities available to all and removing the subjective role of the curator. But, as a counter argument, elements of exhibition practice that occur in collaboration with the curator are lost.
Four days before my residency finished I had achieved my goals, and a little more, and I felt very happy with the progression of the research and work. The material, though precarious by nature, was performing, and several exciting avenues had opened up relating to site conditions and the direction of form. My experience of the HIAP residency felt enormously positive (despite having an eye swollen closed from mosquito bites inflicted during the previous day’s work in the Lammassaari nature reserve). So, with the guidance of my good eye, I cycled to the port, took a gloriously tacky cruise ship to Russia, got very lost in St Petersburg, and helped a drunk Russian man who fell overboard!
Margaret O Brien
* Temple Bar Gallery + Studios and HIAP (Helsinki International Artist Programme) are now entering their eighth year of partnership. During this time, seven Irish artists have travelled to Helsinki and spent time there developing their artistic practices. Since the partnership began in 2007, TBG+S and HIAP have supported a total of 12 artists and curators from Ireland and Finland to undertake new creative work in the cities of Dublin and Helsinki through an exchange programme. The TBG+S and HIAP International Studio Programme is supported by the Arts Council of Ireland, the Finnish Institute, London, the Embassy of Finland, Dublin and FRAME – The Finnish Fund for Art Exchange.