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STIRring Dreams: Christina Li curates Pilvi Takala’s work for the Finnish Pavilion

Venice Art Biennale's Finnish Pavilion presents video artist Pilvi Takala's work, curated by Christina Li and produced by Frame Contemporary Art Finland.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Apr 30, 2022

The Venice Biennale was established in 1895, over a hundred and twenty years ago and continues to be considered one of the most prestigious cultural institutions across the globe, in the worlds of art, theatre and cinema. The Venice Art Biennale 2022 was inaugurated on April 23 of this year and it will be on view until November. Here, we speak to curator Christina Li about the Finnish pavilion which will be presenting the work of artist Pilvi Takala.

In our conversation with Li, a Hong Kong and Amsterdam based writer and curator, she talks to us about the process of curating and presenting Takala’s work. Li says, “I have known Pilvi and followed her work for more than a decade; she has persistently interrogated the ways in which our behaviour is governed by invisible codes and hierarchies through her video and performance works. I am constantly impressed with the ways she inserts herself in a chosen situation and manages to unravel all the unspoken value systems that we are unaware of”. Takala’s work relies on a deep immersion, and slow unravelling of societal layers. This process also engages the curator and viewer in a deeper conversation around the role of an artist, as Takala shatters any notion of the artist as an objective spectator or passive onlooker.

Li continues to discuss the work on display at the Venice Art Biennale saying, “Close Watch involves her working as a fully licensed security guard and is probably her most ambitious yet. Working with an artist in presenting a new commission requires a lot of discussions, so rather than curating her work, I consider myself as a conversation partner. Beyond the multi-channel work on view, we worked closely on mechanisms that frame the work, such as the publication and website”. The multi-channel installation is based on Takala’s experience in the private security industry, where she worked covertly as a fully qualified security guard for Securitas. The piece is centred on workshops she developed in response to issues encountered on the job during her six-month employment at one of Finland’s largest shopping malls.

A still from Close Watch (2022), a video work by Pilvi Takala | Close Watch | Pilvi Takala | STIRworld
A still from Close Watch (2022), a video work by Pilvi Takala Image: Pilvi Takala; Courtesy of Carlos/Ishikawa, Helsinki Contemporary, and Stigter van Doesburg

The Finnish pavilion is commissioned and produced by Frame Contemporary Art Finland. Raija Koli, Director of Frame shared saying, “We are very pleased to be working with Pilvi Takala. She is an artist with a very special artistic practice. This exhibition will give her the opportunity to further develop her unique view on the world”.

Takala says, “I am thrilled to be making a new work for the Pavilion of Finland in Venice. My practice is slow, requiring a long research process, so I am especially grateful to Frame for approaching me for a proposal well in advance. The fact that I could start researching early on means I don’t have to make any compromises due to lack of time and can be more ambitious about what I’m making”, she concluded.

Takala’s new commission focuses on the private security industry and its apparatuses and techniques of control | Close Watch | Pilvi Takala | STIRworld
Takala’s new commission focuses on the private security industry and its apparatuses and techniques of control Image: Pilvi Takal; Courtesy of Carlos/Ishikawa, Helsinki Contemporary, and Stigter van Doesburga

Takala's artistic practice plays largely with video and performance, and is rooted in a research-intensive process. Her work is an exploration of social structures and normative behaviours for which she employs performative interventions to further understand specific communities. Her works show that it is often possible to learn about the implicit rules of a social situation simply through its disruption. Takala has been an artist-in-residence at Rijksakademie, Amsterdam, awarded the Dutch Prix de Rome, and has had a number of solo exhibitions across Europe.

The theme of the 2022 Venice Art Biennale is entitled The Milk Of Dreams, and is the 59th edition so far. The title borrows from a book by Leonora Carrington, where life is continuously re-envisioned through the prism of the imagination. It questions what constitutes life itself - in this body and in this physical dimension. In the context of Takala’s Close Watch and the space it takes at the biennale, Li says, “Pilvi’s work has always been deeply rooted within contemporary society and how we relate to each other as individuals. Her new commission on the private security industry makes visible the apparatuses and techniques of control. One thread within this edition of the Venice Biennale examines the relationship between individuals and technologies; in this new work, Pilvi reveals how, behind all the techniques and tools developed to enforce control, it is we, and no one else, who govern each other’s behaviour”. The video work investigates these emergent trends and ideas, inviting the viewer to explore what it might mean to each of them as these concepts develop over time and space - into a future where surveillance and privacy hold different weight.

In Close Watch (2022), the artist lays bare the incongruencies that underpin a flawed infrastructure devised to preserve public order | Close Watch | Pilvi Takala | STIRworld
In Close Watch (2022), the artist lays bare the incongruencies that underpin a flawed infrastructure devised to preserve public order Image: Pilvi Takala; Courtesy of Carlos/Ishikawa, Helsinki Contemporary, and Stigter van Doesburg

Li shares what surveillance culture and ‘security as a concept’ means to the artist, in particular in the space of this video work. She says, “The definitions of permissive behaviour and security are incredibly fluid. Close Watch extends from Pilvi’s consistent highlighting of how definitions of security and acceptable behaviour are perpetually produced through negotiation between you and those who wield power. While focusing on security as concept and industry, she lays bare the incongruencies that underpin a flawed infrastructure devised to preserve public order. In this instance, guards are individuals whose roles are not limited to following orders or using learned techniques – they have agency in their own authority over the public”.

The conceptual premise of the video work by Takala leads me to think of psychological experiments like the Stanford Prison Experiment led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo in 1971 at the Stanford University. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, a mock prison was created with two groups of participants assigned roles of prisoner and guard. While this experiment ended up being quite a violent event, it allowed us, as outsiders, to consider the effects of power, and its situational and dispositional consequences. Takala carries out her own experiments, and although they do not result in violent acts, they do break apart our notions of what privacy and surveillance mean to our present and future worlds.

Pilvi Takala’s Close Watch video installation 2022 | Close Watch | Pilvi Takala | STIRworld
Pilvi Takala’s Close Watch video installation, 2022 Image: Pilvi Takala

Li tells us about her own curatorial journey, and her interests saying, “Rather than being guided by singular themes or topics, I gravitate towards creating curatorial frameworks in response to a given setting - for instance spatial histories or cultural narratives - while always remaining quite close to the artistic process. I have worked with artists who deal with a variety of themes and topics ranging from alternative historical narratives, (im-)material extraction, and socio-political critique”.

Li’s articulated interests align and synchronise with Takala’s explorations, making the collaboration rather seamless, at a philosophical level. The curator concluded by saying, “I would say I am drawn to working with artists whose work amalgamates process and aesthetic form in unconventional ways that seek to challenge existing structures and definitions”. 

A portrait of Christina Li (left) and Pilvi Takala (right) | Close Watch | Pilvi Takala | STIRworld
A portrait of Christina Li (left) and Pilvi Takala (right) Image: Ugo Carmeni

Li has also as contributed to publications including Artforum, Art Review Asia, LEAP, Parkett, Spike, and Yishu Journal of Contemporary Art. She was the curator of Hong Kong’s participation with Shirley Tse at the 58th Venice Biennale 2019, and is currently working on a special project, marking the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Art Basel with Kasper Koenig, and Hamza Walker.

The 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams is open to the public from April 23-November 27, 2022, at the Giardini and the Arsenale, Venice.

Click here to read more about STIRring Dreams, a series of articles by STIR that explore some of the best presentations at this year's edition of the art biennale.

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