On art exhibition openings in Helsinki
That awkward, almost mortifying, feeling when you’re early to a party and there’s nobody there. The gallery is devoid of people and of art as well (oh no, wait, there it is, minimalistic, colourless, odourless, flavourless, blending in) and we are hovering around apologetically, the three of us. Suddenly a mythical figure swoops in. Avajaismummo. The vernissage* granny. A permanent fixture at exhibition openings. She spots us, huddled together in a corner, and comes over.
“They’re all in Berlin,” she whispers confidentially. She leans closer. “They’ve all gone”.
// Picture a camera zooming out like in a film, pulling away rapidly from a human figure that falls to its knees. Emitting a classic howl of despair: “Noooooooo...” //
Avajaismummo doesn’t know shit. It’s not long before the vernissage takes off. The awkwardness of being early to the party turns into the more familiar awkwardness of trying to avoid the eyes of people you don’t want to talk to. The horror is still there. It’s the turning-up-naked-at-school nightmare all over again. They’re all somewhere else. And you’re left here, alone in a gallery, at the opening of an exhibition by an artist you don’t know, clutching a glass of lukewarm white wine. And everyone else is in Berlin having much more fun and...
Actually, no. The exhibition-opening scene in Helsinki is arguably the best in the world. Everybody fits in because nobody fits in. Invitations are practically redundant. They’re open to all. The drinks are free. And even though somebody might write: “thanks for the invitation, but I’m abroad :(” on Facebook, there will always be people, always. Attending vernissages in Helsinki is social life deluxe.
Attending vernissages in Helsinki is above all an artform so sophisticated that it deserves its own exhibition, where the vernissage becomes some kind of perverted meta-performance. It’s a carefully scheduled Via Dolorosa leading to singing karaoke drunk on a dozen glasses of wine. But most of all it’s a social ritual. A ritual taking place every fourth Thursday, like clockwork, made possible by the coordination of the vernissages of most of the established Helsinki galleries, the majority of them situated within walking distance of each other. And by the secret Facebook-group scheduling of these Thursdays. Eight vernissages, one evening. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it. Or actually not... But quoting Yngwie Malmsteen, the maestro who looks like an overgrown baroque putto angel: “MORE IS MORE!”
There’s a kind of depraved joy and hedonism in the anxious wine drinking, akin to ancient symposiums. The Greeks would imbibe their watered-down wine on couches rather than chairs: this significantly eased drunken intercourse. Vernissage regulars in Helsinki wear comfortable shoes: this significantly eases an entire night of standing and walking. Dionysus might be the patron saint of both Symposiums and Thursday vernissages, but the heart and soul of both is, and always will be, socializing. For all the talk of free drinks and their appeal – which is indeed huge; take the ferry over to Stockholm where you pay a small fortune for a drink at any vernissage to realize the magnitude of the luxury that is easily obtainable free drinks – the heart and soul of compulsive vernissage crashing is socializing. The lion’s share of vernissage attendees are Generation Y:ers, stuck in the precariat, working their asses off in order to keep their heads above water. There are the long nights at school and the endless scrounging for jobs, and the stress. And then there’s vernissages. An efficient way to meet people. A safety net. A secure place. The time when everybody is in Berlin will never come. There’ll always be somebody there to talk to. There seems to be an unspoken rule that vernissages are not a meat market: they’re an opportunity to meet people as friends and acquaintances, and to be introduced to new people. There’s no piggish making out, minimal flirting. It’s straightforward hanging out with a wine glass in hand, justified by the presence of art – “I’m doing something legit and making a profit, both in booze and socially”.
Artsy precariat kids organizing themselves on Facebook are not the only vernissage hounds. Real hounds join in: in all but the most stiff-upper-lip places dogs are welcome. Generations meet and occasionally mingle. The avajaismummo is a legend. There has been at least one instance when the police picked her up, but the matriarch of the crashers is not a troublemaker at heart. She looks at the art, and despite perpetually living behind a veil of drunkenness, she remembers. Sometimes she discusses. Or tries to discuss. She wears a funky hat in winter. She’s as much a legitimate visitor as anybody else. As is the elderly gentleman who also always turns up, his sleek grey hair in a ponytail, a hat precariously perched on his head, camera in hand, always documenting everything. An insider outsider. What does his collection of photos look like? Where does he keep the thousands of photos he must have taken over the years? Does he have a room plastered with them? An album of selfies taken together with artists?
In the fucked-up art world with its underlying ultra-capitalist politics the weird vernissage-Thursdays scene is an astonishing safe haven. Rare are the instances of mansplaining and elitism. There’s only the here and now, and a vague fear of arriving too late and finding only empty glasses.*From the French vernissage, derived from the earlier habit of the artists to varnish their paintings the day before the opening of an exhibition. Commissioned by Pro Artibus Foundation, 2016 Published in the magazine companion to the exhibition By Water