Pealing off an Old Face to Reveal a New One
Characteristics of Performance Art in the Work of Pekka Kainulainen (Summary)
Half-Nick and the Reindeer Man both belong to the staff of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As its real-life counterpart, the part fictive, part real bureau is in charge of “the affairs of the oppressed and the minorities”. Nothing like this comprehensive work of art has ever been produced by the Finnish art community. Its chronology encompasses performance art, installations, comedy, mythical fantasy and social criticism.
The topics and characters that would later be brought together in the Bureau of Indian Affairs appeared early on in the performance art of Pekka Kainulainen. The Skiing Soldier and the Now – No! -Man are good examples of such characters. They made their first appearances in Kainulainen’s work in the years 1986-1991.
For example, the Now – No! -Man performed at the Jyväskylä Street Art Festival in the summer of 1986. The character was half dressed in a suit and half in his underwear. The left arm, leg and side had been left bare. He was accompanied by a security man, a guard. The character cried repeatedly to the heavens “Now?”, but the answer was always “No.” Although the performance, which lasted all day in the church park, drew a lot of attention, its message would probably have been missed without the artist’s written manifest. In his manifest Kainulainen stated that his work of art assessed the prevailing values and strived at revealing the true nature of the current concept of reality. Delving into both the social reality and the private reality of an individual human mind is a central theme repeated throughout Kainulainen’s later performance art as well.
The Soldier made his first appearance in 1986. The City of Helsinki’s Youth Department commissioned the performance for schoolchildren to celebrate the International Year of Peace and the Disarmament Week. After the first performance, the piece was removed from the programme because it was considered “too rough and violent”. Apparently, “the viewpoint of hope and peace” were not sufficiently emphasized in the performance. Pekka Kainulainen describes his censured work of art as follows: “I used three words: God, Devil and mother, the very words that Finnish veterans had told me dying soldiers used the most.”
Later on the soldier was given skis. He evolved into an almost archaic symbol for battle, the country, the nation and life itself. However, the injured, sacrificed skier with his pair of crutches does not look grand but becomes an outsider in the commercial hustle and bustle of the city. The tragic nature of his character arises from his incompatibility with the surrounding environment. He has been forgotten; he has appeared from the mists of the past into the wrong time and place like an uninvited guest. “The veterans have understood the message passed on by the character”, says the artist. The Soldier is not a mocking character, on the contrary. Bringing into the open the visible and the symbolic contradictions is one of the guiding lines in Kainulainen’s art.
The actual Bureau of Indian Affairs made its entrance into Kainulainen’s work during the Visual Arts Week organized in Mänttä in 1995. It was preceded by a character Kainulainen calls The Man Hauling His Burden. The character, who lugged heavy, broken down household appliances, was a sight birthed by the current social circumstances. The Finns were struggling with the worst economic depression and mass unemployment in history. Many deeply indebted people were left in the same situation: hauling unbearable burdens. The machinery of society had revealed how untrustworthy it was.
In the beginning the Bureau reflected distinctly the impulses coming from society, but later its character started to change. Kainulainen began gradually to form a staff, history and modus operandi for the bureau in his performances and texts. He weaves a work of concept art out of the threads of reality and fantasy. Although the horned Reindeer Man often skis slowly like the Skiing soldier, his horns, covered face and manner of birth make him a more primordial character. He stems from the primitive, early deities and shamanism. He, too, is bare, disconnected and alien when he skis through the urban milieu of a metropolis. The natural habitat of the Reindeer Man is the forest, but in city surroundings his allegorical meaning becomes emphasized: the telling of his birth story is lost in city noises.
By the end of the 1990’s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was run by Half-Nick, the incorrupt ego of Santa Clause turned inside out. In my opinion, this multidimensional character has particularly strong connections with the absurd and the comical, and with medieval theatre’s Arte Povera. In the magazine Christmas Glare, which is published by the performance group Ad Hoc, Kainulainen describes how Santa Clause turned into Half-Nick and, simultaneously, a reindeer in his art. The story is an absurdly humoristic, gruff and rough tale of how naïve idealism ends up in a complete, ridiculous and downright masochistic collision with the double standards of society. The artist naturally finds all this conflict within himself and is drowned by it. Erkki Pirtola has filmed on videotape the startling metamorphosis in which Kainulainen dressed as Santa Clause pounds a heart-shaped hole into thick ice with a rod of iron. Next, he jumps into the icy water without a word and sinks under the surface. To the relief of the audience, the half-naked Reindeer Man finally jumps out of the hole screaming because of the pain and the bitter cold.
There has been no shortage of pain and tormenting experiences in Finnish performance art: crucifixion, slashing oneself or staying torturously immobile for hours in a prone position have all been witnessed before. Suffering is a necessary part of picturing reality, but in Kainulainen’s work suffering is not passive. Rather, in his art suffering stems from struggle, the original relationship between man and the laws of nature as things were in the time before machines. Man must be able to tolerate pain while striving to reach his goals, realize his plans and become capable of change.
When an artist wants to describe in his work the experience or process of becoming aware of something, he has run into one of the central conundrums in art. The vision of new connections between thoughts and feelings may be crystal clear to the artist, but conveying it more or less intentionally to someone else, a member of the audience, is critical to art as well. The artist, the work of art and the audience reach a metaphorical crossroads in which the opportunity to make observations and come up with interpretations is passed on to the viewer.
Pekka Kainulainen uses in his art mythological methods that construct a story in order to describe these ways of perceiving and understanding. In many of his performances he demonstrates to the audience the internal changes that happen when feeling and thought slowly create pictures and new meanings. His work often includes a very concrete coming into view or being bared.
Even though Kainulainen is, in the end, very serious about his subject matter, the energy flows of his art encompass playful and carnivalesque laughter. His choice of material is often surprising. An altered being who has been searching for his real self is born and tears his way out of a heap of soil, grass, from underneath a moose skin, out of bubble plastic wrapping or from amidst printed advertisements. An old face is pealed off to reveal a new one.