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Wildness Makes This World

KuvA doctoral researcher Matthew Cowan studies wildness in his exhibition at Seinäjoki Kunsthalle

man face covered with birchbark

This exhibition project by Matthew Cowan approaches the concept of ‘wildness’ as it relates to everyday life, place and memory and attempts to articulate this as an exhibition presentation. Cowan has worked with Kunsthalle Seinäjoki to produce the exhibition alongside a group of 12 participants from the local area, the Seinäjoki Museums and the Laitakaupungin orkesteri (LKO), a group of professional musicians based in the city.

The idea of wildness at the centre of the exhibition project stems from observations of the spirit of communal chaos and the carnavalesque that has been at the centre of folk rituals that Cowan has studied as part of his doctoral research at KuvA. Certain wildness is especially evident in traditions such as the Strawbear and the Maimann which were at the centre of Cowan’s previous show at Kunsthalle Giessen in 2019. These rituals involved a central character, a ‘wildman’, bringing a sense of danger, chaos and unpredictability to a community event.

The focus on wildness in Seinäjoki exhibition then comes from accessing this communal instinct for chaos. Folk rituals often create a spectacle that performs a chaotic and wild moment as it marks meaning in place together. Cowan explains:

“I wanted to understand people’s experience of wildness in other senses – including the experience of nature, but also reaching into more psychological and communal experiences. In Finland, I have been interested in the kinds of wildness that could be translated as ‘raivoisuus’, as well as ‘jylhyys’ and discussing these translations is a part of the conversations I have had with participants.”

This exhibition project has led Cowan to new insights concerning wildness: “Usual definitions of wildness firstly separate the idea of wildness from the realm of naturalness, thereby defining it as a process, a quality or a mode. It can then usually be assigned in one of two ways. That is firstly that wildness is as another, something that represents a threshold. Or secondly, that wildness is an impulse, an inspiration or a state of being or place that people are drawn to, something that might provide you with prescience.” In Cowan’s view, both these ideas or approaches to wildness rely, however, on accepting it as something that is beyond being totally understood, described or made tangible.

exhibiton view with installations
Seinäjoen Taidehalli, näyttelytila Vintti, Kalevan Navetta Matthew Cowan: Wildness Makes This World

The first part of the project has been a collaboration with 12 people who were invited by the Kunsthalle and Cowan to participate in the project. The participants in the exhibition were all volunteers for the project and agreed to share their time and ideas as part of the production of this artistic research. None of the participants had participated in an art project with the Kunsthalle before. This aspect of the project received a supporting statement from the Uniarts Ethics committee in 2020.

In the past, Cowan has often collaborated with experts and special practitioners of folklore as well as with historical museums. However, this project evolved into a participatory art project with people from many backgrounds, including a small orchestra and the Seinäjoki Museums.

“This way of working has been rewarding and interesting for me as an artist as I have to firstly re-understand my status as an outsider, as an ‘expert’ artist in order to be able to discuss the subject of the exhibition with people on the level of a researcher. The questions I have been asking have not only specifically been about the expert knowledge of others, but also more about personal understandings, experiences and skills. As a visitor to the city, I was aware of my status as an outsider as I learned about places that were important to people. Meetings with participants were social and conversational as we talked about the project. Although this working process touched on ethnographic practice with questions and field notes, it was a process that was always openly moving towards the production of artistic works.”

The second part of the project was a collaboration with the Seinäjoki Museums. In the same way that Cowan had asked the individual participants in the project to consider what a psychological approach to wildness might mean to them, he asked the museum to consider their collection from this curatorial perspective. From this starting point, a range of items that might be possible to include in the exhibition were discussed. These included archive images as well as artefacts relating to natural history, agricultural history and local landmarks.

In parallel with beginning the process of making the exhibition at Kunsthalle Seinajoki, Cowan began a project with the LKO, a group of professional musicians based in Seinäjoki. This project was part of a series of collaborations that they have made with artists of different disciplines. As a visual artist Cowan asked them also consider wildness from their perspective as professional musicians. The following cooperation involved some field recordings and each member of the LKO contributed new tracks to the resultant soundscape. This recording is the soundscape present in the exhibition, as well as being an LP published on the Sibelius Academy Folk Label. The fourth element of the exhibition is Cowan’s artistic response to working with the material from participants, the Museum and the LKO. The installation and exhibition room itself could be read as a theatrical stage, with soundtrack and in this way the artistic material has become animated. The soundtrack provides a sense of movement and motion to the static presentation of artefacts and artwork. There is an interesting tension between this drama, its potential for fiction and the real places, spaces, experiences objects and historical artefacts that are presented in the show.

Matthew Cowan interviewed at Seinäjoki Kunsthalle

The final element of the exhibition, continues Cowan’s practice of working with cultural workers from City Cultural Offices. The video, The Sound of the Cultural Services Seinäjoki, is installed in the main stairwell of the Kunsthalle. Visitors to the exhibition will either experience this piece on the way into the main presentation of the show in the Vintti ‘Attic’ space, or after leaving it. It constitutes a kind of meta comment on the exhibition, a postscript involving the cultural authority of the city, and can be read as an absurd performative text on the subject of the exhibition project itself.

“Nearly everyone would find material in this exhibition that would resonate for them as an understanding of what wildness could be. My role as an artist has been to present the material as an exhibition, placing objects, artefacts, images and other elements together to experience them as a set of examined, considered and remembered materials. It was important to be able to understand all of these sensory points of view aesthetically, in the same room at the same time.”

The exhibition is the fourth and last examined artistic part of Cowan’s doctoral project at KuvA.

Wildness Makes This World at Kunsthalle Seinäjoki

9 December, 2020 – 6 March, 2021

KuvA research activities

This blog highlights the activities of the research unit and doctoral programme at the Academy of Fine Arts Helsinki | Tämä blogi esittelee Kuvataideakatemian tutkimusyksikön ja tohtorikoulutusohjelman tapahtumia ja toimintaa | I den här bloggen presenteras verksamheten och evenemangen vid Bildkonstsakademins forskningsenhet och doktorandprogram

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