Last Exit to Helsinki

Feature in Issue 13-2 | Summer 2001

Live Artist Miriam King attended the extraordinary EXIT international festival in Helsinki. Here she presents extracts from her diary.

The EXIT Festival of Unusual Live Performance took place in the cultural arts centre of Kaapelitehdas (Cable Factory) Helsinki, Finland, in February and March 2001. The festival was one of the biggest of its kind, featuring around 150 international performance artists, many making their first appearance in the west. The festival director was world-renowned Finnish performance artist Roi Vaara, who has made Live Art since 1982. I was fortunate to be one of those invited, attending for seven days in the middle of the festival. Here follows some extracts from my diary:

Exit on Arrival

I’m offered a choice of accommodation – at a nearby hostel or close to a forest. I choose the latter, Rastelli. I am given keys to a small, green, sub-arctic beach hut with a veranda, set in crisp picture-postcard snow. Inside, there are bunk beds, a table and two wobbly stools. I don’t have running water or a toilet, but there is a refrigerator…

In the evening. I travel back to Kaapeli with fellow artist Martin Renteria from Mexico. It seems very dead and quiet. We cannot immediately find the way in. A handwritten sign saying ‘EXIT’ has been taped to a door. We heave the door open and follow the stone steps down into the basement, in search of work presented by Estonian artists’ group Non Grata. We continue along dark corridors. There is an ominous atmosphere and an odious smell. Going through a door the smell gets more putrid. We can just make out meat hanging on fencing and cucumbers wrapped in cling film. They are oozing and dripping. We continue into an even darker room beyond hangings of cellophane. We pause for a moment not knowing whether to go further, then we hear commanding voices that say ‘Come In!’.

In the near pitch-black we can’t make out much, but what our eyes don’t see our noses make up for. We eventually make out that there are a lot of bodies down here lying about and we have become two of them. On a wall at the end of this factory cellar a video is projected. It is of eight or so naked people shuffling against a white tiled wall. They are limply holding sticks and bumping into each other. They possibly have lard on their thighs, or it could be cling film. I am wondering how soon I can leave without seeming impolite. As we cautiously make our exit, taking care not to trample on anybody, Martin says, ‘I was worried, they’re the kind of artists who would start throwing blood at you…’

I decide to stay on for the last performance of the evening. I really want to come away having seen something worthwhile and inspiring today. It is Chen Ji from Beijing, People’s Republic of China. He sits on the ground wearing a black and gold Chinese jacket and surrounds himself with an arc of bright blue alarm clocks. He winds them all up so they are set about him ringing and ringing. Many people can’t bear it and leave. Then he invites those who like time to come and help him wind up the clocks. Many people join him. He then asks all people who do not like time to come and help him smash the clocks to pieces with sledgehammers – springs and glass fly everywhere, some still trying to send out their shrill ring. Chen has a calm presence. His piece is amusing, yet a little predictable. His text: ‘I hate the way my life is controlled by time.’ Consequently, Martin and I miss the last metro home.

Witness

The performances today are planned to begin at 3pm. Three until midnight? Can anyone take nine hours of performance? First to go on today are Friederike and Uwe from Munich, Germany. They are fantastic! They create a cinema experience, the pair of them wearing black PVC outfits, dressed as characters from the film The Matrix. People are given tickets to numbered seats, and popcorn. We see trailers, advertisements and their Matrix-parody video, where the heroes have to undergo several Art Challenges that are presented to them.

I also enjoy the work of Shin-ichi Ari: he comes into the space and takes off his Japanese businessman’s suit to reveal a worrying bulge in his trousers. He is clutching a manga-style government-produced comic. The worrying bulge turns out to be a Pokemon character. In Japanese, he says, Pikachu means ‘little mouse’. He stuffs the torn manga pages into his mouth whilst singing a Japanese anthem. His mouth becomes so full that he is near choking. He squats on a white sheet whilst squeezing red paint from a tube. When all the red is squelched into a tidy pile he drops his bare backside down into it, gleefully throwing his arms into the air, slipping and sliding out of control yet trying to contain a tidy circle of painting. When he stands he has red buttock cheeks, a cheeky-looking Pikachu, and a near-perfect, freshly painted Japanese flag at his feet. This he attaches to the wall. He turns to the audience, spits his saliva-soaked manga propaganda from his bursting cheeks and exclaims ‘Happy Japan’.

Performance Day

Sunday is the day I present my performance, Blue Moon. I am scheduled to go on fourth. I arrive in the morning to sort out my lights and sound. This is all done very proficiently. My lighting demands are simple. A wide blanketing of cool deep blue light, with a golden warm circle of light in the centre. I also choose to use a space for my performance that has not been used before. It feels new, less habitual for what I feel could be a jaded audience. It is programmed to be a long day again – 4pm till midnight!

After my technical slot I am feeling confident. My artist’s text: ‘To discover/uncover moments of truth and vulnerability. To make a connection.’ As an artist, I wish to create an emotive atmosphere, something that the viewer can attach their own story to. I often use mythologies and the ‘invisible world’ as initial inspiration. Themes in my work include: dreams and fears; the sense of feeling apart and wishing to make a connection; finding a bridge between worlds seen and unseen; finding that place where there is resolution …

The performance goes well. The atmosphere is strong; I am able to do all I need to: chaos, stillness, honesty, vulnerability, being – I feel pretty mischievous. People engage – many coming to me afterwards to take my hand, thank me or kiss my cheek.

Today is a good day for performance. I witness many strong, full works. I enjoy Inari Virmakovski’s work Global Lullaby: thin trees, petals and candles and her presence in the space as a widow. The audience is invited to participate in a ritual and walk over a white zone and light candles. White footprints are left on the floor. Life and death, war and peace, hate and love are all intertwined and in the end there is only yearning.

Despina, an artist from Greece, is cutting up her wedding dress. She sits from 4 pm until 11 pm without rest, cutting the wedding dress that she is wearing into strips of fabric and rolling this into a huge bound ball. Black crepe roses are around her feet, each representing a year of her life. Her text: ‘The 56 black paper flowers stand for my age and my experience of life; the wedding dress symbolises my initial ideas and dreams, e.g. to find a dream man. By cutting up the wedding dress, I want to express the parting from these ideas and dreams. Assembling the fabric strips by forming a bolt means to keep my life in order. By rolling up the fabric bolt on a spontaneously selected path, I want to express the searching of the way to sort myself out. In general, this work symbolises the parting from illusions.’

Last Exit

Monday is a holiday day. Today is the day that I walk across frozen sea to an island. It is so beautiful… the snow is thick and crunching underfoot. Deep snow on a winter’s worth of deep, deep ice. Seurasaari is a quiet, densely forested island, with one short road giving access to a scattering of vintage wooden houses. Blue tits and great tits follow our steady stroll along the footways. It is a winter paradise.

It was so inspiring to be part of such a truly international festival and to witness such a vast range of performances of varying quality from so many different countries. It was a perfect contrast to be performing in a former industrial building turned arts space and to stay in a snowy wilderness outside the city. I had time to mingle and chat and time to watch; opportunity to make work and space to think about new work in the future. Before attending the Exit Festival, I had no concept of what this city would be like; now I have many, many images of Helsinki – the frozen sea that surrounds the spacious city, the Fritz Lang style buildings made from rock. I feel very grateful that I had this opportunity – and I will enjoy and creatively prosper from the benefits for a long time to come.

Miriam King’s new film Fountain was premiered at the Brighton Festival. For more on the Exit Festival see www.exitfestival.org

This article in the magazine

Issue 13-2
p. 16 - 18