Visitors aren’t just invited to view, but inhabit the places of ’Helsinki Noir’ at the Amos Anderson Art Museum in Helsinki. Set against the backdrop of the Finnish capital in the 1930s, the narrative of the exhibition opens with a crime scene.
The body of a young woman in a short dress and silk stockings is found floating in the sea just off Kaivopuisto park.
You’d be forgiven for thinking you have just stepped into the set of an elaborate episode of David Suchet’s Poirot.
What happened to the woman prior to her untimely death is told with the help of a beautifully written account – A Deadly Proposal – whose chapters match sections of the exhibition. Paintings are seen in a new light. They become snapshots of a truly gripping story: not only do they visually set the events in context, but they also contain the clues to solve the mystery.
At the time of our visit there were lots of people, but the quasi-religious silence of the rooms was interrupted only by the soundtrack to the installations. No idle chit-chat. The focus given by the investigative task at hand is a sort of miniature revolution in the world of visual arts. The most basic of collective actions of visitors to a museum, walking and looking around, have been changed by a powerful catalyst. Seeing so many people glued to the pages of the same short story was truly mesmerising. This is by far the most engaging show we have visited in 2016.
Susanna Luojus, Head of Exhibitions at the Amos Anderson Art Museum and the brain behind ‘Helsinki Noir’, has been answering our questions.
ART SURGERY: When and how did the idea of Helsinki Noir develop?
SUSANNA LUOJUS: I was commissioned to produce an exhibition about Helsinki, which I found quite uninspiring. There have been so many traditional art exhibitions about the city and I had nothing new to say. I don’t live in Helsinki and do not know the city well enough – I live in the countryside, and studied at the University of Turku. So I just had to dive into my imagination and think about all the visions I had about Helsinki as a city. There was one picture firmly stuck in my mind, and that was a scene from a Finnish detective film about Komisario Palmu (from a detective series written by Mika Waltari in the 1930’s) where this famous detective is in his office at the Helsinki Police station and through the window behind him you can see the beautiful, bright white Helsinki Cathedral. It is a very dramatic scene. Then I had the idea of combining elements of a detective novel and an art exhibition, and found my inspiration. I have always, since being a 9 year old school girl, deeply loved detective novels and I still read them – all the classics, but new ones as well. I started to read the crime history of the city, because I wanted to mix something real into this mystery too, not just use my imagination. This all took place in summer 2014.
AS: Can you tell us a little bit more about the creative process behind the exhibition? Did the story come first and then you chose the works to display or was it written on the basis of the paintings available?
SL: The collection behind the exhibition is owned by STSY, The Association of Finnish Fine Arts Foundations, but I could arrange some loans from other institutions as well. I wanted to use their collections mostly, because I knew that the exhibition period was planned to be quite long and it is usually difficult to agree loans for about a year or longer. I knew that they had a good quality collection of Finnish art from around the 1930’s and 1940’s so I picked that era for the story. But I wanted to include something new into the mix, so I contacted Jarno Vesala whose mysterious and even scary works I had earlier admired. I simply asked him if he was interested in trying this new kind of art exhibition and if it was possible for him to create a new work for me, something with which to begin the story. I gave him all the freedom to produce something exciting and I started to write the story after I had seen his plans in March 2015. I had only a few weeks to complete the story and select the works, and that was a challenging time… Then we had to start planning the setting. I wrote the chapters in sequence, selecting the works for each section at the same time as writing the chapter.
AS: Is there a painting you are especially fond of?
SL: I wouldn’t name one work in particular, but I like the views of Helsinki Market Square.
AS: The story takes place in the 1930s. Why this particular time?
SL: Besides the access to the collection of STSY of that period, I found out about an interesting series of crimes which happened in Finland and Sweden also during the 1930-50’s. The culprit, Ruben Oskar Auervaara, was already familiar to me, but I started to read everything I could find about him. It was quite natural for me to use his adventures as the basis of my story. And the story is timeless, being historical but also contemporary; we can still read in the newspaper almost every week that some womanizer and con man has been sent to prison. It is a story of love – and cruel cheating.
AS: How did your collaboration with Jarno Vesala come about? Had you worked together before?
SL: I didn’t know Jarno in person beforehand, only through his work, but our collaboration went very well. It was very easy to communicate, and we are both quite flexible in our working methods and thinking when we’re in the middle of the creative process. I would love to work with him again on some other project.
AS: What are the advantages of a promenade exhibition in comparison to a more traditional setting? What were you hoping to achieve?
SL: Basically I wanted to engage the viewer somehow, but sometimes it is difficult to persuade adults to participate when in a public space. They often focus on what other people may be thinking about them, how they look and sound, and they don’t want to look foolish. Now, in this format, they can engage safely, in their own world. They can read the novel and just think about trying to solve the mystery. At the same time I hope that they are looking at the paintings with more attention as they try to find any hints for solving the puzzle. I would like to do another exhibition of this kind, but more challenging for the public.
AS: You had a writing competition to find an alternative ending to the story. Who won it?
SL: We had a competition during this spring for school children and the winner was Sophia Syrjänen, 17 years old.
AS: You wrote the original story for Helsinki Noir. Will you be writing any fully fledged crime fiction in the future?
SL: If only there were more hours in the day! I love to write, but I have so many other challenges in my life at the moment; maybe when I’m retired in 2050. Now we are constructing a new art museum in the heart of Helsinki, and that takes all my working time.
AS: And finally, have you thought of touring this exhibition in other European countries? Are we going to see Helsinki Noir in London?
SL: I’ve been asked this before, but I’m not sure if this is really suitable for touring at the moment. I think the whole idea would be to pick the story from each host city’s own crime history and art. Of course you can tell a story about Helsinki in other places too, but it’s more engaging if you can visit the locations where the story really happens – as they actually have done in Helsinki. People have visited Kaivopuisto, Torkkelinmäki, and Market Square and got the feeling of the genius loci.
Helsinki Noir is at the Amos Anderson Museum in Helsinki until 09/01/2017.
“In the final days of a damp, misty November, the body of a young woman is found in the icy embrace of the waters off Kaivopuisto Park. Her short dress and silk stockings prompt the press to dub her “the Belle of Kaivopuisto”. Who is this long-legged lovely, and what has occurred under cover of the shadowy stone city blocks? Helsinki’s busy police force gets a tragic new crime to solve…”