Dirty Dancing. Painting as Political by Mika Hannula

Dirty dancing? Painting as political? Why, or how? Mixed metaphors, magic mushrooms gone awry or everyday play in the participation of providing content into the matters that matter, re-directing energy and engagement into the concepts that make and shake, define and describe our existence?

Let us start with the role of metaphors. Well, to be honest, starting is, in fact, to ask what to include. And to include, to combine and to connect the dots, that is where it is at – and that is what is supposed to take place and happen.

In a deliberately condensed form, metaphors are not only important as daily means of expressions, sort of linguistic helping hands, they are indeed a necessity because they structure our experience, they unite reason and imagination, accelerating and altering the ways we see, talk and comprehend who we are, where and why – and why not. Metaphors combine potentiality with actuality, conscious with unconscious, denotations and connotations.

Metaphors are a song (and, for real, a sing-along), for example: you are everything and everything is you. Or, just another line, another example within the same genre, it is to sing (and, for sure, to sing-along): I want you, but I want you to want me too.

It is an “upside-down” connection that addresses the role, the function of a metaphor. It is not a struggle, not a war, not a battle. It is a dance. And to be able to dance, not just once, but in a continuity, to be able to dance in a little better, a little more meaningful way, you can’t do it alone. You do it together. You go up, you go down, and you gain distance to attract nearness – you become what you can become in interaction, in reciprocal intimate and intimidating interventions.

You dance, you get down on it. Dirtily, disturbingly, strangely, vaguely, beautifully, or even fitfully. You take part and play the part (please don’t reduce yourself to a wall flower) – get into the groove, out of the cold and into the heat, the heat.

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But why political? And why, well, with the ancient and oh so analog medium called painting?

Why oh why, so to say, oh why do the doves cry? Or do they chirp, murmur, or whisper – in and through their imaginative whiskers?

It is political, because our deeds, our actions and in-actions have a past, present and a future. They construct and constrain our everyday activities, providing both the frame and the direction day in, and day out. Political in this sense is the water we drink, the air we breathe – again in and out, in and out – while transmitting, transforming and translating something into something else.

This is political as a concept that is distinguished into four different, albeit very much so inter-woven levels. This is political as in 1) polity, 2) policy, 3) politicking, and finally, 4) politicalization.

Polity is the first, well, if you want, floor. This stands for the type of a structure and internal rules and regulations of the preferred type of a government. There are some variations, but so far in the timeline of our so-called civilizations, most governments call themselves democratic. Other options are a kingdom or a dictatorship or such-like. But in these hazy purple cultured but confused social media days, who would want to be called a dictator? Much better, so much nicer to sport the label of a democrat.

Policy, on the other hand, is the second layer, directly connected to its ground floor. Policy is the way, for example, how a polity calling itself democracy is organized and conducted. That is, democracy is no longer what it says it is but how it is actualized and articulated. This is to pay attention to how are the political parties organized, is it a bi-party or multi-party system, or how independent are, for example, the jurisdictions and how far or low is the idea of checks and balances implemented. Here, evidently, we acquire a taste for differentiation because it ought to be crystal clear to everyone that even if they all nowadays call themselves democratic societies, there is a telling, sometimes more obvious, sometimes more historically based distance between, let’s say, Sweden and Singapore, or, why not, Rwanda and Russia.

Politicking is the level where we move from more structural realities and variations of the game played into ways of conducting the daily moves and shapes of action within the governing bodies (in plural). Politicking is the direct and openly stated wish to steer and manipulate how policy is made and produced, conducted and conceived. Politicking has a synonym, a somewhat dirty, not dancing, but a word. It is called lobbying. Shades of grey or dread set aside, politicking is a solid goal-orientated enterprise that already knows what it wants, has a rather clear comprehension of how to work towards its aims and purposes. It is straightforward, cause-effective, and proudly so.

Politicalization is located at the top floor. We should not label it penthouse, or the highest level, because it is completely dependent on the other three previous levels. However, despite this deep-seated connectedness, its main characteristics is, if not unpredictability, it is characteristically not being determined. It is not pre-paid, not either-or endgame, but a set-up that turns towards, makes things happen – things that are surprising, seriously funny or as seriously horrifying. Politicalization is the act that alters the balance, gives a new perspective, makes an event out of a thing or a deed or a concept that we otherwise would not recognize, would not give any relevance and would not see its weight and value.

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And, well, then off we go, we turn to painting. You know, the lost and lonely object on the wall, dusty and diluted, so well rehearsed in the past, a glorious past, but what is now just a silly irrelevant pastime of modern domesticated man and woman? Or is it?

Why should painting as a medium in itself be doomed to the sidelines, to the departments called non-satisfactorily, non-saturated, and well, no need to be shy here, unsexy?

This gives us the chance to move swiftly from a general and generic take into a particular and specific version of a painting. This is where we gain access to, for example, the work of Onya McCausland, and an ongoing project that she has described as “turning landscape into color”. She has been working with the wastewater of mines (no longer at use) in the UK, distilling and filtering pigment out of a toxic waste. This material comes out and up, reaching from the darkest spaces of mines that can have a timeline in 200 hundred years and a depth of many hundreds of meters, for example, as a color of warm red, and light ochre. The red one is found, and then altered into other states of being in the site, a small village called Six Bells, in a remote region of Wales. It is recycled and newly circulated – given a new life span, and a spin.

The end result is never the end of it, but just a small stop, a breath to take, and to let out. It can be a wall of a former miner’s pub, now a private residency, turned with one coat of paint from plain white to pulsating red, highlighting with these simple measures the amazing warmth of the color – its potentially endless variations of intensity and integrity. Or it is a monochrome canvas that looks so innocent, so very not dirty, but that is inherently inter-connected to our fossil fuel legacies, their promises and catastrophes, their lives lived and the lives lost – and never found again. But as an object, it’s a semi-silent promise on your wall, kind of confused but not overwhelmingly lonely, connecting the dots between doom and pleasure, pain and dangerous treasure.

This is also the notion, the emotions in motion with the new series of works called Pride, oil on paper, by the Icelandic artist Birgir Birgirsson who does a striking combination with the slightest of touch connected to very heavy material and manners. What we see is altogether eight large-scale boats, vessels that are built-in factories for catching and working through the catch, the fish. The works are done with such a clever lightness, almost as if the color is about to fade away, to disappear, but which nevertheless gains momentum the more you stay with – minding, if look at it from over, let’s say a distance of more than 4-5 meters, you really cannot see that much at all. There is a faint glimpse on paper, taking us to the imaginary sea, connected to these vessels whose size can be up to 70 000 tons. They have names, linking them back to the locations up north of the country, or names of dear ones or just important symbols. If gazing close enough, and well, if knowing where to look, the names of the vessels can be made out in the works.

What cannot be recognized or caught (or taken apart) in these works on paper is the whole machinery that runs along and is connected to the company called Samherji; a company that is one of the biggest private sector employers in the area of Eyjafjörður, very visible and present in the biggest town there, Akureyri, where basically everyone knows someone who has (members of Birgir’s family included) one point or another worked there, part-time or full force. And now, due to Wikileaks, since 2019 the bubble has bursts. The seemingly pure and clean has become terrible stained. The company has been caught doing something they were not supposed to be doing. In short, it can be called as an unfortunately ongoing episode of “Naughty in Namibia”, which, instead of a B-movie, translates into a criminal activity through the years of 2012-2019. It begins with entering the country with the help of the Icelandic government foreign aid program, promising jobs and tax revenues, achieving via links to local kleptocracy and high-level corruption and bribes, a huge scale of fishing quotas bought (mainly horse mackerel) for significantly lower prices, no jobs created, no taxes paid and all profits siphoned to the home company (and its executives) through complex network of international shady financing.

What about the work of Hannaleena Heiska, more precisely, a series called Camouflage? This work, at least, hints directly at something not entirely innocent. What we see and what we read into it are immediately inter-linked and entwined. The reference is to a technology that we mostly likely have heard about but which we hardly can claim to being aware of in daily life. This is the algorithm written to be able to recognize and to surveil our movements via facial distinctions and elements. The act of creative veiling, or painting over one’s face with different symbols or geometrical elements has the function of confusing the program, making the information unreliable and untenable.

With these works Heiska’s strategy in dealing with this existing but mostly unseen technology and its vast implications, and well, also complications, is to articulate an image by playfully using the most basic and inexpensive materials. This is not any longer high end of computer programming, this is not all-encompassing view of the society, promising a 365/24/7 and 360 degree security for those who pay, and, well, for to those who are included in it. This is paper, this is charcoal, and this is pastel colors. What’s more, the image, the shape of the face, its shadows and secrets, they are created with a counter-intuitive logic. They are made not by adding up, or increasing the material input, but in and through of taking away. We get to the internal logic of the charcoal and paper technique, not technology, which moves from full premises into the aimed at image by erasing the material, by achieving the picture by wiping away – and here, clearly, then fixing the final up with touches of the pastels, the colors that mean and matter the beautiful, the joyous way.

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So, what do we have, what did we get, gain?

Dancing, dirty type of it, assumingly, and politics, clearly a rather complicated way to address its horizons and possible fusions, and also, not to forget, painting as an act that is seemingly innocent but that has or develops an edge via a desire to surprise, to attract and bring together supposed oppositions, to combine form and content, and to shake the tree but also to feed the tree of, well, not knowledge but how to be in the world, both alone and together.

The dangers are constantly there, and here. We see and sense them, the feelings of alienation, homelessness, the over-powerful dynamics of instrumentalized reason and commodification of the everyday.

The alternatives are never far. We can join in, and dance, dance together, get closer and move apart, and then repeat it all again and again – repeating it forwards, sometimes elegantly, often enough stumbling and mumbling sorrryyy, but nevertheless moving from here to there, from now to then and always back again.

Other options are, of course, also available. You can certainly strive to be a square, static and stale, yes, and try to protect your gained seemingly clear and safe boundaries of expertise, you can rely on the never-ending capacity of profile neurosis, its inevitable narcissistic monumentality, or you can turn yourself into a happy-go-loser tourist, always somewhere but never actually anywhere.

Or: you can put on your tiger suit and show them (and yourself) – show them the moves and the grooves, and invite other tigers, not literal ones, but dressed up to play the part of a tiger, or a panther or a rhino to the dance, to do da dance.

The choice is yours. I don’t know about you, but all I’m hearing is this: come dancing …

Mika Hannula

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