The Dimensions of Human Nature and Spaces

The Turppi Group was intrigued by rituals and ritualistic spaces. They combined land art with performative corporeal presence. The Group constructed experimental spaces where the shape and dimensions were reminiscent of the human body and its range of movement. The fundamental element of the work is the natural environment in its role as both the source of spiritual wellbeing, and as the central principle of what it means to be human. For their part, the works of the Turppi Group tie into the long historical traditions of myth and ritual.

“A partial tenet seems to be the age old rubric of seeing the whole world in a single grain of sand” Markku Valkonen, Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, 1982

The Turppi Group was born and flourished for a brief time in the early 1980s, during a fruitful period of transition in Finnish art. At the time, new art forms such as performance, video, photography and installations were only just arriving in Finland – a decade after the Central European art capitals of Berlin and Paris had embraced them. Many Finnish critics and established artists saw these new artistic phenomena as nothing more than a phase. This categorised the activities and works by the Turppi Group as extremely marginal in the Finnish art scene.

“Overall this Turppi kind of activity is indicative of the art of the future. Even art has this peculiar tendency to isolate and limit itself to the struggles associated with an image of the lonely artist, locked away in their studio. Just as is the case in other expert fields, everyone recoils at anything remotely ‘amateur’, dismissing it as childish whim.”
Erkki Pirtola, Taide-lehti art magazine, issue no. 5/1982

Ritual and the Sandpit

The Turppi Group was founded in the summer of 1982 in Lehtimäki, at a Nordic sculpture symposium entitled Experimental Environment III. A group of students from the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts – Marikki Hakola, Lea Kantonen, Jarmo Vellonen – and theatre critic Pekka Kantonen, were invited to take part in the symposium. There the young artists formed the Turppi Group, which would go on to create environmental art, land art, installations, performances, photography and video art works.

In Lehtimäki, the Turppi Group realised several land art works on a large abandoned area which had been formed by sandpits. The content of the art works was influenced by the radical change in scenery, which had been caused by the now ceased industrial activity in that area. During the symposium, the activities of the artists provoked a convergence: the abandoned, forested industrial site was transformed into an environmental art work park, where these oeuvres and the surrounding nature lived harmoniously.

The Turppi group chose a peaceful pine grove growing around the edges of the sand pits as the location for their work “Resting Place”. The piece tied together the Turppi Group’s interests in performativity, the environment and nature-based mythology. Stones that had eroded into smooth slabs during the Ice Age were tied to hemp ropes and hung from the branches of the tall pine trees. The stones swung in the wind, forming a countermovement to the swaying of the pine trees. Large barrels were dug into the ground around the grove and subsequently filled with water. The barrels created small waterhole-like mirrors, which reflected the movements of the stones and pines. This communicative manifestation of movement inspired and formed the basis of the “Resting Place” performance, where human nature provides a commentary on the movements of the forest, embodies it and reacts to its occurrences.

The passing of time and applying a time-based dramaturgical approach became the central traits in the work of the Turppi Group. However, this interest in performativity did not in a sense mean the group created public performances. Works were brought to audiences mostly through forms of documentation.

Photography was the primary form of documentation favoured by the Turppi Group. They captured the performances and land art works realised at Lehtimäki through several photographic series, such as “Ant Queen”, as well as “The Making of ‘Resting Place’”.

Lehtimäki also marked the first time the Turppi Group had video equipment at their disposal. Through video it was simpler to highlight the dimension of time within their performances than it was with photographs. Shot at the Lehtimäki symposium, “Earth Contacts” (1982, 23 mins.)  was the first video by the Turppi Group and was also the first Finnish video performance art work. The oeuvre was created by combining several visual and performative elements the group had developed during the symposium: the sculptural and spatial details of “Resting Place”, as well as the improvised movements of “Ant Queen” and “Resting Place”. “Earth Contacts” was edited in the Film Department’s editing suite at the University of Art and Design, under the tutelage of Kyösti Mankamo. Through the use of montage in the editing process, the different visual components were formed into a dramaturgical whole.

The video work “Earth Contacts”, land art work “Resting Place” and other works created and documented through photographs at the sandpit, underline the philosophical ethos behind the artistic activities of the Turppi Group. During their time at Lehtimäki, the members of the Turppi Group were especially interested in how human nature could become part of the materiality and movements of the natural forest environment. They combined the sensory experiences of moving in the forest with ritualistic activity, performativity and the temporal process of making art.

Extracts from discussions about the Turppi Group, spring 1983:

– The artist shouldn’t be the one who exhibits their own products, held up for judgement by others. No, art is a language, a means of expression. And the audience – instead of conversing amongst themselves about whether something was good or bad, whether it had a new or a worn aesthetic, now did they use video or was it film, was it too commercial, are we certain that was really art or was it something else. What if we just let go, and allowed ourselves to think for a moment about what it is giving me, and what it liberates within myself.

– Art is just another language, and the artist is no more of a saint than anyone else who speaks any language, it’s just our way of expressing ourselves.

Intermediate Space

The forming of the Turppi Group was preceded by the installation and performance “Intermediate Space”, which was designed Marikki Hakola and Lea Kantonen. The installation consisted of a dark space (approx. 20m2), lit only by a UV light. The floor of the room was slanted and the walls were black and white stripes. The performers moved around the space for five days, and painted the walls with black and white paint using their hands and bodies. The soundscape was formed by improvised songs and percussion rhythms. A rope was hung from the ceiling, and the performers would climb up it from time to time. Gradually, the black and white walls were covered with body tracks.

At the same time “Intermediate Space” was being exhibited in the sand covered cellar floor of the Ateneum Art Museum, Jarmo Vellonen’s installation was also there on display. That was comprised of a crater and water basin which had been dug into the sand, with a rock dangling above it. The quiet space was lit with candles. The audience was only allowed in one at a time to experience the piece and crawl through the sand.

Marikki Hakola and Lea Kantonen:

“‘Intermediate Space’ is not a completed art work. It changes in the presence of and according to the viewer. Its makers and spectators are part of the work. It is futile to try and categorise what kind of art “Intermediate Space” belongs under. It is a process between human and space.”

An Urban Line of Death

The Turppi Group continued to be active after the Lehtimäki symposium. Group members Markki Hakola and Lea Kantonen had studios in Katajanokka in Helsinki, in a dilapidated Sea Barracks building from the days of Imperial Russia. The Barracks spaces functioned as workrooms for painting students at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts. In the autumn of 1983, the Academy ceased to hold classes at the Marine Barracks. This allowed students even more extensive use of the studios.

The Marine Barracks served as the filming location for the Turppi Group’s next video. The video work “Deadline” (1983, 17 min.) was filmed in the old execution yard, and “Greenhouse” the Turppi Group constructed within the interiors of the Marine Barracks. At the time, material was also shot at the construction site of the Forum Shopping Centre in central Helsinki. During filming Martti Kukkonen also joined the Turppi Group, and he can be seen in the execution yard scene in the “Deadline” video.

The idea for “Deadline” came about from the feelings that arise when old buildings are called to demolition. The Marine Barracks were also threatened to be partially demolished. For the members of the Turppi Group, this meant a soon approaching eviction from the precious workrooms that had come to be important spaces for artistic pursuits.

The relationship to the Barracks was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the demolition and its impending sense of loss caused worry, but on the other hand the call for demolition meant the spaces were totally open to use of any kind, and it was possible to incorporate the space into the artistic process.

The realisation of “Deadline” was influenced by the tone of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. The Marine Barracks were a similar kind of area to Stalker’s “Zone”, a place caught between two historical eras – one which still feels present, and another which feels like it is only beginning. The artistic work that took place between these two worlds resulted in a particularly spiritual space, a no man’s land where the unearthly, internal elements of “Deadline” were founded.

At the Marine Barracks the Turppi Group constructed the “Greenhouse” installation, which literally grew all the way from the ceiling to the floor. Earth materials such as stones, gravel and soil were brought into the space. Wheat and herbaceous plants were sown within the space, and moss was planted. Sand and soil were glued to the walls in order to act as a growth medium for grass. Cloths where grass was sprouted were also draped along the walls. “Greenhouse” created a small, peaceful island in the middle of an urban culture.

The idea of bringing nature in its growing bloom into a derelict urban dwelling is evocative of the land art work “Resting Place” created at Lehtimäki. The subject in both works is the tension between man’s propensity for the destruction of the natural environment, and the idea of nature itself and everything to do with organic growth.

The video work “Deadline” juxtaposes the development of modern commercial spaces with the violence and oppression associated with colonialism. The rabid demolition that preceded the construction of commercial shopping complexes in the centre of Helsinki and the partial demolition of the late 18th-century Barracks ridded the city of old, dilapidated buildings and overgrown urban wastelands. But at the same time it also destroyed memories and the historical remnants of a bygone habitat and way of life, the signs of an era departed. “Deadline” contrasts the renewing powers of nature with the endless ideological growth symbolised by the urban environment. In the end, the black line is not drawn between life and death, but instead between two opposing worldviews.

The Turppi Group disbanded when the interests of its members shifted in different directions after the end of their studies. Lea and Pekka Kantonen headed towards Mexico, where they would go on for a number of years to work in communal art and documenting the rituals of indigenous populations. Jarmo Vellonen focused on sculpting and Martti Kukkonen on painting. Marikki Hakola moved on entirely to video art, combining audio visual with performativity in her later works. But numerous conceptual, philosophical and aesthetic influences created and developed during the Turppi Group era can still be found in the current art work of each and every one of its former members.

Text © Turppi 2016
26 May, 2010 – Written by Marikki Hakola and Lea Kantonen.
11 April, 2016 – Checked and appended by Marikki Hakola, Lea Kantonen, Pekka Kantonen and Jarmo Vellonen.
Includes extracts from Lea Kantonen’s journals.