Artists Erkka Nissinen and Nathaniel Mellors will represent Finland at the 57th Venice Biennale, opening in May. As the pair visited Helsinki on a research trip, we sent writer Tom Jeffreys to meet them. Here they discuss film, friendship, and why comedy is such a controversial component of contemporary art.
“I use the Chinese hand technique. It really helps to spin the ball.”
“I just smash it, in a very Anglo-Saxon way.”
Erkka Nissinen and Nathaniel Mellors are discussing ping-pong. This is not exactly what I had in mind. The two artists have been selected to represent Finland at the 57th instalment of the Venice Biennale – one of the biggest events in the contemporary art calendar. We’ve arranged to meet in the hushed elegance of Alvar Aalto’s sunken library, located deep within his extraordinary KELA building in Töölö, Helsinki.
I had selected the location carefully. Aalto also designed the Pavilion of Finland in Venice that, come 2017, will play host to a new work by Nissinen and Mellors. While the KELA building was conceived as a statement of intent from a confident public sector, Aalto’s Venice pavilion was only ever intended to be temporary. Both were completed in 1956, and now on their 60th anniversaries, remain much loved and carefully protected: proud symbols of a certain Finnish heritage.
I had hoped that such architectural surroundings would prompt a discussion about Finnish architecture and design, about the welfare state, and about what national identity means today in a globally connected world. After all, 2017 is Finland’s 100th anniversary as an independent nation, and the artists’ winning proposal – working title: The Aalto Natives – promises to “respond to the complex issue of nationhood and interdependence”. It turns out I was wrong.
With several months still to go before the Biennale opens, Nissinen and Mellors are reluctant to give too much away. It has already been announced, tantalisingly, that their work will transform the pavilion into “an immersive environment through a multimedia installation comprising video, sculpture and a talking egg”. Much more than that, however, remains to be seen. Partly this is because they’re still developing their ideas. Partly it’s also because they’re careful not to lose the element of surprise, an important part of their approach to humour. Few things ruin a joke like having it explained to you – especially before you’ve even heard it.
It was humour that first attracted Nissinen and Mellors to each other’s work. The pair met during their residency at the prestigious Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 2007. “I responded immediately to Erkka’s work,” recalls Mellors. “It really made me laugh. There was something about his sensibility or attitude that I felt an immediate connection with. We have a shared interest in the grotesque and a sense of the absurd.” Since then, the pair has shared ideas, appeared in each other’s work, and exhibited together in exhibitions. But The Aalto Natives, on which they are also working with curator Xander Karskens from De Hallen Haarlem in the Netherlands, is their first joint project together.
Nissinen was born in Aalto’s home town of Jyväskylä but is currently living in New York. He studied at the Slade in London before completing an MFA from the Academy of Fine Arts, Helsinki in 2001. His strange and surreal films have been shown across the world and garnered widespread praise. He won the Illy Prize at the 2011 Rotterdam Art Fair and was awarded the AVEK Prize for media art in 2013.
British-born Mellors, who now lives in Los Angeles, is best known for his drama series Ourhouse. Produced over the past six years, the five-part series takes a familiar television trope – the dysfunctional family – and presents it in a way that is at once recognisable but at the same time bizarre and unsettling. Mellors studied at the Ruskin in Oxford, then the Royal College of Art in London. He won the Cobra Art Prize in 2011 and the Contemporary Art Society annual award in 2014. His work also crosses over into installation, sculpture, music and performance.
Just as their work is absurd, funny, and disorientating, so the process of interviewing the pair is too. Mellors answers my questions head on – with long, well-articulated responses on the history of art, the question of taste, and the academicisation of the art world. Nissinen, meanwhile, prefers to deflect, defer, or otherwise dodge the question. They approach interviews, it seems, like they play ping-pong. Mostly, I think, they just want to make each other laugh.
Me: “How did it feel to find out that your proposal had won?”
Nissinen: “It felt incredible!”
Me: “Do you feel a certain pressure to be representing Finland on the global stage?”
Nissinen: “I’m slightly terrified.”
Nissinen: “I can feel it in my knees. It’s very heavy on my knees.”
If this makes Mellors and Nissinen sound like a pair of jokers, then that is not simply to dismiss them as such. Rather, it is to recognise one of the fundamental shared interests that sets them and their work apart: it is genuinely funny. Not simply as an appreciative smile or an archly raised eyebrow, but in the form of real, spontaneous, physical, laughter. This is important.
For both artists, there is something radical – even revolutionary – about comedy. In a 2013 interview in ArtReview magazine, Mellors said, “I’m very interested in the seriousness of humour and a specific form of not-very-funny funny that can have a destabilising effect on the viewer.” In the library he explains what he means: “Laughter can function as a short-circuiting of the rational. It is a way of processing irrational things – a way to deal with things that are emotionally irrational or existentially irrational.” He cites the etymology of the English word ‘humour’ (humus in Latin relates to the earth, to moisture and to humanity itself, as Homo Sapiens). “Humour has a real, physical value,” he says.
Nissinen agrees: “I’m naturally drawn into comedy,” he says, “to a grotesque humour. It’s a very clear indication if something is working or not. I want people to have some kind of response to my work – if it’s funny then you know it’s doing something.”
The art world, however, is rarely comfortable with comedy. Mellors links this to the professionalisation of the art industry over the second half of the twentieth century. Prior to that, things were very different. “If you go back through the history of European art,” he argues, “humour is embedded in many of the most seminal works, particularly of literature.” He cites Aristophanes, Shakespeare, and Rabelais by way of example.
Today, however, an art industry has emerged that takes itself very seriously indeed. The 2015 Venice Biennale was a case in point: a barrage of politics, activism, and relentless topicality, with scant regard for humour or beauty. “It’s a reflection of an internal insecurity,” says Mellors. Partly, this can be explained by the emergence of art as an academic discipline and a profession. Partly, it is also a response to a mainstream media – in Britain at least – whose art coverage consists only of record-breaking auction results or the latest empty conceptual art stunt. In the face of such public criticism, art closes off from the public. In asserting its own seriousness – over and over again – art leaves itself open to ridicule. Nothing is more ridiculous than the person who fails to realise their own ridiculousness.
Which is why Nissinen and Mellors are a bit different. Mellors has produced work for television (The Seven Ages of Britain Teaser commissioned by the BBC) while Nissinen’s own relationship with the art world remains ambivalent. “It’s great to be embraced by the art world,” he says. “But I hope anyone can find my work funny – whether they think of themselves as an art-lover or not.”
Nissinen’s work is nonetheless surprisingly political. A number of his films see individuals struggling to function in relation to societal norms that they don’t fully understand. The Aalto Natives might do something similar. The project promises to explore different stereotypes of Finnishness and, in Mellors’ words, “ideas of what is and isn’t native”. But it will do so in the strange, tangential, challenging way that is characteristic of Nissinen and Mellors. “We’re interested in making room for some kind of cognitive dissonance, or ridiculousness, or being politically incorrect,” says Mellors. “That’s our shared sensibility.”
Both artists create work that contains elements familiar from film or television, but rendered new, weird, and ever so slightly uncomfortable. In Nissinen’s 2014 film, Material Conditions, Inner Spaces, the characters are broadly recognisable – a wealthy American, his bored wife – but the dialogue is strange and stilted. Throughout, Nissinen sings childish songs in English, with his strong Finnish accent. Over a funky dance beat:
“Got to give some muffin for the space
if you want this space to give muffin back to you-hoo”
“I’m trying to make work that has very defined structure and fully defined characters and so on,” Nissinen explains, “but my total inability to do that renders my works quite strange and fragmented.” I get the impression he’s being disingenuous here: that combination of structure and chaos is not a mark of failure but of success. In a medium like film, that often involves many different people and production processes, retaining a sense of spontaneity – a feeling that anything can happen – is extremely difficult. Mellors’ solution is to plan rigorously before bringing in actors or lighting technicians or cameramen. Nissinen prefers to do as much as he can himself. “It’s very uncomfortable to make videos and film. In a way I’d much rather be a painter,” he laughs.
Exactly how the two artists reconcile these different approaches remains to be seen. “That’s part of what we’re working through at the moment,” says Mellors. “The collaboration is evolving. Ideas come as we chat back and forth – it’s like ping-pong.” Some things are working well; other ideas have had to be abandoned. “I know something isn’t working,” he continues, “when Erkka can’t say anything other than ‘yes’.”
Even if much remains to be decided, what is clear is that whatever Mellors and Nissinen end up producing it will be weird and it will be funny. It will be about Finland and it will contain a talking egg. Fingers crossed for some ping-pong, and let’s hope the artists’ knees can take the strain.
The 57th Venice Biennale, 13 May – 26 November 2017
Photos: Veera Konsti