When asked what he thought of Robert De Niro’s work, I recall Sean Penn responded with something like, “I don’t particularly respond to the aesthetics of ballet, but when I go to the ballet, I can be deeply moved by the work that went into it.”
That line came to mind while I was moving through the Tampere Art Museum’s two-floor pillow fort & other soft things exhibition: the titular soldered steel and aluminum “Pillow Fort”; the life-sized aluminum mattress doubled over like a potato chip; the “Bottomless” aluminum balcony installed halfway up a wall—these works are composed with a clarity so diligent they’re liable to move you even if they don’t speak to you.
Preceded by two solo exhibitions, twelve group exhibitions, two dozen grants and awards, and both a BFA and MFA from the Sculpture Department of the University of Helsinki, the “carefully crafted mechanical, large-scale metal sculptures and other multisensory works” comprising this exhibition were conceived and created by The Young Artist of the Year 2023 (bestowed by the Youth Chamber of Commerce of Tampere, Finland), Eetu Huhtala. At scarcely thirty years old, Huhtala has proven a sophisticated command of material efficiency at the nexus of all the big (forgive me) post-modern themes—frustration, alienation, and impotence vis-à-vis ceaselessly absurd industrial momentum. But the genius of the work is its tragicomedy.
Consider “Bound,” a mechanized tetherball pole turning clockwise, then, eventually, counterclockwise, then clockwise again, on and on, drawing the rubber ball fixed to the end of its rope in absurdly morose play with itself; or “Indecisive,” a balloon propped between escalator handrails beside an “EMERGENCY STOP! Use only in emergency / to halt the work” sign; or, perhaps Huhtala’s apogean effort, “Unable,” the meticulously ineffectual hoist made in 2021, comprised of steel, a chain hoist, a plastic bag, a stepper motor, and electronics, and featured in the video clip below.
There’s a touch of the comedian afoot here, a wintry Finnish sense of humour motivated not by frivolity, it seems to me, but sympathy: by means of a remarkably compassionate investment of energy and discipline—I’m thinking here of the repetitive labour of soldering required of Pillow Fort, no different in kind from the hundreds of thousands of careful pirouettes which precede any principal’s performance of Swan Lake (and similarly shaped)—it seems to me that Huhtala has joined modern humanity in our iterative industrialism in solidarity: a pillow fort & other soft things is comprised of meaningfully futile portraits of meaningless futility.
And so too it is with ballet: one trains one’s body to leap only to return to the earth; yet it’s said that Nijinsky, already retired from the professional stage by 30 years old, induced in his audiences a belief that gravity, for a moment, didn’t apply—or that, at his next defiant leap, perhaps it wouldn’t. So too it is with the comedian in defiance of the weight of our lives—and with this admirably humane exhibition from The Young Artist of the Year 2023, Eetu Huhtala.