Exploring office norms and light through art

Another beautiful winter’s day, I decide to visit Ann Veronica Janssens ‘My main material is light’ exhibition at the Kiasma Modern Art Museum in Helsinki. I had been meaning to go and now it was due to close in two days. I jump on my bike, but take it easy as it’s hard work pedalling through the snow and I keep skidding on the ice (no winter tyres). I get to the city centre in about 25 minutes.

Out of three exhibitions at Kiasma that day, I choose to visit Janssens as well as ‘Second Shift’ by Pilvi Takala, a young Finnsh artist. I start with Takala. Her work examines societal norms and expectations, and what happens when you break them. A number of videos show experiments where the artist challenges workplace behaviour. In one she stands in a lift all day going up and down as people enter and exit the lift. Most people ask her which floor she’s going to, noticing that she hasn’t pressed any button. She says that she isn’t going anywhere, she’s just riding the lift in order to think better. Some people find it funny, others find it weird, but most people will say something like oh, interesting, great, okay… with a slightly puzzled look on their face. But after a while there’s a few who send emails to human resources or someone in authority informing them of this person who just keeps going up and down in the lift all day, and asking for her to be removed from the lift as this really isn’t normal behaviour and she makes them feel uncomfortable.

In another experiment the artist walks up and down the corridors of a shared work space touching people on the arm as they pass, asking them how they are feeling today. This is much worse than the lift experiment, as here she clearly invades people’s personal space as most workers are visibly uncomfortable. It’s interesting to see people’s reactions, I laugh, I recognise myself – would definitely not want to be touched by a stranger like that. Again, after a while people start sending emails to the direction asking who this person is and suggesting that she be removed as they don’t like it. Yet nobody ever said anything to her face, they would either look puzzled, take a sidestep to avoid her touch, just keep walking letting her touch their shoulder, smile, even ask her if they knew each other or if she was new, what she did – and to the latter question she just said that she was part of an office welfare programme, to make workers feel better by physical touch.

Nothing new here really, we know that we all need some personal space, some more than others, we know that we’re pretty much all bound by societal norms and expectations. Yet it was refreshing – and quite entertaining – to have it all spelt out so visually! Fascinating to watch how the feeling of discomfort caused by one and the same situation translates into so many different reactions depending on the person affected: surprise, nervousness, embarrassment, annoyance, fear, dread.

Time to move on. A great contrast to the slightly disturbed atmosphere in Pilvi Takala’s experiments, Ann Veronica Janssens installations are characterised by a feeling of brightness. She works with space, colours, light, air, fog, dust… Watching her installations makes me feel happy, weightless and lightheaded. I get to the room with her famous bikes, there they are, three shiny aluminium bikes, in a vast room, empty apart from the bikes, a large painting on the back wall and a couple of mirrors placed on the floor next to a long empty wall. The room is airy and light, thanks to a row of large skylights. Light also seeps in from a huge floor-to-ceiling window in the neighbouring room which is only partially separated from this one.

There’s nobody in the room, apart from the museum security person. I look at the bikes. I look across the room. Shall I? Hmm, the bikes look weird, with compact wheels, and very low seats. The floor looks very slippery, what if I keel over and fall when cycling? That would be embarrassing. No, silly, when did you ever fall off a bike?! Well yes, but I don’t think I ever used a bike indoors before, on a smooth floor! Ok, just get on the bike, it’ll be fun. Right, so on I get. And cycle around, and around, and around. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s liberating. I look at the painting at the end of the room, how it changes as I zigzag towards it, right left, right left, closer and closer, until I whizz passed right in front of it. It’s true that the space, the distance, the angle, the light, even the speed, all make a difference when looking at a piece of art.

Other people have arrived while I’ve been whizzing around the room on the bike, the two other bikes are also being used now, some people look longingly at us cyclists. Alright, I’ve had my go, time to let someone else try it out. I get off, hand the bike over to another museum goer, they look a bit apprehensive, but as soon as they pedal off a huge smile lights up their face. They feel it too, the liberation!

All in all a worthwhile visit to two completely different but both very interesting exhibitions by Pilvi Takala and Ann Veronica Janssens, both previously unfamiliar artists to me.

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