I have for a long time held that art is today much more political than in the supposedly political 1970s. Few contemporary artists have styled themselves as political, and even fewer have linked their work with the party-political hanky-panky of yesteryear. And why should they?
'The personal is political' declared the feminists as early as the 1980s, but the slightly banal truism left me cold. I had almost forgotten the slogan when I saw Laura Lilja's exhibition With Conviction at the Cable Factory in Helsinki in late 2008. It was truly about art and personal political choices: in her works Lilja portrayed the choices of her three brothers - one total objector and two conscientious objectors - in the matter of conscription.
It was not long before I came across Lilja again, in her exhibition Heroes in the Muu Gallery in spring 2009. Instead of family members the persons she presented now were anonymous. Old academic plaster casts had all been dressed in the black balaclavas of anarchists. Lilja's point was not just to elevate the hooded heroes of our age, but to pose a historical question stemming from her interest in power: Which sculptures have been chosen as plaster casts for copying, and why?
Along with the hooded sculptures, this middle-aged and sedentary art critic learned a new term: black bloc, which denotes that part of a demonstration that is dressed up in black helmets, hoods and ski masks.
JAnd did I not spot that summer yet another Lilja's piece in a group show: her video Res publica in which she took plaster casts of the name signs of Finnish ministries while dodging the police and security guards. There was also humour in the work that prevented the politics of a basically harmless intervention by an activist from turning into the kind of naive or gestural politics with which contemporary art is sometimes afflicted today.
But how is it possible that a middle-aged heterosexual art critic can identify at least to some extent with the problematics of a lesbian and feminist activist-artist nearly twenty years his junior? Of course I try to resist her ideas about the hegemony of heteronormativity in places like our own art world, because I cannot recognise - or at least I won't admit to - being guilty of it myself. But I do have sympathy for her views. Perhaps it is because I have to consider things from my own viewpoint, and then of course on a broader front. Another reason is that I believe I have finally encountered in Lilja's work that dialectic change - development through thesis, antithesis and synthesis we were told about in the 1970s - which our political art has stood in need for quite some time. I think that, together with Lilja, I believe and hope that that development will at least in some part be positive - for us both and then to everyone.
(Laura Lilja - Grow Up and Get a Life (Young Visual Artist in Satakunta 2009), Lönnström Art Museum, Rauma, Finland, 2009.)