art: our land at the cable factory

Maamme (Our Land), Minna Rainio and Mark Roberts. Finnish Museum of Photography, Cable Factory, Helsinki

Musically, the Finnish national anthem is easy to sing except for the devilish first line, which sounds as if it combines two wrong-way key changes with a series of jumps to rival “The Star Spangled Banner.” It made no sense until I got the music and saw how manageable the intervals really are.

Socially, national anthem singing is a constrained interpersonal act involving politeness, and this is brought into relief by the immigrant participants in the video installation Maamme. A thin white man with black hair and a striped shirt swallows, raises his eyes above the camera, and starts to sing, accompanied by an offscreen piano. After a few lines he is joined on a second life-sized screen by a black man with wire-framed glasses and then more people are added until there is a rotating series of a dozen singers on six screens, united, we are told, by their status as naturalized citizens. They embody a broad range of phenotypes (excluding east Asian), and all are of working age.

The configuration is not random. For much of the three-minute loop, four singers dominate: two tenors, a soprano, and a bass, providing a full-sounding arrangement. The second tenor, a man whose blue-grey shirt matches his eyes, produces an operatic sound without apparent effort, leaving his face free for acting expressions while others grimace to hit the high notes or remember the words. The soprano, an equally confident young black woman with a sweet voice, wrinkles her forehead slightly on “ei vettä, rantaa rakkaampaa” (no water or shore is more beloved) and “maa kallis isien” (land of our dear fathers), two of the more problematic lines for newcomers. She wears a shawl that is almost but not quite the Marimekko grey poppy print and gold ball earrings that are almost but not quite the model from Finnish ethno jeweler Kalevala Koru. She can’t repress a smile after finishing the Swedish verses.

The general effect however is rigid, with the singers isolated from each other in life-sized portrait frames rather than embracing in “We Are the World” communitas. The trending look for the men is striped or checked shirts with suit jackets, and they stay stiffly at attention when they finish. Except for the black soprano, the women are self-conscious, reluctant to meet the camera’s eye. A blonde in a blue shirt decorated with newspaper headlines looks as if she’s trying to figure out what the assignment really is. A long-haired woman in a black lace top loses the words and mitigates her confusion with a broad smile at the end. The one casually dressed man (wearing a red sweatshirt – for Puma, not Angry Birds – and woollen Rasta cap) grins throughout as if it’s all a huge goof. Perhaps this is a necessary stage of modern nationhood but it’s disappointing that seeing naturalized Finns sing the country’s anthem is still considered radical enough to count as art.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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