The Most Intellectual Audience

Evening Chimes thumbnail
The Final Sign in This Time thumbnail
Up, Up, and Away thumbnail
At Grass Root Level thumbnail
Evening Chimes
The Final Sign in This Time
Up, Up, and Away
At Grass Root Level

Tar­ja Pitkä­nen-Wal­ter, Evening Chimes, 2005. Instal­la­tion: rub­ber-plas­tic paint­ing, spade, stuffed dog, sound. Image cour­tesy of Jus­si Vatanen.

Min­na Havukainen, The Final Sign in This Time, 2009. Video pro­jec­tion: cre­ma­to­ri­um smoke. Image cour­tesy of the Rau­ma Art Museum.

Atte Uoti­la, Up, Up, and Away, 2008. Instal­la­tion: wood, mir­ror, video cam­era, com­put­er, mon­i­tor. Image cour­tesy of the Rau­ma Art Museum.

Atte Uoti­la, At Grass Root Lev­el, 2007. Instal­la­tion: wood, grass, soil, grav­el. Image cour­tesy of the Rau­ma Art Museum.

While liv­ing in the town of Rau­ma, Fin­land last fall, I had the good for­tune of meet­ing some amaz­ing neigh­bours. Cura­tor Hen­na Paunu and her hus­band, artist Paa­vo Paunu, live with their three daugh­ters in an old house next to the Baltic Sea. For the past 11 years, Hen­na has curat­ed con­tem­po­rary art exhi­bi­tions for chil­dren such as “I Would Like to Be a Dog” (2007), fea­tur­ing dog-relat­ed art works; “Real­ly Neat” (2008), with a theme about clean­ing, hygiene and envi­ron­men­tal issues; “My Home is My Cas­tle” (2010), explor­ing a vari­ety of ideas about home; and “The Mid­dle of Nowhere” (2011), which explored ideas of empti­ness, eter­ni­ty, wilder­ness, forests and death.

In curat­ing the work of con­tem­po­rary Finnish artists for audi­ences of chil­dren and young peo­ple, Henna’s work pro­pos­es new oppor­tu­ni­ties for mean­ing mak­ing along with sig­nif­i­cant rup­tures of art world hier­ar­chies. Her exhi­bi­tions recon­sid­er the con­sti­tu­tion of “devel­oped” and “com­pe­tent” art audi­ences, and “pro­vide anoth­er onto­log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty”[1] for the ways in which con­tem­po­rary art exhi­bi­tions are con­ceived and received. Not only does her work offer out­stand­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for the chil­dren of Rau­ma, it also imag­ines an expand­ed prac­tice for adult artists and curators.

Han­nah Jick­ling: I’d love to hear a lit­tle bit about how you first came to curate con­tem­po­rary art exhi­bi­tions for chil­dren. In your opin­ion, what was lack­ing in exist­ing kids’ exhi­bi­tions? Is it pos­si­ble that in curat­ing these shows you were also respond­ing to a miss­ing ele­ment in con­tem­po­rary art exhi­bi­tions that typ­i­cal­ly tar­get adult audiences? 

Hen­na Paunu: I start­ed cre­at­ing these exhi­bi­tions because there was this tra­di­tion at the Rau­ma Art Muse­um, a once-a-year exhi­bi­tion for chil­dren. It was a start­ing point and I had this job to do. My per­son­al inter­est was in con­tem­po­rary art, so I tried to com­bine these two things – chil­dren’s exhi­bi­tions and con­tem­po­rary art. When I am mak­ing art exhi­bi­tions for chil­dren, I feel like I have a cer­tain respon­si­bil­i­ty; I have to answer to their expec­ta­tions. I feel there must be some­thing joy­ful or excit­ing or inter­ac­tive because the joy­ful ele­ment is quite often miss­ing. I try to com­bine seri­ous con­tent with fun.

In pre­vi­ous con­ver­sa­tions you’ve talked about what is typ­i­cal­ly expect­ed of children’s exhi­bi­tions in that they are often cen­tered around fairy tales, ted­dy bears and oth­er pre­dictable ideas about children’s cul­ture. So in terms of expec­ta­tions and respon­si­bil­i­ties, do you feel you need to remake oth­er ways, oth­er pos­si­bil­i­ties for devel­op­ing children’s exhibitions? 

I am less con­cerned with past exhi­bi­tion prac­tices, and more con­cerned about a respon­si­bil­i­ty to the chil­dren when they come to the muse­um. I don’t want them to be dis­ap­point­ed, I want them to have a real expe­ri­ence of some­thing. I want them to be curi­ous and to get some­thing for that curios­i­ty. That’s the respon­si­bil­i­ty I feel toward chil­dren, I get ner­vous about how they will react. Actu­al­ly, it is very nice to feel respon­si­ble to chil­dren and not to crit­ics, or art specialists.

How do chil­dren relate to your shows? What have you noticed in them and their expe­ri­ence of the muse­um? And what have you learned in terms of your own devel­op­ment as a curator? 

I think they have been suc­cess­ful for the most part. There have been some prob­lems also, but I think that for the most part the exhi­bi­tions have been suc­cess­ful and the chil­dren want to come again. That is the best feed­back to get, if a child wants to come back. In gen­er­al chil­dren are a good audi­ence because they are, by nature, very curi­ous and inter­est­ed in new kinds of things. I think the main thing is that curat­ing hap­pens in some sort of unknown area, so my choic­es come from an uncon­scious place. I work from what I feel and can­not ana­lyze every­thing. I try to under­stand what could be inter­est­ing for chil­dren; I trust my feel­ings and my sens­es. So of course there is some sort of knowl­edge about what could work, or what could be suit­able. I think that I feel more relaxed when I am curat­ing for chil­dren; some­how I know them bet­ter as an audi­ence. It is impor­tant for me to think about the audi­ence and how it works.

It seems impor­tant to you that the artists whose work you curate are mak­ing their work as usu­al, not know­ing that it will be in a show that’s tar­get­ed for chil­dren and young peo­ple. Could you talk about that a lit­tle more? 

It is pos­si­ble for an artist to make work specif­i­cal­ly for chil­dren, but it is also pos­si­ble for an artist to make work to be curat­ed for chil­dren that doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly tar­get only chil­dren. It does­n’t have to be “chil­dren’s music,” or “chil­dren’s art,” mean­ing objects cre­at­ed for a par­tic­u­lar under­stand­ing of what or who a child is. It is a very impor­tant part of edu­ca­tion for chil­dren to enjoy art and go clos­er to the art world. Some­times when an artist makes some­thing for chil­dren it can work very well, but some­times I think it los­es some­thing; it los­es the artist’s orig­i­nal way of working.

And do you think that is because there can be some sort of prej­u­dice on the part of artists, in terms of what they assume kids can accept as capa­ble viewers?

Work that is made for chil­dren is often some­thing that tries to be a lit­tle bit too easy. It is very impor­tant to always have some sort of mys­ti­cal ele­ment, a work that can­not be explained well. Allow­ing for the pos­si­bil­i­ty to inte­grate an artist’s work in dif­fer­ent ways should be avail­able to children.

You mean allow­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties for com­plex interpretations? 

Yes, and maybe because I’m mak­ing and curat­ing very much from my own inten­tions I try to medi­ate the same kind of art­works that I have expe­ri­enced myself, for chil­dren. That’s also why I am often choos­ing exist­ing works and not com­mis­sion­ing new works from artists.

Well this makes me want to go back to an ear­li­er ques­tion. I want to know how the expe­ri­ence of curat­ing for kids has affect­ed your cura­to­r­i­al devel­op­ment in general? 

I think I can be more brave with my exper­i­ments, more so than with oth­er exhi­bi­tions. I am able to exper­i­ment with how to install things and make dif­fer­ent kinds of spaces. See­ing how audi­ences react with­in these exper­i­ments has giv­en me more con­fi­dence and knowl­edge. I have also noticed that those things that work with chil­dren are often the same things that work with adults and so I have been able to try things out with oth­er exhi­bi­tions that weren’t ini­tial­ly for a spe­cial audi­ence. But maybe the main thing is that I’ve devel­oped self-con­fi­dence. I know that some­body is appre­ci­at­ing my work. So it’s like a very strange rela­tion with chil­dren, you get the feed­back imme­di­ate­ly. And you can see in the art world there are so many dif­fer­ent kinds of truths – what is good and who is inter­est­ed in what. It is a very unsta­ble sit­u­a­tion from which to work, as an artist and as a cura­tor also. So for me it has been very impor­tant to get that feed­back for my work, on the lev­el that I have received it from children.

I have been think­ing a lot about kids as view­ers and expe­ri­encers of con­cep­tu­al art. It seems to me that the idea-based focus sur­round­ing con­cep­tu­al works real­ly lends itself to chil­dren. As view­ers, an imme­di­ate engage­ment with ideas allows them to by-pass the kinds of for­mal train­ing that artists get in art school. Some­times, they have an abil­i­ty to “get it” in unex­pect­ed ways. Chil­dren often don’t have a sense of lim­its in the ways that adults do. Could you give an exam­ple, from your own work, about why kids are unique­ly sit­u­at­ed as receivers or pro­duc­ers of con­cep­tu­al art? 

Chil­dren are not typ­i­cal­ly inter­est­ed in hier­ar­chi­cal things in the art world. There could be a local artist who has not made any kind of career in the art world or who is not inter­na­tion­al­ly known, and for chil­dren, that does­n’t mean any­thing. So, to answer your pre­vi­ous ques­tion, it relates to the kind of exper­i­ments I have been able to make. Chil­dren don’t nor­mal­ly care so much about the sta­tus of the artist, they can be real­ly open to every­thing and there­fore there is a kind of free­dom in the exhi­bi­tions I am able to make. One show that I curat­ed was in Berlin[2] and because we got mon­ey from some­one who sup­ports numer­ous artist exhi­bi­tions abroad, I real­ized I had to con­sid­er a kind of sta­tus lev­el, in all the artists that I was show­ing. In the dif­fer­ent shows that I curate, there is an under­stand­ing of what and who is pos­si­ble. I like to bend these kinds of rules. Some­times it is very nice to work with­out wor­ry­ing about the sta­tus of the artist or the institution.

The rea­son that I am inter­est­ed in this aspect of your work is because these ques­tions relate to my own work as an artist who col­lab­o­rates with kids. There is a pre­vail­ing, and very con­ser­v­a­tive sense, amongst many art edu­cat­ed adults, that in order to par­tic­i­pate in art mak­ing, and the con­ver­sa­tions that sur­round it, you have to have had some kind of train­ing or that you have to have fol­lowed some sort of “devel­op­ment” that is actu­al­ly very lin­ear and pre­scrip­tive. While I val­ue edu­ca­tion and prac­tice, I won­der if this sense of pro­gres­sion or can­on­iza­tion hap­pens at the expense of insights we could be gain­ing from kids, and oth­er mar­gin­al­ized voic­es for that mat­ter. And this is where I come back to the pos­si­bil­i­ties with­in con­cep­tu­al art, because it allows for trans­gres­sions of the learned rules. So in my mind, I am inter­est­ed in think­ing about an expand­ed sense of con­cep­tu­al art. I am won­der­ing if you could pro­vide exam­ples, from your own work, about why cer­tain idea-based, process-based and research-ori­ent­ed art prac­tices are well sit­u­at­ed to kids? 

I think it is that, because with con­cep­tu­al art­works, there is some sort of idea behind the work and that idea can be talked about. Those dis­cus­sions with chil­dren about ideas can very often be relat­ed to every­day life, and you can talk about chil­dren’s lives at the same time as the art. It can be eas­i­er with young chil­dren because they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have that kind of idea or ques­tion of, “Is this real­ly art?” Or, “Is the sham­poo bot­tle art?” Or, “Is a hang­ing t‑shirt art?” As they get old­er they learn these dis­tinc­tions and clas­si­fi­ca­tions. When they are young they are often more inter­est­ed in the sto­ry and they don’t always have to know the skill behind the artwork.

I also want­ed to touch on some­thing we talked about before: how art is often able to raise dif­fi­cult and uncom­fort­able sub­jects. Can you give exam­ples of suc­cess­es or chal­lenges you’ve had while broach­ing dif­fi­cult art­works and issues with kids?

So maybe the most dif­fi­cult thing has been death; it is an issue that inter­ests chil­dren very much. In one exhi­bi­tion we had pic­tures of dead peo­ple.[3] They had died total­ly nat­u­ral­ly. They were very old and lying peace­ful­ly. But many adults were afraid of how chil­dren might react to those pho­tos. But I think almost all the chil­dren who saw the images were real­ly inter­est­ed. They asked ques­tions about how the peo­ple looked, how they were dressed and whether they were still grow­ing – that kind of thing. They were real­ly study­ing the images and want­ed to hear about why the artist had tak­en those pho­tos. We dis­cussed all of these things includ­ing the fact that these pho­tos had been tak­en in coop­er­a­tion with the peo­ples’ rel­a­tives, that it is nat­ur­al and the peo­ple were very old and that those rel­a­tives loved them and were tak­ing care of the last things before bury­ing them. But maybe more dif­fi­cult was the exhi­bi­tion with a stuffed dog? Is that it?

Oh, you mean taxidermy? 

Yeah, and for the chil­dren that was more shock­ing. They real­ly need­ed the expla­na­tion about why there was a dog in the art­work. How­ev­er, we told them the sto­ry about how the dog had died. The artist hadn’t been able to put it in a grave because it was win­ter and she could­n’t dig the earth, so she put it in her ice­box. And then the next spring she start­ed to plan the art­work in which she could have her dog taxi­der­mied[4]. Those kinds of heavy and emo­tion­al things are need­ed with chil­dren because they start to think and ask questions.

I hope you don’t mind if I make a leap to a pre­vi­ous con­ver­sa­tion in which you men­tioned that kids are the most intel­lec­tu­al audi­ence. Could you talk about that a lit­tle more?

I think my idea of what it means to be intel­lec­tu­al is relat­ed to curios­i­ty, and in being able to see things in dif­fer­ent con­texts. Chil­dren can do that in a very cre­ative way, their pres­ence is quite strong. In my opin­ion, being intel­lec­tu­al relates to being awake. Of course all chil­dren are dif­fer­ent, but most­ly they are curi­ous and real­ly want to learn new things and not hide from them. And that’s my idea of intel­lec­tu­al­i­ty, and maybe that is a dif­fer­ent kind of intel­lec­tu­al­i­ty, an intel­lec­tu­al­i­ty of life.

Is there some­thing that kids enable in us that we can’t access in oth­er ways of work­ing? How could work­ing with chil­dren change a con­tem­po­rary art cli­mate, if we were to think big? 

I have this idea for an art book where the art­works in the book are pre­sent­ed by chil­dren. Artists some­times want to have very seri­ous researchers or cura­tors writ­ing about their work as a way to give it val­ue. But it could be a total­ly dif­fer­ent kind of idea, that the chil­dren are the ones giv­ing val­ue to new con­cep­tu­al art works. So maybe that should be done, to work with and to try to find those kinds of very cre­ative atti­tudes from chil­dren in order to made a seri­ous art book.

I always think about this artist I know, Wendy Red Star, who taught sculp­ture class­es at Port­land State Uni­ver­si­ty. She was telling me that for one of her assign­ments, she had a child come in to cri­tique the stu­dents’ work. 

I think it is very refresh­ing. Because so much of exist­ing art dis­course focus­es on sub­jects and objects, it is some­times good to have an outsider’s opin­ion to present ideas in a fresh way. Because many peo­ple are out­siders when look­ing at art.

I want to keep think­ing about how to con­tin­ue look­ing at the out­siders as actu­al insid­ers. As part of the con­fer­ence “It’s All Medi­at­ing,”[5] which was held in Helsin­ki ear­li­er this year, you spoke about “work­ing with future,” could you talk about that a lit­tle bit? 

Mak­ing exhi­bi­tions for chil­dren in this kind of provin­cial art muse­um is a way of cre­at­ing adult audi­ences for the future. Today the muse­um is try­ing to cre­ate rela­tion­ships that will last as long as pos­si­ble so that there is some sort of effect in their future. It’s the same thing as tak­ing care of art edu­ca­tion and also build­ing a new audi­ence for the future. That’s why chil­dren are the most impor­tant audi­ence for us, we want them to get used to vis­it­ing the muse­um over a lifetime.

You’ve talked about kids com­ing back to the muse­um after a school vis­it to bring their friends or their par­ents. And I love the idea that in many ways, con­tem­po­rary art exhi­bi­tions are arriv­ing in Rau­ma by way of the chil­dren. Could you talk about one of those instances that was reward­ing for you? 

So there are lots of sit­u­a­tions where chil­dren want to come again. They have fol­lowed the guid­ed tour where there is some­body there to help keep the dis­cus­sion going around the works. And the chil­dren invite their friends after they’ve vis­it­ed with their school, so that is the next big step – they want to come vol­un­tar­i­ly. They often start doing their own guid­ing and start to talk about the art with their friends and maybe with their fam­i­ly. Some­times they tell their own sto­ries – they can mix art­works and cre­ate a total­ly new con­text. I think it is most impor­tant when they bring friends and take that active role; being active is very impor­tant. Some­times chil­dren come to the muse­um entrance and ask about a cer­tain exhi­bi­tion or art­work, about whether it will come to the muse­um again and that is so nice. I would real­ly like to show some of these works for a sec­ond time, so maybe one day I could curate a col­lec­tion of the most pop­u­lar works.

Like the great­est hits?

Now I’ve got two very good ideas, the book and the great­est hits. I have enough mate­r­i­al for that because there have now been ten or eleven exhi­bi­tions for children.

It would be fun to fol­low up with some of the kids who are old­er now and have expe­ri­enced some of those exhi­bi­tions to see how they would reflect on those expe­ri­ences now as way to revis­it the idea of “work­ing with future” in the present moment. I look for­ward to an oppor­tu­ni­ty to do this this with some of the kids I have worked with. Thanks so much for shar­ing all of these ideas and philoso­phies that sur­round your work and research.

HENNA PAUNU (b.1968) stud­ied art his­to­ry at Uni­ver­si­ty of Helsin­ki and works as a cura­tor and inde­pen­dent crit­ic. She curat­ed the inter­na­tion­al Rau­ma Bien­nale Balticum exhi­bi­tions 2002–2010, pre­sent­ing con­tem­po­rary art from the Baltic Sea area at the Rau­ma Art Muse­um, Fin­land. She has also curat­ed exhi­bi­tions by young Finnish artists for the Fine Arts Asso­ci­a­tion of Fin­land and the Paulo Foun­da­tion. Ear­li­er, she worked as a cura­tor at Kun­sthalle Helsin­ki, and as pro­duc­er and pres­i­dent in the Rau­mars – the inter­na­tion­al artist in res­i­dence pro­gramme in Rau­ma. As a cura­tor she has a spe­cial inter­est in envi­ron­men­tal art, com­mu­ni­ty-based art projects and inte­grat­ed ped­a­gogy. Late­ly she has also been active as a mem­ber of board in the Finnish Soci­ety for Cura­tors and Pedaali – The Finnish Asso­ci­a­tion for Muse­um Education.

HANNA JICKLING exper­i­ments with the pos­si­bil­i­ties of form, par­tic­i­pa­tion and mean­ing-mak­ing across dis­ci­plines and publics. Her projects often take shape as site-spe­cif­ic sculp­tures, pub­lic instal­la­tions, events, exchanges, pho­tographs, mul­ti­ples, print­ed mat­ter and oth­er ephemera. Atyp­i­cal forms of dis­tri­b­u­tion, entre­pre­neur­ial schem­ing and audi­ence-seek­ing are impor­tant strate­gies for sup­port­ing and dis­sem­i­nat­ing her work. Han­nah has recent­ly com­plet­ed artist res­i­den­cies at Out­door School (Mult­nom­ah Edu­ca­tion Ser­vice Dis­trict), The Ped­a­gog­i­cal Impulse (Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to), Becom­ing Ped­a­gog­i­cal (Uni­ver­si­ty of British Colum­bia) and the Rau­mars Artist-in-Res­i­dence Pro­gramme (Rau­ma, Fin­land). Her work is held in pri­vate col­lec­tions across North Amer­i­ca and can be tast­ed in the form of sour­dough pan­cakes, an ongo­ing work host­ed at Bubby’s in Man­hat­tan. She holds a BFA from the Nova Sco­tia Col­lege of Art and Design and an MFA from Port­land State Uni­ver­si­ty. She fre­quent­ly col­lab­o­rates with Helen Reed.

[1] Heti, Sheila (2011). Dar­ren O’Donnell. The Believ­er, 9 (4), 74–81.
[2] Stray Trek—On the Paths of Motion, Light and Shad­ow. An Exhi­bi­tion of Con­tem­po­rary Art for Chil­dren and Young Peo­ple. Felleshus Nordic Embassies, Berlin, Ger­many, March 6–April 30, 2009.
[3] Min­na Havukainen, The Final Sign in This Time (2009), Good­bye (2009), Exi­tus 13/17 (2009), Deceased 2 (2010), Exi­tus 1 / 17 (2010).
[4] Tar­ja Pitkä­nen-Wal­ter, Evening Bells (2005).
[5] IAM: It’s all Medi­at­ing. An inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence on curat­ing and edu­ca­tion in the exhi­bi­tion con­text. Kias­ma Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art, Helsin­ki, Fin­land, May 30–31.