Relationships: Focus Finland

Relationships: Three perspectives on Finnish basketry, Minna Koshinen, Anelma Savolainen, Anna-Maria Vaatainen
Grace Barrand Design Centre, Surrey
September 9 – October 21, 2006

Just what defines basketry is a longstanding debate. Must a basket function as a vessel, or simply suggest a container? If traditional basketry techniques are used, but to create a form that is flat and hangs on the wall, are we still talking about a basket? This exhibition explores the possible form a basket can take rather than question the materials that could be used. Many of the works on display are curiously sieve-like, with traditional techniques deployed to create shapes that refer to the baskets form but are no longer function.

Overall, the work on display is split between natural materials (birch and willow bark, rush, and pine root) and metal wire. The least successful works attempted to combine the two, possibly because the types of material dictated two scales of work, with finer, more detailed areas rendered in metal wire, but not with natural fibres. Anna-Maria Vaatainen’s Bark Pouch series, for instance, created an intriguing collection of small rounded shapes hung in a long row down the wall, but the stitches that held each together seemed to overwhelm these slight objects. Tiny, delicate stitches, trimmed to the scale of the vessel itself would have added much to the exhibition, which overall felt to be comprised of objects that did not dare to explore either extremes of scale.

Anelma Savolainen’s Birch Bark Utensil used stitched lines that carefully echoed the natural pattern of the birch bark, tricking the eye into seeing the bark pattern and stitches as one and the same or, alternatively, the entire surface flecked with stitches. It was material decisions such as these that were the highlight of the exhibition. Similarly, displayed on the floor near a window were two Birch Bark Jars by Anelma Savolainen. Tall and slender, the pair were fashioned from birch bark with a simple line of stitch. Baskets are objects we tend to want to look inside because we are conditioned – on a practical level – to expect that their contents will be of greater interest than the exterior. The Birch Bar Jars accepts this instinct, quietly providing an interior ‘content’ to explore while still presenting an empty vessel. Here what would have been the delicate bark’s exterior became the vessel’s contents, a scaly, shimmering surface that piqued interest precisely because it was partially obscured from view.

The exhibition was set in the beautiful upstairs gallery of the Grace Barrand Design Centre and displayed clusters of work, not necessarily organized in groups specific to each of the three artists. I fear that in an effort to show the breadth of exploration each of these women has undertaken, some works were included that felt to be early stage studies rather than resolved objects ready for the gallery setting. Because of this, there was an unevenness of quality, with objects of real integrity and consideration displayed alongside vessels that looked to be far less materially and conceptually resolved. Aside from the Birch Bar Jars, some of the most interesting work tipped into a realm that a purist would be hard pushed to define as basketry. Vaatainen’s “Bark Cover” of willow bark and rusty nails was a flat work that hung from the wall. The nails and strips of bark suggested the remnants of a warp and weft woven structure, but far removed from any suggestion of a container. Anelma Savolainen’s Mouse Path similarly drew upon the traditional techniques materials of basketry, but to create a form that folded inwards on itself to present a snaking path across the centre of the gallery space. Perhaps the greatest irony of this exhibition is that some of the most interesting works on display are those that stray furthest from the vessel form.

Selvedge Magazine (2006: 89)