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Abstrakti taideteos.
Ulla-Maija Alanen: Sikisi / Conceived, 2013.

Images from a perspective without horizons

Review of Ulla-Maija Alanen’s Human Space art exhibition at the Alvar Aalto Museum Gallery, Jyväskylä (7 February – 30 March 2014). 

Architectonic experiences are often depicted either as impressions linked to the use of space or moods that arise from the space. In modern art-speak, the notion of the observer has extended from the gaze to corporality, emphasising the bodily, sensory or even carnal dimensions of the experience. In itself the sensory- or body-centred viewpoint of experientiality is nothing new. Already in classical architecture there was a discussion about the trajectory of the gaze as well as the composition of views and impressions: the space or landscape was designed sequentially, so that the viewing point carried by the route was always provided with new viewing angles.

The architectonic experience is also linked with the eternal theme of the structural similarity between the human body and architecture. Old measurement terminology such as thumb, foot, fathom and cubit are based on the measurements of our body. The proportions and decorative principles of the classical orders were justified by the aesthetic ideals of the female and male bodies. Still today we use a corporeal vocabulary in reference to architecture: we talk of the “body of the building”, “the “facades of the building” (i.e. derived from the face), “architectural expression”, or how the buidling stands or sits in its location.  The relation between humanity and architecture is both existential and intuitive. We exist and live in space, and we are the space itself. We are architecture within architecture.

The starting point for a bodily and historiographical perception

Participating in this debate is the exhibition of architect-artist Ulla-Maija Alanen titled Human Space – A study on the anatomy of architecture and the architecture of anatomy, presently showing in the gallery space of the Alvar Aalto Museum in Jyväskylä. In connection with Alanen’s art, it feels inadequate to talk about the interaction between corporality and spirituality or between the physical and metaphysical. Looking at an image is an all-pervasive experience when standing in front of her works, but at the same time also a temporally boundless, scientifically exact and ordered experience.

Alanen’s obvious artistic premise is the perception of her own body in a particular space. Her background as a dancer is not so much evident in the emphasis on corporality but rather in her bodily awareness: in an understanding of the outline and resilience of the body. The artist-architect seems to accept the body as biological machinery, a tabernacle whose structure is inevitably decaying. One can also sense her educational background and interests from the references in the images of architectonic elements as well as in the compositional associations linked with historical style periods.

The exhibition Human Space is small, but there is a power in its images. The strength emerges from the specificity of the artistic observation as well as the encounter between the artistic and scientific gaze. The images have been created technically in an original way that is more experimental than traditional artistic expressions. Alanen has photographed her own body below the surface of the clear waters of Lake Karujärvi. The water and reflections take away the scale and recognisability of the images. The limb is no longer flesh but rather like marble, light, resembling a road embankment. Some of the images have been combined with MRI images more familiar from medical science. The spine transforms into a butterfly, the pelvic bowl is like a stone foundation supporting a column. The observer takes multiple plunges into the unknown: first under the surface of the water and then under the surface of the skin. Something literally unbeforeseen opens up before our eyes. When we look at the silent darkness of Ulla-Maija Alanen’s own bodily tissue and organs we at the same time look into humanity, the beginning of life, eternity and the perishability of everything. The references in the exhibition images and accompanying exhibition book to Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical studies and natural philosophy as well as to French phenomenology feel unnecessary and excessively suggestive.

In the intermediary spaces between architecture and anatomy

In his essay Overexposed City (1984) philosopher Paul Virilio, one of the sharpest analysts of our hyper-modern times, has used the concept of ‘perspective without horizons’ to describe the frame of mind of our time. The space, time and perception of our present era are without outline, surface and boundary, and they continuously float in a transforming technological space-time, melding into one another. There is no specific location, no natural passing of time dictated by the rhythm of the day, no precise moment or point where something begins or ends.

Ulla-Maija Alanen’s exhibition Human Space comments in its own quiet way specifically on this blurred ambiguity settling in the intermediary space of time, place, the real and the virtual that Virilio has captured. In our media-saturated time where everything is rapidly disseminated and repeated, only the individual and his or her own reality is immediate and authentic. The artist describes her working process as intuitive and drawn from the silence of nature. The observer sees and experiences this in the artist’s images because they operate unashamedly in the only authentic scale: the axis between the unique and the commonly shared.

Ulla-Maija Alanen: Veden iho / The skin of water 1, 2013.
Ulla-Maija Alanen: Veden iho / The skin of water 1, 2013.

English translation: Gareth Griffiths.

Link to the exhibition press information by Alvar Aalto Museum: