Lili Dujourie, still from the video Passion de l’été pour l’hiver, 1981.
Opening on Wednesday, 8 January, at 6–8pm
One of Kohta’s ambitions is to be experimental. We do this in different ways. Sometimes, as for our most recent exhibition, by Emily Wardill, we commission new work and show it for the first time. Sometimes we test an idea of what might be relevant today by configuring different artists’ practices around it in a group or duo exhibition. Sometimes, in solo exhibitions, we try to present an artist’s oeuvre – often spanning several decades – by selecting some works that we think will crystallise into a good understanding of it.
The open-endedness of the experimental, the not-knowing that informs it, is an added responsibility, not a license to offer less precision. No one knows this better than Belgian artist Lili Dujourie (born in 1941, lives in Lovendegem). Since the mid-1960s, she has been working on some of the core problems of how to articulate visual thought. She has deliberated fundamentally irresolvable relations – of painting to sculpture, image to object, bodies to actions, composition within them and sequences between them – in a succession of materials and techniques: steel rods and plates, torn coloured paper, analogue video and photography, velvet, marble, plaster, lead, flattened iron wire, ceramic, papier-mâché. ‘I choose materials for their meaning, and they are always both matter and medium.’
Dujourie’s oeuvre transcends (or, rather, ‘sublates’, the commonly used English translation of Hegel’s aufheben) the often overstated division between political art and art-specific concerns. She shows her belief in the power of the visual – by using it to make interesting statements about the importance of the political. She convinces us that thinking through art, within art, must never be written off as conservative – by not renouncing the quest for what might be called ‘the beauty of meaning and the meaning of beauty’. The exhibition at Kohta (her first ever in Finland) consists of just three works, selected to form a condensed survey of a distinguished career.
Amerikaans imperialisme (American Imperialism) was conceived in 1972, at the height of European protest against the Vietnam War, as a series of commutative possibilities involving a wall, a sheet of steel leaning against it and paint. The ‘body’ of the metal is combined with the ‘action’ of the leaning and both are enhanced by colour: the wall is painted, except for the part right behind the sheet, while the sheet may be either painted or unpainted. We may perceive the work as painterly (if we stand still right in front of it) or as sculptural (when we catch various oblique glimpses of it) and when we move around we realise that everything happens in that unpainted gap, in what is partly hidden. Yet we may also read the work and its title as a subversive critique of the dominance of American minimal and conceptual art, which at the time often went unchallenged by the same right-thinking, left-leaning individuals who so vocally berated other forms of imperial overreach.
At Kohta, two versions of Amerikaans imperialisme will be shown simultaneously for the first time: a remake of the work’s first full-scale manifestation (at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent in 1979) with unpainted steel against a green wall, and a previously unrealised version with pink-painted steel against a black wall.
The first of Dujourie’s radical reinventions of her artistic persona was when she started making video, using a portable analogue camera and open-reel black-and-white tape that yielded a soft grisaille effect. She made almost 20 such tapes, without sound, between 1972 and 1981. They were digitally remastered in the 1990s and subsequently rediscovered by curators and theoreticians, notably Lynne Cooke and Mieke Bal, as crucial contributions to the art of the 1970s. Dujourie’s videos are suspended between the insistence on female agency (in most of them, she herself appears as the ‘body in action’) and the equally important insistence that these are not short narrative films or documentations of performances but a format unto themselves: both painting and sculpture and neither, abstract spaces with concrete bodies that bring art history to new life. At Kohta, this significant creative period is represented by one of its last finished and preserved pieces, Passion de l’été pour l’hiver (Summer’s Passion for Winter) from 1981.
The exhibition then skips many of Dujourie’s almost symbiotic cohabitations with various materials to arrive at her latest, and to date last, body of work. Ballade is a series of 20 sculptures in papier-mâché and papier-déchiré from 2011, enhanced with metal pins in 2019, of which 14 will be shown at Kohta.
Dujourie takes professional pride in being ‘at the edge’ of creating meaning, and also of present time. These renderings of plants with historically documented medicinal properties and use are no exception. Much like their real-life models, they are both delicate and dangerous: certainly no mere ornaments. Taken in the wrong dose, some of them would be life-threatening to humans. But can we, humans of today, even mention nature, let alone look at its reflections in an art exhibition, without pangs of remorse and shame for allowing it to become destroyed so fast? It may be worth mentioning that Lili Dujourie is also an accomplished gardener, and that Ballade shouldn’t be seen in splendid isolation from how she observes nature on the days when she is not making art.
The exhibition is organised by Kohta. The Council responsible for Kohta’s programming consists of artists Magdalena Åberg, Martti Aiha, Thomas Nyqvist, Nina Roos and Hans Rosenström, curator (and director of Kohta) Anders Kreuger and filmmaker and lecturer Richard Misek.
Kohta was launched with support from EMO Foundation, which funds the arts in Finland. Kohta seeks collaboration with and support from a variety of public and private entities in Finland and abroad. In its 2019, Kohta was supported by the City of Helsinki, the Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland and Stiftelsen Tre Smeder.
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Lili Dujourie, still from the video Passion de l’été pour l’hiver, 1981