Curator Taru Elfving: “Nothing is incompatible in art”

The curator for Uniarts Helsinki’s fifth Research Pavilion is Taru Elfving, whose special curatorial interests are research-based practices and finding ways to share artistic processes with the audience.

A photo of Taru Elfving on a dock with green trees at the background and some rocks on the foreground.
Photo: Jussi Virkkumaa

The Research Pavilion was originally set up as an artistic research-focused event that was arranged in connection with the Venice Biennale. This June, the public event will be organised in Helsinki for the second time. That is when the Augusta gallery in Suomenlinna and the Helsinki Music Centre will serve as venues for exhibitions, performances, workshops, and panel discussions, all offering a window to artistic research.

Artistic research is a relatively young research field and therefore still unknown to people. One of the goals of the Research Pavilion is, in fact, to make the field more known to wider audiences.

In artistic research, the perspective is on the entire artistic process, not just the finished works. This is more than fine for Taru Elfving, the newly-selected curator for the Research Pavilion.

“In curating, I’m interested in research-based approaches, which is why I might be a bit of a peculiar type in the field. I have never been particularly focused on the exhibition itself or selecting finished pieces, and instead, I have always tried to work with artists in projects where the process is equally important as the result,” Elfving explains.

Multidisciplinary field work in Saaristomeri

Elfving’s work has revolved around artistic research both in the role of a curator and a researcher, although not always necessarily in the academically understood sense. She places herself in the expanded field of contemporary art.

For the past five years, Taru Elfving has worked on Seili Island in cooperation with the Archipelago Research Institute. There, she has been able to delve into questions concerning multidisciplinary field work. How does an artist or a biologist carry out research? How does research take place when the participants search for a common language and approach the same research topics from various angles?

“When we talk about changes in the environment, we inevitably talk about something that multiple generations are going through in a span of decades. The time perspective is interesting from the point of view of art. What kind of a commitment does work on these themes require?”

Elfving has led projects where the premise has been that artists have been invited to study a concrete environment or context. She is interested in what goes on in the process. How is a wide range of information from very distinct disciplines gathered, unraveled, produced, and brought together?

Elfving will get to immerse herself into processes of artistic research also when she gets to know the residency artists of the Research Pavilion. In addition to the public event in June, this year’s Pavilion will also consist of residencies for artist-researchers, which will be organised this spring together with HIAP Suomenlinna and the Saari Residence maintained by the Kone Foundation. Uniarts Helsinki will organise a third residency at the Kallio-Kuninkala Centre in Järvenpää.

Residencies provide art with time

Elfving has written extensively on residencies, and she is one of the editors of the book Contemporary artist residencies: reclaiming time and space together with Irmeli Kokko and Pascal Gielen.

“Besides an art school context, residencies are some of the only places focused on offering time and space for art-making.” 

This is the first time that residencies are part of the Research Pavilion. In previous years, the Pavilions have consisted of various artistic processes, performances and exhibitions in venues that have been open to the public.

“Now we got to test out what elements of the residency periods we can feature in the Pavilion. Stepping away from our daily lives can be transformative, but it’s hard to predict the results and they’re not necessarily gained immediately. Processes can be quite long.”

Processes and the state of incompleteness go hand in hand, and where there is incompleteness, there is also vulnerability. How can we open or share something that is only just beginning to take shape?

Public outreach practices in science are a work in progress

Incompleteness and process-based approaches are often coupled with the fact that outsiders have a hard time understanding the content.

“Research in general is considered difficult because the special terminology, theories and practices in various fields can be alienating. The same problem exists in so-called hard sciences, too.”

However, just because something is considered difficult does not mean that researchers do not want to be understood.

“Those who study environmental changes have an immense pressure and desire to share their research and knowledge with others. Many of them are frustrated with the fact that there is data on climate change, but it doesn’t have as big of an impact as it should have.”

According to Elfving, scientists then turn to artists who have methods and tools for bringing information to people so that they can process it in various ways.

“I try to rein in the expectations and say that art might not always be the best way to popularise research. Deep silos can be found everywhere. We should engage in dialogue and cooperation more actively and extensively.”

Then again, Elfving finds that art at least has operating models and institutions for exhibiting art and giving the audience the chance to participate. 

“These don’t really exist in science; they’re only now being invented.”

The institutions for exhibiting art, on the other hand, are fairly traditional.

“We have strong, established conventions of exhibiting art, and audiences are used to viewing certain kinds of things as art. Various participatory or process-based approaches don’t really align with this concept of art. At the Research Pavilion, it will be interesting to see how we can come together to experiment with and learn about ways of exhibiting and encountering art.”

“Art can be whatever it needs to be at any given time”

Audiences could discover artistic research in a new way through a realisation that Elfving had. For Elfving, the freedom of art does not mean a lack of dependence first and foremost, because art cannot be independent from the ecological preconditions, for example, but instead, this freedom means that contemporary art does not have strict predetermined frameworks. Art can be whatever it needs to be at any given time. 

“Art has unique potential of working at the crossroads of various disciplines, even as a bridge. Art makes it possible for us to navigate between disciplines and create platforms where very different kinds of perspectives can come together. In art, nothing is incompatible.”

This year’s Research Pavilion has the tagline “Puzzled together”.

Elfving is interested in exploring how we can give more space and visibility to this characteristic of art.

“Often the outcome – a performance or a piece of work – remains and everything else disappears. That’s why it’s important to incorporate actual research in our research-focused Pavilion.”

Art is inevitably “difficult” also because art has never had, and it can never have ready-made formats.

“Art has always challenged conventions of spectatorship and all structures related to art. Artists have pushed the boundaries of what is possible within exhibition spaces.”

According to Elfving, one of the questions at the Research Pavilion will be reflecting on what an exhibition, can be when we let art, in all its forms, be whatever it is.

“Exhibitions, just like research, are contexts for experimentation and it’s okay if these experiments fail. Let’s see what emerges when we try out different things.

Read more about the Research Pavilion and the residency artists of the Research Pavilion.