In Praise of Boredom

Rauma-Triennale---01-©-Titus-Verhe.jpg

It is 1991, and I am ten years old. It is summer. Summer means the village is empty, there are only dusty roads radiating heat, lined on either side with dry grass, and seemingly endless months of boredom. It feels as if I am all alone in the world, the air is still, and even the beach is too far away. I go out to the back garden, but there is nothing there. I lie down with the back of my head against the parched, yellow lawn. The sun moves in slow motion, the shadows of the apple trees slide across the ground, the clouds float motionless.

Twenty-eight years later, at a tram stop in Helsinki, it feels like time is dragging unbearably when I notice on the screen that tram number three will not come for another seven minutes. I take my phone out of my pocket. The worst of the boredom dissipates as the little glowing blue rectangle takes me wherever I want to go with its endless stream of images. I only become aware of my surroundings again when I hear the clattering of the rails and the doors of the tram car sliding open.

This transformation is what sparked the theme for the In Praise of Boredom exhibition: my own habit that has suddenly become so firmly rooted, my index finger too eager to reach for the screen of the phone. My patience and ability to defy boredom have shrunk to non-existent. But I can still remember a time when, after the last page of a book had been turned, and you were sitting on a train, there was nothing else to do except gaze out at the horizon, count the telephone poles and go through the thoughts that happened to be in your head. So, I have undergone a rapid transformation, almost unnoticed, perhaps irrevocable. Has this transformation taken away something I will one day miss?

The English name of the exhibition, In Praise of Boredom, is borrowed from Joseph Brodsky’s essay of the same name, written for a graduation ceremony at the United States Dartmouth College. In his speech, Brodsky reveals to the graduating students that their future will be dogged by boredom: ‘anguish, ennui, tedium, doldrums, humdrum, the blahs, apathy, listlessness, stolidity, lethargy, languor, accidie’. According to Brodsky, boredom is inevitable, and just as inevitable are our attempts to escape it. Boredom feels pointless and trying to tolerate it is agonizing. So we do everything we can to avoid it: by moving house, changing TV channels, hobbies, jobs, even families. But Brodsky warns us it is futile to think you can escape boredom permanently. Sooner or later it will catch up with you.

Though Brodsky wrote his essay in 1989, even back then he perceives that the devices introduced by new technology are essentially tools for evading boredom. Their great number and easy availability are revealing. Their primary purpose is to hoodwink us with the pleasure they produce, and make us forget how much of our existence is unfilled time.

Madame Bovary, the protagonist of Gustave Flaubert’s novel of the same name, is utterly bored by her mundane bourgeois lifestyle. Emma Bovary is frustrated by the mediocrity that surrounds her, the banality of the people in her life and the repressed emotions. Every day is just like the last, without the remotest chance of anything new ever happening. Since she was a child, Emma has felt drawn to dramatic elements. Stormy seas, tragic stories and fine words are her domain, and she has found these in popular romantic novels. But Emma finds herself the wife of a country doctor, in a small market town surrounded by bland scenery, and her everyday life offers room for neither euphoria nor fascination. ‘Charles's conversation was commonplace as a street pavement, and everyone's ideas trooped through it in their everyday garb, without exciting emotion, laughter, or thought,’ is Emma’s damning description of her husband. It is very difficult for her to equate this love with the happiness promised by her romantic novels.

The mundane and insignificant details of provincial life —that so frustrate and propel Emma toward her eventual destruction— are described with the same enthusiasm and attention to detail as the dramatic emotions she longs for. In this way, the narrator reveals to the reader the very thing that Emma fails to grasp: the value of ordinary life. Nonetheless, it is hard not to relate to Madame Bovary’s character and her feelings.

In another classic novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the characters experience similar ennui in a memorable manner. It is a scorching hot day in New York City in 1920s, and a group of young people travel from Long Island to Manhattan to kill time. They end up in the suite of a hotel to pass the time and have a few drinks. One of them explains how he loves New York on summer afternoons, when everyone else is away: “‘There’s something very sensuous about it — overripe, as if all sorts of funny fruits were going to fall into your hands.’“ This is positively charged, privileged, anticipated boredom.

One form of tedium no longer a part of contemporary urban culture was once the hallmark of public holidays: on Midsummer’s eve, the streets of the city would be empty, and the lone soul left to wander the city would not find so much as a kiosk open. The stagnation and feeling of a state of exceptionality seemed to detach you from time and normal life. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard described the same state in an aphorism on French strike days, calling it ‘a moment of withdrawal, a moment of perfection’.

The author and essayist Saul Bellow saw silence as a prerequisite of art, poetry and philosophy. A certain amount of peace and mental balance are required for their production. Since life in the digital age specialises in discarding silence, Bellow believed that art itself is being threatened. As a writer, he saw this as a personal challenge and, at the same time, a challenge that all artists and writers must be committed to meet: how do you overcome this noise?

As a format, an exhibition is flexible in terms of time. The physical existence of many artworks does not bind them to a certain period of time and, even when it does, the viewer alone decides how long they spend in front of a single work of art, or at the exhibition as a whole. Besides their temporal length, works of art can suggest ponderousness by other means, too. Their form can communicate a long and technically laborious working process involving much repetition and patience, for example. Or their materials or contents can include references to slowness or long periods of time.

Some of the works in In Praise of Boredom are older, while others were produced specifically for the exhibition, but they are all connected to boredom in one way or another. With these works of art, and the exhibition that takes shape around them, we encourage exhibition guests to get in touch with boredom, to take a moment and tolerate the silence, tedium and repetition that causes them to feel bored. Perhaps there is power invested in apathy.

Maija Luutonen has completed two new installations for this exhibition; they will be placed on display at the Art Museum and the empty premises of Tarvontori shopping centre. In Luutonen’s work, different types of elements often come together, for example, paintings and sculptural elements made of different types of materials. There can be several such elements, and they can contradict each other. The viewer of the artwork must also get involved and try to build bridges for the elements that reach out in various directions, fill gaps and make conclusions. In this way, associative chains are created and thought processes initiated. In the diverse signals of Luutonen’s works, you can perceive a connection with the vast visual stream that is the Internet. In her new works, Luutonen approaches this endless flow of visual stimuli from another perspective: rather than merely reproduce it, she seeks to help us survive it and offer us a place of rest.

Martha Rosler’s video installation Semiotics of the Kitchen from 1975 is a work often described as a classic piece of contemporary feminist art. It portrays a woman wearing an apron in a kitchen, an everyday setting traditionally considered a female realm. The female character, played by Rosler herself, goes through the kitchen utensils placed in front of her and introduces them to the viewers in the style of an educational video, in a seemingly neutral, monotonous manner. As she does so, her gestures reveal the nuances, attitudes, frustration and aggression concealed behind the mundane setting, in which the woman is reduced and becomes one of the instruments she showcases.

Nabil Boutros uses the methods of documentary photography in his work. In this series of artworks, he captures everyday themes of life in his native Egypt and neighbouring Middle Eastern countries. The photographic series Ovine Condition (Celebrities) focuses on sheep. The exhibition features a sample series of 18 sheep from the complete series that portrays the whole flock. Each sheep was taken out of the flock and photographed in studio conditions against a black portrait backdrop. The series places herd mentality and individuality side by side in portraits which reveal the surprisingly unique features of every member of the flock.

Paulien Oltheten’s work also employs the methods of documentary recording. She moves about the urban space capturing small moments and events, taking photographs and video recordings, often reflecting subtle gestures and human relationships. The materials used in Oltheten’s artwork La Defense, featured in the exhibition, were recorded during her periods of residence in Paris and New York City. In these cities unfamiliar to her, she observed the daily routines of the local people. The events she detects are not dramatic or even unusual, but Oltheten’s sharp eye lucidly reveals their hidden meanings. You have to be alert to catch all the details that can appear so unimportant. These works manifest how the ability to travel detaches you from your daily surroundings and diffuses the cacophony caused by the must-do tasks that make up your everyday life. Your senses grow sharper when you are away.

Transferring from one place to another, travelling by train, car or boat are all favourable breeding grounds for boredom. When your only task is to await arrival at a destination, it feels as if time takes on a completely new form. The traveller occupies a twilight zone, stagnated to half their normal capacity. ‘Empty’ time like this is often a breeding ground for melancholy, too. Jaan Toomik’s video installation Dancing Home features the artist on the aft deck of a car ferry. The sea is the backdrop, cut in half by the backwash of the ferry. The steady roar of the car ferry’s engine is the background music for the serious-faced dancer, who tries to stay on his feet to the rolling rhythm of the ferry.

Sari Palosaari’s works will take on new shape during the months the exhibition will be open. The materials used for these artworks are stone boulders —but not just any boulders. These boulders are loaded with ‘snail dynamite’, a silent demolition agent that generates pressure as it expands and gradually causes the stone to split. The progress of this process occurs at an uncontrollable pace, and the only thing the viewer can do is wait for something to happen. Of Palosaari’s two works in the exhibition, the installation situated in the upstairs exhibition space, entitled Relation Shift, features an initial situation borrowed from Relatum (1971-2019, previously Language, 1971) by Lee Ufan, member of the Japanese group Mono-ha (‘School of Things’). Both Palosaari’s work and its predecessor approach the interconnection between nature and culture from the perspective of their own time. The temporal perspective of a rock meets the temporality of human action.

Emma Jääskeläinen also uses stone in her works. She works with granite and marble to create soft, organic forms. Even though the form of a marble sculpture does not have a minimum time for viewing, it can nevertheless express the idea of duration. In this way, the classical sculpture technique takes the mind back to classical times, and connects the work to the long timeline of art history. Using stone as the material, Jääskeläinen’s works elicit a reference to the timespan of granite, which seems eternal in juxtaposition to our human concept of time. The smooth surface of Jääskeläinen’s works also indicates a long working process, hour upon hour of work and commitment to a laborious working method.

Hertta Kiiski’s series of works was completed for this exhibition. The image on the small screen reproduces the same space in which it is located. Two girls, the artist’s daughter and her niece, who often appear in her photography and video installations, are spending time in the room depicted in the video. Surely there has never been anyone as bored in this world as ten-year-olds with absolutely nothing to do. The events of the film take you easily back to memories of childhood. In the second part of Kiiski’s work, rocks once again play a leading role. This time they are accompanied by the thin, rustling plastic bags familiar to anyone who has ever travelled in Eastern Europe. These ordinary materials step into the spotlight and communicate with each other. And, as is often the case in Kiiski’s works, these ordinary elements come together to create something important and exceptionally beautiful.

Elina Vainio has a series of works in the exhibition. Her drawings depict speculative spaces that take place at a future point in time which, though not exactly specified, looms on the horizon. The name of the series is Kohti maalämpöä (‘Towards Geothermal Heat’). It visualises a future scenario in which fossil energy sources have been exhausted. The work proposes underground spaces that rely on geothermal heat. The silent images are pencil drawings depicting lonely rooms that convey the feeling of time having stopped. Vainio’s works often create an impression of long periods of time. Sand, a recurring material in her installations, also suggests a broader notion of time than the human one.

So, why would Joseph Brodsky dedicate his keynote speech to boredom? Because he saw that universities or, more broadly, our culture, fails to prepare us for boredom. According to Brodsky, we should not try to avoid boredom. We should face it head on and surrender to it. We should become immersed in it and let it crush us. Boredom deserves this kind of exploration, because it helps us to face the elements of time we usually seek to avoid. It reveals a pure, undiluted time for us, with all of its redundancy, monotony and triviality. Boredom reveals to us the infinity of time and, in so doing, conveys to us the most important message of all: the understanding of how completely insignificant we are. My existence is restricted and everything I do is meaningless from the perspective of time. At the same time, apathy reveals to us that eternity is not particularly dynamic, it is not packed with emotion. And the more limited a thing, the more charged it is with life, feeling and compassion. ‘Passion is the privilege of the insignificant,’ writes Brodsky. We must seize this passion.

In the early spring of 2019, I took up the habit of having a tab open on the browser window while I was working, showing a live stream from a swamp in Estonia. In the middle of the screen, there is a beaver dam with a stream behind it and, behind the stream, the open horizon. Nothing happens on the screen. There are no beavers. The wind slowly sways a tree branch on the top left-hand corner of the screen. Sometimes you can hear a bird singing. That’s it. The sun sets in the evening and in the morning it rises again. With my wireless Internet connection, on the small screen of my computer, through a browser window I can barely see behind the word processing window, this temporal perspective of sticks, hay and wind might help me revert to understanding my insignificance and the passion that goes with it.

Anna Vihma
Curator, In Praise of Boredom exhibition

References:

Baudrillard, Jean: Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000, 2003. English translation: Chris Turner.
Bellow, Saul; There’s Simply Too Much to Think About, 2015.
Brodsky, Joseph: On Grief and Reason, 1995.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby, 1925.
Flaubert, Gustave: Madame Bovary 1857. English translation: Eleanor Marx-Aveling.

Image: Maija Luutonen, Still, 2019, textile, acrylic on paper, acrylic and ink on paper. Photo by Titus Verhe.

Tylsyyden Ylistys