Nina Roos at Galerie Anhava, Helsinki

Located on Fredrikinkatu, in a popular but not hectic area of Helsinki, Galerie Anhava boasts a feature that I am immediately drawn to, and one that encourages public engagement with contemporary art: full visibility from the street outside. Amidst the Scandi summer sun and interesting nearby shops to catch the eye, the soothing, fleshy palettes of Nina Roos' paintings, an artist who represented Finland in the 1995 Venice Biennale, leave you in something of a trance, even from the exterior of the space. Of course, I ventured inside to see how this presence might be enhanced or altered by closer proximity. 

Installation view: Nina Roos, The Image is Collapsed into the Body, 10 August - 3 September 2023. Galerie Anhava, Helsinki, Finland. Image courtesy of the gallery. Photo: Jussi Tiainen.

The exhibition's title, The Image is Collapsed into the Body, is instantaneously violent and anxiety-inducing. Why? The notion of the body being morphed, whether psychosomatically, medically, or physically, is one that we have been especially privy to in recent years, and this is something that we subliminally know is predominantly out of our control. Fuse this with the ways in which some bodies are routinely vilified, patronised and hyper-objectified on social media, and we find that Galerie Anhava's exhibition boasts a concept that grabs the attention and imagination.

Similarly, the title's syntax is also of interest, as one may initially think that "the body is collapsed into the image" would be more appropriate, given our relentless reduction to our appearance. I am especially fascinated by the aesthetic fragmentation of the body in contemporary art, and how artists can depict the body, whether their own or another, without leaning on the extreme polarities of figuration or abstraction. A tall order, to be sure, but messages of fear and demonisation of the body being ingrained by the media and the state seep through into visual communications rapidly, and I am excited to see how this happens in a meaningful way. At large, this might allude to the demonisation of workers striking; sex workers; the disgraceful vilification of migrants and trans people; the close inspection of women's bodily autonomy; patients deemed a 'burden' to the national health service, and so on. Essentially, it is a scary time, but this means we are forced to view, and imagine, things differently.

Nina Roos, The Image is Collapsed into the Body 2, 2022. Oil on canvas, 175cm x 185cm. Photo: Jussi Tiainen.

By making art about the body that isn't instantly recognisable as such, we are also forced to confront not only the discriminations we place upon our bodies and those of others, but in Roos' work, there is a surging feeling of both intimacy and alienation towards the way bodies look, how they feel, and how they function. At Galerie Anhava, there is an incredibly satisfying volume of space between each painting, whether presented as a singular work, a pair or a diptych, which provides ample room to (literally) breathe and contemplate in a space where you are certain you know what you are looking at, but with a lite abstraction that refuses to spoon-feed the viewer, creating both a perplexing and engaging experience. 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Beekeepers, c.1540-1569. Pen and brown ink on paper, 19.1cm x 29.5cm. Image courtesy of the British Museum. Copyright: The Trustees of the British Museum.

According to the gallery, one of the sources of inspiration for Roos' latest body of work is the sixteenth century drawing, Beekeepers, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In this piece, we can see the anonymity of the workers' faces, alongside smooth textured line-work and an emphasis on each individual's toil and functionality. In Roos' artwork, The Image is Collapsed into the Body 2, we see scratches and scrapes alongside a shape resembling an arm, but with its hand smudged and visually melted away. Slowly witnessing the ways in which our bodies have been strained and manipulated by factors such as labour and violence is a fascinating means of bringing the viewer's individual biography into the space, and indeed onto the paintings. Perhaps this is what the artist means when she expresses her fascination with "how paintings affect us bodily rather than through the information provided by the image."

Nina Roos, Liminal Space 2, 2023. Oil on canvas, 100cm x 110cm. Photo: Jussi Tiainen.

Depicting bodies in unexpected ways shows a keenness to present our physical selves, as well as our mentalities, differently to the mere productivity we feel we must achieve under capitalism. Whilst holistic thinking and practices certainly have their place in understanding and accepting the body, when we are honing in on one part of ourselves at a time, we are committing to caring for ourselves. Similarly, showing compassion to an individual's needs can also give us access to caring for the wider world. Sharpening our focus on a singular issue is not a senseless, indulgent way of living. Bodies are not static and fixed entities, and their appearance at any given time does not define the identity of the individual. Although the press release describes these works as "fascinating creatures whom one wants to spend time with", the mark-making using oil paint and physical features that we can all relate to feel especially fixed in the human form. Ultimately, this produces something of a romantic appreciation for the body, its functions, or perhaps in ways that society disables it, its partial imperfections, its partial perfections, and the perennial thoughts of feeling close to and entirely alienated by our own bodies. In generating micro-understandings of our always-in-motion selves, Roos' work contributes to the belief that we must fight to free ourselves from the images we consume, and retreat back to our flesh homes. 

The Image is Collapsed into the Body, a solo exhibition by Nina Roos. 10 August - 3 September 2023. Galerie Anhava, Helsinki.

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