Mr Riiko and Dr SakkinenBy Mikko Myllykoski & Pauli Sivonen
An encounter at Madrid-Barajas
There he is now: Museum Director Riiko Sakkinen. Early in the morning, we boarded a plane in Helsinki, switched planes in Berlin and finally encounter him at noon in Terminal 4 at Madrid-Barajas airport. Riiko is wearing a leather jacket and fur hat, and he is holding a paper that has 'MuNA' printed on it.
We have waited for this encounter for a long time. One of us (Mikko) is meeting Riiko now for the first time, the other (Pauli) knows him from a few years back.
We have come to investigate a phenomenon. The artist Riiko Sakkinen is shedding his skin and taking on a new role, yet again, this time as the director of a museum called the Museum of No Art. We work in the museum sector ourselves and our job is to understand what this is all about. Where is Riiko leading the world by a string this time?
Now he settles for shaking our hands and then gives a quick presentation of the place where we are. Terminal 4 at Madrid-Barajas was built during the previous economic boom as a source of pride for the city: the light-filled palace, designed by star architects Antonio Lamela and Richard Rogers, was ready to receive 70 million passengers a year. Now it looks somehow too big after Spain's financial crash. It is like after the explosion of a neutron bomb, or like the Palace of Versailles with too few residents. We easily get a taxi and start driving towards the city centre. The road follows a deserted motorway that has gone bankrupt.
We have come to Madrid to discuss museums with Museum Director Sakkinen. Our intention is to visit the most important museums in Madrid, and to hire a car and visit the Guggenheim in Bilbao. We plan to stay at a design hotel chosen by Riiko, and we will be spending the next three days together. Riiko has kindly planned lunches and dinners in advance – the idea is to talk, eat well and find out what kind of work Sakkinen the artist is creating as the museum director of the Museum of No Art.
At the same time, we are stepping inside a work of art that Riiko has created with care.
* * *
On the long flight from Helsinki to Madrid, we had time to review Sakkinen's career. On an empty seat left between us, we placed a big stack of clippings that Riiko had sent a couple of months earlier. We read the clippings by ourselves, occasionally exchanging a word or two about them.
The clippings relayed an image of an artist who is of interest to everyone. Riiko Sakkinen must be used to getting, at regular intervals, a page or a spread devoted to him in Helsingin Sanomat, the most important newspaper in Finland, and other Finnish newspapers avidly write about him. The stack also included stories from foreign papers. The languages ranged from English to Swedish, German, Dutch, Chinese, Korean and especially Spanish, the language of Riiko's current home country.
What kind of a picture does a stack of clippings that barely fits in a couple folders give of Riiko Sakkinen? The overall impression is that his public image has been carefully considered. There is no effort to try to conceal this – Riiko admits to reporters, often and with relish, that he is purposefully making a brand of himself. He contemplates his relationship with publicity and the media, and says he wants to iron his shirt in the picture of a newspaper story to give a certain image of himself. In relation to himself, he unashamedly speaks of narcissism, likewise of his desire to become famous and his plans to conquer the world. On the other hand, he does not worry about being portrayed as a Knight of the Sad Countenance and admits that his conquest of the world is going too slowly.
Newspaper stories do not say very much about the physical works of art Riiko has produced as an artist. It becomes very clear that his most typical medium comprises drawings made in A4 format, which often derive their subject matter from the imagery of advertisements. Furthermore, he puts down on paper plainly written lists about matters that interest him. Most frequently the topics of these drawings and lists are food, sex, prostitution, commercialism, advertisements, the economy and large multinational corporations. Not one newspaper story looks in detail at the artist's way of using colours or making compositions – the clumsiness of the drawings is, however, almost always stated, usually without stating any reasons for the matter. The formal characteristics of art are of no interest to reporters who write about Riiko. The fact that he also produces large acrylic paintings about subjects that interest him is only revealed from very occasional references. No one writes a single word about the interesting techniques used to paint the acrylic paintings, especially in recent times.
Based on the newspaper stories, Sakkinen's key medium seems to be provocation. He wants to startle people. Therefore, he objects to almost everything possible: multinational corporations, Western propaganda, unemployment benefits, emigration, immigration, and the support of culture. In 2006 in Hong Kong, when he put on display T-shirts that read Human Rights Damage Our Economy, he makes sure the shirts are made by Chinese child labourers – and he meticulously reports this to publicity himself. In the same context, he proclaims to the Chinese that they have created a monster of the worst features of capitalism and socialism.
When holding an exhibition in Sweden, he demands an apology from his host country for colonising Finland and names his exhibition I Wouldn't Want to Hate Sweden, but I Dare Not Hate Russia. In an interview picture in the Vihreä Lanka newspaper, the official newspaper of the Greens in Finland, he demands to be photographed with a fur hat on his head, smoking a cigarette, because the paper's readers are 'some fox girls (opponents of fur farming)'. Sometimes such startling behaviour occurs in a kinder fashion, simply by doing things that seem irrational. One example of such an art project was seen in 2013, when Riiko stated he had hidden one thousand euros, in five-euro notes, between his favourite books at a library on Rikhardinkatu in Helsinki. Even this stunt was widely publicised – there were big headlines in the afternoon papers.
When Riiko provokes, he also seems to invite every opportunity to be censored. In South Korea he creates a large wall painting that reads We Love Samsung and Kim Il-sung and soon he sees the work censored, because that country's legislation prohibits praise of its communist neighbour. In Beijing his large mural Human Rights Damage Our Economy disappears from the exhibition room even before the opening. An American gallery refuses to hang a work of his that reads Warm Beds for Wetbacks (the phrase refers to the treatment of homeless Mexican immigrants). While in residence in Syria, he gets into a conflict with the residence's Finnish management when he wants to express his frank opinion about events in the country in Helsingin Sanomat. Instead, the same paper demands that one work be removed from the Amos Anderson exhibition because the report regards it as child pornography. Even Kiasma, the most important museum of contemporary art in Helsinki, prohibits him from writing I Love Doner Kebab and Hate Muslims on wall painting in the exhibition. Of course the artist volubly tells the press how the museum's representatives wanted to veil such censorship as 'discussion about content'.
In several newspaper stories Riiko talks about what he wants. It seems he has fixed ideas, he wants a lot, more and constantly in greater numbers for himself. The subjects of this desire are prosaic: Riiko wants to be rich before all else. He wants to be so rich that he can let his children eat ice cream in his sports car with a leather interior – if they make a mess, someone will clean it up or Riiko will have the interior replaced altogether. He wants to eat in restaurants that have three Michelin stars. He wants a lot of money, a big house in the countryside and an apartment in the city. Aside from a fancy car, he wants a boat, a helicopter and fashionable clothes. A guard dog, a domestic cat and a racehorse are also part of the repertoire. His staff should include Greek, Argentine, Italian, English and Japanese servants. The English should act as gardeners and the Japanese as guards.
Fame always walks hand in hand with wealth. Riiko wants a football team of his own that would have Raúl, Figo and Zidane as players. He wants a Formula 1 team. He would like to be a famous footballer, a supermodel, a bullfighter and a winner of Big Brother.
However, he does not want to appear in the Finnish pavilion at the Venice Biennale. According to him, it is only a place where 'they look at who has the biggest balls'. As a matter of fact, he would like to throw a cake in the face of the Biennale's curator. So he goes to the 2001 opening ceremony without an invitation and walks around all day long with his cake. The performance cannot be pulled off, however, because Riiko cannot find Harald Szeeman anywhere.
Sometimes Riiko also admits that a good story is more important than the truth. His brand consists of purposeful excesses, a convulsive need to startle.
In some newspaper stories, Riiko is fittingly called 'a walking installation', often people also use the concept 'a total work of art'. Sometimes, though very rarely, papers want to delve deeper into this work of art. Then they are interested in how Riiko makes his art or what he actually wants to say to us with his public image. We hear of the more mundane artist's labour when Riiko explains how he spends hours in supermarkets, looking for suitable product packages for his works. Occasionally we also hear of his relationship with role models, such as Andy Warhol and Martin Kippenberger.
All this has to do with making things visible. As an artist, Riiko Sakkinen wants to tell us about a world in which we all – more or less voluntarily – live. Emphasising is underlining, pointing out features of a familiar world through exaggeration. This, too, Riiko says directly in the newspaper stories. Even when taking on roles, he never wants to be vague or difficult to interpret.
Riiko also has to bear the stamp of the intellectual. Some newspaper stories ponder whether he is part of the Finnish intelligentsia – or whether one exists at all. In all seriousness, reading Riiko Sakkinen's own columns strengthens this image. They not only focus on describing a brand builder fussing about everywhere, creating his myth of an artist – they also analyse the ideologies that lie behind this activity. The columns are concise and secure. Riiko can write even better than he draws.
On the other hand, Riiko's toolbox also contains myths. The newspaper stories reveal that, throughout his career, he has been happy to sprinkle tales and stories in the media that have begun to create an almost mythic figure of himself. Riiko has inherited both the political aspects and his interest in art from his childhood home. When he was a child, his mother would put postcard pictures of Picasso's works on the walls of the home, at crawling height. His mother also took him to art exhibitions as a baby. The mother herself grows into a mythic figure when we hear that her moderate (from Riiko's perspective) leftism led to Riiko's own communism. As a teenager, Riiko did not rebel against her mother's leftism by becoming a right-winger, but by constructing his own turbocharged version of her leftism.
In the papers, Riiko says time and again how he decided to become a terrorist as a teenager. We hear of pictures of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, or Carlos the Jackal, attached to his walls, the desire to own a Kalashnikov and the wish to access a terrorist group as a member. This myth also entails self-irony: we learn that his dreams of terrorism crashed when Riiko, as a friend of foie gras and champagne, could endure no more than three days in the Defence Forces, where military service is mandatory for every Finnish man.
To this event the myth-creator Sakkinen also combines the birth of the artist Sakkinen. When Riiko is unable to change the world with car bombs or a Kalashnikov in his hand, he realises he can do this as an artist, by making things visible. Fine arts are chosen as his genre because within them, you can cope with less talent and because artists do not have to suffer from internal constraints created by this art genre. Anything goes. Of course, growing up to be an artist also includes a lot of mythic ingredients, such as information about the grade he achieved in art at primary school (6 on a scale of 4 to 10) and his admission to the Academy of Fine Arts only on the third attempt ('which is good, because otherwise I would have become a bragger'). This also involves rebellions arranged in school against the classical teaching of drawing and the avoidance of making concrete works, because all of the intellectual Sakkinen's time is spent on reading through the art library at the Academy of Fine Arts. He studies artistry, not art.
Mythic elements are also included in how the papers talk about Riiko's relationship with Jani Leinonen. Fairly soon it becomes apparent that one cannot really write about Riiko without mentioning Jani. We hear about how these two future best friends met at the Academy of Fine Arts and, at first, actually hated each other. After they become friends, they work together and complement each other's speeches during interviews like Dewey and Louie who have lost their Huey – two like-minded young artists who intend to conquer the world in their own right. Surprisingly little is written in the papers about the cooling of the relationship that takes place at some point. But we all know about it, the rumour mills in the art circles are always turning, and the matter has been handled with all due piety in Riiko's own blog too. As to who did wrong to whom and when, and who is jealous of whom, those following the story have strong opinions about it as friends of reality TV have their versions of the doings of their own mythic heroes. We also know that the gentlemen have found each other again.
Another dramaturgical turn in Riiko's public image may only be taking place now. This turn combines becoming serious or perhaps even adopting a kinder role. Riiko says in the papers that the civil war in Syria demands a more serious stand – mere questioning of issues is not enough in a situation where people are really dying, and taking a stand 'requires more balls' than shooting in every direction. This opinion emerges in a situation where Riiko returns to Syria, already ravaged by civil war, and holds the city's last international art exhibition for the time being. Indeed, we get to read how Riiko sits at dinner on a terrace after the inauguration, listening to the sounds of automatic weapons heard from a distance. During the Housing Fair in Hyvinkää, Riiko arranges a Homeless Fair at a local museum with Jani, attempting even here to talk seriously about an important subject. Thus the headline in Helsingin Sanomat: 'A menace turns a leaf and gets nice'. Around the same time Riiko talks about joining the Communist Party in Spain. Now he seems to be interested in making an impact from within institutions.
All in all, we know a great deal about Riiko Sakkinen. We know about his art, his dreams, his public image, his daily life in the Spanish countryside with his wife, who works as an art teacher, and his children (of whom we know hardly anything). Riiko – like Jani – is a favourite of the press. Riiko and Jani are written about using their first names, as we instinctively do here. Their relationship with publicity also grows into a drama that has the fundamental contact necessary for the dramatic arc: a straight knockout of the joint exhibition Jani and Riiko's Free World by the art critics in early summer 2009.
It is only fitting that he has got up from this knockout too: now everybody loves Jani and Riiko again. And they loved them back then, too, as a yellowed clipping from Helsingin Sanomat tells us as the plane touches down in Madrid.
* * *
On the way from the airport to the city we cannot contain ourselves – we immediately start to press Riiko on why he now wants to be a museum director. The mind is still flashing with the clippings and everything he has wanted before. A celebrity artist, the world's best footballer, a bullfighter, a supermodel… Although we are in the museum field ourselves, it feels there has been a certain decline in the standard of his object of desire. We also present to him a theory we came up with on the aeroplane: with all his desires, Riiko has genuinely comprehended the true role of a dream. It has never been designed to be reached. Dreams are important specifically as dreams.
Riiko politely sidesteps our questions. He does not seem ready to go this deep just yet. We must start with something much simpler: on the way, we get to hear mostly about Madrid's development during the Spanish economic depressions, the problems of the motorway network and, more than anything, the latest news in the Spanish football league. Riiko is a supporter of Real Madrid, or a Madridista, as is our taxi driver.
Our taxi swerves up to the hotel. One can see from the lobby that when selecting a hotel, Riiko has emphasised simple elegance. Hotel Alicia, part of the design chain Room Mate, is located right in the city centre, conveniently within walking distance from the most important museums. Even the price is pleasantly affordable by local standards, about a hundred euros per night.
The rooms are not ready yet. We leave the bags and head to work right away.
Lunch at Reina Sofia
It is late lunchtime. We are sitting in the restaurant of Reina Sofia, Madrid's most important museum of contemporary art. The whole, official name of the place is Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia – meaning we are at the national museum which wants to emphasis its more ordinary, and perhaps more active, role as an art centre.
The restaurant is a bit shabby. Riiko tells us about its history. When the extension of the Reina Sofia was opened, it was founded as a fine dining establishment, but later the standard was lowered and the restaurant was made more affordable, suitable for a museum visitor. The prices are indeed low: a three-course lunch with wine costs 12 euros per head.
While waiting for the food, we go over what we have experienced at the museum. Riiko lays into us and sternly asks us what we thought of the museum although we thirst for his opinions. The situation turns into a discussion where we are all pretty much on the same line. Reina Sofia shows itself as an academic, serious-minded museum of modern and contemporary art which does not particularly focus on experiences or other current museum philosophies. People go there to do what is most essential for museums: look at exhibitions and art. The balance with their own collections and changing exhibitions works. Riiko is especially happy that the museum pedagogy does not attack you in any way – art can present itself as it is. He also keeps repeating that for him, the most influential experience was to see the guarding arrangements for Picasso's Guernica: two stern guards on either side of the work, always keeping an eye on the people. He considers using the same effect in one of his own exhibitions. We spur him on and readily promise to act as guards.
We disagree on the architecture of the museum's extension, which was completed recently and cost almost one hundred million euros. Riiko thinks Jean Nouvel's creation is pretty abhorrent, Mikko finds it rather interesting, and Pauli is almost enthralled. We all agree that the architecture does not actually assume any kind of role indoors and in the exhibitions. All the exhibition spaces in the old and new parts are white cubes of different degrees.
Before getting to know the actual Reina Sofia, we visited its two satellite exhibition spaces in Parque del Buen Retiro, a park situated in the middle of Madrid. The first pavilion, where Spanish paintings from the 1970s were hung with beautiful roominess, did not arouse any particular thoughts in us either for or against. The other one did not call forth even that much, because it took a long while until we realised what the work on display was. The outer edge of the pavilion, which had the air of an empty greenhouse, was surrounded by a ramp constructed by the conceptual artist Roman Ondák. Yes, it opens up new perspectives in the early spring in the park and the pavilion itself, but Sakkinen the artist was not convinced by this. He could not be bothered to make anything this obvious visible.
Instead, towards us walked an installation that was more impressive: a fairly young man, arduously pushing a shopping cart. In the cart were two quiet, preschool children, a mixed bunch of stuff and a half-empty bag of crisps. Mikko was left looking at the entourage to understand what it was all about. The answer came out in an aggressive spate of anger from the man's mouth: 'What are you staring at? This is Spain! This is our only meal of the day! Does it feel good to look at how my children starve?'
* * *
We, on the other hand, are no longer hungry. While digesting our museum experience and lunch over espressos at the Reina Sofia, the talk turns to Riiko's project. First, he says he is quite satisfied with the name of the project. 'Museum of No Art' sounds good, but its abbreviation 'MuNA' feels even better. It has the same spirit as, for instance, MoMA, undoubtedly the world's most famous museum of modern and contemporary art (Museum of Modern Art in New York). At the same time, the name underscores courage: 'olla munaa' ('to have balls' in English) means gumption, and in the Spanish context the expression 'cojones' refers to the same thing. On the other hand, in Finnish people talk of 'munaaminen' ('screwing up' in English), which brings an interesting contradiction to the name.
What is this all about? We know that the idea originated from a harmless chat between Riiko and Pauli on Facebook. Riiko declared to the world that he needed a good exhibition site and Pauli asked, tongue-in-cheek, whether he would be interested in arranging an exhibition in Mänttä about 'museums as exploiters of artists' work in a capitalist system'. Riiko got excited and developed the idea into a much more sophisticated version where he himself establishes a museum and takes over as its director.
We ask Riiko to update us on the current situation of his plans. We receive a lengthy lecture where Riiko presents the operational methods and organisation of MuNA. So, the director of this fictitious museum is him, and curator Charlotte York Goldenblatt, famous from the TV show Sex and the City, has recently been hired as chief curator. The museum's architecture will be in the hands of Nobuyuki Masaki, whose adventures have previously been seen in a Japanese anime show called Tenchi Muyo!
The museum's Board of Directors has also been chosen. It consists of Patrick Bateman, Gordon Gekko, Lex Luthor, Charles Montgomery Burns, Scrooge McDuck, Cruella de Vil and Willy Wonka. All of them are well-known billionaires whose evil deeds have earlier been reported in such films and comics as American Psycho, Wall Street, Superman, The Simpsons, Donald Duck, 101 Dalmatians and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The sponsors are heavyweight multinational corporations: Cyberdyne Systems, Omni Consumer Products, Tyrell Corporation, Umbrella Corporation, and Weyland-Yutani. If you want to find out all the lines of business in which these global (or even superglobal) enterprises operate, you should watch films like The Terminator, Robocop, Blade Runner, Resident Evil and Alien.
A significant museum project also needs big marketing machinery. The first-phase campaign will be implemented with posters that are created by such non-fictitious figures as Judas Arrieta, Nisrine Boukhari, Erika Harrsch, Herman Van Ingelgem, Zena El Khalil, Eemil Karila, Jani Leinonen, Shunsuke François Nanjo, Rivane Neuenschwander, Erkka Nissinen, Katja Tukiainen and Abdul Vas. Riiko did not choose poster artists from fictitious films or comics but among real artists, close friends who are important to him in one way or another.
MuNA also has a plan for conquering the world. The rare honour of opening the first MuNA goes to Mänttä in 2014. The local partner is the Serlachius Museums which, right then, are opening a significant expansion related to the annex of the art museum. That will be followed by Abu Dhabi (2015), Shanghai (2016), Doha (2017), Guangzhou (2018), Moscow (2019), Delhi (2020), São Paulo (2021), Lagos (2022), Beirut (2023), Johannesburg (2024), Chengdu (2025), Mexico City (2026), Jakarta (2027), Santiago de Chile (2028), Beijing (2029), Luanda (2030), Istanbul (2031), Bangalore (2032), Bogotá (2033), Mumbai (2034), Cairo (2035) and, finally, the planet Mars (2036). The programme after that is still in the planning stage, because the MuNA machinery does not want to anticipate the geopolitical development of the world or our solar system too far into the future.
We ask what the Museum of No Art will be showcasing. Riiko, eagerly getting into the role of Museum Director Sakkinen over coffee for dessert at the restaurant table at the Reina Sofia, says that art will have a marginal part in the activities of MuNA. The museum will focus solely on a museum shop. No exhibitions will be arranged, there will be no collections, no one is even thinking about any pedagogical activity. The entire program will consist of a high-quality museum shop that will only offer the museum's own MuNA products.
* * *
This is a good place to take a breather. The project will surely open up many kinds of interesting perspectives towards museums other than MuNA, but we do not want to allow Riiko, who is having an excellent time in the role of Museum Director Sakkinen, to open his thoughts on them yet. First, it is good to ponder how this project will be positioned in relation to the artist Sakkinen's earlier career.
After thinking about this for a while, we find several logical aspects. Let's start with assuming a role. Throughout his career, Riiko has taken advantage of different roles in his art, performed as something other than himself. He sprung into the consciousness of the Finnish art world while still a student at the Academy of Fine Arts, by deceiving a reporter of Helsingin Sanomat and introducing himself as an Israeli-Danish artist and professor Tal R. Upon graduation from the Academy of Fine Arts, he worked together with his alter ego, Görsky Grytvic from Turkey. Many of his exhibitions have taken their shape when he has 'established' something, such as Riiko Sakkinen's Encyclopaedia (Revised and Updated Edition) (2010) at the Kunsthalle Helsinki; Syria Study Center (2012) at the Korjaamo Galleria or an even earlier work, Riiko Sakkinen's Department Store (2002), which was placed in the market square in Kuopio. As an artist, Riiko has compared himself to McDonald's – a strong brand that still reacts to local issues. Also, he has described himself as an enterprise in interviews. Preferably a large enterprise that would employ assistants and curators, develop its own products like fashion houses, unique pieces for the rich and cheaper merchandise for ordinary people.
Apart from taking on roles, Riiko is also used to selling as an artist. Even his final work at the Academy of Fine Arts caused a stir when, as a young aspiring artist, on the cusp of graduation, he charged a one-euro entrance fee to his final work exhibition. This kicked up a fuss, and the case aroused enormous feelings for and against. Riiko himself emphasised that, with this gesture, he wanted to break structures of power in the art world, where a student ready for graduation was expected to wait, humble and fearful, for professors to look at and examine his exhibition. Subsequently, selling has become almost an obsession in the artistic production of Riiko, who is interested in the structures of the economy. The aforementioned department store in Kuopio operated such that Riiko took orders in his stall, called his assistant who then bought the goods ordered from department stores adjacent to the square and delivered them to the stall, where Riiko sold them to his customers at the same price. At the Vaasa City Art Gallery, Riiko was almost assailed by the police for selling hamburgers and vodka to people visiting the exhibition. At some point, he was heading for Cuba to sell Cuban rum he had bought in Finland and, while in residence in London, he sold T-shirts on the street that ended up in Vogue magazine's Pick of what to see, wear and do in January. While collaborating with a Belgian gallery, he sold options that would allow people to buy his drawings five years out, at prices dating back five years. Later he said he would buy, sign and sell Spanish government bonds. Of course he has also had products for sale on websites he has maintained as an artist. MuNA's products for sale are a continuation of a long and honourable list.
Speaking of lists: MuNA is consistent of Sakkinen, even in terms of the fictitious characters of its organisation. The Board members and sponsors form kinds of lists we have got used to seeing among his works for a long time. Even the artists whose posters MuNA uses to market itself constitute a list, and the museum's list for conquering the world is also a list, based on careful geopolitical analysis of the future.
Taking on roles, selling things and compiling lists are features associated with its form that coherently connect Museum Director Sakkinen and MuNA to Sakkinen the artist's earlier production. After lunch at the Reina Sofia, we wonder whether we could find similar substance-related points of contact between the works of the museum director and the artist. As an artist, Riiko has always emphasised over the years one basic principle in his work: making things visible. When he has placed, for instance, a T-shirt made with child labour in his exhibitions, he has wanted to tell us that the Western economic system – and our well-being – is actually based on the use of child labour. A question arises that is of particular interest to us museum workers: does MuNA have similar intentions? Does MuNA make visible things that exist in the museum field but which we, as museum people, find difficult to discern?
We are getting to the core of the project. However, we have consumed our earthly lunch with decent wine at the Reina Sofia, and we have to stop theorising. It is time to continue our adventure in Madrid's museums.
Supper at la Terraza del Casino
Riiko is still slightly frenzied. He cannot get our quick visit to Madrid's most snobbish museum, Thyssen, out of his mind. The whole fancy name of the museum is El Museo de arte Thyssen-Bornemisza, and visiting it has enraged Riiko.
Fortunately the environment we are about to settle in calms Riiko down. The waiters buzzing around see to it, attentively but unnoticeably, that we are all right. We receive menus printed on beautiful cardboard in front of us, on a white tablecloth. The one of us who knows he gets to pay the bill takes a pretty deep sigh when he sees the prices on the menu. But no, there is no escaping from the situation, and the work of art in which we have placed ourselves now demands this – so we are all soon in a cheerful mood and all of our taste buds begin to prepare for a pleasant experience. This time Riiko has not managed to eat in a restaurant with three Michelin stars, as was his earlier dream, but the two stars of the Casino and, in particular, the immortal reputation of Paco Roncero, its star chef, are enough to create great expectations. We order a tasting menu with wine on the side as recommended by the kitchen.
As the waiters take our orders to the kitchen, Riiko continues his straightforward analysis of Thyssen. There was nothing good about the place. Actually, Riiko was reserved from the outset and suggested that we go to the museum by ourselves and he wait outside. We rejected this thought because the whole idea of our encounter is to experience different museums together and then discuss them over good food. Riiko faced the first shock when we saw the enormous portraits of the 'barons and baronesses' of the Thyssen-Bornemisza family, as he calls them, in the salmon-red lobby of the museum. The plants in the lobby received a quick judgement, likewise the glass cabinets showcasing the museum shop's products in the hallway leading to the gallery premises. Riiko could not even be appeased in the exhibition which, after all, includes great examples of old European art, impressionism, expressionism and many other genres of modernism from the early 1900s. In Riiko's opinion, the museum has clearly acquired for its collection one thing after another from all the artists made significant by history, without any taste or striving for style of its own. He likens Thyssen as a museum to an upstart collector who buys yellow works of art by famous artists because they fit a yellow sofa by a famous designer.
We cautiously try to defend Thyssen. Is it not good that such wealthy families invest in art and accumulate public collections that are democratically presented to everyone? This way, even these works are not in the homes of private collectors but, instead, we all get to enjoy them. But Riiko does not budge – Thyssen clearly stands for things that are distasteful to him in some very profound way. We decide to forget about Thyssen and, while enjoying the delicacies presented to us from the kitchen, we discuss museums, power and money more broadly.
* * *
Riiko suggests that we start with the definition of a museum: how does our culture define a museum? In desperation, we dig into the nooks of our memory for details of the definition of a museum by ICOM, the International Council of Museums: museums are institutions that provide teaching or education and work for the benefit of society without seeking operating profit. Producing pleasure was probably somehow included in the definition, we seem to remember. The basic mission of museums is to collect, preserve and present works of art and old objects. Riiko is instantly overjoyed, and still cannot let go of Thyssen. In the exhibition spaces, we saw glass cabinets with products for sale by the museum – are they not for seeking operating profit? When the museum's works that are most prominently laid out show its owners in fancy evening dresses, what does that have to do with teaching or education? Who derives pleasure from this? What part of society does this serve?
Riiko slows down a bit and says that MuNA is a dystopia. As a matter of fact, he clarifies, it may be something which has already come true. If it represents the current trend in museums, the humorous elements associated with it may not make anyone laugh soon.
We start talking about the current museum boom. It seems that museums, especially art museums, are being built all over the place. Museum architecture is on display everywhere, and we thirst for new pearls of Wow architecture to admire and abhor. Riiko explains how all this was evident in Spain during the previous economic boom. At that time, he says, new art museums were constructed in 'every village' because every mayor or provincial leader had to have a museum of their own, with socialites gathered for the inauguration. Now these institutions are mostly left standing empty, since no one has the money to operate or maintain them. In Riiko's opinion, their purpose was never to 'educate' or 'operate for the benefit of society'; instead, they were meant to become symbols of the power of politicians and civil servants.
Riiko is starting to hit his stride again and emphasises that, for wealthy people, the art world is an excellent sector for showing off their influence. In comparison with sports, which excites large masses, the sums of money spent sponsoring it are astoundingly small. If a person or an enterprise that wants to show their influence can spend, let's say, one million euros per year on sponsorship, there is no point in choosing Formula 1 racing. That sum will buy you an advertisement the size of a small stamp on Kimi Räikkönen's or Fernando Alonso's car, but visibility in the art sector is much bigger. A person spending a million per year on sponsorship in a city the size of Helsinki, for instance, would be the king of the local art world who could pick and choose which VIP events to attend, who to have dinner with, where to show their face. Perhaps this is precisely the reason why Scrooge McDuck, known for his stinginess, and the other Board members of MuNA are involved in the art world, Riiko contemplates.
On the other hand, they may have even more prosaic purposes for their activities. Riiko throws an imaginary example into the mix: take a large, international museum with a very well-known brand. Say that a Board member has a significant Jackson Pollock collection, for example. If he wants to sell his own Pollocks and get a higher price for them, would it not make sense for him to pressure his own museum into arranging a big Pollock exhibition? Such exhibitions increase the prices of all works by Jackson Pollock in the marketplace.
We listen to Riiko, savour the Casino's special delicacies, and our ears start turning red. Surely all this cannot involve things quite like that? We remind Riiko of the emergence of science centres, for example. Nuclear physicist Frank Oppenheimer, who deeply regretted inventing the atomic bomb, wanted to create a centre for science, art and human perception because, in his opinion, 'he who sees and understands the complexity of the world does not want to destroy but cherish it'. Oppenheimer took action and, in 1969, opened the San Francisco Exploratorium, still the most famous centre of science in the world, which shuns the definition of a science centre by being a community museum for awareness. What should we think about this example? Surely people can have other motives for their actions than lust for money, and cannot those motives sometimes be good? As museum professionals, we are provoked by Riiko's incisiveness, assume the sincere ideology of museum boy scouts, and now wish to preach about the tangible and intangible cultural heritage and the importance of cherishing it. Riiko, however, cuts off our attempt like the flight of the chicken the waiters have just brought us. Word mongering from dictionaries, he states, and urges us to look up the definition of, say, 'democracy' in a dictionary and at the same time think about whether we truly live in a democracy.
Next Riiko, who has really got going, returns to the question of museums as merchants, which is essential for MuNA. Why is it so important for museums to set up a shop or – as happens these days – several shops on their premises? The practice of exit through the gift shop is becoming more prevalent at large museums: the last room of the exhibition is, more and more frequently, a gift shop that sells junk associated with the exhibition. Riiko asks us about the shops in our own background communities, Heureka, the Finnish science centre, and the Serlachius Museums. How much of our revenue do they generate? We both state that the percentage, as such, is rather small and that the shops have a bigger effect on image. Bad trading, Riiko replies to this. As Mikko mentions Heureka's satellite shops at Kamppi shopping centre and Helsinki Airport, Riiko comes close to choking on the tour-de-force of the Casino's molecular kitchen: 'All right, then!'
The situation is getting tense. We notice that we are moving from a more general level to our own background communities, and that is not necessarily easy. Indeed, Riiko urges us to think about the kinds of power connections Serlachius and Heureka could have on their surroundings. He himself does not have such a background community – or does he? When we enquire about this, Riiko brings up his relationship with Kiasma. As a Finnish contemporary artist, he perceives it without a doubt as some kind of a home museum of his, and he has a long common history with it. Of course Kiasma has his works in its collections, and his works have been displayed there. In fact, he used to work at Kiasma for a long time: during his studies he was a guide at the museum and later he worked in other duties related to museum pedagogy. We hear that Kiasma's power connections bothered him quite a lot during those guide days. He hated the honorary plaques of sponsor companies in the museum lobby, and sometimes he felt that art was just an excuse for arranging events for sponsors.
What about our own background communities, Heureka and the Serlachius Museums? Heureka is run by the Finnish Science Centre Foundation, whose original members include the University of Helsinki, Aalto University, the Federation of Finnish Learned Societies, the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK), the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Ministry of Employment and the Economy, the Ministry of Finance, the City of Vantaa, the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK), and the Trade Union of Education in Finland (OAJ). If we start to contemplate Heureka's operation from Riiko's Marxist perspective, we might think it involves trimming Finnish competitiveness through exhibitions that praise science and technology. On the other hand, the scope of the parties involved makes this a difficult interpretation. But when the ownership is so diffuse, we may talk about who is missing. Where are the unemployed and the immigrants, for instance? Heureka's most important public financier is Vantaa, the most debt-ridden municipality in Finland – is this the voice of the have-nots? In any case, even Heureka deliberates issues related to its own use of power. Mikko talks about a study underway, where science centre expert Andrea Bandelli from the Free University Amsterdam is studying who ultimately determines the programmes at science centres, subjects of exhibitions and the method of handling them. Heureka is one of the objects of that study.
What about Serlachius? One might think it would be an especially easy target for Riiko's criticism. It has not been very long since Kristiina Halkola sang about the Serlachius family in the legendary Finnish tune Song about 20 Families. However, the Serlachius Museums are run by a foundation that includes not only members of the Serlachius family but also such organisations as the Artists' Association of Finland, the Association of Finnish Sculptors, the Fine Arts Academy of Finland, and Åbo Akademi. Of course, the Serlachius family and, subsequently, the art foundation, have wielded a significant amount of power at the local level in Mänttä. And in the art world? Traditionally, Serlachius has been defined as a conservative bastion of old art whose use of aesthetic power may have been seen as idealistic indifference to the entire field of contemporary art. Now the foundation is building its new temple of power in Mänttä, the first new museum or significant expansion situated in a new building in Finland since Kiasma. And yes, Pauli confesses: Serlachius, storming into the field of contemporary art, is yearning for a new kind of position in the Finnish art world. Right now, though, it is using power mostly by serving Riiko Sakkinen some excellent food, although he refuses to sing to its tune.
It starts to feel like, together, we find it easy to understand, at the level of principle at least, the mechanisms through which museums in Finland can exercise power. When we approach our own background communities, such understanding may be more difficult, and we begin to resort to telling jokes. We are part of the machineries and tentacles of power ourselves. But what about artists? Riiko thinks about this for a moment and then admits that they, too, have problematic positions of power in art institutions. For instance, they often decide on each other's grants. In his mind, Riiko throws himself with gusto in the role of a power-wielding artist and starts to think about which artists, who studied at the same time as him at the Academy of Fine Arts, he would never award any grants to because they said this or did that in the third year. That's why it would be better, Riiko states, if the funding of artists was determined by curators, museum directors or other people, not other artists according to the principle of peer assessment.
In any case, artists are always in a poor financial position. In exhibition projects, the artist is still often the only individual who is not paid for work. This whole subject is clearly difficult for Riiko. During interviews, when he was younger, he has said that if he, at the age of 35, does not earn as much money with his art as his wife does as an art teacher, he will quit. As we know that Riiko has already crossed that boundary, we ask how it ultimately turned out. Riiko says that recently, at age 35, he enjoyed a grant which enabled him to continue his career as an artist not only concretely but also on a symbolic level. But he is not rich. The family has a house in the countryside, but it is rented, and they do not have an apartment in Madrid. Sports cars, helicopters and English gardeners are conspicuous by their absence. And yes: he finds it difficult to provide for his family from time to time. He says he has, in recent times, seriously thought about ending his career as an artist. Maybe that would stir up a discussion: an artist known by everyone, who regularly appears in the papers and has achieved a great deal in his career, is hanging up his paintbrush because it is impossible to make a living from art.
An awkward silence descends upon our table. We are starting to feel uncomfortable for other reasons too: we have already reached the final stage of desserts, and we cannot get very excited about the petit four assortment just brought to the table.
* * *
During our discussion, Paco Roncero's cooks have truly displayed their greatest expertise. We leave the art world, money and power as if by joint, unspoken agreement and start to feverishly analyse the meal we just finished. The wine certainly did not play a significant role in any way. The portions were imaginative and, in the finest traditions of molecular gastronomy, the raw materials were occasionally unidentifiable. For the most part, everything was exquisite, although Riiko even had to think for a moment about sending the sirloin back to the kitchen. A second time he considered pointing out to the waiters that, when serving so many small meals, changing the cutlery every time is a bad practice in ecological terms. However, when we reminded him that he was once seen at a restaurant in Helsinki chastising waiters about failing to change the cutlery, he burst out in bubbly laughter and gave up complaining.
The final summary is unanimous: the meal was excellent but perhaps a little too wide-ranging. Halving the amount of portions might have made the experience unforgettable. Riiko is bothered about one thing: he would have liked to have heard some kind of story behind the menu. Actually, he would have been happy to have a guide or an audio guide next to him throughout the meal to open up each course and its philosophy. We are well aware of Riiko's antipathy to museum pedagogy and we point out the contradiction. However, there is no real contradiction here – some practices are better suited to certain issues, other practices to other issues. Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi.
When we get to coffee and spirits, there is one more small annoyance. Riiko describes to the waiter what type of Spanish brandy we would like to enjoy and then, apologising politely, has to send the bottle back because it is exactly the same brand he regularly enjoys at home. At least the description was a success, we state. We drink the coffee and head into the Madrid night. We have a lot to digest – in terms of both the meal and the discussion.
Lunch at Nerua
Guggenheim's restaurant, Nerua, is difficult to find. You have to leave the actual museum, and signs lead us from the front door down a staircase towards the river – but then they seem to turn us around and back up the same staircase. After a painful number of turns we eventually find the right door far behind the structure. After this, everything is easy. We are led to the kitchen. A bite to eat and some welcoming words amidst the bustle of people in white hats convince us that they take food seriously here, too. The dining room only has a few tables, and there are only a few more patrons than there are cooks. We get a round table from where we can, if we so choose, peer downwards through a window dotted with water drops towards the enormous Maman spider by Louise Bourgeois.
Nerua, headed by Josean Martínez Alija, is recognised as one of the best museum restaurants in the world. It says its roots are in the Basque Country but it is open to the world, and Riiko reminisces that it has one Michelin star. Compared with the Madrid Casino, the six-course tasting lunch is of a reasonable size, and even the prices are very affordable compared with the previous evening. Riiko and Pauli, who are driving, decide to order non-alcoholic beverages with the food: vegetable and root vegetable juices of different colours from the soil of the Basque Country. Mikko, on the other hand, is being served a tailor-made wine package. As we taste the drinks, Riiko reminisces about a large article he wrote about food as an art with his friend Jani. Food could be art, but it is not at the moment. Art can inspire all kinds of feelings all the way to fear, disgust and rage, but food just needs to be good. If you get sick from food, you don't call for an art critic but a doctor. Riiko also reminisces, with respect, about Ferran Adrià, the master of molecular gastronomy, as a Documenta artist: he did not start to run a sausage stand in the German pavilion, as the curators expected; instead, he flew in members of the public from Kassel to El Bulli, his restaurant on the Costa Brava.
The five-hour drive north from Madrid gave us perspective to examine the discussion about Guggenheim in Helsinki. As a matter of fact, the reason we came to Bilbao is precisely this dispute which inflames the entire cultural elite in Finland, and in the car we had time to position ourselves in relation to it. Mikko confessed himself as mostly an opponent, Pauli as a supporter and Riiko said he objected to both supporting and opposing it. He pointed out that he had explained the main lines of this stand in his blog. In it, he mentions that he is Guggenheim relativist who has an axe to grind concerning the matter. He supports the project if Guggenheim Helsinki exhibits his retrospective but will not support it if it makes exhibitions out of architecture and design.
Before we sit down at the table at Nerua, we have time to meet the artist Ainhoa Ortells, a Basque friend of Riiko's, at the Guggenheim café. Ainhoa agreed with Riiko, mutatis mutandis, with regard to Guggenheim Bilbao. She had long opposed the museum as a multinational rich people's project that could not care less about local art and artists. But now she had changed her tune: she says the museum is doing great work to support young, local artists. Ainhoa and her friends had recently been given the opportunity to paint their work on the downstairs walls at Guggenheim. The artists had to pay for the paint themselves, but this did not take away their excitement. There was no retrospective of their own, but they did get a joint exhibition in a space that is now being made into a new museum shop.
* * *
It's just the three of us again, and it is time to contemplate the lessons Guggenheim Bilbao can give to the residents of Helsinki. We taste the excellent hors d'oeuvres brought from Nerua's kitchen and start our discussion about the museum's architecture. We think back to a blow-up of a scrawl by Frank Gehry hanging above the service counter of the café: some early lines that can, with some goodwill, be interpreted as a sketch of the current Wow building. Riiko assumes the role of architecture expert and interprets the museum building's symbolism to us. Guggenheim Bilbao represents power in a slightly different way than dictators in totalitarian states do when they construct palaces. The complex architecture speaks of a simple thing. Everyone can see that an incomprehensible pile like Bilbao's Guggenheim is an expensive installation. There has been an endless amount of money to build it in the most complicated and difficult manner possible. Riiko does not have any respect for that which he sees. If there is this much money to spend, one should order from the architect the simplest and most versatile museum space that provides different opportunities to showcase art. Also, it would have been a good idea to place a lift under the iconic works by Richard Serra on the ground floor of Guggenheim, so they could be moved out of the way for Riiko Sakkinen's retrospective. We laugh at the thought and wonder whether the name of the work (The Matter of Time) foreshadows Riiko's vision.
But have people who discuss art in Finland really studied what it is they support and oppose? In Riiko's opinion, Guggenheim Helsinki should not be compared with the parent museum in New York, nor probably to the Deutsche Bank exhibition in Berlin that has already closed down, the small home museum in Venice or the pop-up Guggenheim in Las Vegas – let alone the construction project in Abu Dhabi which is proceeding with so much trouble. Guggenheim Bilbao was the first and most significant satellite. It is here one should get a glimpse of what kind of art might be fired into the orbit of exhibitions that may soon reach all the way to Helsinki.
We state as if by one mouth that we have bad news for both the supporters and opponents of Guggenheim. Next to the Serra exhibition downstairs, there still sparkled a recollection of the days of glory, and there was another iconic work that can be identified as American, a video installation by Jenny Holzer, and the spider by Louise Bourgeois that everyone loves in the courtyard. On the floors, however, all of the art was local and regional. Basque artists mull over their identity and, as far as we could understand, there was something Spanish involved there, too. The only tourists we could see among the public was our small group, kindly led by Ainhoa. According to information given to us at the information desk, the number of people visiting the Guggenheim each year has fallen from 1.2 million to 800,000. They will have to cut down on expenses and optimise their revenue.
We didn't feel like we were at a McDonald's of art, we didn't see the big bad wolf, nor did we meet any big magnetic names or a Messianic apparition who would save the museum world. When money is scarce, the mega-sized exhibitions will stay in New York, at least outside of the summer season. At Guggenheim Bilbao, you are at an ordinary museum and you see art created by local young artists for local audiences. Riiko, enjoying Nerua's excellent cod simmered in an eggplant sauce and infused with red onion, points out that, in the light of the Bilbao example, the opponents should start to support and supporters should start to object to Guggenheim Helsinki. On site, the stand Riiko adopted intuitively on the drive here is made stronger.
Consistently, Riiko thinks that maybe there is a project by some conceptual artist behind the biggest Finnish art discussion in the 2010s. Maybe there was never any intention to establish a museum but to start a discussion and make the ideas and intentions of the art sector's powers-that-be visible.
We decide to move on from Guggenheim. If Riiko is this ambivalent about Guggenheim, what would a museum of his dreams be like? After thinking about this for a moment, Riiko states that, for artists, museums usually represent the highest level of exhibition spaces in which to showcase their works. Getting into a museum collection, on the other hand, means money, fame and eternity for an artist. People pay for the works, they are put on display and they are preserved for generations to come. Riiko tells us about his own good museum experiences. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York, or MoMA, bought some of his works, he had to answer a long list of questions on a questionnaire prepared for that purpose. The answers, the artist's voice, are now in the archives: the museum has a relationship with Riiko and not just his work.
While eating, Riiko starts to feast on thoughts. In the best case scenario, artists would have a museum that supports them in the long term. It would collect their works so systematically that building a retrospective would be possible at any time. An artist would be significant for a good museum. Usually, however, the situation is quite the opposite. Riiko shares an example where a Finnish museum bought his works for its collection from a roving art agent rather than from him. In general, museums should be more interested in artists as human beings than in their works as objects. Riiko thinks private collectors are often much more honourable than museums in this regard. When Riiko goes to Kiasma to look at his works there, he has to pay an entrance fee. The only exception he knows to this rule, and a museum that treats artists with respect, is the aforementioned MoMA. After it had purchased some of his works for its collection, he received a VIP card, and these days he receives friendly e-mail messages from its chief curator, Klaus Biesenbach, sharing recent news about the museum. That, Riiko thinks, is a model that could easily be copied by Finnish museums if they wanted to be ideal places for artists.
Even in Riiko's opinion, a museum provides an artist with completely different kinds of exhibition opportunities to a private gallery. In Finland, most galleries are 'vanity galleries' where the artist pays not only the expenses of the exhibition but even the rent for the exhibition space. The greater the number and shorter the duration of the exhibition, the greater revenue for the gallery. Even a museum is not a guarantee for quality, however. In Riiko's opinion, art museums in small Finnish towns are so lame that he is forced to ask whether just anything can be called a museum. Paintings received as inheritance from a local bigwig and placed in a cabinet and an exhibition, painted white, in the corner of the local library, are not enough.
The museum of Riiko Sakkinen's dreams would invest, for the long term, in the exhibition of an individual artist. The process would be slower and deeper altogether. The exhibition could be up all year, and it would change, there would be things happening all the time. Riiko underscores that way too many people think that an exhibition has a natural arc – it is built, it opens, and then it ends. Pauli's ears start turning red. Even the Serlachius Museums intend to keep Riiko's big MuNA effort on display for the first summer only. Riiko teases: could Serlachius agree to circulate MuNA in accordance with its own touring programme? Will all of us be eating again together on Mars in 2036?
We laugh for a moment but then get serious and continue to grill Riiko. Perhaps by the insidious influence of Nerua, the topic of the conversation persistently stays on food. It is no surprise for us that the director of Riiko's dream museum would take him out for a great meal on a frequent basis. At first, he dreams of the museum's own fine dining restaurant, following Nerua's example. It would be inextricably linked to art projects underway on the exhibition premises. Having thought about the subject more carefully, Riiko ends up taking the fine restaurant out of his ideal museum: it does not sit well with his left-wing ideology, after all. But the museum must have an affordable bar. Of course, Riiko can always, if necessary, go and eat well somewhere else in secret with the museum director, like in Bilbao. It is essential that the museum director does not focus on anything unessential or have to run after sponsors; there must be time for Sakkinen the artist. Riiko also contemplates the location of his ideal museum. Looking at Pauli, he states that Mänttä might not be at the top of list, after all. Although the museum itself does not have to be large, there should be a city of at least two million residents around it and the proper range of restaurants that comes with it.
While planning this ideal museum, we have reached the tail end of our lunch. The chocolate in the dessert is too much for us, and we exit the restaurant in a good mood. The food and beverages receive our gracious blessing. We walk to the car and head out of town.
Surprisingly, the trip from Bilbao to Madrid is longer than from Madrid to Bilbao. It's dark, it is raining, and the Basque Country knows no signposts to the capital of Spain. The Saturday evening traffic jam slows down our attempts to navigate our way to the road out of the city. We repeat our mistakes until we become thoroughly familiar with the route we should not take.
Dinner at Tirso de Molina
Mealtime on Sunday is approaching. Since we have eaten like kings for a couple of days, we decide, in the name of Aristotelian moderation, to have our next meal without frills in some modest greasy spoon for common people. We are in the heart of the city centre where there are few such restaurants. Riiko acts as guide and we start walking across the city. We pass Puerta del Sol, the city's main square. Riiko points out a sign for the metro station in the square and explains that the current name of this most central metro station in Madrid is Vodafone Sol. The world seems to be turning itself into a work of art by Riiko Sakkinen in a convulsive fashion.
Riiko leads us towards the Lavapiés district. We leave the boutiques and design stores behind, and the shops and groceries on the street change character. Almost as a sign of early spring, fresh, bright green posters hang on the walls of houses. Riiko translates their message to us: people are invited to a demonstration to resist the closure of the Coca-Cola factory in Fuenlabrada. There are 1,200 jobs at stake, and the people are urged to boycott Coca-Cola.
We peek into restaurants that look promising, but there are too few people, too many people or the wrong kind of people for us in them. We circle around the same quarters, and the syndrome of finding the best restaurant, familiar from several trips, starts to raise its head. Can we find the second most straightforward greasy spoon? We are getting hungry, and we decide to enter the next restaurant that is in any way appropriate.
After a couple of minutes we sit down, contentedly, at a somewhat crowded table although we do understand, of course, that Taberna-Café Tirso de Molina is more like a facsimile version of a greasy spoon than an actual greasy spoon. We accept prints of posters by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec extended to us and focus on the menu found on their rear. We still have time for a proper meal and the following discussion. We all order hefty slabs of meat for dinner.
* * *
While waiting for the food, we have time to contemplate what we saw and experienced earlier in the morning. We had saved the Prado, the most famous of all museums in Madrid, as our museum site for the Sunday morning. We arrived in front of it in beautiful sunshine. Although spring was in the air, people were flocking both in front of the museum and in its sophisticated rooms. We had all eagerly looked forward to getting to the Prado, because we knew it had something to offer to all of us. Riiko wanted to see the Goyas, Pauli the Bosches and Mikko David and Goliath by Caravaggio. And we all wanted to see a lot more, too, as the Prado houses collections of Dürer, El Greco and Velázquez. There was also something unexpected on offer: hanging amidst the old art were exciting parallels from collections of natural history. The artist Miguel Ángel Blanco had sought and put on display curiosities from natural history next to details related to nature, seen in the pictorial motifs of the masters. We admired stuffed animals, skeletons, insects, fossils, meteorites and mineral samples adjacent to paintings and sculptures.
As a matter of fact, Blanco's exhibition is a carefully considered homage to the Prado's early history. King Charles III commissioned the museum building in 1785 for his collection of natural history that he had, in the spirit of enlightenment, bought from Paris. The death of King Charles and the delay in construction meant that the museum was finally inaugurated by his grandson Ferdinand VII. The new king and his spouse Isabella had another hobby: the building was opened in 1819 as a royal museum of paintings and sculptures that subsequently became the Prado National Museum. Thus Blanco led the Prado to its own roots in natural history.
Science buffs that we are, we got into photographing the enticing still lifes. Not many minutes went by before we were threatened with being thrown out of the museum: 'We have seen you. No more photography. It is forbidden. If you try to take any more pictures, you will have to leave!' Riiko, who had not heard the details of the disciplining or noticed the small ID card on the lapel of the energetic woman, interpreted the situation slightly differently. He gave us a voluble account of how Spanish culture is proud of shared property. Art belongs to the people, and everyone sees it as their right and duty to protect the national property.
As we think back to the embarrassing experience at the table at Tirso de Molina, we drift into a conversation about the moments of birth of the modern museum institution. The discussion takes us away from Madrid and the Prado – to Paris one generation earlier and the time of the French Revolution. Art collections seized from the king, the church and emigrants were opened for all at the Louvre Palace in August 1793. Right at that time, the French Revolution was escalating to its zenith: a time of terror began, the French Republican calendar replaced the Pope's chronology, and the Cult of Reason supplanted faith in Jesus; priests and their supporters were unnecessary so they could be killed.
Riiko is listening with interest to our little lecture on the birth of a museum institution open to all people in the bosom of the Revolution. He again reminds us of the patriotism we came across at the Prado: the museum is the nation's most important asset at a symbolic level. Should the revolutionaries keep this better in mind today? Should museums be among the first buildings to be conquered? Riiko tells us about a book by Edward Luttwalk called Coup d'État – A Practical Handbook he read a long time ago. It advises revolutionaries to first take over administrative buildings and TV stations and, during the current decentralised exercise of power, Google's servers and the head offices of multinational corporations could also be obvious targets. But are even such sites actually essential? Should a Finnish revolutionary general send tanks to Ateneum, the Finnish National Gallery and thus the citadel of the nation's collective memory? The subjects of 'reprogramming' would not be high officials but museum pedagogues? Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past, Riiko quotes Orwell from memory.
How, then, should revolutionaries look at structures of power associated with national cultural property? Is there, in fact, a revolution taking place in our midst without us even noticing it? Are retrospective exhibitions of Serra and Rauschenberg fatal strikes of cultural colonialism that Guggenheim (as an extension of the Embassy of the United States) uses to finally crush us? Or, is the plot such that Guggenheim puts Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Eija-Liisa Ahtila on display in Helsinki and tells us how we should see and interpret our own Finnish art history? Or will Guggenheim even begin to collect some of our national treasures and will they end up in an American collection?
We have finished the plain hors d'oeuvres at Tirso de Molina. While waiting for our portions of meat, we leave the revolution behind us for a while and return to the finances and commercialism of museums we contemplated back at the Prado. For some reason, even Riiko did not flinch much, even though the museum shop at the Prado was the largest we had seen, and the cash register sang the loudest tune. Much has been written about the economy of the Prado in the Spanish press. In 2001, José María Aznar's government changed the museum's financial preconditions for operation and made them 'more encouraging': the aim was to reduce the share of state subsidy in covering the annual budget from 80 to 50 per cent. In return, the museum was allowed to manage its own budget and act in the marketplace – by signing cooperation agreements with businesses, turning its name into a product and its treasures into commercial goods. In the Prado's large souvenir shop, we did admire a vending machine where one can order a copy of a work and pick out a frame for it; they promised to deliver it to the buyer's home address. Signboards at the restaurant at the Prado sold food in Spanish, English and Japanese. The only way to get out of the Las Furias special exhibition was through a specialist shop. The exhibition's imagery of horrors that stir up emotions does not incite people to take to the streets but steers them to the queue for the cash register.
Is this the future of museums? We tell Riiko about John Cotton Dana (1856–1929), the founder of the museum in Newark, New Jersey, who wrote about the gloom of museums a hundred years ago. Out of spite, Dana likened museums to department stores and enquired: which of them has the better location, opening hours, access, collection, layout, lighting, guidance, communications, turnover of goods and approach that follows the times? Riiko becomes thoroughly annoyed. As the Prado proved so well, museums really do not differ from department stores, and the same goes for other institutions in the art world. Let's pretend that we are good, somehow better than others, let's make the world a better place, but nothing here is true. But why should it be? The art world cannot be separated from society, it is not a utopia. In a capitalist society, the art world operates with capitalist logic, according to its rules. Its goals are capitalism's goals. In a neo-liberal world, the art world is neo-liberal, in a socialist world it is socialist, in a dictatorial world it is dictatorial. Ultimately, the revolution cannot start from a museum, it arrives there last, Riiko sums up.
The talk returns to the revolution, almost unnoticeably. Riiko himself is a communist, of course. We enquire how a communist artist is committed to his society. Riiko does not have to think about the answer, he has clearly contemplated this issue before. In this capitalist society, his mission is to fight against the system. Indeed, he is always ready for intellectual boxing, to kick ass and get his ass kicked. It fits his character. As a matter of fact, he gets most bored at meetings of the Communist Party where everyone agrees on matters. In a way, becoming a communist is also artistic suicide. What else does a communist society need artists for than as painters of propaganda posters?
We want to extend this idea to the museum world and ask, what would a communist art museum be like? What would it actually be needed for, is Riiko's quick rhetorical reply. The duty of art is to question things, but what is left to question in communism? Riiko supposes that there would be no room for his art in communism, because then all is well. Propaganda is a tool, not an intrinsic value. As a dissident, Riiko is ready to be the first volunteer to step in front of a firing squad: he would be unnecessary.
While gnawing on the spaces between the mutton bones at Tirso de Molina, we yet again wish to challenge Riiko's snobbery: he likes to eat and drink at high prices, dreams of fancy cars and valuable objects. Is this not just an unbearable contradiction for a communist? Riiko sees the matter in reverse: he shows an example because, in communism, everyone eats at fine dining restaurants. Maybe not every day, but everyone has the opportunity to. Riiko sees the possibilities of his role and emphasises their significance. As a dissident, he wants to become as rich and famous as possible so he is taken more seriously. Dropping out of society would not promote the revolution.
It feels like we are getting nowhere in our attempts to talk about Riiko's contradictions. He says that, as an artist and a communist, he is painting himself into a corner, the title of his exhibition which will soon be put on display at the Korjaamo Galleria in Helsinki. But as he sits here in front of us, he nimbly speaks himself out of that corner. Is it that we have drifted into a corner while interviewing him? The discussion starts to go around in circles, our attempt to speak consistently becomes entangled. In any case, everything goes back to Riiko's utopian socialism. It is clearly not a light-hearted choice for him, not a mere play with words. It is more of a heavy and tormenting thing, like Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Godot does not show up, but the wait is left lingering. The reasons why a revolution is needed are harrowing for Riiko. Perhaps they should be the rest of us, too?
* * *
It feels like time to return from the depths of the revolution to lighter topics. As we wait for dessert, we suggest talking some more about MuNA, this time especially about its relationship with communism. Could Riiko be more specific about the kind of museum with which he is trying to achieve his revolution? MuNA's relentless main ideologue again flies off from his corner on the wings of imagination and declares the brilliant Hegelian mission of his museum. MuNA must perfect the idea of a capitalist museum so that the revolution becomes necessary. MuNA solely exists for the benefit of its sponsors, or members of the museum's Board of Directors. All functions are operationally and strictly lined behind this objective. MuNA does not seek frivolous museum awards or rewards, it has no communal goals in relation to other museums or anyone else, for that matter. The best thing for society is the vitality of the strongest individuals and how much money the richest people have. Even museum architecture is ultimately indifferent to the flinty capitalists behind MuNA: go to old industrial buildings if it is fashionable, but hire Zaha Hadid as the architect for a new building if that is even more fashionable. It is important to go to visible places, where money and power move. Here we interrupt Riiko and ask him why MuNA is starting in Mänttä, then. The question gives Riiko pause. Well, it doesn't sound terribly fancy when, generally speaking, MuNA should be along the lines of Paris–Tokyo–New York. However, Riiko takes an intense breath as he comes up with the solution: perhaps this is an original digression by MuNA, the brand's piquant side project, MuNA Cottage or MuNA Summer?
MuNA's personnel policy also inspires Riiko. This subject is by no means unimportant; instead, here we are laying one of the cornerstones of the museum's ideology. Riiko starts processing them with a small circular motion. The details of museum architecture are also significant in terms of the personnel policy. Riiko seems to think, in the spirit of Foucault, that architecture plays a central role when creating and maintaining hierarchies. Riiko benchmarked some of MuNA's key principles at Kiasma back in the 1990s when he worked there as a guide. According to Riiko, Steven Holl managed to brilliantly isolate the director from the rest of the staff with his architecture. At the crossroads of the Greek letter 'chi', only museum guests wandering around in the exhibition meet, not the museum's employees. A Homeric nod by Holl was, however, the fact that the museum's guides were seated in Kiasma's most beautiful recess room which originally also housed the only room for smoking in the building. Hierarchy, however, was able to turn this whim of architecture into a triumph. Curators, whose job description did not include greeting museum guides, at least in those days, regularly smoked outdoors, even when the temperature was 30° below zero. Using the same smoking room as the guides would have given the wrong signal.
We should be talking about MuNA, but we grant Riiko one more moment of Kiasma nostalgia because it seems to be an important experience in the shaping of his museum thinking. He says that is where he learned that people interested in culture seek a feudal relationship – a young art student working as a guide would not exist, as an art operator, without this esteemed museum, and that is why his duty is to serve it without proper remuneration.
At Kiasma, the briefest employment relationships in the 1990s lasted for one hour, or a guided tour. There could be up to five such employment relationships in one day, Riiko reminisces. On top of that were preparatory meetings for which no wages were paid. Sakkinen the museum guide did not comprehend the nature of the feudal system at that time: the fiefs' right to attend the same event with those who enjoyed the privileges and follow their discussion does not require specific remuneration, it is recompense in itself. In his youth, Sakkinen the guide instinctively rose in rebellion against free work but as the Museum Director of MuNA he sees the subject more clearly. However, this does not involve a change of perspective but Hegelian dialectics. Everything shall be different at MuNA; after all, feudalism has already lost out to capitalism in the meantime. Museum Director Sakkinen does not have any staff; instead, all services have been completely outsourced. A job agency guarantees steady quality and sufficient competence resources for MuNA's expert services. The volunteer programme at the museum would also be tailored to satisfy the needs of the Museum Director. 'Big-titted college girls, all races – a harem!'
In the dialectics of museums, the Museum of No Art represents the second-to-last phase where art has already left the museum building but all the unhealthy features of the cultural institution have been fine-tuned to the extreme. In the end, Museum Director Sakkinen himself is a puppet of the members of his Board but he does not know that and, therefore, enjoys himself: a small man who experiences greatness when he gets to spend a moment with billionaires. The more instrumental objectives of the Board members, on the other hand, are linked to their ideologies: at MuNA, fancy jet-set events can be arranged that speak of the importance of trading.
And does Riiko feel uncomfortable as the Museum Director of MuNA, as a puppet of its Board members? When we ask about this slightly embarrassing subject, Riiko turns our attention elsewhere. He wonders whether he is the right person as the director of MuNA in the first place, as he is not even a doctor. The director of MuNA should have a proper title, Dr Sakkinen would sound much more convincing than something like Mr Riiko. We contemplate this issue with all the gravity it deserves and then come up with a solution. Everything in this world is for sale. You can access the Internet with a smartphone, and it doesn't take long before the progress and honourable conclusion of Riiko's doctoral studies are known to us. We ask a friendly waiter at Tirso de Molina to come to our table to celebrate, in advance, Dr Sakkinen's post-doctoral party.
We also try to offer up the public work done by museums, their customer orientation, and the identities of visitors to exhibitions as subjects for discussion. Does MuNA take into consideration the different types of characters visiting museums for different motives, according to John H. Falk's oft-quoted theory: explorers, experience seekers, facilitators, professionals and rechargers? Riiko can barely listen to the differences between the identity types and, for a moment, casually ponders that a banker who has read his Ayn Rand might come to MuNA and show some friends how handily one can go to a museum to do some shopping. There, at least, you get right to the point – enter through the gift shop. But does MuNA need visitors in the first place? It certainly does need consumers with purchasing power, money in its cash register, but visitors and with them sand on the floor? Perhaps a visit to a museum could rather be done virtually – let the ordinary people buy their MuNA products through the Internet. As a matter of fact, even the posters made by artists in charge of MuNA's artistic pseudo content would best legitimise the project in cyberspace.
When it starts to look like MuNA's story as a museum that physically exists is soon to come to an end before it has even begun, we are all a little startled. Maybe this is good place to conclude this session. We ask for the bill and get on our way.
Farewell at Museo del Jamón
We have spent a peaceful, free afternoon in central Madrid. We have even picked up some presents. Riiko is carrying a magnificent helicopter, made from Heineken cans, he bought with the principle of fair trade from the street pedlar who had built it with his withered hands. He intends to give the helicopter to his son as a present, and he has also purchased something for his daughter and wife. We also have some small gifts in our backpacks for the folks back home.
It is getting close to the time for farewells, but Riiko wants to show something to us before that. We soon find what we are looking for, a store where it says above the shop window, with letters the size of cat: Museo del Jamón. We step inside. It soon becomes apparent that the word 'museum' has been used pretty creatively here. It is a bar that serves air-dried Serrano ham in various forms, or actually a chain of bars – there are five Museo del Jamóns in all in Madrid. If this museum has a collection, it is hanging on the ceiling. Whole hams have been hung in neat lines, each sort is sold in its own red, green and blue bags. We position ourselves to stand at the corner of a shiny bar, not particularly upright. Not much time passes before we grope for the cool beers and suitably thin slices of Serrano in front of us.
I guess this would be the McMuseum of Madrid's museum world, Riiko suggests. We think about the comparison and, gradually, all that we have seen over three days comes back to mind. Museo del Prado – Museo del Jamón… We taste the names with the Serrano and think about whether the National Museum and a chain of ham bars are really that different in the end.
We do not want summarise much of what we have experienced at the time of farewell. Instead, we pose two more questions to Riiko. In which of the museums we have seen would he most like to hang his own exhibition? And of which of the museums would he want to open a satellite in Helsinki, the city of his birth?
Riiko does not have to think about the site of his own exhibition for long. He would choose Reina Sofia, no question. He is attracted by its unadorned, matter-of-fact policy. It is a place where he would be taken seriously as an artist. As a contemporary artist, he would also fit in as part of its exhibition policy without much justification. At the Prado, he would be a curiosity like the samples of natural history Miguel Ángel Blanco has brought there. He would not like to go to Thyssen, he might present himself at Guggenheim, but Madrid and Reina Sofia would feel most natural.
Riiko finds it more difficult to answer as to which of the museums he would bring to Helsinki. Reina Sofia is no answer – the whole idea would be foolish. In Madrid, Reina Sofia does the work Kiasma is doing in Helsinki; each city should have its own box seats for contemporary art. Riiko cannot be bothered to even think about Thyssen and does not wish to justify his lack of thinking. He does consider the Prado for a moment, instead. One could easily think about the Prado wishing to establish satellites. But why would it set one up in Helsinki? Abu Dhabi would be a much more natural alternative, and the Prado would be somehow in the wrong place in Helsinki anyway. This leaves Guggenheim, and Riiko states that from this group, that would be the most rational selection. In big cities, among which Riiko graciously counts his former hometown, museums should complement and spar with each other. At best, Guggenheim Helsinki could bring new kinds of action to the city, and the Bilbao example shows that, in its satellites, Guggenheim is not necessarily the big bad wolf, although no messiah, either. On the other hand, Riiko states, with this reply he does not intend to record himself as any kind of Guggenheim zealot. If he has to choose his own favourite museum in the world, it may be, for instance, the October War Panorama museum he saw in Damascus. With a panorama produced by North Korean painters, it celebrates the 1973 war against the 'Zionistic enemy', as Riiko and the Syrians describe the conflict we know as the Yom Kippur War. It remains slightly open as to whether Riiko would want to bring a satellite of this museum to Helsinki.
We leave the obvious and not-so-obvious levels of reality and return to MuNA one more time. It is, after all, Riiko's comment on the great Finnish museum discussion. At the same time, as a work, it is consistent with Riiko Sakkinen. Holding a glass of beer in his hand, Riiko explains to us in verbose fashion that he respects the kind of conceptual art where the artist creates his or her own language in the world and speaks of phenomena of the real world through it. In a way, the artist weaves a parallel reality that makes things visible in the world we know, in the language of its own parallel world. This is exactly what MuNA is, we state.
And what about our original objective? Have we learned something new about the museum institution? It is easy to answer this: yes. The discussions we had with Riiko over the course of three days may still be mingling in our mind as a mixed mass, but some kind of consistent structure is gradually taking shape. It feels like Riiko can offer us – if not quite the Truth – then at least a fresh perspective that questions many such issues we have previously held to be self-evident. In this sense, it is certainly to Serlachius' credit that it has landed Riiko Sakkinen's Museum of No Art as one of the inaugural exhibitions in its new museum building, Pauli states.
However, Riiko does not let Mänttä-based complacency grow any further than this. All things must be questioned, including this. He begins to snappishly enquire what Serlachius' true motive might be to start cooperating with him. Does Serlachius want to show itself as an operator that is more moral, more ethical than other museums? Many kinds of thoughts creep to mind. Should we continue even further from here? So, does Serlachius finally have pure motives: idealistically, the museum claims it is trying to produce a discussion of museums' relationship with power through Riiko and his MuNA but, in reality, it just wants to emphasise with all this its own role as some kind of virtuous bastion of magnanimity that is concerned about the ethicalness of the museum world. Is Riiko himself ultimately just a pawn in the museum's dirty game? Or does Riiko understand all this and play Serlachius with the same kind of abandon it exhibits as it tries to take advantage of him? We wonder about how many metalevels we still have to go through in all of this. Finally, we give up. The end result may be that if Serlachius has managed to utilise Riiko and his fame, MuNA's Museum Director Riiko Sakkinen will balance out the situation by planting a cake in the face of Serlachius' Museum Director at the joint opening ceremonies of MuNA and Serlachius' new museum buildings.
* * *
In the end, it is time to part. We order a taxi and shake hands, it is time for all of us to go our separate ways. Riiko plans to take a bus to his home in Cervera de los Montes, where he is getting busy to prepare for his appearance at the Arco Madrid Art Fair, as the only artist of the Korjaamo Galleria from Helsinki. At the fair, he intends to finally make his real breakthrough in Spain, which should later lead to the long-awaited conquest of the world. We, on the other hand, plan to leave this work of art by Riiko Sakkinen in a shared taxi by giving the driver Madrid-Barajas as the destination – the same place where we stepped into Riiko's work of art. Mikko will fly from there to Lisbon to plan for an international consortium exhibition with some local science centre colleagues of his, and Pauli to Barcelona, where he has a meeting with architects designing the extension of the Serlachius Museum in Mänttä.
Our mood is light, as we have just been involved in a comprehensive work of art by a walking installation. We feel somehow eternal – actually, eternalised is more like it. One more clipping from 2000 that we read on the aeroplane on the way here comes to mind. In it, Heikki Hellman, then the head of the culture desk at Helsingin Sanomat, in a fatherly tone admonished a young Riiko, who had tricked the newspaper as Tal R, that such easy publicity would lead to nothing more than the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol talked about way back in the 1960s. We now know, 14 years later, that, as an artist, Riiko Sakkinen has painted himself not only in a corner but also permanently into Finnish art history. We also know that Riiko has the biggest Museum of No Art (MuNA – a pun referring to the Finnish word for "balls") in the city.
We tell each other that, in three days, we have learned a lot of new things. The journey continues, and fortunately there are still more lessons to learn.
Originally published in the catalog “MuNA - Museum of No Art”, 2014.