13 Sep 2018 • Lauren Grace Morris
With Amos Rex, Helsinki goes underground to rise as a cultural destination
In the Finnish capital, a walk down Mannerheimintie Street is the newest endeavour of the curious: in the historic Lasipalatsi Square, white dome-shaped mounds now erupt from beneath the ground, like a submarine’s periscopes bobbing above the water. And like underwater explorers, those who venture beneath the surface at Lasipalatsi are privy to a new world, one designed for the digital age.
Amos Rex, Helsinki’s newest art institution, is the subterrestial annex to what used to be known as the Amos Anderson Art Museum. The original Amos Anderson museum, established in 1965, was housed in the namesake’s property. Anderson was the owner of Finland’s largest Swedish-language newspaper in the 20th century, and a patron of the arts. The latter half of Amos Rex’s name derives from the Bio Rex, a beloved cinema that got its start in the 1930s and is now restored, in 590-seat glory, in the functionalist-era glass building on Lasipalatsi that used to be home to a shopping and entertainment center.
When the idea for Amos Rex was expressed in 2012, Kai Kartio had already been with the original Amos Anderson Art Museum in Helsinki for 11 years. At this time, all of his colleagues knew that any future development would ride on having a new space to express a changing narrative, one increasingly inching towards digitalism. The city of Helsinki, who owned Lasipalatsi, had a problem: How would they facilitate the space’s modern configuration? On the other hand, the perks for the Amos Rex team setting up camp in the square were clear cut: the location was central – a major asset in the compact capital – and the Finnish public already had many positive, historic associations with the space.
Luckily for Lasipalatsi’s fate, the Amos Rex team had a plan and, in Kartio’s words, brilliant architects. JKMM Architects and founding partner Asmo Jaaski realized the unavoidable: to accommodate the goals of the new art museum in the spot, the galleries would have to go underground. Beneath the white domes, the collections of Amos Anderson and new digital installations could coexist happily – and with natural light flooding in from the outside, visitors would not feel oppressed by being in the recesses.
Amos Rex is proving that the move to protect the growth of establishments with Finnish heritage did not entail inevitable regression: in their case, it actually provided a toolbox for advancement
When the museum broke ground in 2016, the Finnish national party had just deemed the Guggenheim foundation into Helsinki an unnecessary import – a contentious move, as backers felt the international name would help bring clout to Helsinki’s cultural scene. And now, at a little over a week old, Amos Rex is proving that the move to protect the growth of establishments with Finnish heritage did not entail inevitable regression – on the contrary: in their case, it actually provided a toolbox for advancement.
The institution – and Kartio’s– narrative is clear: they are spiritedly working to spearhead the trajectory of art’s future and helping to contextualize its past.
In what way do you feel the museum helps usher in the future of digital art?
KAI KARTIO: When we thought about what kind of exhibition space we needed, we really thought about not just today, but tomorrow, in the future. The visual world is in such a phase of real change, and this is of course has a lot to do with digital technologies. It’s difficult to predict how things will happen in the future, if things change with the same pace that they’ve been changing in the past 10, 20 years. So, thinking about this, what we wanted was an exhibition space that would be as open, adaptable and flexible as possible: a really big space that could be rebuilt always according to what we would need.
What we also tried to do was to have technical facilities, electricity available everywhere, cabling available everywhere and so on. This is something which, when we think about the needs of digital art, becomes obsolete so soon. For instance, with the TeamLab installations, it turned out that what we had built was far from sufficient. As for the technical capacities that are needed for each exhibition, it’s in a way a waste of money to try to make it ready to accommodate, because things develop so fast.
Amos Rex boasts a collection of 20th century art, contemporary art and ancient art. How does digital art play its role amid the variety?
In most of our exhibitions, there will be a digital component. For instance, [this might include] different kinds of information or content in augmented reality. When we think about, for example, ancient Egypt, there will be all kinds of digital content which will make the genuine artefacts open up, in a way. We will definitely be showing contemporary art that is experimental, not just content wise, but exploring what is possible with the technological advances of today.
How do the artists for the inaugural exhibitions connect to the museum’s space?
We have TeamLab, which has been a great adventure. This collective has been really great to work with – they do the most advanced immersive projections in the world, at this moment. There are five works in the Massless exhibition, and [one of the installations is] this site-specific work under our largest dome, called Vortex of Light Particles. That was extremely challenging to do. TeamLab has never done anything similar.
As it’s site-specific, this dome space was the starting point for the work. It’s projection that fills the space completely. There isn’t one even surface – even the dome is irregular in shape – they had to do extremely advanced digital mapping and calculating to create the software that’s needed for that kind of thing.
In the spring, we will have Magritte and Studio Drift. There’s a kind of connection: in a way, Studio Drift realizes some of Magritte’s ideas with their specific media.
The original Amos Anderson museum celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2015. How does Amos Rex represent its inherent Finnish heritage?
It’s a dialogue between old and new, both architecturally and in the exhibition profile. The old Lasipalatsi is really an icon of Finnish modernist architecture of the 1930s. It’s part of Finnish architectural history, and very much a part of the mental landscape of the people in Helsinki. It’s a beloved building – people have lots of memories of it, and affection for it.
In the context of the cultural institutions in Helsinki, the art scene of Helsinki, we were, in a way, the missing piece in the middle of a great cluster of art museums and cultural institutions
It’s always difficult to see your ‘Finnish-ness’ when you are a Finn. You see better when you look at it from the outside. We are very pragmatic people, and we are pretty open to new approaches. It’s an advantage of being a young nation. Every culture has old roots, of course: we have very old roots in rural culture. The urban culture in Finland and Helsinki is more recent. In that way, we are more open to experiments in making an urban environment.
With the times and technologies changing so rapidly in cities, what role does Amos Rex play in Helsinki’s urban and cultural development?
Lots of things are happening in Helsinki. I think one of the main things about Amos Rex is the way that it opens into the city, and the way it is somehow implicated in the city fabric. It’s very open to the city, and the Lasipalatsi square, and these funny mounds: people just love it. It’s a new kind of urban space. In the context of the cultural institutions in Helsinki, the art scene of Helsinki, we were, in a way, the missing piece in the middle of a great cluster of art museums and cultural institutions. A stone’s throw from us, there are something like five great museums, the new central library which is opening at the end of the year, the music house – so it’s really a cultural hub, a kind of powerhouse for the city. It makes it the centre of Helsinki very attractive. There’s a kind of effervescence to Helsinki at the moment that is very stimulating.
With what we’ve done, you do your best and then you hope that it creates an impact. It looks as if we have done something right.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.