EXHIBITION REVIEW | Camilla Vuorenmaa’s Take On Being In The Public “Areena”

Artist | Camilla Vuorenmaa (b. 1979) graduated from the Department of Painting at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts in 2005. Vuorenmaa won The Fine Arts Academy of Finland’s Award in 2015, a prize which also included a solo exhibition of her works at EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art in 2016.

Exhibition | CAMILLA VUORENMAA Areena | Forum Box | 5 January – 29 January

Images | Courtesy of the artist and Forum Box gallery | Photo credits: Anna Autio and Jussi Tiainen

Perhaps there is no better place to show Areena – Camilla Vuorenmaa’s latest exhibition in Helsinki – than Forum Box. With its open space and contrasting dark, underground setting, Forum Box looks and feels a lot like an arena. One can imagine being surrounded by high amphitheater-style seating where impatient spectators await to be entertained.

But you, the art viewer, are right there with the artists, their creations and characters, in the mist of it all.

Areena reveals the world of circus, with a particular focus on circus workers, the people who bring to life spectacular, breathtaking, and often dangerous performances. Vuorenmaa’s exhibition poses a question over the existence of the perpetual entertainer: What kind of life and work is never-ending entertainment for the audience? 

As the artist herself states, the curiosity for the life of circus workers drew from her own experience as an artist: “One of the reasons for the theme of this exhibition was my own stage fright and my own personal experience of ‘being in the arena’. My so-called performance is mostly embodied by showing my art pieces for audiences. My work also includes open discussions and answering questions around each show. Obviously, the feedback my work gets is a feedback on my personal view of the world around us, so this process also becomes very personal.”

This is not the first time Vuorenmaa zooms-in on the life of one particular community. In her 2016 exhibition at EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art, the artist showcased portraits of fishermen in The Sea Separates Us. Vuorenmaa typically spends time with each community she researches for her works, investigating the human spirit under certain circumstances or conditions. The result is her own X-ray of the community and the people who take part in it.

For this series, I thought of how vulnerable performance artists are in their profession. I also thought about the long history of the concept of ‘show’ – that is offered to the public in highly-visual levels now more than ever before”, says Vuorenmaa.

The artist invites us to step into the life of the circus as an invisible passenger, much in the way she herself conducted her research in the presence of this specific community.

The world of circus loses much of its glamour in Vuorenmaa’s paintings, who insists on unveiling a micro-universe only visible behind the scenes.

Vuorenmaa’s aesthetics is neither easy, nor to be taken lightly. She often deals with what is underneath the surface, behind the faces that she portrays. Her characters are often modeled and sometimes deformed as if to grasp the very essence of the encounter.

Some works feel heavy, despite their light, pastel colors. To a certain extent, the white backgrounds that prevail in a few paintings reveal a vacancy in the composition – as if the artist is trying to give space to something that the viewer can further discover.

Vuorenmaa reinvents the portrait in her own style. She tries to capture something that is beneath the surface, by looking straight into the subject’s heart. Form and content blend into works that capture the viewer’s imagination. Part of this encounter is confusion. When we can connect and empathize with the character, the confusion becomes joy of discovery.

Vuorenmaa’s works do not serve up an easy interpretation or imagery. Rather, it comes as a result of a close observation. The age-ridden lines and heartbreaking melancholy in the eyes of the Clown, the grotesque beauty of the Acrobat, the bizarre looking old-lady with a girlish body in Dog Girl. All of it is deeply subjective by nature and there is no one right way to meet with Vuorenmaa’s characters. The artist gives viewers complete freedom to make their own encounter.

“Back in the old days, circuses were places for the so-called “outlaws” – individuals who have not easily found a place in the everyday life, and who finally find their place in the circus. I was interested in getting a glimpse of how circus people work today. It was amazing to see how demanding the work of circus staff is and the modest surroundings behind the scenes. 

This experience made me reflect over the fact that artists in every field must have the passion for the work itself. It also made me think about the freedom of working in a circus, and the multinational, multicultural and travel-based setting the circus naturally offers to its workers. I enjoyed seeing the close relationship circus workers have with animals – contrary to common belief, they were treated well and with kindness. Circus performance is an old and great profession that has inspired many artists before me”, says Vuorenmaa.

Overall, Areena shows paintings, two wood works (previously also exhibited at EMMA) and a UV-painting that is visible in the dark in Forum Box’s back room. The fluorescent, vivid colors of this latter work mark up the artist’s experience of Brighton Pier in the UK, a place that lost its old days’ charm to money-making machine slots for mass-frenzy entertainment. A close-up on how new waves of ‘fun’ pop-up and become popular in our contemporary reality.

Beyond the world of circus, performance and entertainment, Areena brings into discussion the public context of any type of artistic work. As highly-creative individuals, artists also have highly-sensitive souls. Being under constant scrutiny in the eyes of audiences and media alike must feel incredibly difficult and challenging at times.

The courage to show works despite the risk of receiving crushing criticism sets artists forth as some of the bravest professionals out there.