Long Audio Play Movie "STRANGE"
Translation from Finnish to English Lola Rogers
Mox Mäkelä: A Visit to Bragtrash Culture
Mox Mäkelä's newest piece, the full-length “audio movie” Strange, debuted in autumn of 2018 on both sides of the Gulf of Finland--at Helsinki's Orion Cinema in September and at Tallinn's Kultuurikatel in October. The piece is crystallization of the artist's work in both form and content, a multi-media treatise that doesn't shrink from the satirical and is just a morsel broader, and a comprehensive whole that has been building for years.
Mox Mäkelä (born 1958) has been active as an artist more or less continuously for 40 years. Stand outs in the catalogue of her work include the comprehensive artwork Diamox and Aikamox, created in the latter half of the 1980's for Helsinki's Vanha gallery (1986-88), mox cafe, which took over the Kestinlehto photo cafe in 1987, and her ambitious project Meta Matka (1994-1995). Her 1992 collaboration with the Finnish State Railways, Circulatio, brought art installations to trains and railway stations.
So her newest work, Vieras (Strange), didn't pop up out of nowhere. It's a continuation of work begun back in 1995 with a piece titled idiot ibidem, in which she traced the connections between her Karelian ancestors and Dostoyevsky's 1869 novel The Idiot with the greatest of artistic freedom. To be more exact, Strange is part of Vieraanvaraisuus (Hospitality), a sub-project or side project of idiot ibidem begun in 2015. But idiot ibidem is not Mäkelä's only long-term, elaborately realized, unified work (or what the artist calls a “theme”). Ampiaisen tori (The Wasp Market, begun in 2011) is a project that serves as the home for individual short films such as the gem of a distillation of the absurdity of greed titled Ailan kalat (Aila's Fish) from 2011, and Paimenen ranta (The Shepherd's Shore, 2006) is an arena for unambiguous eco-criticism.
Mox Mäkelä's art and work are profuse and mycelial. Her themes intertwine and examine the same phenomena--ownership, the degeneration beneath the surface of civilization, environmental destruction—and turn them over again and again in new constructions and combinations. The short films and theme-related texts are cultivated on blogs established for each theme. Mäkelä's art encourages you to examine it in its entirety (or as an entirety) more than as separate, clearly defined pieces. This aspect of her work is indisputably challenging when it comes to the art market, which emphasizes well-defined events and exclusive art products.
But what's special about Mäkelä's art is that she has spent the last fifteen years consistently exploring eco-critical themes that have only become visible in the mass media's reality over the past couple of years. The installation Mermaid's Vomit (2010) depicted the message in a bottle of a new era--the plastic trash that washes up on the shore where she lives. In her most recent experimental short films, hysterical overconsumption combines with species extinction and other dystopian themes that are fast becoming all too real. But Mäkelä doesn't use the kind of buzzwords familiar from post-anthropocene biennale catalogues; she crafts her own vocabulary. Her works slip in and out of different media, from video to installations, from films to literary audio works.
Strange: How Power is Maintained
Mox Mäkelä has described Strange as an "audio movie". It's an apt description: the images and sound in the piece are separate elements, or only loosely connected to each other. The visual follows the narrative, sometimes lagging behind it or freely associating on the text. The piece's volume reinforces the cranked-up Slavic decadence of the story. The running time is filled with collage and layering; the sea laps within the frame; an extravagant number of dancers appear in a Christmas display window.
The soundtrack consists of a radio theater-style audio play in which Riša, the main character, stumbles upon a peculiar party and causes bewilderment and eventually complete upheaval. A shrew and a lion serve as narrators, and while the characters Riša meets feel mostly like caricatured treatises on various attitudes, it's possible to sketch a sort of absurdist fable from Strange, an animal fairy tale about the human race. Different characters in turn take various stances toward the world and the desire to own it—“You’ve got to watch what you’re doing when you’re at the edge of the chess board!" Riša plays the role of "the idiot", but is nevertheless the only "normal" character, with a reserved cautiousness that stands in particular contrast to the businessman Pjatar "Patja" Summarum Sossu's pomposity and arrogance.
Although there are strong narrative elements such as coincidence, forward momentum, and picaresque encounters in Strange, its telos, or goal, can remain a riddle upon first seeing and hearing the piece. In the end the violence of the system and Riša's radical indefinability fill a story space that takes shape stealthily amid the chitchat. And as this is happening, Strange is in the meantime a thorough examination of the ways of talking, and shopping, that serve to maintain power.
In the Tradition of Gogol: Audio-Visual Skaz
Mäkelä didn't want lock her work into overly-determined interpretations when it debuted at the Orion. She says that new levels of the piece didn't open up even to her until it was complete. I myself left the debut with the sense that the work is the spiritual and poetic descendent of the Russian classics, especially the works of Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), but that is only one person's impression. I was led to the idea by the way that Strange is just as much a work of literature as it is an audio-visual piece. It seems to require different mechanisms of reception and interpretation than a conventional film, or even a conventional "art" film does. Contemporary art film has its conformities, and Strange comes from someplace outside of them.
Its Gogolian qualities can also be seen in the trickiness of the dialogue. As Pjater puts it, "It pays to beat around the bush." Mäkelä's narrative is, in fact, pure skaz. The concept of skaz was originated by Boris Eichenbaum, one of the central figures of Russian formalism, in his article "The Structure of Gogol's The Overcoat", from 19181. Skaz refers to the sprawling style and mannerisms in narration that are so foregrounded that the plot becomes secondary, a mere backdrop to wordplay and droll wit. In Eichenbaum's categorization, Strange represents "derivative" skaz, whose humor does not revert to a "string of jokes" but instead builds on a more holistic, "mimetic-articulatory system of gestures.2"
In skaz, "sentences aren't chosen through logic" but rather "according to principles of expression" by which pronunciation and body language are raised to a quite exceptional salience and meaningfulness. The acoustical properties of a word can, in fact, surpass its actual concrete or logical meaning3. In Strange, possessions are not just possessions, they become "bragtrash". Pjatar says, "I’ve done it all. I've hit all the giddy heights, fought all the gritty fights, bought all the glitty lights,” sculpting sound to the point of the nonsensical. Pjatar Summarum Sossu and his woman friend Logistilla Summarum--not to mention the shady old man Pilli Pascal--also share a penchant for whimsical name garbling with Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, the antihero of Gogol’s The Overcoat.
Mäkelä's linguistically marked mode of expression flows from the words to the images, resulting in audio-visual skaz--even the pictures ramble. The unpredictability and intricacy of Strange is an enriching addition to Finnish experimental media arts. When, at the end of the piece, the shrew and the lion state that they are endangered fictions hunted by a safari of entertainment monsters and that, for fiction is their "only possible nature under the circumstances", it adds to Mäkelä's barbed and clever satirical message about (art) politics. Greed leads to greed, and we haven't necessarily come very far since Gogol's stooped clerk in his overcoat and the commercial exploitation of dead souls.
1 Boris Eichenbaum, The Structure of Gogol's The Overcoat (Как сделана "Шинель" Гоголя, 1918) from the book Venäläinen formalismi Antologia. edited by Pekka Pesonen and Timo Suni. SKS, Helsinki 2001, 109–131.
2 ibid. 110
3 ibid 112
Antti Alanen - Film Diary, Mox Mäkelä : Vieras / Strange
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Baltic Film Blog:
The Collage Film: Objects Reclining in Time in Mox Mäkelä’s Strange
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KAVI, National Audiovisual Institut :
Mox Mäkelä - Vieras
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Meet the Artist: Mox Mäkelä
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Article / Kari Yli-Annala
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Mox Mäkelä - work history