Chasing Identities

by Mika Hannula for Aino

Some things stay the same, they remain coherently constant. There is a woman. It is the same woman all the way, both in the photographs and in the videos. She is always wearing a costume, the very same costume. Yet within this repetition of the same, something important is changing. Something is on the move; something is definitely on the move.

This is the series of work by the Finnish born and Berlin based artist Nina Backman. It is herself in the photos. These works that are performative acts in front of the camera. It is a series that started in the year 2006 and it keeps on growing, being actualized in various forms of installations.

The costume she wears is not innocent. It carries a heavy load of symbolic evidence and gravity with it. Neither is the title of the series just a neutral denominator. It is called Aino, referring to one of the central characters in the Finnish national epic called Kalevala, a collection of oral histories that was first brought together in 1835. Both the dress and the figure Aino are nearly impossible to disentangle from the grounding myths of the Finnish national romantic ideology and social imagination.

Yet with Nina Backman’s work series, these symbols and stories are not static, and they are not given. They are not kept in captivity of the past. They are actualized, brought to the present with a sense and sensitivity in connection to their distinguished past. They are constructed and they are contested.

It is not so much only what is made into an event, shaped to be opened up and questioned, but how Nina Backman does it with her carefully chosen settings and visual means which then deliberately twist the expectations and make something else out of the premises. This act of distancing but keeping the closeness to the source is remarkably present and fine tuned in her interpretation of the character Aino.

In the Kalevala epic, Aino is a one of the sadder figures. To call her tragic is self-evident, but on the face of it, her story is one of a victim. In short, this beautiful woman has a strong will. She is promised as a wife to a great old man, but she refuses to marry him. As the most dramatic gesture against this arranged marriage, she chooses to drown herself. The common interpretation ranges from Aino as someone who suffers because of her gender or because of her unwillingness to submit to the accepted roles and customs. But Aino would not be a character in an epic if it would not been possible to read and act the figure in an alternative way.

For Nina Backman, Aino is not simply a victim. She is not a glorified hero of self-empowerment, but she becomes an example of the mythical powers of transformation. With the drowning, something ends while something else is just about to emerge, just about to begin. And it is precisely this point of transgression that Backman is interested in – and what she keeps addressing and challenging. It is not the transformation from black to white, from one extreme to the other, but a chance that highlights all the variables of the shades of colors available. And yes, this in-betweenness, this domain of never ceasing unbalance is the domain of chance. It is the site for hope.

It is the hope for us being able to act differently, to make our moves so that they alter the ways where we are and how we are there. In this process of give and take, leaving and entering the scene of the act, the scene of the crime of passion, it is essential to comprehend that we are not completely inside or outside. We are both-and; we are part of the problem, part of the mess. We are chasing identities, which keep annoying, harassing and attacking us. We are emotional hooligans.

However, the re-making and re-enacting the character of Aino is not only taking place in the personal level. With her series of works, Nina Backman is putting the finger where it for certainly hurts. She is confronting the nostalgia and the romantic illusions connected to the current phenomena of the rise of the far-right parties in the European democracies. Strangely enough, it finds it target especially in Finland where the xenophobic and openly racist party called the Essential Finns is also trying to re-activate the national epic, seeing its world-view as the proper aim and guiding light for contemporary times.

Whereas the vulgarly politicized version is locked into the evident nostalgia and hallucinating longing back for the imagined golden years of early 20th century, Backman refuses to accept the passive role of the suspected outsider and the other. This time, the outsider and the other are already inside in. And this time around, she is not just cute, and not shy. She is clever, and she does not stand still. She re-activates the connections between the past, the present and the future. She keeps on moving. Not the mountain, but the ways we see what it means to be right here, right now.