Matthew Cowan, para field notes

Gallery Hippolyte, Helsinki, 6—22 April 2018

It’s Easter time, and if the weather is benevolent and the winter doesn’t want to linger, for many it will be the season for post-snow work, budding ground, and grazing beasts using their bodies to make the dairy bounty. As a city-dweller, I have to Google to confirm my suspicion that cows make better milk in the spring.

Gallery Hippolyte’s entryway, usually reserved for coats and unassuming photographic editions, this time encloses a shelf of books staring at a kind of hay bale altar, crested with a snake portrait against a backdrop of yellow and white stripes. I’m momentarily reminded of Daniel Buren, blank stripes as lens and cipher. What do they stand-in for, and into which sphere will they project our gaze?

A lean collection of books, mainly in Finnish, document the processes and rituals (‘work and pleasure’) of seasonal ‘ancestors’ work’, and their associated handicrafts and hymns. A pair of texts focus in on handiwork details and histories associated with medieval Finnish churches. I select a flimsy paperback, Snake Fat and Knotted Threads, detailing Finnish traditional healing magic. Hay itches thighs as I skim notes on cunning men, objects of power, and the stones used to conjure a space for a snake assembly. There is a section on paras—a confusing collection of stream-of-consciousness fragments—but I deduce that it’s a kind of being within Finnish domestic witchcraft, the creature invoked to calm the cows and produce prosperous butter harvests.

As a kind of para to the main space, the project room serves as a museological primer, a small archive of teaching objects—churns, cream separators, moulds, butter boxes—loaned from the Tavastila Museum in Mietoinen, a town near to where the New Zealand artist Matthew Cowan undertook an eight month artist residency supported by the Kone Foundation. Photographic prints of a bride, groom and teacher (all 2017) shrouded in burlap bookend the display, and an absurdly long birch horn, twisting like a serpent, holds the hauntings of an unenunciated language of beliefs that convene with object-spirits, tacit knowledges churning and moulding and sensing when it sounds and feels right. The beings in this space are in the dark, eyes blinkered and ears muffled. I wonder what rituals these objects wed us to, and through their preservation, what lessons they no longer teach.

In the central space—hovering above stacked hay bales, a photographed toxic mustard bloom of mushrooms, screens of 3D snakes and horn-songs and sonorous chiming bells—are some faceless creatures, silhouettes crudely incised. Hewn from a cartoon language, their shadows dance, amplified and wavering on the surrounding walls.

Initially I can’t identify them on the exhibition room sheet, and am struck by the gesture of not-naming as a way to speak of something present that escapes language. Upon a later re-reading, I realise they are identified as paras. To materialise a para is to segment and share a soul, to project a part of yourself into a non-human entity, believe in its capacity to affect and be affected, and commit to bearing the consequences of its actions. I subsequently learn that this particular rendering is lifted from a Finnish Evangelical Lutheran church of medieval origins. Here the hard working helper spirit-being flourished within a religious context, prior to being severed by modern and Enlightenment thinking.

Paras are materialised apparitions that fuel daily life, things not usually seen but felt, brethren of the electricity signifiers that enclose and flow through the space, both demarcating and warning of danger. To me, this collection of aural and object-notes gesture towards a fieldwork concerned with omniscient affect and unverifiable knowledges, and the foolishness of dismissing them as primitive. Akin to a parergon—an invisible support—they behave like a framing device, proposing we take seriously the legacies of conjuring tools and practices that soothe and atone, not disregarding their capacity for agency and potency within an anthropocentric worldview.


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Matthew Cowan, Butterthief, 2018, as part of para field notes

Milla Talassalo

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Wooden teaching display stand and poster (“Spring Works” from the series
Enlightenment Alak. Observations No 1 by FG Ålander) from the collection of the
Tavastila Local Museum, Mietoinen, Finland. Matthew Cowan, para field notes, exhibition view

Milla Talassalo

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Matthew Cowan, para field notes, 2018 exhibition view

Milla Talassalo

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Matthew Cowan, para field notes, 2018 exhibition view

Milla Talassalo

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Matthew Cowan, Horn Calls, digital video, 2018, para field notes, exhibition view

Milla Talassalo

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Matthew Cowan, Snakes, digital 3D video, 2018, para field notes, exhibition view

Milla Talassalo

Australian expat Katie Lenanton writes, wonders and researches curatorially from Helsinki, Finland, where she has recently completed a MA in Curating, Mediating and Managing Art. She is currently interested in working with undisciplined knowledges, unworkable objects, object love, dust and haunting.

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