Erkki Soininen

The origins of site-specific art

Site specificity in art emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States as a reaction to a view of public art that introduced modern sculptures into urban space from the point of view of architecture but that failed to engage with the local community (Kwon 2002: 63). In the public space, sculptures could not follow the same principles as in museums, with their narrower and more informed audience, and this created the need to assign public sculptures functions that are suitable for the location, such as acting as a seat or a sunshade (Kwon 2002: 69).

Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, erected in 1981 in Foley Federal Plaza in New York, caused years of tussle, as local residents did not approve of the large steel wall that blocked the familiar routes through the plaza. A renowned sculptor, Serra despised the idea of reducing public art to a pleasant and practical extension of architecture (Kwon 2002: 72–73). His intention was to make visible the inherent inequality of the Foley Federal Plaza area by bisecting the plaza, which falsely proclaimed harmony and unity, with a curved steel fence, the shape of which went against the curves of the plaza’s paving design. However, the symbolism of the work was lost on local residents, whose opinion had not been sought, and Serra and the art organisation that commissioned the work were accused of elitism. The sculpture was removed from the plaza eight years after it was erected (Kwon 2002: 79). The case of Tilted Arc marked a change in the attitude towards commissions of public art. There was a hesitancy to let art experts alone make decisions about art commissions, and local residents began to be involved in the discussions. Increasingly, the aim was to select artists who had some personal connection to the place where the work was realised (Kwon 2002: 81–82).

Local communities became more involved in public art at the latest starting from the 1990s, and site-specificity has been extended to mean not only the consideration of the special characteristics of the concrete location of a work, but also listening to and involving in the creation process the people who use the place (Kwon 2002: 82, 103). Instead of taking the form of concrete works, public art increasingly transformed into processes, events, workshops, and situations. This was the case with the Culture in Action event in Chicago in 1993, curated by Mary Jane Jacob, which comprised eight large-scale ensembles of works set in the Chicago urban space, from May to September (Kwon 2002: 100). Although many of these works had their own problems, Culture in Action marked the beginning of a new era in defining site-specific art. The curator, Jacob, however, pointed out that the ways of making art represented in Culture in Action were by no means new, but that the time was right for them (Kwon 2002: 107–108).

Contemporary site-specific art is as diverse in form and medium as are its creators, but its focus remains on working outside institutional art spaces and on considering the special characteristics of “place”, broadly understood, and the communities that use it.

Erkki Soininen and the site specificity of art

Erkki Soininen (born 1953) can rightfully be called one of the Finnish pioneers of site-specific art. His attitude towards art can be linked to the thinking of Mary Jane Jacob of Chicago.

Like Jacob, Soininen has played a significant role as a curator and producer of large-scale projects. For example, the Maisemagalleria (“Landscape Gallery”) project, which Soininen curated with Jere Ruotsalainen in 1999, spread out over a distance of 180 km along Finnish national road 5, introducing almost twenty works of environmental art between Varkaus and Sonkajärvi. Many of the works are still in place.

One of Soininen’s most significant achievements is the ANTI Contemporary Art Festival, which was launched in the early 2000s and which is still held annually in Kuopio. Founded in collaboration with Jere Ruotsalainen, the international festival is, in its own way, related to Mary Jane Jacob’s Culture in Action event: every autumn, it introduces into the Kuopio urban space site-specific works from artists all over the world, engages local communities, and occupies surprising spaces for the use of art. In 2006, Soininen was awarded the State Prize for the Visual Arts for the management of the ANTI festival. The popularity of the festival has not waned, even though its artistic management has since changed. Mary Jane Jacob also became interested in the ANTI festival and Soininen’s work, and she contacted him during her visit to Finland in 2002. In 2004, Jacob wrote a catalogue text for the festival programme and participated in the Public Art seminar held in connection with the festival.

June 2014 saw Erkki Soininen’s long-term goal come true with the realisation of the cross-disciplinary Bloomsday urban art festival, funded by the Kone Foundation and with Soininen as the producer. For the main event of the festival, 14 artists or artist groups were invited to offer their own interpretation of one chapter of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, and to set it in a place in the Helsinki city centre area that resembles the original locale. The event culminated in a walking tour on Bloomsday (the international Joyce celebration), 16 June 2014, during which the audience wandered from one work of art to another under the direction of Soininen, following the course of Joyce’s one-day novel.

In addition to his personal artistic work, Soininen has done a lot of teaching, and he worked as the dean of the Academy of Fine Arts from 1997 to 2000. He has introduced new generations of artists to the principles of site-specific art at the Academy of Fine Arts and other art schools since 1994. From 2007 to 2009, he led a joint Master’s programme of the Academy of Fine Arts and Theatre Academy Helsinki in site- and situation-specific art, which was one of its kind in Finland.

When Soininen was dean, the Academy of Fine Arts still operated in its old premises on Yrjönkatu, and the departments were located separately from each other. In his foreword to Silmän oppivuodet (“Educating the eye”), the academy’s 150th anniversary publication, edited by Riikka Stewen, Soininen wrote: “In order to carry out its national and international responsibility as the only university of visual arts in Finland, the Academy of Fine Arts has, since autumn 1997, been striving to bring the currently separate departments and functions onto the same premises.” At that time, Soininen had a vision of claiming the plot next to the Theatre Academy for use by the Academy of Fine Arts. When this project, which he considered to be his most important goal, did not take off in three years, Soininen saw no other option but to leave his position as dean.

Now Soininen’s vision is finally coming true, as after several unfortunate experiments in housing the academy, new, common spaces are being built for the Academy of Fine Arts on the very plot in the Sörnäinen district that Soininen suggested as suitable twenty years ago.

On the border between art and everyday life

Soininen’s works elude precise definitions. He has moved widely between different art forms, from installation to environmental art, sound art, dance, and large-scale events. The bold diversity of his art can be seen to originate from an attitude inspired by the renowned Black Mountain College. This experimental arts college in North Carolina, USA, in operation during the summers of 1934–1957, was a melting pot of different art forms and encouraged the realisation of even the more unusual ideas.

In her article “Sitten, silloin, tässä, nyt – paikkasidonnaisen taiteen historian neljä suuntaa” (2010; “Then, once, here, now – the four directions of the history of site-specific art”), Tiina Purhonen refers to Peter Bürger’s book Theorie der Avantgarde (“Theory of the avant-garde”), published in the 1970s, according to which the central objective of avant-garde artists was to blur the border between art and life. This was already happening at the level of materials, when artists took materials directly from the world and used them as such in readymades, collages and montages (Purhonen 2010: 27). According to Purhonen, site-specific art can be considered to originate from avant-garde, with artists for the first time leaving their ivory towers and descending into the streets to make art (Purhonen 2010: 28). In the 1950s and 1970s, the situationists, led by Guy Debord, who followed in the footsteps of 19th-century Baudelairean flâneurs, made sensitive observations of everyday phenomena and directed the attention in art to small, meaningful moments (Purhonen 2010: 29). Blurring the border between art and everyday life was also one of the genuine starting points of Erkki Soininen’s career. He creates his art using everyday objects and phenomena that basically anyone can access. He shies away from showing off tools and skills in any manner. Often, it is just about having a simple, insightful idea that highlights a seemingly everyday thing and elevates it to art. A lot is left to chance. In the words of an article written by Marjo-Riitta Simpanen, Soininen “organises everyday elements in a way that introduces new tones to everyday noise” (Siksi magazine 4/91).

Using everyday elements as material for art was also essential in the work of the composer John Cage (1912–1992), who has been a major source of inspiration for Soininen. In Cage’s perhaps most famous work, 4’33 (1952), a pianist comes on stage but does not play a note, and instead the work consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of the sounds that are heard in the concert hall when nothing happens. John Cage was one of the renowned students of the Black Mountain College.

Soininen had, already in his early installations, used everyday objects, which assumed new meanings when placed en masse in an outdoor space. Commenting on the acid rains in the wake of the Chernobyl accident, the work H2O!, which was shown in 1986 in the courtyard of the Kuopio Art Museum, and later in 1987, in the courtyard of Mumok, the museum of modern art in Vienna, consisted of everyday objects, all of which served as rainwater-collecting vessels. It is worth noting that when the installation was realised again in Vienna, Soininen spent several weeks in the region collecting new containers for the work on site. This meant that the work, again, drew on its environment, as opposed to being imported from outside. From the beginning, Soininen’s works have been united by their uncompromising site specificity. The space or situation in which the work has been realised has guided the selection of methods. Institutional art spaces have not been of interest to Soininen, but his works have almost invariably been set in the public space: initially in the courtyards of art museums, and gradually as part of the environment in a broader sense.

Subtlety and blending into the environment are characteristic features of Soininen’s art. In the Kuopio realisation of H2O!, the surface water drainage in the art museum courtyard functioned as a continuum of the installation of objects, while in Vienna, the boundaries of the installation were even more blurred, as the site of the work was bordered by a park. In an interview in Taide magazine (4/1992), Soininen stated that he is not concerned if his works are not recognised or perceived as art. The works do not demand attention, but blend, unassuming, into the surrounding world (Taide magazine 4/1992). The work 1234567, realised in 1990 at the Helsinki central railway station, consisted of white paper attached at night to the station floor, on which the work was created from people’s footsteps during the next day. The wet soles of people’s shoes gradually turned the paper grey, with the moisture breaking it up, until the below-zero temperatures in the evening solidified the paper, giving it a new form. It is likely that not many of those who walked over the paper realised that their everyday steps would become a part of a work of art.

The characteristic feature of art realised in the public space is its susceptibility to interaction and change. The effects of the environment, whether due to weather conditions or vandalism, must be taken into account as part of the potential realisation of a work. An artist can only govern the outcome of their work up to a certain point. According to Soininen, bringing a work into contact with the unexpectedness of the surroundings has often caused welcome collisions, which have pushed the work in the right direction in a way unanticipated by the artist. When a work is at the mercy of its surroundings, the artist must give up control and let the work conform to its environment.

Setting works directly in the raw urban space, and allowing for the changeability and incompleteness of this space, has been one of the constants in Soininen’s work. An interesting space gives the work both its subject matter and its framing. It creates a framework for the realisation of the work, and by studying its special character, history and regular users, all the necessary material for the work can be found. This is the principle that Soininen has also emphasised in his teaching.

Unknown City

Dozens of students at the Academy of Fine Arts will remember Erkki Soininen thanks to his popular Tuntematon kaupunki (“Unknown City”) courses. The courses brought together students across departmental boundaries, with each one lasting for several months, during which time course participants forged close connections and formed a close-knit community.

The course included field work, which involved students taking to the streets to explore their selected urban area and to find a fascinating starting point for each one’s own work; lectures given by Soininen, which offered perspectives on the history and possibilities of site-specific art; and independent study, in which each student worked on their own project. Finally, the course culminated in an event at which the audience was introduced to the works realised in the urban space in the form of a walking tour. The event was always carefully documented.

The memorable thing about the course was trust: Soininen gave the students considerable freedom, and the Academy of Fine Arts provided material money for the realisation of the work, the use of which was not questioned. All ideas were welcomed without prejudice. The key thing was a long-term commitment to the chosen place and a strong sense of site and situation specificity.

In recent years, Soininen has increasingly focused his attention on working with children and young people. The Unknown City concept is still going strong, but it has taken on new manifestations. In 2012, Soininen led the Myrsky (“Storm”) group, which included participants aged 12–16 recovering from mental-health problems. The group met in Soininen’s studio in Herttoniemi and, in the spirit of the Unknown City, explored the surrounding area, where young people’s own works of urban art were realised. A youth worker was also involved in the group’s operations, contributing their expertise to support group development.

The next challenge for Soininen is an association that he formed with the artist Majbritt Huovila and the design student Teemu Siika called Ihmisen jälki ry (“Human Imprint”), which introduces children aged 5–6 to urban art through various workshops. The association focuses on operating in the environment, and exploring urban space and embracing it through art. The aim is to learn to discover interesting details in one’s own living environment and to be open to the possibilities of art in enlivening everyday life.

Acting locally has always been important to Soininen. In the early stages of his career, he used his hometown of Kuopio and its vicinity as his playground, and this is also why the ANTI festival was established precisely in Kuopio. In recent years, Soininen has put considerable effort into exploring his current home environment in Herttoniemi and its surrounding areas, as well as in the wider Helsinki area.

In his book One place after another (2002), which explores the history of site-specific art, the art historian Miwon Kwon says that projects organised by a local artist have a better chance of succeeding and yielding far-reaching results than projects in which the artist comes from outside the community. Having an artist who is present and who has in-depth knowledge of the special characteristics of a residential area brings stability, mutual trust and permanence to a local project, which is impossible for an occasional guest artist to achieve (Kwon 2002: 133–134).

Text and movement as inspiration for art

Around the turn of the millennium, Erkki Soininen produced a series of dance works based on texts from the book Tender Buttons (1912) by the avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein (1874–1946). Soininen had Stein’s challenging texts translated into Finnish by Marjo Kylmänen, and this formed the basis for the Herkät nuput (“Tender buds”) dance trilogy. The first part dealt with objects, the second with food, and the third with rooms, in keeping with the sections in Stein’s texts.

The first part of the dance series was shown at Bistro Bellmanni in the centre of Helsinki in 1997. The dancer Paula Tuovinen had studied Stein’s text, and a recording of it, read by Tuovinen, was played in the space. As she moved, she reacted to mentions in the text of objects, which were gathered on a table in the space. During the performance, the objects moved with the dancer all over the space, ending up at the viewers’ tables, and with them, perhaps eventually in their homes.

The second part of the trilogy was performed the following year at the Fennia dance restaurant, also in Helsinki city centre. This time, Paula Tuovinen, who performed in the first part, helped out with the choreography, and the seven dancers featured in the performance were Tuovinen’s students. The starting point was Stein’s texts on food. The chef of the restaurant had prepared the dishes mentioned in the texts in advance, and the dancers used them as part of the performance. Again, Stein’s text had been pre-recorded, read by Tuovinen, and it was played in the background.

The last part of the trilogy was set in an unfinished NCC apartment block in Helsinki, and performed in the autumn of 2001. The WTC towers in New York had collapsed just weeks earlier, and the dust-filled skeleton of a building inevitably recalled these events. The performance featured the same dancers as in Fennia, but by now, they were professional dancers and no longer students. There was a sizeable audience, and the performance took place simultaneously in different rooms, which meant that the viewers could only see a part of it at a time. Again, a pre-recorded Finnish translation of Stein’s text about rooms was played in the background. These dance works nicely illustrate Soininen’s versatility and adaptability as an artist. He has not shied away from using text or movement as a starting point for his works, even though he operates in the context of visual art. Spatiality and site specificity have been the common starting points for his works, and this was also reflected in all the parts of the dance trilogy.

Wherever he goes, Soininen notices the potential of art in everyday situations. When he ran the Berlin Marathon in 2003, he recorded the entire race using an ear microphone, and he created an installation based on the recording for the local Gelbe Musik shop and gallery. There is potential for art in each moment, “if you only notice it there and can pick it up” (Siksi magazine 4/91).

Sport, and especially running, is a way of life for Erkki Soininen, and it has inevitably also permeated his art. In 2012, one hundred years had passed since the gold medal run of the Kuopio-based Hannes Kolehmainen (1889–1966) at the Olympic Games in Stockholm. Exactly on the one hundredth anniversary of this famous run, a performance event conceived by Erkki Soininen was held at the Eläintarha Stadium, Kolehmainen’s old training environment, with the participation of runners from a local athletics club.

In August 2015, the performance got a follow-up, as Soininen took as his subject matter Hannes Kolehmainen’s later career as a sports shop owner in Helsinki. The work was inspired by Kolehmainen’s daughter, whom Soininen had met at the event at the Eläintarha Stadium, and who had then reminisced about the sports shop her father had run. The new work took the form of a week-long mobile performance, in which Soininen pushed a stock trolley filled with shoe boxes through the centre of Helsinki, between the various locations of the shop owned by Kolehmainen. He had collected shoeboxes previously, and now each of them turned into a unique work of art that included a collection of objects and texts related to the subject. As he was pushing the trolley, Soininen encountered occasional passers-by, who brought their own surprise elements to the work. One of the men who explored the work said that he was called Hannes, and that he had received his name precisely in memory of Kolehmainen.

The series of performances was completed in January 2016 in Kuopio, when Soininen staged an event in front of a statue of Hannes Kolehmainen, which was timed to take place exactly 50 years from the date of Kolehmainen’s death. Although it was minus 14 degrees Celsius, the event attracted a large audience.

Filing cabinet

Soininen has gathered documentation about the stages of his own career in a metal filing cabinet, which is a work of art in itself. The form was an important insight for him, and one of its inspirations was the catalogue of the John Cage retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which, in 1992, took the form of a tin box.

As a physical object, a filing cabinet is a counter-reaction to the modern demand for a virtual portfolio and social media publicity. To explore it, you have to be physically present, in the moment, on the spot. You cannot just run your eyes over it like a website, but it requires concentration and familiarisation. The cabinet contains not only exhibition catalogues, photographs, press releases and sketches, but also books and personal small objects, which together constitute a fascinating and personal cross-section of Soininen’s artist personality.


KAITAVUORI, KAIJA 1992: “Konstruktio, rakennelma, installaatio, asennelma?” (“Construct, construction, installation, assembly?”), in Taide magazine 4/1992.

KWON, MIWON 2002: One place after another. Site-specific art and locational identity. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

PURHONEN, TIINA 2010: “Sitten, silloin, tässä, nyt – paikkasidonnaisen taiteen historian neljä suuntaa” (“Then, once, here, now – the four directions of the history of site-specific art”), in Ankaraa ja myötätuntoista kuuntelemista (“Rigorous and compassionate listening”), ed. Lea Kantonen. Helsinki: Academy of Fine Arts.

SIMPANEN, MARJO-RIITTA 1991: “Arjesta taiteeseen ja takaisin” (“From the everyday to art and back”), in Siksi magazine 4/1991.

SOININEN, ERKKI 1998: Preface in Silmän oppivuodet. Ajatuksia taiteesta ja taiteen opettamisesta (“Educating the eye. Thoughts on art and art teaching”) – Academy of Fine Arts 1848–1998, ed. Riikka Stewen. Helsinki: Academy of Fine Arts.

--- Suvi Nurmi
translation Esa Lehtinen