Helsinki’s Flow Festival is a pioneering carbon-neutral event, but its art exhibits get lost in the scenery

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The last thing I expected was to go looking for art at Helsinki’s Flow Festival (August 12-14), the hugely popular annual music festival back after a two-year hiatus caused by the pandemic. By exhibiting a major installation by Helsinki-based Iraqi artist Adel Abidin, Music manifesto, it piqued my curiosity. The festival, organized by music collective Nuspirit Helsinki, has grown from humble, nu jazz and soul-influenced beginnings in 2004 in a former railway warehouse with an audience of less than 5,000. Now held in Suvilahti, a former power station near the trendy Kallio district, and with 90,000 visitors (willing to pay €199 each for a three-day ticket), its lineup straddles the threshold between mainstream and the eclectic, including international acts such as Florence and the Machine, Gorillaz and legendary 1980s band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, alongside local Finnish talent.

Gorillaz on the main stage of Flow Festival 2022 Photo: Konstantin Kondrukhov; courtesy of Flow Festival

Curious how the art interventions – some of which had a theme park or street art feel – would read in such a broad context, I spent the first two days trying to find the art. It escaped me. The playful millennial muses for example, the murals and animations of Björk Hijoort and Tiia Kasurinen have become psychedelic backdrops for electronic DJs. It became a theme.

by Merle Karp Hehku Courtesy of Flow Festival

Installation art in the experimental Other Sound room – put together by design collective Sun Effects, which has been designing lighting and stage visuals for Flow since 2007 – seemed to be part of the decor, including the Clown from Ville Mäkelä. The neon image of Putin was hidden behind the bar. Merle Karp’s dual-channel video installation of resplendent nature felt atmospheric rather than a work about the terrifying future implications of climate change. “The light and video works can be seen as abstract compared to other art forms,” ​​said the collective’s artistic director, Matti Jykylä. “But this exhibition is about reality. Merle Karps’ video piece may seem utopian on the surface, but while Southern Europe, California, etc. burn, the work becomes super concrete.

City Mäkelä’s Ivana V Courtesy of Flow Festival

Environmental awareness is a huge thing for Flow’s pioneering carbon neutral approach, where queues to return glasses (€1 refund each) were longer than those for organic food concepts. With no red meat or poultry, this wasn’t your typical festival food selection. “Music is just one element of the Flow experience,” says Tuomas Kallio, artistic director of the festival. “While visual art has always been present at the festival, at first mainly through video, light and various design projects, we have opened up to installations and spatial works, in particular.”

by Adel Abidin Music manifesto Photo: Riikka Vaahteral; courtesy of Flow Festival

This is where Abidin is Music manifesto at the Cirko space stands out. A series of five musical vignettes featured the artist singing slightly altered lyrics from unnamed pop songs in bizarre forms. In one his torso is labeled as the edible parts of an animal and in another he is the disjointed form of a decapitated man. Abidin sings without even trying – an interesting choice for a festival with such production value – even if the single wordless video is the strongest. There were black screens declaring the removal of video and freeze frames reminiscent of analog quality. Each video was projected in a random fashion that belied any kind of linear narrative. If you’re past the atonal chants and sometimes unconvincing roles, this work paints Abidin — known for his tongue-in-cheek references to identity politics and the language of fear — as subject to self-examination, casting a certain vulnerability. The work alludes to the cultural appropriation that is the burden of the immigrant in search of artistic refuge.

Hanna Vihriälä blowing flower Photo: Petri Anttila; courtesy of Flow Festival

I lay on plywood beds in Tiilikello x Polestar — the spectacular gasometer-turned-art space curated by Emmi Katelus — to check out the bulbous, chandelier-like sculpture blowing flower by Hanna Vihriälä. It hung from thousands of cables under the spectacularly domed ceiling, which changed color as part of Antti Tolvi’s low-frequency vibrations – a sound and light work called Butterfly Effect– that I could feel in my body. I thought it was perhaps the most appropriate kind of art for this kind of context: abstract, wordless and immersive.

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