At the door
Juhana Kristian Moisander’s exhibition “kiiras” is a case study in religious conviction—a topic that contemporary artists seldom broach, apparently seeing it as an intrusion on our properly secular ethos. The show’s Finnish title refers to an evil spirit, a contrivance between pagan and Christian beliefs, which Finns ceremoniously chase away every Easter. The exhibition ended with Holy Week, closing on Easter Day. Embedding his project within this season sacred to Christians, Moisander presented a drama in which love, desperation, and faith demand our attention and charge our emotions; kiiras, it is important to note, can also be translated as “purgatory.”
The gallery was dim; three black-and-white video projections simultaneously presented threads of the same story. The central image depicts a man in a dark cloud. His arms and legs are willowy with movement, but we only see him from his neck down—beginning where wall meets ceiling—so he seems to float above the gallery’s floor. His airy hovering looks elegant, even tranquilizing, once you’ve noticed there is no hint of struggle. He is somnolently suspended in a space he is powerless to leave. This, it seems, is purgatory.
The projection on the right showed a closed suitcase; on the left, a closed door. With a few sharp raps at the door, the drama begins. The door opens onto a snow-covered landscape; a young woman is standing there. She slowly kneels in hushed, earnest prayer; then, with a clattering noise, the suitcase flips open. You don’t see it open, because your eyes have been fixed on her, but when you whirl toward the racket, there it is. A man gradually rises from the suitcase—a droll levitation trick or holy ascension? While gazing lovingly toward the kneeling woman, he reaches out to her tenderly, and you realize that the suitcase man and the fellow adrift in purgatory are the same person.
Nearly risen from his suitcase-tomb, the man appears to have reached salvation and the woman’s prayers to have been heard. But Moisander’s story doesn’t end so neatly. At a dramatic turning point, the man makes such passionate imploring gestures that you can’t help but glance back at the woman to look for her response. In a twisted deus ex machina, the figure of death has arrived out of nowhere, standing just behind the woman still petitioning in prayer. Like her, your attention has been focused on the man; you didn’t notice death’s approach either. Death places a hand on her shoulder, the man falls back into the suitcase, and the tragedy comes to its real ending.
I have no idea if Moisander walks among the faithful, but kiiras, 2009, is exceptional in its capacity to render devotion in a secular age. Moisander is a gifted dramatist and actor (he plays most of the parts); his minimalist, elegiac approach delicately restores the intricate commerce between faith and emotion. His style of pantomime movement and gesture is ingeniously integrated with his sound design. And unlike most video artists, he is succinct, a consummate editor. He subtly unites his audience with characters at momentous turning points in the dreamy, present-tense drama—you didn’t see death coming either. It’s an opening to contemplate spirituality, whether skeptically or as a believer. We have faith in Moisander’s art, because it’s clear he believes in the inner life of his characters and in their spirituality, too.