The First Brothers
sound together with Erik Michelsen
Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation Art Collection
Text from the exhibition Shared by Nelli Palomaki and Juhana Moisander at the gallery Forum Box. The First Brothers was part of the exhibition.
English translation by Jean Ramsay
Whoever it was who came up with the three key concepts of the French Revolution was wiser than you'd think. Freedom and equality are obvious, important things. Anyone can understand this. All are in favor of freedom and, at least in principle, the fact that the person standing next to me is worth as much as me, and deserves as much just because we are of the same species.
Fraternity is the odd one out of the three. In Finnish, the litany is always pronounced so as that it comes in the middle, like a punctuation mark or a side note, while in French (and subsequently English) it comes last, and leaves a strange aftertaste: 'fraternité' ... What kind of brotherhood are we talking about?
It seems that it requires more than eager nodding from our part.
Brotherhood – or sisterhood, if we want to translate the word into a non-patriarchal language - introduces a touch of carnal reality to the realm of ethical ideals; and, in other words, contradictions.
It is precisely contradictions that give meaning to things. They make everything uncomfortable.
*In their collaborative exhibition, Juhana Moisander and Nelli Palomäki have focused on this common, but still strangely vague phenomenon. Siblings are people who've irrevocably been born into a similar situation. And since the situation is the same, it follows that the requirements of equality and justice are an inherent part of being siblings. Thus siblings can demand the same, after all, as Fate has granted them a certain kind of sameness!
However, siblings rarely get equal shares. The only get a bit here and there. They have to share. They are forced into solidarity.
And solidarity is not simple, but more like a paradox: you have to defend the other because he or she is similar!
The situations into which people are thrown as newborns, moreover, are as varied as they come, and each of these makes its own demands on solidarity. As a rule, how an individual belonged to different units expanded circle by circle: family and home, nationality, society, and in the end, the human race and the entire cosmos ... The term "fraternity" encompassed these outer rims of societal and cosmic unity.
Moisander and Palomäki's work focuses on the innermost circle of sisterhood, the biological closeness of young people whose origin is of the same flesh. The importance and static irrevocability of this corporeal point of origin is emphasized by the fact that their parents are rarely seen in the exhibited works, more through a glimpse, or hinted at in passing. Possibly one of the reasons why things get somewhat existential is that the family is removed from the scenes, and the siblings stand alone.
"For God's sake, where do we come from and why!"
This is what the children looking at us from these images ask - not only from us spectators, but also the artists. Nobody answers.
Sisterhood is fatal, i.e. inescapable, thus also human, and typical to our species (although we unarguably share this experience with a variety of other mammals). Thrown into this world fragile and unfinished, human offspring are by nature in need of long-term care and security, i.e. what we have agreed to call 'a family'.
Family is just as mysterious a concept as being a sibling, a haven for the most dreadful angels and loving demons.
Anyone who's had more than one child can ponder in astonishment on how siblings can be so different, even if they've been raised according to the same principles and under the same conditions ... Does upbringing not have an effect? Does volition not make a difference? Well, certainly we have to accept that people have congenital, and thus fatal features. But in addition to this, the hierarchical positions of siblings within the family are different. One comes into the world later than the first. In addition to a common fate, each has his or her own. The resulting diversity is as indisputable as the sameness that defines siblings.
Being a sibling is not clean or ideal. It is not necessarily anything. It is arbitrary. Also, the "unique" ties between siblings can also be a fictional myth: Cain and Abel, Hansel and Gretel, the brothers Karamazov, Little Women or Cocteau's Elisabeth and Paul ... Really being a sibling often means only a few shared memories from childhood years, and not always even as much as that.
Again, this seems to be taken into account in Nelli Palomäki photographs, which present people she rarely knows outside of these photographs. The pictures have only been dramatized in the slightest detail. Perhaps there is no great story, no intense love/hate relationship worth mentioning? Maybe there is just that, an interpersonal relationship born out of chance, or a twist of fate - and only this has been recorded in the image, as if in accordance to the instructions of respected filmmaker and artist Robert Bresson: "No psychology (at least the kind that discovers only what it is able to explain)."
There is sense of urgency about Palomäki and Moisander's work. The works do not say much, but they mean every word they utter. This feature will attract hurried explanations, and the use of words like 'fairytale', 'mythical' or 'nostalgia'. Nowadays, the absence of signs and the austere aesthetics of black & white are usually read to connect with the past, even though they could just as well refer to the future. Why should this be interpreted as escapism? After all, it could also signify focusing on what is most important? Without a doubt, a "timeless" appearance diverts precise social observations, but also stands in the way of cheap psychological assumptions. The roles have been stripped.
The solemn and the serious is what we are dealing with. Solemnity does not exclude humor. Even Palomäki and Moisander's humor is serious.
Something is hidden (but in such a way that it can be discovered). The seriousness of the young models conceals a swarming plethora of devilish thought and angular emotion. Isn't the act of straightfacedly facing life's absurdity and contradictions not a kind of heroism; the victory of irony over something that by default is invincible, something that we have no power over, namely: fate?
The issue at hand is reliance. Fraternity shows the limits of freedom, but also whom the values have to be shared with.