Puotilan Rocks

Puotilan Rocks by Po Alamaa

Our project began in Espoon keskus, the central district of Espoo, where we were hoping to get inspired and create work. We started out by exploring the local areas, such as the Library and Shopping Centre as well as the surrounding neighborhoods. I was immediately intrigued by the abundant brutalist architecture, grand staircases, open areas, and a persistent sense of nostalgia. Everything appeared to live up to its reputation as second best; most locals view Tapiola as the true commercial center of Espoo and that is probably due to the outdated feel of the area.

‘Puotilan Rocks’, Po Alamaa, Installation Detail, Dimensions Variable, 2020.

As a group, we were interested in the function and politics of spaces, exploring the meaning of space and place in the context of public art. I was processing these ideas from a personal point of view, for example, how I identify with places and the importance of ‘belonging’. Born in a foreign country and immigrating twice, I could never get a grasp on my geographical and cultural identity. ‘Who am I and where do I belong?’ is something that has stuck with me throughout my life. So perhaps my feelings of alienation affected how I perceive places and how I experience them. After all, our minds are association machines forging our reality out of past knowledge and experience. With these initial ideas in mind, I set out to investigate my relationship with specific places in the context of Espoo.

”This wearying impulse to categorise and differentiate is something that must be negotiated when attempting to figure out if you ‘belong’ in the place you call home, what it means to ‘belong’ and indeed whether the very concept of ‘belonging’ is a means of creating communal feeling or reasserting inequality, and whether those two functions can be separated.”

Art Review Magazine, Vol.71 No.7
‘Puotilan Rocks’, Po Alamaa, Installation Detail, Dimensions Variable, 2020.

To our great shock, a sudden pandemic has consumed the globe and disrupted all aspects of everyday life. After Finland has officially declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19 on March 16th, everything about our lifestyles had to change overnight. Aalto campus was closed. All Museums, Galleries, Libraries, and various other services closed. The entire world was paused and launched into the unknown. Suddenly we have all found ourselves in the same, frightening place of confusion and panic as we plummeted into a global crisis.

Working remotely has become the new standard as the country entered quarantine. The university announced remote teaching, which would allow us to remain indoors. For the most part, studying from home proved to be very functional. Unfortunately, our site-specific project was all about being on-site so we had to adapt to this new situation.

Map of Helsinki. Puotila – in red

Inevitably, our solution involved working at home and in our own local areas. For me, that is Puotila, a suburb in eastern Helsinki. A neighborhood that I had come to know only six months earlier when I moved into my student accommodation. Frankly speaking, I hadn’t explored much of Puotila at this stage. The Puotilan metro station, post office, and local shops were my only regular points of interest as I had only inhabited the area during the cold months and had no business walking around aimlessly. Now, however, the sun is shining and I want nothing more than to pace the pavement. According to government guidelines, I should only go outside for shopping, medicine, or an isolated walk in my local neighborhood. These measures, while necessary, had made me extremely anxious when going outside. I watched the behavior of strangers as they pass me, trying to determine whether they will keep the recommended distance or brush past me casually. Careful not to touch anything, my walks became somewhat nerve-racking and counterproductive. Eventually, I started taking walks around my building to avoid crowded areas and prevent the spread of coronavirus.

‘Puotilan Rocks’, Po Alamaa, Installation Detail (Acrylic painting on paper), Dimensions Variable, 2020.

During these rather mundane laps around my apartment block, I began collecting small stones, which are found around the entire perimeter of my building. I suppose that subconsciously, I was trying to find the most attractive rocks, selecting only those that appeared interesting in some way. The aim was to get a good variety of smooth, angular, sparkly, shiny or otherwise eye-catching rocks, I have even picked up some twigs. Hunting for these special specimens felt like a playful activity but I quickly realized that these rocks would make great materials for me (though I still had some art supplies in my flat, I knew I would soon be out of paper!). Once I had an entire bag of rocks, I headed home to wash them thoroughly. The cleaned rocks appeared to shine brighter, their colours became more vivid and distinctly different from each other. I became fascinated with their shape, form, and texture. I began painting the stones intuitively, allowing the process of making to guide me. This involved selecting a special colour for each rock and painting a section of it using either enamel or acrylic paint, depending on the desired finish. The existing qualities of the rocks dictated the colour, finish, and type of paint I will use on each of them. By the end of this painting frenzy, I found myself with a box full of multi-coloured stones.

‘Puotilan Rocks’, Po Alamaa, Installation Detail, Dimensions Variable, 2020.

Allowing my creative urges to guide me through the making process has provided me with an abundant collection of sculptures, not sculpted by me but by the earth and time itself. In this sense, it felt like a collaboration with my neighborhood, despite the fact that I hadn’t directly interacted with anybody or even walked further than my own back yard. It finally started to feel like I am connecting with my local area in a meaningful way. Next, I decided I should paint portraits of these rocks to capture their beauty like an artist is supposed to do. I cut up my paper into A5 sections in attempt to increase the number of portraits I can make with my limited supply. Who knew I would have to learn to ration as an artist! As I completed portrait after portrait, I began questioning how I could display them and to whom?

‘Puotilan Rocks’, Po Alamaa, Installation Detail, Dimensions Variable, 2020.

It didn’t take long for galleries, museums, and creators to shift their focus onto social media and sharing art online. For example, streaming live exhibitions on Instagram or running virtual tours in their stories. I knew it was possible to have an audience even while I was stuck indoors, there had to be a way to share my art with even a small number of people. My ‘eureka’ moment came to me in the bathroom, when I realized that my mirror cabinet had a stunning set of white shelves, the perfect depth for a little rock. As I held the mirror doors open in front of me and admired the view of a shallow white metal cabinet illuminated by the stark light of a fluorescent tube, I felt like I found Narnia in my flat! My very own white cube.

‘Puotilan Rocks’, Po Alamaa, Installation View, Dimensions Variable, 2020.
‘Puotilan Rocks’, Po Alamaa, Installation View, Dimensions Variable, 2020.
‘Puotilan Rocks’, Po Alamaa, Installation Detail, Dimensions Variable, 2020.
‘Puotilan Rocks’, Po Alamaa, Installation View, Dimensions Variable, 2020.

All photographs courtesy of the artist.