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ARS11 in Kiasma, Helsinki

The DNA of ARS 0

Anna Iltnere

ARS celebrates its fiftieth anniversary with an extensive exhibit and satellite exhibitions at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki. Do you know what ARS is?

ARS is an art institution founded in Finland in 1961. During the fifty years of its existence, ARS has had eight huge exhibits, including ARS 11, which will be on view at the Kiasma Museum through November 27. The main goal of ARS has remained unchanging—to show the citizens of Finland what is new in international contemporary art.

Atomic Bombs, Astronauts, and ARS

The idea for ARS began to take shape in the creative minds of Finland back in the late 1950s, during the Cold War, out of fear of living in isolation and remaining in a cultural vacuum. The Finnish painter Erkki Koponen (1899-1996), who was a champion sprinter in his youth but later became an honorary professor, is considered the founder of ARS. Before then, Finnish society had minimal access to contemporary art.

During his opening speech at the first ARS exhibit, in 1961, the show’s curator, Sakari Saarikivi, an art historian from the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki, succinctly captured the spirit of the time: “At a time when atomic bombs have become a threatening power, but astronauts are getting ready to travel to other planets, no artist today can be satisfied with merely painting bottles and rosy-cheeked apples. With his brush or its current replacements, he wants to blast into the universe.” The first ARS exhibit took place in the fall of 1961; the previous spring, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first person to journey to outer space.

The theme of the first exhibit, ARS 61, was Spanish, French, Italian, and Finnish modern art. One hundred and seventeen artists took part in the show. The exhibit lasted only one month, but it was visited by 39,000 people. The goal had been achieved. The Finns had built a ventilation pane in the Iron Curtain.

Exhibits and Pearls

ARS exhibits have taken place at five- and twelve-year intervals: in 1961, 1969, 1974, 1983, 1995, 2001, 2006, and 2011. The curator, design, and theme of the exhibit is different every year, though the principle of a unified theme  remains the same.