The animation Mental balance variants is based on a piece of music for male choir by Maija Hynninen and texts from Janne Nummela’s book “Ensyklopedia”.
I have written the script, directed, created the set design, animated and edited the piece, which is 6 minutes long. The lighting and shooting of the piece and translation of the texts from Finnish into English were by media artist Kati Åberg.
Maija Hynninen, the composer of Mielen tasapainolajit writes the following about her composition:
“the texts I selected from Janne Nummela’s newly released book of poems “Ensyklopedia” (2011) are joined together in a network of keywords, which create new associations. For me these texts by a young man, written aptly yet with self-irony, seemed appropriate for the Polytech choir, an academic male choir consisting of singers from Helsinki University of Technology.
The piece I composed for the Polytech choir combines two of Nummela’s poetic keywords from the Ensyklopedia. The half-being lives a partly wholly dangerous eventful life to the fullest. Mielen tasapainolajit reflects on the essence of a dream. Part of Nummela’s texts remain unsung, the mute core idea of the piece. The ‘potential-dream-energy’ peaks around the chaotic centre of the piece.
On first hearing Hynninen’s piece, I thought of the collection of clay bird whistles, which I have been collecting for years, without much thought as to their use. In my mind I saw clay roosters marching in a row or side by side, moving smoothly, advancing on a chessboard, dancing in circles and climbing up and down stairs as in old Hollywood musicals. The symbolism between the Polytech choir and the army of clay roosters was irresistible. I decided to realise the commissioned work by animating a short film with the clay roosters.
“A rooster whistle or clay rooster is a flute-like clay whistle in the shape of a bird. The embouchure hole is above or below the tail of the bird. This type of whistle produces one tone, the pitch of which depends on the size of the air space. There are often 1-4 finger holes, which enable more tones to be played. If the finger holes are arranged so that a whole octave can be played, the instrument is often called an ocarina. Both the ocarina and the clay bird whistle are vessel flutes”.
The best-known clay rooster whistles in Finland were made in Kyyrölä in Muolaa county during the beginning of the 20th century. The clay-working techniques used in Kyyrölä originated from Russia. Colourful cuckoo and rooster whistles were originally utility articles, children’s toys. Later, after the war, they became collectibles, decorations on shelves.
My own collection of clay rooster whistles originated at one lady’s flea market table in Hietalahti. On a whim I bought all the clay whistles she was selling. During that summer rooster whistles abounded and I bought all I could find. Due to the sudden surge in demand my purchases caused, the prices rose tenfold during the summer. My friends also started seeking out clay whistles for me. A French friend bought me specimens from her travels to Portugal, Yugoslavia and South Africa. The rooster is a significant and universal motif. Currently my collection houses some 70 clay roosters.
There is something biblical in hand moulded clay roosters. What’s wonderful is that each rooster is a distinct individual. My favourite roosters have visible signs of handicraft, sometimes even the fingerprints of their creators, on them. The colourful paintings, decorations and glazing also cut a dash. The rooster in all its masculinity, that supreme authority of the brood, is portrayed in a clay rooster as a colourfully decorated, near feminine entity. Clay roosters are fine art objects, but so familiar to us that we don’t notice their uniqueness. Noteworthy is also that rooster whistles are real instruments, decorations with a voice of their own.
Animation director Jan Svankmajer has said that every artwork is preceded by collection. When a certain topic starts to fascinate me during the early stages of planning a work, at a stage when the work itself is still totally unformed, I start noticing themes, objects and things recurring in my surroundings and in media. There are many such processes on-going at any one time. My collecting proceeds at its own pace on many different fronts simultaneously and sometimes can be interrupted for long stretches of time. I collect images and objects, which end up in my works, either as inspiration or as parts of installations. Books have been the main focus of my collecting: Fiction, art books as well as rare works of non-fiction bought on-line or in foreign bookshops. Sometimes it can take a long time for a book to become current. It took 20 years before I used a book on scientific illustrations from the 18th Century, purchased from the Natural History Museum in London, for creating the fish for my animation “Aquarium”.
One good example of collectibles, which have become symbolic in my artwork, is the broiler. I am often asked about the meaning of the broiler. This question is baffling, since the broiler in my works is a recognizable, representational broiler. When depicting the broiler in my art, I naturally think about its special characteristic: A broiler is, for me, the most pitiable of creatures, less than zero, an un-being, which must die for human consumption before its life ever really begun. Many other subjects have achieved the same kind of symbolic status in my works over the years. But, in the end, the meaning of the broiler and all other symbols in my art is whatever the viewer chooses to give to them through his/her life experience and cultural background.
“The uncanny (Ger. Das Unheimliche – “the opposite of what is familiar”) is a Freudian concept of an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange or uncomfortably familiar.”
Since uncanny is familiar yet foreign at the same time, the experience can result in cognitive dissonance – a conflict of cognition and attitude. Paradoxically, the person experiencing it is, at the same time, attracted to and repulsed by the object. Cognitive dissonance usually leads to rejection, which is based on direct emotion rather than rationale.
The clay rooster whistle is, for many, a nostalgic symbol of childhood, home and granny’s house. It represents the past also because it is handcrafted. Contemporary, factory produced, identical rooster whistles seem impersonal in comparison.
A single clay rooster or a brood of them can create a homey atmosphere. When clay roosters perform as a group, one no longer looks at them as individuals. If there are dozens of clay roosters, the sight can become disturbing, strange, uncanny. This sensation grows when the roosters perform in an untypical environment, rather than stand on a shelf as decorations. A large group of rooster whistles crosses their territory and causes a feeling of insecurity. A group in itself can create insecurity and fear, since groups usually convene in unusual and exceptional circumstances. These could be a protest or a spontaneous, even illegal gathering. Birds flock together to migrate in the autumn, or for some darker and unfathomable reason, as in Hitchcock’s film Birds.
The music of the animation is Maija Hynninen’s contemporary composition for male choir. Choral music has many connotations. It is extremely authoritarian and links to important social institutions, the church and the army, spiritual life and national defence. Traditional choral music feels stiff, dated, dusty, even slightly scary. Choral music is used to express larger than life emotions, the important turns in world history, extreme forces of nature and emotional storms. Most of us have sung in choirs at some point, at least during our school years. We know from personal experience, how our own voice and personality become a part of a larger whole.
My aim is to reflect on and diversify the strong impressions and emotions created by Hynninen’s music and Nummela’s text. The music per se is so strong and emotional that it is best not to compete with it. However, one can create new overtones and contrasts to the music through the moving image.
Hynninen’s choral work for male choir moves from one mood to another. My aim is to find a visual counterpart for each mood. I look for contrasts, which portray the diversity and incoherence of emotional life, that illogical state, which enables one to feel very diverse, sometimes directly opposite emotions at the same time, to be at once enchanted with and horrified by a thing or phenomena.
The moods do not follow each other in any precise order. They are not dealt out as precise consecutive portions, like a string of train carriages. Moods are complex and it is impossible to always know, whether a certain mood is necessary or futile, useful or hurtful, pleasant or obnoxious. It is often difficult to identify what one feels, what the relationship of one emotion is with other prevailing emotions at any given moment, or its relation with certain things, phenomena or events. In the work, I attempt to portray this incoherence of emotions. I depict strong emotions, which may truly shake a person, change the direction of their lives and mould their personality. Community – such as the community of a male choir performing the piece – plays an important role. A community steers our actions and our thinking in a certain direction. Community acts as a commentator and audience for an individual’s actions. In Greek drama this was one of the choir’s functions.
The theme of Hynninen’s piece is a serious one: the disintegration of the mind. A male choir is well suited to depict this process. Different voices steer ones mind indisputably. At times a single thought or opinion stands out, soon to be merged with the whole. The group muffles isolated dissenting opinions or thoughts. To be part of a group or community means to accept common denominators – there is at least partial like-mindedness.
Half man half deductible wholly lost
fully committed ready born half done
symmetrical in the pot a whole crayfish half restless
full steam ahead sniffing partly swallowed and boiled
take to the hills enter quietly out on stretchers to end the meal
forwards on the slow lane half on the roadway speed into a radar
the memory of a meal incomplete trust in authorities a fine
buy a present part education iron and clay
Mental Balance Variants
1) Stable or firm balance: the potential energy of a dream is at its weakest.
2) Labile or unstable balance: the potential energy of a dream is at its strongest.
3) Indifferent or vague balance: the potential energy or a dream does not change.
1) Why is it advantageous for a tightrope walker to utilize a heavy pole curving downwards at the ends?
2) From the top of a dull dream remove a circular section with a radius of r. Calculate the centre of gravity of the dream.
3) Place a dominant interior decoration element into one centre of gravity. What is that in a labyrinth?
Since the work is based on animating objects, there were many opportunities to learn new things during its production. The props I prepared were influenced by experimental and expressionistic movies. The props and backdrops are black, grey and white, so that the colourful clay roosters stand out to their advantage. In cinematic terms, colour often depicts life and the living, black and white a flash back or a dream.
In the animation, clay roosters represent the members of the male choir. The roosters are of the same species, yet individually moulded from clay and decorated. In the animation, the roosters appear as groups of varying sizes, which have diverse roles. Many of these roles in the animation refer to classic movies. For example, in the first scene, a fierce band of clay roosters appears from the sweltering desert in the style of Westerns. They are on their way to work, as can be deduced from the cranes in the background, inspired by the movie “On the Waterfront”. By placing the clay roosters in the animation in new and unrecognizable surroundings, the feeling of insecurity increases. The homey clay rooster is placed in a dreamlike, black and white world. The inanimate becomes animated, alive. The clay rooster becomes and actor, who performs different tasks – as in the story “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and many other tales and mythologies.
The roosters form new and random groups in the animation, as people in towns do when crossing a street. New and previously unfamiliar groups congregate in town squares and market places and merge to form new groups. One inspiration for the group scenes has been Jacques Tati’s movie “Playtime”, a democratic movie, which aims to tell about “every man”.
The roosters come in the shot, ascend some stairs, turn, peer around for a moment then descend from the choir podium, which starts to resemble a tourist destination one visits only briefly. One structure in the animation resembles an architectonic ruin, a gigantic wedding cake on which the roosters twirl like the dancers in old Hollywood musicals. The roosters ascend and descend stairs, disappear into thin air, only to reappear, illogically, back on the stairs.
The process depicts doing things for the sake of doing, it mimics an active process without actually achieving anything, as in Heinrich Böll’s short story collection Dr. Murke’s Collected Silence. At heart, the scene illustrates the futility and meaninglessness of all human activity.
The roosters in the animation form two teams and play chess on a chessboard, which fills the whole screen. The game is, therefore, not limited to a defined space, but can continue everywhere, even outside the shot. The rules of the game are curious, incomprehensible, and neither team seems to win the exhibition match. This doesn’t seem to matter either, since the kings of both teams just disappear at the end of the match, like Alice in Wonderland.
The roosters are randomly whisked away to perform odd jobs and participate in projects, partly at the demand of the choir and following the general atmosphere, partly due to the unexplainable gravity of the piece. The roosters have no will of their own, but they move reluctantly and jerkily as zombies in a horror movie. They do gymnastics and nobly spin round in Olympic rings. In one scene the roosters glide along spiralled patterns as though skating in an ice rink. The magical pattern and repetition lead them, as through the closet into Narnia, to become part of a gigantic rotating spiral pattern, borrowed directly from Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo. The spiral pattern depicts emptiness, a black hole into the vortex of which the roosters finally disappear and fade to tiny specks – only to be reborn from impressionistic points of colour in another reality, a broken hall of mirrors borrowed from Orson Welles’ movie The Woman from Shanghai. In the final scene, the roosters disappear one by one into emptiness. And the animation starts again from the beginning.
There are two ways to present the animation. I have edited a short film version of the work, which can be viewed at film and video festivals as a projection. Since the piece is shot with a digital camera as still images, the quality of the image is so high, that the projection can be any size, even as large as a block of flats. At art exhibitions, art fairs and other events, the piece may be viewed on a flat screen monitor as a seamless loop. When viewed this way, the piece becomes a moving painting, framed by the edges of the monitor. The monitor brings a homely atmosphere to the piece and emphasizes the role of clay roosters as decorations. It literally looks like household artefacts have come alive due to unknown forces. This emphasizes the impression of strangeness.
Pirjetta Brander 2014