In this piece, I will engage in a discussion with Ari Hirvonen. We had innumerable conversations during the years and I guess I am still not comfortable with them stopping so abruptly. Hence, I stubbornly try to continue talking to him, on my own.

The topic is boundary spaces, a topic which we actually never did discuss. I have just recently become more interested in spaces and places, and therefore had not realised that I should have been talking with Ari about this, too. One more thing to regret, I suppose.

This is no dialogue. All the same, I will try to keep Ari in the conversation. I engage with a text by him, which will do much of the talking. One of my aims is to show that he did this, too. He wrote many beautiful pieces, including this one. You can hear his voice throughout the text. At least I can. So, even though there is no dialogue, he might be present still, on the level of the text. And if we believe Derrida, then that is an important kind of presence – constructed for sure, but meaningful nevertheless.

Encounters on Emerging Boundary Spaces

The first work written by Ari that I ever read is a slightly unusual one. I did not know him yet. I was a student and he taught many courses at the Faculty of Law, some of which I attended.

Still, the first text of his that I encountered had nothing to do with law. It was a short piece in the publication by the Modern Art Museum in Helsinki of an art exhibition called ARS 06.Footnote 1 Ari’s essay is called Encounters on Emerging Boundary Spaces. It’s not a long text, only seven pages, but interesting nevertheless.

The large art exhibition, on which Ari had been asked to write, contained contemporary works by several international artists. He chose to focus on some of them. I suppose he must have been free to write about whichever he wanted. The name of the whole exhibition was Sense of the Real, Toden tuntu in Finnish.

What Ari does in his essay is a beautiful deconstruction of boundaries. He considers the theme of the art exhibition to be an example of how boundaries and identities are challenged. Art can do many things. It can show, reveal, give us guidance and draw boundaries between good and evil. But it can also call into question these boundaries.

In my reading, this is Ari’s main argument. Through art, boundaries can be set in motion. They can be questioned, deconstructed. Art allows us to think beyond dichotomies and clear-cut divisions. There is an unusual kind of freedom here, a positive opening for things that are in-between, different, fluctuating and not fixed.

In this piece, I argue that there are, nevertheless, some boundaries that are solid. Deconstruction stops somewhere. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. What does Ari actually say in this essay on art?

According to him, boundaries cannot be questioned in a straightforward way. Even when dismanting boundaries, art is bound within something and exists somewhere:

‘Perhaps […] art is a demarcation of boundaries that takes place in a boundary space where things turn into their other and where the boundary is an irrevocably open question. In this in-between space the world and being in it are not manageable in their entirety, the diversity cannot be revealed […] Presenting and bringing to light always leave something hidden.’ p. 39

In many ways, this kind of logic is typical for Ari’s thinking. He was always careful not to simplify, not to present anything as present, not to claim that things are this way or that. True to his poststructural, postmodern, perhaps even postpunk formation, he was attentive to nuances and shifts, boundaries and counter-boundaries and the ever-turning self-referring loops of deconstruction.

In this essay about art, boundaries and space, this comes clearly to the fore. The text can be read in many ways and none of its meanings are simple or very explicit. Ari was passionate, but he did not preach.

In my interpretation, this is what Ari valued in art as well. Not the preachy stuff, but the artworks that put boundaries into question while being aware of setting up other boundaries at the same time. Summing up the theme of the ARS06 exhibition, he says that

‘By marking out the boundaries that organize our being and our world, by calling them into question and challenging them, analysing their mutual entanglement and inseparability, they reveal something that art that holds on to the boundaries or ignores them is unable to illuminate.’ p. 39

If we hold on to boundaries or ignore them, something stays hidden. I really like this idea. It is not only that holding on to boundaries makes us blinder. We become blinder also if we ignore them. So what should we do? What should art do, and what should we, scholars do?

One possibility is to keep open the question of boundaries and just keep asking it again and again. I think this is something that Ari did throughout his work. He continuously asked questions about the boundaries of ethics, tragedy, politics and law, for example.

There is another way that we can keep asking about boundaries. It is by turning our focus on space. There is a strand of philosophy that has been emerging for a while now, which blends into critical geography and anthropology, and asks questions about space. For sure, the place of being has been a prevalent issue in western philosophy for a while, but it has become relevant in new ways especially because of what is usually called globalisation. Peter Sloterdijk is a fascinating contemporary thinker in this regard and one that I did not get to discuss with Ari. One more regret.

The unheimlich

Ari was interested in the meeting points between the familiar and the strange, which he notices as themes of the art exhibition as well. According to him, some of the works displayed boundaries between the safe and the threatening, the unconcealed and the concealed. But even if such boundaries are drawn, something is revealed that does not settle on either side of the logic of opposites. This is a strangeness, the unheimlich.

‘These works provoke the viewer into approaching the concealed unheimlich, or a space and time in which the stable, fixed limits of the habits of our own identity and of being are brought into question. In this interaction boundary spaces for new possibilities may also be created.’ p. 45

This idea of Heidegger’s and Freud’s is a key concept in Ari’s work, and for me, it has become a key in my memory of Ari as well.

Ari was drawn to many aspects of the unheimlich and one of them is death. In his interpretation of Heidegger, death is not an issue for others, nor does it happen for us only at some moment in the future. Death is present at every moment in life. Once we are born, we are already dying because we exist towards death.

I suppose that in 2006, when he wrote this text, the idea of death was not a completely dismal thought for Ari. On the contrary, he argues that that anticipation of death does not mean relinquishing the possibilities of life or being stuck in a paralysing fear of death. Anxiety in the face of death is specifically anxiety in the face of one’s own most intrinsic ability to be. Being towards death is an essential aspect of being here.

I hear a celebration of life in these sentences. It is being that Ari is interested in, being in all its manifestations, even the strange ones.

In his essay, he focuses on artworks by Walter Martin and Paloma Munos, which are essentially snowglobes, landscapes inside glass spheres. This series is called Travelers. At first glance, the globes look nice. They resemble children’s toys. Nice little spheres with these tiny landscapes and people inside. Looking closer, they are not so nice after all. In one, a giant spider is chasing a man. In another, we see a woman undressing in front of a chained man in overalls. We do not know what is going on. It is as if we arrive too early, or too late, to the scene of a crime or an accident. There is snow everywhere and it will soon obscure the events even more.

Ari is clearly drawn to these globes, all of which show something pretty horrible going on. The strange events inside children’s toys are upsetting, but not overly so. Also here, Ari considers boundaries and the fundamental nature of our existence. He says

‘People are thrown into the world of the works, without themselves having been able to make a choice in the matter or about the foundations of this world. Since they cannot control their existence down to its foundations, they simply have to stand in the world with their own gravity.’ p. 42

However, Ari does not think that the wisdom exhibited by the worlds is depressing.

‘The viewing experience is not […] marked by any fear of death, departure or the dissolution of the foundations of our being, which would be a kind of momentary mental weakness. It is more of an anxiety in the face of our most basic possession and of what cannot be ignored – in fact, an anxiety in the face of our being-in-the-world. The most uncanny thing is thus not the strangeness of this truth, but specifically the fact that it is a person’s most basic, closest and most familiar thing there is.’ p. 42

I am glad that there are such joyful, positive ideas legible in these words. Ari wants to show that all boundaries can be put into question and he emphasises the being in being towards death.

And yet, as I see it, the whole idea of being towards death comes alive only after the deaths of others. It is in these instances, such as one beautiful midsummer’s day 2021, when I realised what being towards death really means. And it is unheimlich. It is the most horrifying, terrorising thing to see a friend dying. A dear one gone, just like that.

And where are we? Left here, being towards death. There are no boundary spaces then. Ari was wrong. There is just a boundary, a before and an after, no in-between. Contrary to what Ari thought, the boundary is not open. It is fixed forever. The play of deconstruction stops somewhere, and this is it. The Lacanian real is clearly, for me at least, death.

I am not saying that Ari did not know this. I think he knew it very well. Which makes him a tragic figure, just as we all are. But he did not write like this. He did not acknowledge it, at least not in his essay in 2006 when boundaries were still open for him. That is why the essay is quite soothing and so dear to me. I can hear his voice in it and it engages with themes that were very central to many of his works. But it is not just a happy essay, at least not anymore.


‘These works provoke the viewer into approaching the concealed unheimlich, or a space and time in which the stable, fixed limits of the habits or our own identity and of being are brought into question.’ p. 45

I wish we could stay inside art and philosophy, where there are boundary spaces. I wish there were no fixed limits, as Ari says. I wish the real did not dissolve all spaces and slice us with boundaries so visceral that they cannot be anything but true. I wish we could deconstruct boundaries. I wish we were not towards death. And above all, I wish I could talk to Ari about this because he would know what to say.