Pip Newling | May 2017
My constant companion on this writing residency in the Finnish Lake District is Haukijärvi, the lake (järvi) of pike (hauki), which sits directly across from the old school house I am staying in. It appears out of most windows, including my bedroom window and I frequently catch it out of the corner of my eye.
Water is always present in Finland with over 200,000 lakes. On my daily outdoor excursions I discover that every culvert, dip or roadside gutter is full of water too. The lakes are fed by underground springs and water is used for everything, including heating, and is wildly thrown about in Finland’s still traditional pastime, the sauna. Finns have no fear that their water will run out.
The forests here, like everything I find, confuse me. They are full of huge boulders, and mounds of earth with pale, dirty low clumps of grass, beginning to turn green, covering any bare ground. The trees are spruce, pine and the fast growing birch, and the shadows become dense and cold the further I make my way into the stands of trees. Bogs lie in wait behind boulders and below the lumpy rises of earth caused by the regular removal of trees. Finns call themselves ‘suomi’. ‘Suo’ translates as bog or swamp; Finns are literally people of the bog.
Silvery grey moss is slowly engulfing many of the trees and tendrils of air moss hang off already-dead limbs bringing instantly to mind European children’s storybook images of haunted forests. A walk in these forests is no easy feat.
There is no old growth forest. Most of the forest is plantation but the distinctions between plantation and tree are not visible until the trees are removed. There are no boundary fences so raised earth paths and dug out channels are the only markers of the edge of fields and forests. Swathes of stumps and boulders and mountains of cut and stacked timber mark where trees recently stood. Around every bend there are more stumps, more stacks of wood waiting to be collected. This logging seems too much, too regular, too destructive.
Nancy Holt’s ‘Up and Under’ (Yltä ja Alta) and Agnes Denes ‘Tree Mountain’ (Puuovirri) are impressive land art works made in the early 1990s just a twenty minute drive away. Both are large scale reclamations of industrial sites. Holt reclaimed a sand mining pit with an intersection of massive concrete pipes and rammed earth set into a swirling shape, with height, acoustics and reflection in a work planned so it could be seen from space. The weight of the earth above the concrete tunnels presses down and creates a sinking, lowering-into-earth feeling as I walk through.
In Denes’ work, over 10,600 pine trees were planted to a mathematical pattern she adapted from the sunflower and pineapple and then spread over a human-made mountain and across the flat of an old gravel pit. The trees support local ecosystems, provide windbreaks and are harvested regularly, just like any ordinary plantation but all these years later the mathematical pattern still holds.
Denes’ ‘mountain’ is steep to climb but feels in keeping with the other Finnish forests I have walked through, awkward, full of moss, and not wanting me to linger. Except there is no water, I realise. The dirt is dry, sandy and gravelly, with no lakes or bogs close by.
Both projects were supported by the community, local government and business and have endured. Denes’ in particular stays with me and strikes a meditative and inspiring chord, art in landscape working toward an environmental future.
They make me think of privilege too, these artworks, my privilege and also Holt’s and Denes’ and the other artists I am on the residency with, 11 other artists from the US, Sweden, Taiwan, Japan, Peru, South Africa and another Australian.
As I sit at my desk, I watch some of them wander through the yellow-gold stubbly wheat field opposite, trudging across furrows, taking their photos, recording sounds, all without asking permission of the owner who lives in a house not far from the field; all after being told by the residency director to walk around the fields not through them.
I can’t help but say out loud, as one of the video artists journeys back across the field towards her camera, ‘Look, there, that is privilege right there’. And right here, too, in my lap. I wonder about transplanting myself ‘to make art’ or, as one of the other artists said ‘to do art’. I also think about respect, but perhaps just about manners.
Later, I realise I misunderstood. Finland has ‘Everyman’s Rights’ which mean anyone can walk through any land without asking. The Finns believe that all should be able to enjoy the outdoors free of charge and I come to understand the link between the no fences and general access to property. The artists are completely within their rights to wander about the yet-to-be-tilled-for-spring wheat field, the director was only indicating that people’s house yards are not be entered.
I am disturbed by this. I wonder if it is just my settler eyes that can only see land through ownership, through division, through fences. I think perhaps this may be true. But I again wonder about manners and art made in collaboration with place, from emplacement, response and curiosity, and the complexity and richness that can produce.
The video artist seems flummoxed when later in the sauna I ask what the landowner thinks of her art project. ‘I don’t know,’ she says.
The artist’s work is focused around the seasons and as the temperature in the sauna reaches 120 degrees Celsius, I muse further, ‘Perhaps you could ask the landowner what her favourite season is? Maybe she might want to be involved too.’
The artist looks at me as though I’ve said something terrifically strange. ‘Oh. I didn’t think of that.’
Pip gratefully received funding from the Australia Council to attend the Arteles Creative Residency in Finland (www.arteles.org)