MECO360: ‘Doing art’ at Haukijärvi

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.

Haukijärvi
(Photo: Pip Newling)
Click to enlarge images.

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.

The edge of the forest (Photo: Pip Newling).

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 (hot air balloon, 2004); image from http://www.strataproject.org/

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.

Agnes Denes, Tree Mountain (hot air balloon, 2007); image from http://www.strataproject.org/

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, A. 1992, Design for Tree Mountain (from http://www.strataproject.org/)

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.

Lake with wheat field in foreground
(Photo: Pip Newling)

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)

 

 

MECO360: Bog Hopping on the Pennine Way

Anne Collett | 1 February 2017

rain coming in (Photograph: Anne Collett)

In the break between sessions in 2016 I squeezed in an 18 day walk in the UK – 450km up and down the Pennines. I told my Romantics students who had enrolled for Victorians in the next session, that if I didn’t make it back in time for the first lecture, it was surely because I had disappeared into a bog. The Pennines are the ‘mountain’ chain that runs up the spine of England – starting level with Manchester and up to the Scottish border. The walk is usually done south to north (supposedly with back to the prevailing winds). It’s very very wet and about as wild as it gets in England – far far from the madding crowd – and I love it! The lonelier, the wilder, the boggier, the foggier, the more I like it. Of course the wet and cold and even falling into the bog is fun, only because I can look forward to a hot shower, a pint and a meal at the local pub, and a comfy bed at day’s end – no wild camping for me.

Most people are puzzled by my love affair with bogs (and sheep) – less puzzled by the sheep than the bogs; but I love bogs because they are so intractable, so uncivilizable – but they are being badly eroded by so much human and animal traffic (walkers, fell-runners, bikers, sheep, a few wild goats, rabbits…). They are also fascinating because the black peaty pools are a haven for a myriad of plant and mini-animal life, and they are beautiful because these pools are a shiny black mirror for the changing colours and shapes of sky and cloud, of wind ripple, mist and fog. And then I love the layering of history in bogs – it’s like poetry – so much cultural and natural change is recorded in the bog as it is in poetry. The Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, famously speaks about writing poetry as a kind of digging, and many of his bog poems are written in a state of wonder and awe:

The ground itself is kind, black butter                                                                           Melting and opening underfoot,                                                                                     Missing its last definition                                                                                               By millions of years.                                                                                                       …                                                                                                                                 Our pioneers keep striking                                                                                             Inwards and downwards,                                                                                             Every layer they strip                                                                                                     Seems camped on before.                                                                                           The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.                                                                     The wet centre is bottomless.                                                                                       (from ‘Bogland’)

beautiful bog (Photograph: Anne Collett)

It is this sense of bottomlessness, a kind of infinite depth – cultural, historical, geological – that has me entranced. If you read some Heaney you’ll see what I mean; or P.V. Glob’s The Bog People (1965), the book upon which Heaney based many of his bog poems. The black and white photographs and the text that describes the discovered ‘bog people’ are strangely peaceful and disturbing – a kind of ‘terrible beauty’ (W.B. Yeats) is revealed:

An early spring day – 8 May, 1950. Evening was gathering over Tollund Fen in Bjaeldskov Dal. Momentarily, the sun burst in, bright and yet subdued, through a gate in blue thunder-clouds in the west, bringing everything mysteriously to life. The evening stillness was only broken, now and again, by the grating love-call of the snipe. The dead man, too, deep down in the umber-brown peat, seemed to have come alive. He lay on his damp bed as though asleep, resting on his side, the head inclined a little forward, arms and legs bent. His face wore a gentle expression – the eyes lightly closed, the lips softly pursed, as if in silent prayer. It was as though the dead man’s soul had for a moment returned from another world, through the gate in the western sky.

The dead man who lay there was two thousand years old. (19)

But Glob is forced to reassess his interpretation of gentle rest, peace and silent prayer when a lump of peat is removed from beside the man’s head:

This disclosed a rope, made of two leather thongs twisted together, which encircled the neck in a noose drawn tight into the throat and coiled like a snake over the shoulder and down across the back. After this discovery the wrinkled forehead and set mouth seemed to take on a look of affliction. (20)*

Glob writes with wonderful honesty, making apparent the human tendency to make much of little, to fill in gaps of knowledge with imagination. His record of feeling projected upon the bog man, points to the dangers of poeticising and the importance of attempting to remain anchored to a material reality that is often treacherous ground. My recent ‘bog hopping’ across the Pennines cautioned me against too ready an assumption of surety and the need to constantly rethink, reassess, retune my relationship with a world of bog in which I was an interloper, a stranger in a strange world. What I believed to be firm ground often gave way beneath my weight. All systems of negotiation proved fallible, my bog-hopping confidence deflated by a misjudged step. The bog claimed its woman but I survived to tell the tale, a wetter and wiser woman. Now I truly understand the phrase ‘that sinking feeling’! (And my next walk? Long service leave beckons: 14 days along Offa’s Dike in Wales – I hope there’s lots of bog.)

*This is the description upon which Heaney based his poem, ‘The Tollund Man’.

References:

P.V. Glob [1965]. The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved. New York: New York Review of Books, 2004.

Seamus Heaney. New Selected Poems 1966-1987. London: Faber & Faber, 1990.

W.B. Yeats, ‘Easter 1916’ in Selected Poems. London: Pan Books, 1990.