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: Head in the Clouds

Joshua Lobb | 1 October 2016

 

Escher, 'Rind', 1995. Wood engraving and woodcut in black, brown, blue-grey and grey, printed from 4 blocks.

M.C. Escher, ‘Rind’, 1995. Wood engraving and woodcut.

 

“You cannot stand on sky, but you can be in it as you can in water or in sleep…

this will do, this walking with only one’s head in the clouds”

(Treddinick 2007, 137)

I say to people: “I’m writing stories about birds.” But that’s not true. Birds were my starting point. The first birds I noticed were three black cockatoos, floating overhead, as I walked over the highway bridge near North Wollongong station. I was a jumble of worries; the cars clanged and hissed passed me. I could see the schoolkids on the platform below: plucking and pinching, smickering and shoving. Car doors slamming in the carpark. Underneath the train tracks a stormwater drain, tentacled with graffiti, the remnant of a creek. As I plodded, the cockatoos wafted down, hovered at eye level. I watched them, suspended in the air. Then, one by one, the cockatoos dropped lower, under the highway bridge and away. They were bewitching, unfathomable, oblivious. They were in another world.

Freya Mathews writes that engaging with other animals “enables us to imagine how odd or arbitrary our human priorities might appear from a non-human perspective” (Mathews 1997, 5). Birds, in particular, offer a different point of view. Julia Martin observes: “Birds move. They fly. The bird’s eye sees the world from above as well as from below” (Martin 2007, 74). Over the last year or so, I’ve been watching different birds—lyrebirds, seagulls, kookaburras, magpies, tawny frogmouths, sparrows, rosellas, budgies—trying to comprehend their Umwelt: “the radically diverse sensory worlds that [birds] exist within” (Blas 2012, 33). But I’m always watching, it’s always my imagination with them in the clouds: as I try to write the birds’ stories, I’m only ever telling my own. As Linda Alcoff puts it, “representation is never a simple act of discovery” (Alcoff 1991-1992, 10).

In my writing, I’ve noticed two ways “the bird and its ecosystem are influenced by [my] very presence” (Mattern 2016, np). The first is a tendency to anatomise: to classify different species, plumages or behaviours. I read books called Australian Magpie: Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird or articles like “Shaping of Hooks in New Caledonian Crows”. I scan the internet for images and recordings, my head in a different kind of cloud. The stories become a kind of guide book, as if they’re presenting “color schematic diagrams with ‘field marks’, or small lines, that highlighted the species’ most salient features” (Mattern 2016, np). They’re specimens: pictures on the page; captives in a cage. The second tendency is more damaging: the birds are not-really-birds; they’ve become analogies for human experience. Writing about a bird, as Thomas Nagel might say, is not writing like a bird. Anne Collett reflects that even when birds appear ‘other’—what she calls “the sheer quality of the fantastic and the alien”—they also “lend…[themselves] so readily to anthropomorphism” (Collett 2007, vi). My birds become “tropes of human concern” (Desblanche 2007, 180). Magpies swooping become synonymous with workplace bullying; chickens pecking at the dirt become symbols of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. The antiphonal call-and-response of the whipbird—two birds making one sound, the division indiscernible and almost inconceivable to human ears—becomes an anthem to romantic human love. I feel like I’m doing what nineteenth-century traders in New Guinea did to birds of paradise: after killing them, they stuffed the creatures and cut off their legs for easier transportation. When the ornithologists examined the specimens, they developed an elaborate theory about a species that was always in flight: feeding, sleeping, copulating and laying eggs in an elegant dance above the ocean (Goldsmith 1825, 487). As Susan McHugh argues, “the animal’s sacrifice (i.e., its real and representational consumption) supports the human.” (McHugh 2009, 489)

Sometimes though, if I’m in the right location, a bird might swoop down and carry me away. In his mimicry of a human’s call, a lyrebird might also tell me something of his own experience. Planning a story this week about a koel—the four-in-the-morning, passive-aggressive whoop universally loathed by Illawarrans—I’ve been trying to listen to the call on his own terms, distinct from the irritation of the human ear. In really listening to the Koel, I’ve almost-discovered the beauty of it. It’s not easy. Perhaps I should let him sing his song without me eavesdropping.

Then again, perhaps it’s necessary for me to keep listening; necessary, even, to try and respond to his call. In postcolonial or feminist writing, there’s often an argument that if we don’t provide a space for the ‘other’ in mainstream discourse to be seen or heard, even if only in a representation, we’re erasing them completely. It’s could be seen as a kind of extinction. Talking about the domestication of Australian native animals, Mike Archer comments that:

            one of the ironies is that some of the most suitable ones…are actually endangered,             and while we watch our endangered animals declining to the point of extinction,                 some of them vanishing forever, thinking that we’re doing the best we can by                     leaving them in the wild and leaving them alone, in fact by not valuing them, by not             getting closer to them, by not integrating them into our lives and ours into theirs,                 the indifference that we have in effect to their wellbeing, leads to many of them                   being lost (quoted in Franklin 2007, 121-122).

Maybe it’s all right to tell stories about birds—rosellas, kookaburras, Gould’s petrels—even if their flight is only being observed through human binoculars.

I say: “I’m writing about humans. I’m trying to write about birds.”

 

Escher, 'Two Birds (No. 18)', 1938. India ink, pencil, watercolor.

M.C. Escher, ‘Two Birds (No. 18)’, 1938. India ink, pencil, watercolour.

 

Reference List:

Alcoff, L. 1991-1992. “The Problem of Speaking for Others” Cultural Critique 20 (Winter), 5-32

Blas, Z. 2012. “Virus, Viral” Women’s Studies Quarterly. 40:1/2, Spring/Summer, 29-39.

Collett, A. 2007. “Editorial” Kunapipi. 39:2, vi-vii.

Franklin, A. 2007. “Relating to Birds in Postcolonial Australia”. Kunapipi. 39:2, 102-125.

Goldsmith, O. 1825. A History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, Volume 3. William Charlton Wright, London.

Kaplan, G. Australian Magpie: Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird. CSIRO Publishing/UNSW Press, Collingwood.

Livia, A. 1996. “Daring to Presume” in Wilkinson, S.; Kitzinger, C. (eds) 1996. Representing the Other: A Feminism and Psychology Reader. Sage Publications, London. 33-42

Mathews, F. 1997. “Living with Animals”. Animal Issues. 1:1, 4-16.

Martin, J. 2007. “A Poem about a Bird Can Be a Picture of the World: Reading ‘Heron’s Place’ by Jeremy Cronin” Kunapipi. 39:2, 65-75.

Nagel, T. 1974. “What is it like to be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review. 83:4. October. 435-450.Treddenick, M. 2007.

Tredinnick, M. 2007. “Days in the Plateau” Kunapipi. 39:2, 135-141.

von Uexküll, J. 1957 [1934] “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds” in Instinctive Behaviour: The Development of a Modern Concept. Ed. C. H. Schiller. New York: International Universities Press, 5-80.

Weir, A. A. S., Chappell, J., Kacelnik, A. 2002. “Shaping of Hooks in New Caledonian Crows” Science. 297:5583, 981.

Image References:

Escher, M. C. 1955. Rind. Wood engraving and woodcut in black, brown, blue-grey and grey, printed from 4 blocks. http://www.mcescher.com/Gallery/gallery-recogn.htm

Escher, M. C. 1938. Two Birds (No. 18). India ink, pencil, watercolor. http://www.mcescher.com/gallery/switzerland-belgium/no-18-two-birds/