Interview Mia Dillemuth | Pictures by Sanna Saastamoinen-Barrois | English Editor Julie Uusinarkaus

The Swidden Rotation exhibition consists of photographs about the cycle of burn-clearing that have been printed on sailcloths and were then hung on a wire across the unique surroundings of the beautiful fortress island of Vallisaari. The island was only recently opened to the public, so the nature is almost untouched, which makes it a perfect contrast for the theme of the exhibition.

Throughout history, people have had the urge to shape their surroundings in multiple ways (such as with burn-clearing) and also to elevate themselves above nature. What is your relationship with nature?

I think we are nature, part of this natural kingdom that exist on this blue planet. Certainly we all can be spirits, souls travelling from one life to another or something – I mean no-one knows, so everything can be possible, but right now, if there is a need to separate body and spirit, these spirits are living in a body that is nature, connected to all this that is around us.  Without nature we are no more, at least in this form of life we know.

For me nature is holy, it is beyond beautiful and magical, it works in such a harmony, all is in such a perfection, so delicate, so wise! Sometimes I think about how different our world might be if we still could worship trees or, I don’t know, the moose or the elephant…

Where are your roots and what do they mean to you?

I was born in Iisalmi, where my family from both of my mother’s and father’s sides have been living for as long as we have been able to trace in history (so I think my roots are in the north-east of Finland’s forests, in hunter and gatherer tribes). But I also feel that my roots, like everyone’s, are also in the history of the world. When I was expecting my first daughter 17 years ago in Paris, I started to study the Finnish history of art in the virtual university of Helsinki. I wanted to understand where I come from, what I will teach my daughter.  While studying and writing, I did feel related to every indigenous culture on this planet, under all the cultural heritage, all the tribes, in the north and south, as in the east and west, in their expression. And that expression is so beautiful, all have their own techniques and materials belonging to the geological position of the tribe, but the themes were often surprisingly the same, showing respect or fear for nature, water and light.

In this digital era, there is a lot of discussion about the methods and appreciation of professional photography. Photography still possesses the quality of a somewhat trustworthy tool for documenting disappearing traditions so that we won’t forget them. Burn-clearing had a significant meaning in Finnish agriculture for centuries. Your pictures were taken on a small village farm in Kaavi where this tradition is still kept alive. Why was it important for you to document this method of forestry?

I had just lived my first winter after 17 years in my hometown Iisalmi with my family. I had rented an old log house that needed daily heating with fireplaces.  I heard that there would be a burn and clear happening in a protected natural area of Telkamäki, Kaavi, near Iisalmi.  (They have been doing it there for the past 20 years to study the effects.) The town of Iisalmi asked if I would be interested in documenting it, and I was, like, yes! Please let me do it! I knew it would be miraculous, and it was so important for me to be allowed there to document it. This was a technique that basically saved people in northern Finland from famine, during the difficult hunger years.

I had been living in Paris for the past 17 years with a very different life. Now that we had just experienced the cold, it got to -35 °C, in very dark winter, the days were spent heating the house.  I had had time to wonder about the lives of my grandmothers and fathers. How they had survived there 400 years ago. Sometimes when I was carrying logs in the deep snow under the starry sky I remember thinking, if this is how they felt, and suddenly all those past generations that had been there before us became much more real. So to be allowed to be there to document this burn and clear process that the scientists were doing with the locals to study the benefits of this process was purely miraculous.  Especially because all the details of the process were respected from the start till the end. The scientists and locals wore the traditional costumes for this, including the shoes made from birch (the same tree that is burnt during the process). They kept stepping into large water bowls with the shoes to keep them humid. (It really is the best shoe to walk with in burning ashes, plastic would melt right away.)  I stayed there from the beginning till the end, 14 hours. It was a couple days after all the snow had melted, the sun and light were massively present, and all the leaves, tiny fragile flowers were reaching out. With the constant increasing smoke I really time-travelled and felt that I was in the middle of Eino Leino’s poem praising nature.

What made the exhibition really special was the informal, installation-like suspension of the artworks, the wind moving the pictures like flags. The photographs evolved from two-dimensional surfaces into three-dimensional sculptures. The exhibition became a multisensory experience, unique to every visitor, depending on the moment of their arrival to the island. What was the meaning of this exhibition for you? What does your art mean to you, and how do you see your role as an artist?

The Swidden Rotation photography installation in Vallisaari in front of the Alexander Battery was very important to me in so many ways.  I have always wanted to carry art out of the galleries, to public places to meet people who would never step into the galleries or read art publications.  I have done a couple of public installations with my paintings before, but the Swidden Rotation was in such an extraordinary place, a 10-minute ferry ride from the coast of Helsinki to a natural park with an amazing history. And for almost 6 months. Through the cycles of early spring to the beginning of winter.

I had already had the same exhibition as a traditional photography exhibition in the Eemil Halonen Museum, where the photos were printed in diasec and the installation was dark with light spots on the photos. So here in Vallisaari I proposed to do it inside the Alexander Battery, which obviously is also so amazing. But then I asked them if I could do it outside instead of inside, with the light that was coming back so strongly, I did not want to bring these images inside.  So I explained to Metsähallitus (the forest administrative office) my idea of the installation, these photos outside like summer laundry living with the wind and light. The photos are taken outside with strong natural light, in a dialogue with the breathtaking protected nature of Vallisaari. And they said yes to everything. I was so happy, the whole spring went by preparing it, and as it always is, the path became almost more important than the destination. And here for me the path is the art piece that came out. The path is time. I undid the installation a month ago. The leaves and flowers that had arrived and bloomed, then had become red and orange, had now all fainted and dropped, nature was bare and naked and covered with frost. The images had also vanished, they still were there but as very old photos, barely there…

The whole process was so beautiful, in the construction, curator Marjatta Levanto edited the photo selection with me and guided me and the installation so amazingly. I visited the island almost once a week, the ferry ride and forest path to the Alexander Battery (the main vista location in the island) became for me part of the installation. I filmed these trips every time. The opening was overwhelming with more than 200 guests, performances and the beautiful waning of the spring. I had finished everything in the morning, and it was insane to look at the installation flying there in the wind. It was emotional to leave them there, and it was emotional every time to come back and see them with different nature around them.

One of the most important images of the exposition is Pyhä Puu, the Sacred Tree, it is an image of a tree surrounded by blue smoke and light from the sky.  It is, like all the images of the exposition, completely unretouched, I wanted everything to be real, the smoke really was that blue after it had been going for 12 hours. So, in July I saw this image with all the knee-high flowers flying with the wind against the blue sky. I just sat and sat there.

What’s next?

This year I directed a music video about grief for Finnish singer Tuure Kilpeläinen. It was the second time I had worked with dancers for video. I worked with dancers also in a video for Anna Puu’s “Kolme Pientä Sanaa”. I love to do choreography, to express with movement with talented people.  Directing, telling stories, is something I really feel passionate about right now.  It unites so many things, movement, photography, storytelling, building sets, clothes… Also, when you think about it, we do look at the world through stories, and most of the stories that are chosen to be told are stories chosen and directed by men. Which means that in a way we are looking at the world through men’s eyes. I am right now editing my art movie “lautturi”, which I have been working on for years, it’s about being elsewhere, that mental/emotional/physical state between states. I hope to have it ready by the end of January.

In the spring, I will film my short movie “Reidar and Cezanne” in southern France. It is about the young Finnish painter Reidar Särestöniemi and the phantom of Cezanne. I wrote it as a short novel years ago. I also am in preparations for a Spanish film production for spring 2019, where I will be acting, which will be interesting. I am illustrating my children’s book with my three daughters, it is quite slow, but I want to keep it fun. It is a beautiful little story about little girl called Kesäpilvi.

I am also editing my 16-year-old poetry book “it snowed”, about the paperless homeless on the streets of Paris and a woman in the north who refused to participate in the injustice of society, so she declined to go out, stayed in her home and went into an emotional coma. Recently I have been getting into sculpting, which demands your complete attention, your thoughts cannot be anywhere else. Also, I have two different exhibitions in Paris in the summer and fall.

More works from Sanna Saastamoinen-Barrois.