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Your window on Finnish Environmental Art / Ympäristötaide verkossa / Editor:Lea Turto

Timo Jokela

Close to Nature: Marks of the forest

The models of Finnish environmental art can be traced to traditional Western land art. The roots of the phenomenon, however, can also be found in Finnish culture that has been shaped by its closeness to nature. The central elements of the landscape: forest, lakes, rivers and bogs have a particular significance to the way Finns have settled, found their livelihood and related to nature. On the other hand, the treeless fells of Lapland, the northernmost part of Finland, are part of the landscape of the original natives, the Sami people. In a culture, immersed in benefiting from nature's gifts, humans are typically found constantly toiling in the embrace of the land. They have developed skills to observe and understand nature's seasonal cycle, a cycle that can be severe and challenging at times. Snow, frost and ice shape the landscape in the winter and give hiking and working outdoors a special character.

Nature and landscape do not define only the material circumstances of life. There are phenomena in both Finnish and Lappish ancient religions, beliefs, story telling traditions and their relationship to nature that contain features separating them from the traditions of Western and Southern Europe. The undercurrent of the rich mythology of the Finno-Ugric people was a shamanistic and animistic perception of the world. This deep fatalistic connection between man and nature is also reflected in Finnish art - in literature, music, design and architecture, as well as in different art forms. It is perhaps most evident in environmental art. Even at the present time, a work of art placed in the landscape challenges us to ponder, who we are, where we belong, and what our place is in the great universal cycle.

Although urbanisation, occupational change and waves of globalisation create big transformations, the Finnish way of life is still in close contact with nature. It is therefore natural that many artists observe the changes in the relationship to nature through their art. For some, environmental art functions as a personal tool to reflect on one's relationship to nature, for others, it affords a means of observing the changes in the communal and cultural attitudes towards the environment - from a critical viewpoint. Yet others harness environmental art to search for new ways to solve ecological, environmental and aesthetic problems, involving both art and the different sectors of society.

Place-specific art, as a definition, depicts the artists' endeavour to use the actual site as an intrinsic part of the material and expressive content of his/her works of art. Environmental artists share an interest in truly experiencing a place. Although the sites of the works are traditionally considered as part of nature, they are also part of the human experiential world that is phenomenally and culturally constructed. Environmental art uses nature as its raw material and as a display site. As such, it is expressed in many ways: as a home to mythological spirits, as a refuge from the urban world, as a gateway to the spiritual world of beyond, as a place of mental purification, as a homestead and a place of work, as an object of exploitation, as a depiction of ecological problems, or as a forum for political power. Aesthetic, ethical and economic concepts, values and expectations are thus projected on environmental art works. A forest is not only the wilds of nature but also a part of Finnish mythology and identity. However, it also represents modern primary industry. Art offers tools to reconstruct and represent this.

Environmental art challenges its' creator to orientate closely with the character of the place and to familiarise him/herself with the resulting phenomenal experiences. The work of art is often a result of physical labour and this is perhaps why Maurice Merleau-Ponty suggests phenomenological-existential concepts whereby man's physical presence in a landscape is the prerequisite of all thinking. Physical labour with art pieces transforms into a kind of meditation, where the body movements open a gateway to the consciousness of the sensory perception of the environment. This releases creative potential, increases aesthetic experiences, and unites the body and the mind, in an enriching way. The connection between mythological Finnish relationship with nature and Maurice Merleau-Ponty's concept of thinking is an interesting one: nature appears as an element that surrounds us, yet above all, it includes us humans. Nature is not only the material from which human culture develops, but also the basic principle of existence that flows through us as material or experience, uniting ourselves with the same stream that we are trying to manipulate with art works.

Our relationship with the environment is not merely an individual phenomenological experience. The artist is required to orientate to the history of a place, to the stories it tells, and to the meanings that other users and the community ascribe to the place. Thus, environmental art has social dimensions and aims and it belongs to a public place rather than a natural landscape. Small towns, countryside and villages in Finland are going through a series of big changes. The occupational structure is no longer shared. Take, for example, the co-existence of traditional, organic livelihoods and tourism, and their interaction and fusion that enables many villages to survive - however this also creates conflicts.

Socially active environmental artists often aim to develop ways of working with the community, to look for the strengths of the inhabitants, and to support the survival and development of their identity. The relationship of the northern communities with their environment is in a pivotal position. That is why environmental art is a natural means of working with social projects. Mapping and analysing the visual outlook, livelihood, traditions and stories of a village has created art events that activate people and whole villages. Environmental projects typically also bring together people of all ages. They also carry out research, analyse, mediate and renew the history of a place and its' means of livelihood, through art.

The roots of Finnish environmental art lie deep in the mental landscape of Finland. However, the point in environmental art is not about a return to pure nature or to the roots of tradition, but rather about the insight of the cultural researcher Stuart Hall: All new cultural discourses exist in a particular place. They come from some area, some history, some language, some cultural tradition; it is from there they gain their shape.

This is the way it appears in Finnish environmental art, too.