This group of photographs has been exhibited in the University of Lapland’s Gallery Lovisa where I was invited to be the artist of the month for January 2020. The gallery is a curious space serving at least three purposes: it offers wall space for the university alumni to exhibit their art works; it is also possible to eat your lunch right under the works of art; and perhaps most dramatically, the corridor running from one end of the university to the other goes right through the gallery Lovisa. What can an artist do in such a space? Many things. I decided to explore an idea I have been thinking about for a number of years.
The idea is all about a place and one’s experiences in it. Presenting it in a gallery with multiple identities seemed like a challenge worth taking. To me, both the artworks and the gallery play with our perception, our willingness to look, and our ability to see. The artworks included in my exhibition were created because someone had looked carefully, they had paused, they had taken in, and they had understood something specific about those moments in time captured in the photographs seen in the gallery Lovisa – and now here as part of this visual essay.
The more I thought about Lovisa, the more clearly I started to see it as a non-space – borrowing a term from the field of environmental art – or in this case, as a non-gallery. Traditionally galleries offer a space for the viewer to experience works of art in piece and quiet; it is possible to immerse oneself in the art displayed. Not in Lovisa. I suspect that many who have marched their way past the photographs presented to them in the gallery Lovisa have not seen them. And if they have seen the photographs, have they taken time to actually look at them? Or have they turned away?
American Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), who has been described as a transcendentalist, poet, recluse, walker and much more, wrote (A Writer’s Journal 1857: 164): ”Many an object is not seen though it falls within the range of our visual ray, because it does not come within the range of our intellectual ray, i.e., we are not looking for it. So, in the largest sense, we find only the world we look for.” Thoreau kept a journal and wrote two million words in his thirty-nine notebooks, for him walking and writing were closely related. He emphasised the importance of nature and how we should live in harmony with it. Thoreau’s suggestion that we only see the things we are looking for resonates with my Lovisa exhibition on two levels.
The moments captured in these photographs have been registered not only in the range of the photographer’s visual ray, but also in the intellectual ray, as described by Thoreau. The photographer was looking for something, and because of that they found something. When the series of photographs were presented in the gallery Lovisa, a new group of people were invited to see. But did they? I suspect that some did, yet many did not. It is curious to think about the walking that happens daily through the gallery Lovisa: university students and staff, visitors, stomping along and paying very little attention to artworks along the route to their next lecture or a meeting. That kind of walking along the university corridors seems to have very little in common with the walking Thoreau promoted. Undoubtedly some paused and looked.
What did they see? Did they see beautiful Lapland landscapes, pretty photographs taken in the woods? Were they amused to see the dog Manta as a protagonist, an adventurer, or even as a compositional motif used to create rhythm and structure in the general arrangement of the photographs as well as in individual frames? Did they pick up the stories of death staring us in the eye and buried under the forest floor? Did they pick up visual clues that these photographs had been chosen very carefully and arranged in a line across the walls in an attempt not only to tell a story, but also to ask questions? In its humble way the exhibition was trying to be provocative and push boundaries. It was asking for a fight.
By now, a careful reader might be wondering what is so confrontational about these photographs. The text accompanying the exhibition gave some background information along these lines: This body of works explores artistic process, appropriation and Nordic identities. The exhibition has been created together with Teuvo Alaluusua, a reindeer herder, who has been documenting the everyday in Lapland from his point-of-view for a decade. The photographs in the exhibition have been taken by him, and selected by the artist Alaluusua from thousands of digital images. Alaluusua and Alaluusua discussed the selection. The arrangement of the photographs on the walls is based on ideas about linear time and narrative, as well as the famous eight seasons of Lapland.
Some of the questions considered in the gallery Lovisa exhibition were ownership and collaboration in the field of art. More than one hundred years ago Marcel Duchamp took readymade objects and placed them in an art exhibition. He argued that ordinary objects would acquire the dignity of a work of art through the act of the artist choosing it and presenting it in an art context. Appropriation has been an approach artists have always used as they borrow, copy and make their own ideas that were used by others before them – even though it might have been named, and described as intentional borrowing, only in the last century. It would be appropriate to ask the question: where is the work of art here, what is the essence of this exhibition? What is going on?
Duchamp suggested that it was a creative act to choose manufactured objects for an art exhibition. When those objects lost their usefulness they became works of art and presenting them in a gallery environment gave them new meaning. It required willingness to look at Duchamp’s readymades with an open mind to see them fresh and as works of art. He challenged his audiences already a hundred years ago and I wonder how much our perception and willingness to look a fresh has developed since then. The definition of art has broadened vastly and it is acceptable to present many things titled as ‘art’, but do we see any more clearly now than when Duchamp designed his first readymade in 1913? The challenge for our times is not – as it were for Duchamp’s audience – that we are presented with something completely new, but the fact that we do not have time to stop and look.
The name of the exhibition: “Alaluusua on Alaluusua – Proposition(n)” is playful in a Duchampian way drawing from both Finnish and English languages, the two languages that have been part of my everyday for more than two decades. The meaning of the title changes when understood in these two languages. Sometimes the clue is in small details that can be easily missed. Our perception and understanding can dramatically change when (if) we learn about the backstory. Knowing who is in the photograph may or may not be important. Does it make a difference to know that these photographs have been taken in the village Luusua approximately 100 kilometres east from Rovaniemi? Do we want to know who the men in the photograph are?
The fact that we cannot escape our own life experiences goes without saying. We will look at art from our own point-of-view and make judgements against our understanding of the world. As Thoreau pointed out, we will find what we are looking for. These photographs document the landscape that is very familiar to me. It is the land I grew up on, my home. I have lived away for a long time in a place that could be seen in many ways as a complete opposite to this small village in Finnish Lapland. This body of work is a collaboration that brings together two minds, two people and their partly shared life experiences. The person on the other side of the fire is the photographer, the reindeer herder, the protagonist and my father.
About ten years ago I decided to buy my father a camera as a Christmas present. Why, I cannot remember. He has turned out to be a skilled photographer with a natural flare for finding moments and framing views to be captured. These photographs have been taken outside what we might think as the traditional art context. The purpose behind them is not to entertain others in an exhibition – even though they do now – but to document what is an ordinary day in the life of someone who spends most of their time outdoors, in the landscape, as part of Lapland’s nature. This is what the world looks like for someone who belongs here. What makes these photographs unique is the fact that they have been taken by a reindeer herder, an insider. The twist here is the fact that the insider has curiosity for the ‘other’, and willingness to welcome visitors, the outsiders, into their world. Intriguingly connections are formed across language barriers and cultural differences. I believe, that those connections emerge due to shared experiences that are to do with the land. A person who can spend most of their waking hours outdoors and endure hard physical labour probably recognises another with a similar mind-set.
To gain something from an art experience also requires a connection of some kind. We do not necessarily need to ‘understand’ what we are looking at (hearing etc.) but the experience ought to speak to us, often in a strange language we find intriguing. Experiencing the ‘other’ is fascinating for many, if not all of us. Finding clues that help us to interpret a work of art is intriguing, be that an old fashioned uniform worn in a photograph, a tool held, or a rotting wooden cross tied onto a tree. Knowing something about the location and history of the place is helpful. Sharing a moment in time or collaborating with others is important in life, but also in the field of making art. Today, social art, community projects, co-creation, collaboration, dialogical interaction and so forth, are often used approaches by visual artists. It is widely accepted that meaning making happens outside art studios and the audience plays an important part in the process. The roles of the artist creator and the viewer recipient are no longer strictly defined. Finding a common ground is still important, otherwise the danger is that the meaning, all possible meanings, are lost to the viewer.
I claim ownership of the exhibition, because I made the selection and decided how these individual shots would be arranged so that they tell a coherent story. I am the artist who put these shots in the art context. The combination and arrangement could have been different as there were thousands to choose from. None of the photographs in the exhibition were re-framed. The selection process grew from my own understanding of the local landscape, the place in question. The contradiction between the series of photographs and the place where they were exhibited, the gallery Lovisa, was enticing, and it was to do with time. To be able to see clearly, and to be able to present an insider’s view of this landscape, had required time from the photographer; it has taken all of his life. The gallery Lovisa is a place where it is easy to speed past an exhibition without seeing it. One must invest time to look, to be able to see, and to understand. Unfortunately today, it seems, that none of us have enough of it.
Have you ever tried to walk in the woods with a reindeer herder? Don’t. It is impossible. They glide over the ground effortlessly while you struggle to keep up huffing and puffing and constantly loosing your foot hold. For them the woods are their natural habitat. For the rest of us, no matter how comfortable we are outdoors, the woods are never the same. We do not see, hear and sense the same way as reindeer herders too. The times are changing though, we are about to loose those reindeer herders who started their working lives on skis. Now the herding is done with the help of many machines. There is noise in the woods and the speed is different. Thinking about it makes me feel nostalgic. It is the life I never lived, but I am lucky to get glimpses of it. But you should, take a walk in the woods with a reindeer herder if you could.
As artists we are accustomed to look and preconditioned to ponder over things; we are lucky to have art in our lives. In his seminal book Ways of Seeing (1972) John Berger corroborated what H. D. Thoreau had expressed previously. Berger stated that we only see what we look at, and that to look is an act of choice (p. 8): “We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are.” (Ibid., p. 10) What can an artist do in a space like the gallery Lovisa? Many things. I might have revealed that I am a hopeless romantic, an idealist who believes in the power of art. What you saw in the gallery Lovisa might have not revealed all of the things discussed here – instead, what you saw revealed a lot about yourself.