Riitta Hakkarainen and I have just arrived in the mysterious lakeside gallery of Hirvitalo, Elk House, to spend ten days making art in the forest, by the lake.
It’s called Elk House as it’s on Elk Street. It’s on a migration route, an old animal path. I imagine the great beasts wandering down the street, running through the forests towards the lake. You can still see them here but sadly most of the elk you will see are those that have been killed by hunters in days gone by. Their antlers. Their bones.
We have been in Helsinki gathering information on Finnish myth. I am fascinated by the idea that the Finnish national epic, Kalevala, written or compiled by Elias Lönnrot after his expeditions to gather oral history and rune songs in the nineteenth century, came from traditions that may have been more complex and have alternative stories to this tale of heroes but the library of Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, the Finnish Literature Society, turned out to be shut for July and we had to make do with the secondary source literature discovered on the shelves of the national library. As our research is not academic so much as creating art in response to traditional story and song we resolved that this disappointment would not hold us back in our art adventures.
I found myself immersed in the characters of the Kalevala, the main hero old Väinämöinen who travels the country with the object of looking for women, Ilmarinen the smith, and the other male hunter of women, young Lemminkäinen. Being women we wanted to find the female characters of Finnish myth. Disappointly, they were mostly presented as the objects of the hunt. And few of them were given names. Generally, the women were referred to as a man’s sister, mother or as a maiden of a place. Some locations were immediately exciting, the far north and the river of blood by the land of the dead. Another aspect that always interests me is the combination of music and lyric; the song heritage of the myth. I was so impressed that stories were passed on by singing or recited to the sound of the kantele. There were photographs of how many singers held hands as they shared the tales.
We read about the shamanistic traditions of the singers who entered trance states to perform rituals and channel characters. Shamans wore male and female costume, mimicked sounds of animals, and worked themselves into a solo sexual frenzy to the sounds of the drum. These rituals, often for healing purposes, evoked the being of the celestial realm as well as the earthly realm. The spirits of the sky were depicted by red characters whereas those of the earth were drawn in black on the powerful drums. We read and absorbed and contemplated the past of Karelia and beyond, taking these thoughts on our expedition north towards the arctic.
We arrived by bus in Tampere, a town that is Finland’s second largest city and where Riitta’s grandparents lived. They met in the stocking factory in the city. The family have a summer house on one of the large islands in the lake which belongs to Riitta’s uncle. We stand on the side of the lake and look at some of the islands, covered in pine trees.
It’s sunset and its beautiful. The lake water is cold but not freezing, and Riitta splashes in for her first swim of the season. We have come to a place where the wooden steps go into the water and there is sand on the bottom of the lake. The rocks, green and yellow with lichen, are friendlier for the warm peach light of the goldenish sunset. Sunset is taking a long time. It’s long evenings. It’s July.
We are here to take part in a joint exhibition organised by artist Pipoca (Paola de Ramos) on the subject of the sky, Taivassa. This means ‘in the sky’. And the people of Hirvitalo couldn’t be more welcoming. We are to sleep in an attic room at the top of the creaking old wooden building. The exhibition sprawls through the rooms and outside there are other summer sculptures including a brilliant, powerful, long-legged wolf.
Jonne introduces the gallery and town to us and couldn’t be more supportive. We are particularly intereted in the anarchist influence local in Tampere. There’s bands and bars, music and nightlife. But what’s more interesting is the community action as young people and others are standing up for the rights of DIY artists, for the homeless, and for each other. Veganism, alternative ways of living, community lifestyle, all these ideals are bringing people together. But they are also struggling against so much. I appreciate the strength and commitment of those around us, forging an alternative lifestyle here.
Alexei cooks up a samovar of tea and we sit drinking it. He tells us about the crow that came round this afternoon while he was playing his guitar. It was, like young crows, interesed in the tobacco, and in the food and in hanging around with the little gang. Alexei is an incredible cook, riffing off his own recipe. We discover that later when we eat his chilli porridge rice. He’s an improviser, and rarely do improvising cooks pull of what he has. Earlier that afternoon we had spotted him holding a chilli from the garden, going into the kitchen. Little did we know what wonderful food he was making and that we would be eating it.
We jokingly invent a new band, an avant-folk band that Riitta and I will perform in tomorrow at a gathering in the early evening, here in the social area, round the barbecue. He will play for us. We will present new songs, written right now. Riitta will play her duck kazoo, mimicking the sound of a mating duck. I will write and sing lyrics and maybe wear a birch-bark beard to channel the old man who sings and casts magic, who strides through the countryside, hunting for females. What will that mean to me as a woman singer? I’ve been writing about the cross-dressers of Music Hall, the female stars like Vesta Tilley who performed as men.
We will fix the broken drums into quiet drums, decorate them, inspired by our theme, ‘creatures of the sky’. Where we are sitting is surrounded by the masks from Paola’s mask-making workshop. They are urging us to take on new identities, to push ourselves into new realms. This impulse to evoke other worlds through sound and poetry, through costume and role play, is taking on a new turn in this environment. Who knows if our avant-folk group will come to fruition, and if it does what form it will take but the idea is forged with humour and friendliness. A coming together of different cultures in this birch and pine glade by the woods, following the disappearing trail of the rune singers of the nomadic north.
We may be floating in the lake but we are looking at the sky.