About Finnish photographer and artist Jaakko Kahilaniemi and his ongoing photographic project entitled 100 Hectares of Understanding.
Cover photo: Jaakko Kahilaniemi, 100 Planted Saviors of Heritage, 100 Hectares of Understanding, 2015
Contemporary art is often grave and serious, inspired by grand socio-political themes and phenomena. Commonly, it reflects on relevant issues such as political upheavals and injustice in society, it exposes absurdities of social norms and draws attention to (always too) short historical memory. And, of course, in the century of the self and within the self-centred mainstream culture many artists tend to externalise their own intimacy, identities and positions within society. Intimacy, sex, violence and fear always sell in politics, mass media, show business or art.
In the visual arts, therefore, it is rare to come across seemingly marginal and insignificant narratives that focus on one’s personal experience of being confronted by life-changing situations, be it ruptures in daily routine, break-ups and breaks, births and deaths, love and hate, or even changing one’s profession and lifestyle. The artistic experiment of Finnish photographer Jaakko Kahilaniemi is a good example of the latter. It might be nothing new and nothing special; however, his way of dealing with his own situation by using exclusively visual means is extraordinary. It is visually appealing, conceptually challenging, cerebrally demanding, and thus utterly effective in delivering the impulses that might engage the audience. So, a couple of years ago, Kahilaniemi was caught off guard by the fact that he inherited quite a sizeable piece of land, a family property in the vast wooded territories of Finland. He was faced with a challenge of radically changing his old life in the city and – at least partially – move to the countryside to work on the land. Among a number of practical things he had to learn regarding farming, foresting, and maintaining the property he also needed to find a way to appreciate the might of nature and its unstoppable forces.
In the past several decades urbanisation and modernisation of life was immense in Finland and globally. Dealing with everyday life in the countryside might have been pathetic and pretentious a couple of decades ago, however, nowadays, in new circumstances, it is normal and legitimate. Society, including the artist himself, has slowly but surely been losing touch with the rural, traditional and static way of life. Despite (or because of) his lack of knowledge about forests and forestry, farms and farming, Kahilaniemi became analytical in his approach as he started observing and noticing things that hadn’t draw his attention before. For instance, he measured his land in a way that is not very meaningful to anyone but himself. In a way, his life-changing decisions and resulting actions seem to be romantic and almost spiritual, especially from the perspective of a contrasting clinical and generic urban lifestyle.
But there is a glitch. As much as foresting and farming may seem to be in tune with nature and its ongoing and inevitable processes, they are still alien and damaging – as any kind of regulation of the environment undoubtedly is. The inconvenient fact is that (we) human beings are pests of nature. Namely, farming and foresting can be as damaging for the environment as any kind of conventional heavy industry. Nowadays, when the world is collapsing into ecological catastrophe – overpopulation and mass production, which are constantly increasing, have brought our planet to the verge of ecological destruction. But humankind is still ignorant, despite the knowledge that it has become hostage to its own short-term economic interests that, proverbially, do not have an alternative.
Kahilaniemi, in fact, has an alternative – an escape from the world of man-made structures, the cosiness of urban lifestyle and clichés of the art world. But is it really an escape? The artist’s decision to move to the countryside brings yet another soul into the wilderness thus claiming even more territory for invasive humans. However, he is aware of that problematic and does not claim he wants to save the planet; instead he is deeply fascinated by the forest, to the point that he started measuring it. He catalogued and exhibited branches, plants or cobs as if they were valuable archaeological artefacts.
What is strikingly unusual in these images is the specific photographic angle he uses which metaphorically reflects on people’s need to measure, inventory, systematise, archive, process and improve everything. Kahilaniemi actually demystifies the idea of living in rural areas. There is nothing romantic and nothing spectacular about it. Globalisation has hit the countryside hard but there is still something mysterious about it, something that still makes people think that nature has the power to put everything back in its place by itself and that there is some kind of a perfect order and balance that rules our lives and the lives of all living creatures on the planet. However, there is no such thing as perfect balance and perfect cycles in nature. It is only how we, human beings, imagine and impose our romanticised views on the nature.
© Miha Colner, August 2017 / proof reading: Ana Cavic