Saari Residence


Ilja Lehtinen and the experience of oil:


Saari Residence


Ilja Lehtinen and the experience of oil:

“I am trying to establish a link between the question of tragic inevitability and the fundamental ethos of Brechtian theatre, changing the world, and how to bring tragic inevitability to an end.”

The Saari Residence offers a view of the Mietoistenlahti bay where a shipwreck can be seen lying on the ice about a kilometre away.  This strange chimera has been half submerged in the water for some eighteen months, looking like a sad memory of days gone by.

When he arrived at the residence, dramaturg Ilja Lehtinen’s gaze fell on the shipwreck in the middle of the ice-covered sea. The unreal sight inspired him to create a little hiking performance with his fellow residents. The trip to the shipwreck turned into a pilgrimage, with the artists breathing together while walking in silence.

During his time at the Saari Residence, Lehtinen will be working on his script Järjen vuosisata (öljynäytelmä), (A Century of Reason, oil play). It is a play about Brecht, oil and rationality. The artists’ discussion about continuums and breaks, reason and control takes place in the middle of a creation process, with the work only just beginning to take shape. It is a state of fumbling about in no man’s land.

The experience of oil gave humans a delusional idea of their omnipotence and a utopian idea of unlimited progress. Antti Salminen and Tere Vadén’s Energy and Experience: An Essay in Nafthology was an analysis of this experience; writings at the breaking point of what has been considered normal. Fossil fuels have been the pliable core of modern life, and the human race has lived inside this delusion of ‘normal’ for 150 years.

Alireza Fakhrkonandeh’s recently published book Oil and Modern World Dramas takes us from petro-mania to petro-melancholia. The book explores the ways that oil has been depicted in plays: what it has symbolised and how it has acted as a hyper-object for capitalist exchange and exploitation.

Ilja Lehtinen is becoming part of this continuum. The idea to write about oil was born after Lehtinen saw Leo Lania’s oil play Konjunktur, directed by Erwin Piscator in Berlin in 1928. Bertolt Brecht, who was a dramaturg for the play, has referred to it only casually in his writings, even though he rewrote the play’s third act after the process ran into a crisis.

How does the energy-blind reasoning about oil work?

“Piscator and Brecht wanted to create a piece in which oil played the main role as a material, political and economic force that moulds people’s activities.”

In his text Järjen vuosisata (A Century of Reason), Lehtinen discusses the process of creating this ‘oil play’; Piscator, Brecht and Tilla Durieux, who played the lead, all appear on the stage. In addition to theatre history, the text also explores the near future and a mythical future. In 2028, a female researcher approaching middle age and her father, who has withdrawn from society, engage in a deep inner reckoning. In a mythical future, surrounded by ruins, goddesses of fate proclaim the end of European history.

What sets an interesting limitation to writing about oil is the fact that human characters who talk and do things are the main theatrical tool on stage. Lehtinen emphasises that he does not intent to get by completely without human characters on stage – simply because they are vital for theatre.

“Through the human characters, I will try to highlight oil and energy as non-human actors and determinants of people’s external and internal lives. In other words, I want to put ‘the background in the foreground’, as Brecht intended to do too.”

The century of reason, which humankind was intoxicated with in its delusions of omnipotence, was a time of neoclassical mainstream economics. For background research, Lehtinen has immersed himself in a huge number of historical, documentary and literary material, including works by non-mainstream economic thinkers. 

“Nobel award-winning chemist Frederick Soddy saw energy and fossil fuels as a source of value early on. He introduced the idea that we have lived through a glorious era without any merit of our own.”

According to Lehtinen, there are other texts too highlighting non-human materiality that are awaiting to be rediscovered. They do not speak to basic human pride and humanity’s belief in its own capability.

“We firmly believe that humanity has been able to make progress either liberally as a result of Promethean innovations or as a result of the exploitation of underpriced labour. However, both these points of view – whether ‘right-wing’ or ‘left-wing’ – are energy-blind. They praise human productive capacity and ingenuity, but forget about the power of autonomous forces independent of humans as the ultimate producers of economic and social ‘good’.”

Tragic inevitability and our ability to change the world

“I am trying to establish a link between the issue of tragic inevitability and the fundamental ethos of Brechtian theatre, changing the world, and how to bring tragic inevitability to an end.”

The text Lehtinen is writing aims to mobilise both the Piscatorian political theatre and tragedy.  Lehtinen explains that in the work’s pseudo-tragic framework these approaches challenge each other. 

The tragedy reveals how a person’s thinking is fundamentally delusional. The most important thing for the characters in the tragedy is harmartia, a tragic mistake that is the result of the character’s incomplete assumptions.

“It’s about being in the space in between. I look at ways that the shape and reel adopted by Brecht are connected to the experience of oil and the fossil modern. Is it really possible for us to shape the world into something else, remove ourselves and see the world as something totally transformable?”

“In his book about tragedy and dramatic theatre, Hans-Thies Lehmann discusses the relationship between philosophical thinking and theatre. The original format of philosophical discourse is theatrical. It’s only really possible to convey comprehensive ideas about the world when there is more than one character and more than one voice on the stage. The actual process occurs between the characters, and the truth is not locked in just one voice.”

Lehtinen wants to explore and give an account of the western ideals we have inherited of progress, rational control and a world that can be improved. The Age of Reason refers to being in control and taking your own fate into your own hands.

“Brecht and Piscator hoped that, from this point forward, we would be guided by reason – and held reason as the guiding principle of their shared dramaturgical concept. Their hope was that reason would allow us to liberate ourselves from the tragic inevitabilities of history; that by becoming aware of the circumstances surrounding us, we would rise above them and learn to change the world.”

In Lehtinen’s view, this beautiful wish has proved impossible. Meer reason alone cannot guide history or human activities. Instead, he poses the following question: how is the idea of reason and its potential to change the world the very experience made possible by fossil energy, especially oil? To what extent is Brecht and Brecht’s enlightenment-based thinking part of the experience of oil?

“For me, the possibility of doing something different, of change, of not being controlled by destiny, does not reside in reason alone. Nor do I believe it would mean ‘to change the world completely’, as the Brechtian framework suggests. If anything – although in a finite way – change is always about limited behaviour and activities, rooted in time and place, and its possibilities are limited by forces beyond our control.”

Lehtinen refers to the situation that humankind now finds itself in and the whole political unconscious. A person can take action, change their destiny and take responsibility for their choices.  How can we depict life without total horizons?

“One total horizon was that of progress and the expectation of and demand for a future paradise. An apocalypse and total destruction was another. But maybe the idea is that destruction is never total, that there is no end. We are always somewhere. There have always been crises, disruptions and breaks.”

On the dimensions of time

Next, we talk about what time looks like in Lehtinen’s work. His drama explores questions of time within the eco-crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss and within dystopian images of the future. Time is strongly present, for example, in the performances from Tuija Kokkonen’s Muistio series and in her thesis.

“At the Saari Residence, we have talked about how this work deals with time. I’m still formulating the idea, but intuitively, there are three modalities of time in the text: the past, the present and a mythical future. This idea may also be a reflection of Thomas Köck’s play Eure Paläste sind leer (All We Ever Wanted).  The way he deals with time in it is linked to tragic inevitability. Seers from the future create a mythical destiny, and we are here trapped in time and mythical inevitability, and we don’t see it. In Köck’s play, Teiresias is a mythical tragic seer.

“In my own text, mythical, tragic time exists in the characters of the Fates, but I don’t want this fateful inevitability to be dominant. Despite everything, the future is open; the Fates don’t know everything, and the time of fossil modernity is not just a tragedy dictated by fate.”

On the opportunities available for the human race, community and art

In his plays and essays, Lehtinen has repeatedly explored the question of the opportunities available for humans and the community. Hope has begun to replace ecological grief.

In his final project for the Theatre Academy, a play called Elinvoima (Vitality, 2019), five actors’ relationship with the forest and the notes Lehtinen made during the writing process turned into a piece that explores the situation the human species finds itself in and the time span of the ecological disaster, with the extinction of the human race as its end point.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and after Pentti Linkola’s death, Lehtinen wrote about how we are living in “a state of deferral – we wait in quiet uncertainty for tomorrow which will undoubtedly come with an unprecedented storm.” He examined the requirement of “holistic conversion” that has overshadowed his life, reflecting on Linkola’s importance to himself. Linkola had given words to his own experience of grief.  According to Lehtinen, however, ‘the angry, uncommunicative and irritable’ Linkola’s way of thinking has little practical value. Instead of Linkola, Lehtinen read Riikka Kaihovaara’s writings about autarky and Lasse Nordlund’s practical experiences with self-sufficiency.

Lehtinen’s way of thinking and his experiences at the time are reflected in his play Maaseutua etsimässä (Looking for the Countryside, 2023). The play made important, relevant observations on nostalgia and the search for community spirit. Suffering from homelessness and a lack of belonging, modern human turns the rural landscape into an ideal topos, a sought-after utopia of happiness. The play avoided turning melancholic as it unravelled the nostalgic image of the countryside, coloured by fantasies, in a multifaceted and critical, yet gentle manner.

During the pandemic, the Lehtinen family embarked on an experiment of self-sufficiency which, when comprehensively implemented, proved unsuitable for their situation in life. 

Maaseutua etsimässä (Looking for the Countryside) had a lot to do with my own dream image of the countryside and the fantasy of returning to the land. But I am not saying that this is just a city-dwellers’ fantasy. All credit to those who go ahead and do it. The play deals with giving up on the dream or putting it in your cupboard of dreams.”

Lehtinen reflects on the performative conflict.

“The ethos of the community of self-subsistent households often includes the idea of getting rid of rootlessness and urban alienation, of replacing them with something else. It’s about producing a selected set of circumstances and creating a self-selected ideal community. But then, from a standpoint of continuity, multigenerationalism and maintaining traditions, aren’t tangible family and other relations that you haven’t chosen the community you should be able to get along with?”

The most significant changes also in the practising process presented in the Maaseutua etsimässä text were related to quitting: what happens when the ideal has collapsed and proven unworkable.

“People need to get along with each other in the places they inhabit. When the dream of an ideal community collapses, people are left with each other. Philosopher G. K. Chesterton has written a beautiful piece about how the true test of living in a community is whether you get along with your neighbours– your real fellow human beings.”

To some extent, drama deals with how people live and get along with each other in the space they share. This point of view reveals big ethical interpersonal and also post-humanist questions about coexistence and living with others.

For Ilja Lehtinen himself, Maaseutua etsimässä focused on the idea that any choices made are made in relation to other people.

“The prerequisite of a play or at least all drama is that people can’t just leave. There must be an external force that makes people stay together, or an internal force that keeps people together. In the play Maaseutua etsimässä, the characters were working on a play of their own. The performance was a force and an opportunity that brought them together. The overarching idea behind it is, why do people make art in the first place?”

We end up talking about the community at the Saari Residence and what it means. It means that the residents are collectively ‘side by side, exploring something’, Lehtinen sums up.

“The community of artists formed here at Saari is, of course, temporary and in some way random in composition. Yet there is something that keeps us together. In a somewhat surprising way, the people working here form a group that feels important and has a sense of togetherness. It feels natural to share our creative processes and thinking with each other and it has been fruitful.”