Saari Residence


Lived utopia and love for the earth – an interview with Lada Suomenrinne


Saari Residence


Lived utopia and love for the earth – an interview with Lada Suomenrinne

For Lada Suomenrinne, utopia is a method to make new landscapes and worlds a reality. To them, making art means mourning, loving and asking for permission.

Asking nature for permission

The Saari Residence’s programme for invited artists focuses on ecological themes, and the invited artist in March and April is Lada Suomenrinne whose work involves photography, moving images and writing. Suomenrinne’s roots are in Northern Russia, but they have spent most of their life living in the valley by River Tenojoki in Sápmi. Photography has been a part of their lives since childhood. They were initially attracted to this medium by the fact that it allows them to hide behind the camera. In their work as an artist, they deal with issues related to identity and belonging through various means and they also create self-portraits. Primarily, however, this multidisciplinary artist working in multiple locations likes to focus on landscapes. They choose the medium to use intuitively, but whatever their choice, their practice remains the same: asking nature for permission.

“It’s a traditional way of interacting with nature. When you go fishing, you ask for permission. When you go berry picking, you interact with the berries. And when you enter a new place, you ask for permission, you say hello.”

Suomenrinne considers physicality important when working, both in terms of concrete actions and the subject they are working on. They almost always shoot both stills and video using a handheld camera. The end result shows the body’s movements and steps in nature. During the process of shooting, the artist is aware of their body in a different way than when writing. On the other hand, when writing, they can describe things that they don’t yet know how to shoot. At the Saari Residence, the artist has thought a lot about how climate change relates to their body image. In the Arctic, the changes in nature affect their everyday activities and also change the way they use their body.

Through brainwork, the activity itself also deepens. During their residency, Suomenrinne has been writing a script in which their body and mind each have their own voice. The voice of the body reminds them of what it feels like to float in River Tenojoki, for example, and what the beauty of one’s own body feels like. Suomenrinne has experienced the conflicts in the environment in their own body: the impossible beauty ideals of the capitalist culture and, at the same time, the demands the artist’s northern environment sets on their physical strength.

In their self-portraits, the artist has the power to put themselves in the picture together with nature. Currently, their biggest photographic questions relate to the relationship between the landscape and the person in it.

“Can I take a self-portrait that is also a self-portrait of the natural world so that the viewer perceives that it’s not just me in the photo? Or can a self-portrait solely of me be a self-portrait of the natural world or the land?”

Suomenrinne is not particularly interested in the technology of photography in itself. They select between analogue and digital intuitively depending on the project and choose their tools based on which is the easiest and most functional option in the Arctic, taking into account, for example, how much they need to move when shooting or how cold it is at the time of shooting.

“I feel that art is more of a therapy for me than about figuring out how to implement an idea technically. That’s where it comes from.”

For Suomenrinne, collaborating with the landscape is an ongoing discussion with the land. Through their own choices, Suomenrinne tries to show their love of nature and the land, which is more important than ever during the climate crisis.

In discussion with the landscape

For Suomenrinne, collaborating with the landscape is an ongoing discussion with the land. Through their own choices, Suomenrinne tries to show their love of nature and the land, which is more important than ever during the climate crisis. Sometimes they also get an intuitive feeling that it is not an appropriate time to take pictures.

“This is a long-standing question about the culture of photography during the Anthropocene, usually involving overly beautiful images of wounded land. I myself would not agree to photograph mining areas, for example. After all, I wouldn’t photograph my sister if she had been wounded without asking her for permission, or at all.”

Suomenrinne also explored the concept of the landscape in her master’s thesis at Aalto University. They see the landscape as much more than just a mountain area, wilderness or river that they observe with their eyes. It is also a landscape inside one’s mind and seeing it involves a broader understanding of the place and how it is treated. It incorporates information about how the land is maintained and taken care of and how the landscape has contributed to the construction of one’s identity. The way you see a landscape is influenced by things like location-related relationships with other people and your understanding of the language spoken there.

“I sometimes wonder if someone told me to take photographs of, say, Siberia, would I take the photos or how long would it take for me to start taking them. Because understanding the landscape requires getting to know it over a long time, a bit like getting to know a person.”

The area around the Saari Residence, its tall trees and snakes waking up with the spring, is a thought-provoking place for Suomenrinne, but not yet a familiar one, even though the artist spent two weeks there during last summer’s group residence. At that time, they took some pictures of the area, but realised they were looking for elements in the landscape that were familiar to them. They have not used those photographs, and this spring they have not taken any photos at all. Giving yourself time allows you to find the right way to speak to your surroundings. Writing, on the other hand, allows you to reach out to the landscapes you are familiar with also from a distance.

“It feels easy for me to write about the valley of the River Tenojoki when I’m not there because I grew up there. It’s so familiar and safe. There’s always more to investigate there because I keep growing and learning new things. Information changes with climate change and new ideas need to be adopted or re-learnt all the time.”

Concrete utopias

Utopia comes from the Greek words eu topos and ū topos, meaning ‘a good place’ and ‘no place’. Suomenrinne used to think their photography was about creating utopian landscapes, but they have since started to see utopia more as a method than something to strive for. Utopia allows them to remove wounded and damaged things from the world, such as colonialism, poor self-esteem or traumatic experiences.

They are not just talking about themselves, but also the land. In their work, Suomenrinne uses the concept land-body trauma which they learnt from their colleague Jenni Laiti. The land and the person are one, and their experiences are inseparable. People living on the land feel the consequences of violence against the land in their own body. Through their work, Suomenrinne asks what happens after the land-body trauma is healed. Utopia is reality in the sense that it takes concrete form through the healing process.

In Suomenrinne’s work, utopia enables transformation and listening to others’ perspectives. For example, in their article Rávdu, published in the essay collection Säihkyvät utopiat (Sparkling Utopias), Suomenrinne discusses experiences related to their body image, both as a person and as an Arctic charr. In the script they are working on at the residence, they give their own voice to the land, other species on the land, and the sun and the moon.

In addition to utopias, Suomenrinne works with the concept of the end of the world. They see these as similar concepts. Both are considered something that is in the future, unattainable, where anything is possible, but in reality they are present here and now, in our lived daily lives. From a Sámi perspective, for example, the world ends all the time and it happens over and over again. Yet Suomenrinne speaks in support of creating positive art. Real-world problems can lead to crippling melancholy, but utopian thinking can help you see and experience other potential realities.

“I feel like one of the stereotypes attached to Sámi art is that it deals with difficult and heavy issues related to oppression, colonialism and assimilation. These are very important topics and of course they have been part of my art too, but what if I explored them through utopia by removing them? This way I would be creating more positive art for my own well-being as well, and at the same time I’d be reinventing the Sámi art sector and avoiding ending up in the same treadmill that has been spinning since the 1970s.”

Suomenrinne admits that, of course, it is difficult to say when colonialism and assimilation have been dealt with sufficiently in artworks and films. Different people and different generations experience things in such different ways. Right now, however, it is important for Suomenrinne that they can process difficult issues from a positive perspective using the concept of utopia. Removing harmful things does not mean ignoring them. An essential part of the utopian process is being able to also mourn the land and with the land. In utopia, you have moved through the grief of climate change-related trauma, colonialism-related trauma and personal trauma and you experience a transformation. Grief is where the journey to a new world begins.

Good life

This spring, the residents’ common daily activities at the Saari Residence have seemed particularly important. In an artist’s irregular life, routines such as a weekly swim and shopping trip are a rare treat. Sharing everyday life together and being apart from the rest of the world has also seemed like a kind of utopia to the residents.

“We have become a pretty close-knit group here. It feels like this is our own village.”

Many artists feel a strong internal and external pressure to be productive. It is difficult to strip away the artist’s role or show tangible results of one’s work despite working very hard, and few artists have the financial means to slow down.

The capitalism of the art world does not make it easy to be an ecological artist either. Like many other artists, Suomenrinne struggles with the fact that travelling is often mandatory if you want to earn a living. Contrary to the romantic perception of the artist, continuous travel is harmful, consuming both natural resources and your own mental and physical health. At the Saari Residence, Suomenrinne has tried to take time for themselves.

“While I’ve been here, I’ve thought a lot about how to be a good artist for myself. When you’ve travelled all year, you start thinking about how you can maintain your own well-being to keep going as an artist.”

Suomenrinne feels that the pressure is even greater at the start of a fast-paced artistic career. You have to deal with the constant not-knowing of how long you will continue to receive invitations to exhibitions and other projects, how far ahead you should plan to make sure you can make a living. For Suomenrinne, sustainable artistry also means learning to say ‘no’. Their next step for putting down roots is to return to Sápmi.

“For me, my granddad’s death was an end of the world, but now I’m going back there and I’m going to clean up his cabin. And I’m going to live there with my grandma for the summer and create new memories. Couldn’t that be a kind of utopia, too?”