Silence Awareness Existence - open studio

Kath Fries, Forest sky snow, 2015, video projected onto snow

On Monday evening I projected video footage onto the snow covered hill outside my studio door at Arteles. The video was initially recorded in the forest looking up to the sky with the wind blowing in the bare branches of the birch trees. So this installation took part of the forest inside via the video projector, and then sent it outside again through the window. I stood outside with a few of the other resident artists to watch it, and just within our peripheral vision was the actual forest, we could clearly hear the wind whistling through the trees around us.

Kath Fries, Forest sky snow, 2015, video projected onto snow

Inside my studio there are wonderful big windows that look out onto the countryside and let in the natural daylight as it reflects off the snow. The walls have insulating fibrous rope stuffed into the cracks between raw wooden logs, which seem as if they were originally harvested from the forest right outside the door. I've been collecting pieces of bark and sticks from my walks in the forest and bringing them indoors to my studio, in a sense this is also bringing my tactile personal experiences of the forest inside. The building used to be a school house - there's still an old backboard and chalk in my studio, adding to the sense of layered narratives in this place. I found a long scroll of blue paper in one of the cupboards and used the blackboard chalk to do a rubbing of the log walls, as the walls seem to be a touching point where these internal and external worlds overlap. The walls and windows are the boundaries and meeting points for the wild forest and severe weather outdoors outside and the sheltered, warm safety inside the buildings. And as the studio also includes my sleeping area and bed in one curtained off corner, it is also a site where dreams, imagination, fears, reflection and rational reality sit closely together. 

Kath Fries, Arteles studio installation, (detail), 2015, chalk on paper and video projection.

Sara Maitland, in her book 'Gossip from the Forest', writes about how frequently forests are the setting for fables and fairytales. This resonates with how we feel about forests even today "...the forests that remain are strange and wonderful places with rich natural history, long narratives of complex relationships – between humans and the wild, and between various groups of human beings – and a sense of enchantment and magic, which is at the same time fraught with fear… ‘Once upon a time’, the stories would begin [with] no particular time, fictional time, fairy-story time. This is a doorway; if you are lucky, you go through it as a child, aurally, before you can read, and if you are very lucky, you become a free citizen of an ancient republic and can come and go as you please.” (p16-18)

Kath Fries, Arteles studio installation, 2015, video projection, chalk on paper, stick and bark

For Wednesday's open studio afternoon, I projected this video footage on the curtain and chalk rubbed blue scroll in my studio, next to an installation of birch bark on the log wall. The bark installation sits within a doorframe of a door that was closed up and sealed off when the building was converted from a school into studios. Like a mysterious portal into another place and time, and now covered in birch bark, this space seems to be a fairytale passageway into another world.

Kath Fries, Birch bark doorway, (detail) 2015

Birch trees, along with conifers, dominate the forest here and continue to be used widely in building houses, making furniture and kitchen utensils, gates, fences and for fuel. Traditionally birch bark was also used to make rope, to smoke and preserve food and for tanning leather. The sap was used in medicine, gunpowder and alcohol. Birch trees are silvery, elegant and graceful in appearance. They have traditionally been thought of as magical trees, often symbolising the goddess of the forest. "Druids claimed them as the sister tree to the oak; witches’ broom sticks were traditionally made out of birch… [as] were maypoles.” (Sara Maitland, 'Gossip from the Forest', p49)

Kath Fries, Birch bark doorway, (detail) 2015

Arteles conclusion presentations and open studio afternoon, 25 Feb 2015

My participation in this residency has been made possible with the support of The Ian Potter Cultural Trust, supporting Australian emerging artists to develop their skills and gain experience through international professional development opportunities,, and NSW Artists' Grant Scheme, an Arts NSW's devolved funding program administered by the National Association of the Visual Arts on behalf of the NSW Government,

Snow and ash palisades - Arteles Finland

Kath Fries, Palisade, 2015, snow and ash, Finland

There's a little yellow painted wooden cabin set a short distance away from the other buildings, on the edge of the forest. This cabin houses a traditional Finnish wood burning sauna, built in 1961 and still used regularly by the staff and artists-in-residence at Arteles Creative Centre. In Finland, sauna is one of the most important cultural practices and traditions - the sauna is considered an almost sacred space, even more so than church for many people. Preparing and using the wood burning sauna is a lengthy, ritualised and contemplative activity. 

Kath Fries, Arteles Sauna, 2015

The sauna is central to Finnish life, children are taught and expected to act respectfully and calmly in the sauna. Traditionally it was the place to give birth and to wash new born babies due to the warm and almost sterile conditions, for the same reasons the sauna was also the place where healers did their work, and where dead bodies were washed and prepared for burial. So the sauna - a small cabin of wood, steam and fire - was the site of the beginning and ending of life. In a more everyday sense the sauna is also an important place for the family to relax and spend time together, and this continues today. The first records of built saunas in Finland date back to the fifth century, but the ancient nomadic Finns dug spaces into the ground to heat up water for bathing. Even today, every household that can afford to build a sauna will do so, and there are over 2 million saunas in Finland for its 5 million inhabitants. I repeatedly hear that Finns think of saunas not as a luxury, but as a necessity. 

Kath Fries, Palisade, 2015, snow and ash, Finland

The traditional wood burning sauna at Arteles has been the most authentically Finnish cultural activity of my residency (although I did encounter some Finnish karaoke at the local pub on Saturday night!). On the second day of our residency, Reetta, Arteles' program co-ordinator, showed us specifically how to build, maintain and use the sauna, so we've been able to incorporate this traditional cultural activity into our time here. It's quite labour intensive and somewhat ritualistic building the fires and ladling water to prepare the sauna, but from an artist's view of process - the physical engagement in a specific series of time consuming activities are significant in themselves. And then the saunaing which follows is relaxing, warming and rewarding - especially in contrast to the cold snow outside. 

Kath Fries, Palisades, 2015, snow and ash, Finland

Before building the fires, the ash from previous saunas has to be removed, usually it is scattered on the snow around the trees behind the sauna cabin. Scattering ash, even when it's an everyday domestic act, always seems to be poetic and ritualistic. In my mind this is intrinsically linked to cremation and grieving. A number of my works over the past few years have incorporated ash, as ash is what remains when life has departed, from a tree or a human body. For me scattering wood ash is ritualistic and recalls my father’s death and cremation in 2009. The grieving process does not fit neatly into our normal notions of daily time, measured by clocks and calendars; it ebbs and flows for each person differently with various scales of intensity. Ash is an embodiment of impermanence - especially the weightlessness of the ash as it floats through the air, demonstrating quite a different relationship to gravity than that which we're used to. I was fortunate to be at the performative opening event of Zhang Huan's 20-tonne-incense-ash 'Sydney Buddha' installation shortly before I left home for my residency in Finland. Ash is a material that always appeals to me, and when Reetta mentioned scattering the ash on the snow under the trees, I sensed an idea for a potential artwork and decided to collect the ash to make an installation scattering it intentionally. 

Kath Fries, Palisade, 2015, snow and ash, Finland

In Finnish mythology, all things - trees, water, stones, fire, animals, plants and buildings have Haltijat, guardian spirits, which sometimes manifest as Väki - little elves.  Most of the specifics of these pagan beliefs have been lost over time, but interestingly the sauna elf is still remembered. At the end of saunaing the final ladle of water poured on the hot stones on departure, allows elf spirit to enjoy the last of the sauna's warmth in peace. Gifts are also left for the sauna elf especially during Christmas. Whether intentionally or not, I've noticed a few of our unfinished sauna beers have been left in the snow outside the sauna door - and I like to imagine the Arteles' sauna elf enjoys these in the remaining steamy heat of the sauna after we have vacated.

Kath Fries, Palisade, 2015, snow and ash, Finland

With the sauna elves in mind, and the ephemeral materials of snow and ash to hand, I selected a site near the sauna cabin on the edge of the forest. There I made a group of knee high, hollow snow pillars and filled them with ash from the sauna. The sizes and forms looked similar to some nearby tree stumps and related to my vague notions of sauna elves watching over their special sites. I've called this installation Palisades - a palisade is a protective stake wall, handmade from tree branches. Over the following week the weather changed, with warmer temperatures and a pre-spring thaw. This became an essential component of my Palisades work as the outer layers of snow melted away and then re-froze, exposing the ashy core within. 

Kath Fries, Palisade, 2015, snow and ash, Finland

My participation in this residency has been made possible with the support of The Ian Potter Cultural Trust, supporting Australian emerging artists to develop their skills and gain experience through international professional development opportunities,, and NSW Artists' Grant Scheme, an Arts NSW's devolved funding program administered by the National Association of the Visual Arts on behalf of the NSW Government,

Work in progress - Silence Awareness Existence

I've been in Finland for two weeks now, staying at Arteles Creative Centre, which is formally a school house and library. The buildings seem to nurture the reading, writing and art-making of its artists in residence. And on our doorstep is the forest - a wonderful 'once upon a time' landscape blanketed in snow.

Kath Fries, Snow Forest, 2015, Finland

At first the thick snow hid any chance of discerning the summertime walking paths in the forest. However Teemu, who runs the residency, suggested we wouldn't get lost as long as we just re-traced our footsteps back again. So we entered the fairytale forest and explored beneath the towering birch and conifer trees, initially wading through deep snow that came up to our knees and sometimes higher. Teemu's advice of retracing our footsteps proved to be easy to follow, and over the next few days our confidence grew and our tracks gradually wore into paths across the snow covered forest floor. But when venturing off the tracks I'm still startled if the surface gives way beneath my feet in unexpected directions, often disturbing a concealed branch and causing the other end to spring up behind me - like a seesaw. These physical demonstrations of interconnectedness buried beneath the snowy surface intrigues me and I've began thinking about the narratives of various life forms surviving, temporarily dormant, under the protective layers of snow.

Kath Fries, Snow Forest, 2015, Finland

Walking in the forest, I often pause to listen to the quietness and look up to the tops of the tall trees. The trees' branches are laden with snow, not heavy enough to break them, but significantly weighing them down. Sometimes in the silence I hear a slight noise off to the side, as a tree branch shifts it's burden and a shower of snow patters down - the branch springs away finally unencumbered and released to reach towards the sky again. This often seems to be the only perceptible movement in the quiet still forest. My initial experiments with mark making in the snow, echoed the tree branches shaking off their burdens. I gently spiralled small birch saplings around, releasing their snow coats and forming little tunnels in the snow surrounding them. 

Kath Fries, Twig tunnels, 2015, Finland
Kath Fries, Twig tunnels, 2015, Finland

Exploring beyond our regularly trodden paths, my limbs would often fall through the top layers of snow. Causing the embodied realisation that  we humans are unbalanced for this kind of terrain - ungainly walking on two legs, compared to the animals spreading their weight more easily across all four - their tracks across the snow blanket always look lighter, quicker and easier. I'm interested in how our bodies and senses engage with our surroundings, and there's something interesting about these repeated actions of my hands and arms, feet and legs reaching into the snow, grasping, reaching, falling and tunnelling. My next snow experiments involved using my hands and arms to create burrows in the snow,  forming interconnecting tunnels by reaching into the snow from two sides so that my hands met in the middle, hugging the snow. The resulting forms reminded me of rabbit warrens, with multiple entrances and exits.

Kath Fries, Snow burrow, 2015 Finland
Kath Fries, Snow burrows, 2015 Finland
Kath Fries, Snow burrow, 2015, Finland
Kath Fries, Snow burrow, 2015, Finland

My participation in this residency has been made possible with the support of The Ian Potter Cultural Trust, supporting Australian emerging artists to develop their skills and gain experience through international professional development opportunities,, and NSW Artists' Grant Scheme, an Arts NSW's devolved funding program administered by the National Association of the Visual Arts on behalf of the NSW Government,

Silence Awareness Existence artists-in-residence

Arteles Creative Centre Finland, February 2015, Kath Fries
I'm delighted to be at Arteles Creative Centre in Finland, for the February Silence Awareness Existence residency, with my fellow artists Sandra Beer (Germany), Angie Gunnoe (USA), Will Harris (USA), Antonia Kuo (USA), Constanza Gazmuri Lyon (Chile), Grace Peters (USA), Mauricio Rodriguez (Mexico), Louise Bøgelund Saugmann (Denmark) and Pia Zölzer (Germany). 

Arteles Creative Centre Finland, February 2015, Kath Fries

All the artists participating in this residency work with silence in some way. We each have slightly different cultural ideas about what silence is, and very personal ones about why and how we want to experience silence and work with it here. more info

View from Arteles Creative Centre Finland, February 2015, Kath Fries

Although I've only been in Finland for four days, during this time I've been interested to learn that the Finnish have their own very specific relationship with silence, and consider it an essential part of their culture. In Finland customs and culture (2005), Terttu Leney asserts that the Finns have a sincere respect for silence, and are comfortable with it. Finnish folklore praises the virtue of silence as a sign of wisdom, and silence continues to be seriously studied as a form of communication by Finnish academics. Long silent pauses in a social situations are regarded as perfectly natural, "… Silence at the dinner table does not bother the Finns, but it can feel very awkward to someone from the English-speaking world, who is accustomed to keeping the conversation flowing." Leney recounts how a British travel writer, trekking in Lapland with a Finnish guide, remembers such an encounter: "We had walked for two days without seeing anybody. Then I saw someone in the distance, coming towards us, and really looked forward to exchanging views about the beauty of Lapland in the full glow of autumn colours. The man came closer and closer, passed us with barely a nod, and continued on his way. I turned to my guide to ask why we didn’t stop to talk. The guide explained that this man would have come to the wilderness to enjoy the silence and to be alone, and that we had no right to disturb him."

Branch with snow in the forest near Arteles Creative Centre, Kath Fries

The Finnish cultural engagement with, and understanding of silence is very different to its negative associations in English speaking cultures, including my own. I’ve just begun reading Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence (2008). She's a British writer and feminist, describing herself as a ‘seeker of silence’. In the first chapter, Growing up in a noisy world, Maitland describes how we generally live very noisy lives - we choose to have incessant sound pumping into our environments, homes and ears, then feel uncomfortable or scared when we have to confront real silence. Although "we all imagine that we want peace and quiet... we seldom seek opportunities to enjoy it. We romanticise silence on the one hand and on the other feel that it is terrifying, dangerous to our mental health, a threat to our liberties and something to be avoided at all costs.” Despite these customary views, Maitland values silence as a positive, nurturing and creative way to engage with existence, and I agree. She says "Silence is not an absence of sound but the presence of something which is not sound … there is an interior dimension to silence, a sort of stillness of heart and mind which is not a void but a rich space … as a whole society we are losing something precious in our increasing silence-avoiding culture and that somehow, whatever this silence might be, it needs holding, nursing and unpacking."

Tall trees in the forest near Arteles Creative Centre, Kath Fries

Here in Finland, amongst the like-minded artists at Arteles, I'm keen to engage with silence more deeply, working outside where dense snow continues to blanket the countryside around us, muffling sound. Indeed this place could easily be the setting for a fairytale - and within that is the potential for silence to be a little spooky. 

Arteles Creative Centre Finland, February 2015, Kath Fries

Tomorrow all ten artists in residence here are embarking on our first silent day, with no speaking and no internet access. I hope it will be positive, nurturing and creative - and no one gets lost in the forest. 

My footprints going into the forest near Arteles Creative Centre, 2015, Kath Fries

My participation in this residency has been made possible with the support of The Ian Potter Cultural Trust, supporting Australian emerging artists to develop their skills and gain experience through international professional development opportunities,, and NSW Artists' Grant Scheme, an Arts NSW's devolved funding program administered by the National Association of the Visual Arts on behalf of the NSW Government,
Thank you to The Ian Potter Cultural Trust, NAVA and Arts NSW