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 V√§ki - 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,ianpotterculturaltrust.org.au, 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, visualarts.net.au/nava-grants.