Blairbeich Art Project, Sari Lievonen





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Site-Specific Work

About the Artist

Marking Time



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The first time I visited the Blairbeich Plantation, I had barely got off the train at Balloch when Sari Lievonen started talking to me about time. “If my work here was anything, it was an experiment and experience with time”, she said. It was an experience with how time leaves its mark on things, on humans, on nature, on human constructs, thus also on the work with which she commenced. Speaking just practically for a moment, it was simply an ordeal with finding out how the fragile human constructs that she left exposed to the eroding onslaughts of water and wind and eclipsing effects of newly sprung foliage and grass could be made to endure “long enough”. “Long enough for what”, one might ask.

One can begin to respond to this question by saying: Long enough so as to at least allow for some experience of and with these works. In some respects “long enough” may have been no longer than some brief moments that allowed Sari some brief observations of which she alone now carries some memory. “Long enough” may have been long enough to also share the experience with a number of people who visited the site while she was working there, but not long enough to include, for instance, everyone who attended the opening day of the exhibition. Some of the works were indeed removed or just moved from one place to another before the opening day. And removing and moving amount to the same thing here, for it is crucial to understand these works as intrinsically bound to their settings or sites. This is in fact why they are here and not elsewhere, perhaps elsewhere more accessible or convenient. They consist in a very fundamental way in their hereness or thereness. When they are “moved”, they are basically dismantled and destroyed, irrespective of whether most of the components survive the dismantling and get re-assembled elsewhere.

Some of these works – one might want to describe them more specifically as “sculptural interventions”  – may  in fact remain intact for a considerable time after the opening day so that many more people may well have come to observe them by the time the elements or human intervention (just another element?) finally remove their last traces. And then some traces will still remain in the memory of the observers, not to mention other registers such as photographic or photo-digital records. The bottom line is that “long enough” simply refers to an open register, registry or registration, the duration of which cannot be calculated or measured. The crux of the matter is that the opening of this register itself will have marked, or rather, will have started to mark an uncertain duration of time as the time of the Blairbeich Interventions. And these interventions will themselves have been marked by time or will have started to be marked by time. This simple observation allows one to say at least this about them:

The works at Blairbeich Plantation are marking time and have been doing so for some time now. They constitute a marking of time or an instance of marking time. Let us call this our working hypothesis.

Now, this working hypothesis may appear to simply state what is self-evident and obvious and hardly warrants being called a hypothesis. Yet, this apparent obviousness or self-evidence may be the very shield that hides from us not only that which is at stake in this very statement, but indeed also that which is at stake in these works themselves. The apparent obviousness or self-evidence of this hypothesis may well hide the key we need to make any headway into the Blairbeich Plantation bog. In other words, there may well be a veil of self-evidence or obviousness that needs to be lifted in order to attain to some sense of what it is for Thor to emerge, for something to surface, for true value to be revealed, for new growths to displace and add to the existing state of things, for life’s substance to be captured; to attain to some sense of what is at stake in a hammock and a cairn, etc.

When one begins to lift this veil of self-evidence and obviousness so as to see whether a key to the bog can be uncovered, it very quickly becomes evident that our working hypothesis is not so self-evident at all. It is deeply ambiguous. It calls for closer analysis. The phrases “marking time” and the “marking of time” signify either “the leaving of a mark on time (by something or someone)” or “time leaving a mark (on something or someone)”. “Marking time” suggests an active marking of or a passive being marked by time. This crossover between the active and the passive also signals a crossover of subject and object (time is either the subject or the object of marking). At issue in the phrase “marking time” is a passage of time that precedes the clear distinction between the active and the passive and the subject and the object.

Now, these crossovers between subject and object and active and passive in the passage of time may appear confusing, especially when contrasted to the apparent self-evidence and clarity of our initial understanding of our working hypothesis. But this is not the case. A regard for these crossovers in the passage of time is exactly what allows us to discern the crucial elements at stake in the passage of time and the experience of this passage: When we begin to mark time, we simultaneously - in the same breath - begin to be marked by time. An experience of and with time is in the “first” or prior place an encounter with an initiating space that precedes the active subject and passive object; an encounter with a space that opens up before the subject and the object find their respective and separate “locations”, before the blindness of common language and common logic orders them into the apartheid of separate abodes. Perhaps it is this restoration of the “first” or “prior” site or the priority of the site that also restores sight to its origins; restores sight as an earlier capacity of seeing that precedes the ways subjects merely look at things. Cézanne would refer significantly to “sight before sight” or “observation before observation” to denote the first register or impression of the aesthetic experience.

If we take this analysis of our working hypothesis as a guideline, Sari Lievonen’s sculptural interventions at the Blairbeich Plantation would then, as a certain marking of time, signal the restoration of an earlier site and a more original capacity of sight and seeing. They would signal the very emergence, surfacing, revelation of things, the initial growth of things that can never be anything but new growth. If so, these sculptural interventions invite us to have an experience with that which Barnett Baruch Newman called the sublime, namely, the il y’a; the there is; the coming to pass of the world; the elementary thereness or hereness of things. “The mereness of things” (diese Blößheit), one could add, leaning on a phrase of Martin Heidegger.

At issue here is indeed a first emergence of the gods (Thor in this case) that precedes the ways in which established religions always risk reducing this e-mergence into a stable existence and presence. This stable existence or presence can of course be invoked economically and instrumentally, at will or as one may please or need. That is why they are crucial for the survival of these positive religions and crucial for the survival of all positive cultural and social institutions. But sooner or later (it is again an uncertain matter of time) this stable presence also begins to undermine these institutions. Their very stability eventually precludes them from registering the sublime. Reduced to a useful presence, the gods no longer inspire awe. This is the instrumentalisation of religion that Nietzsche called the death of God. The gods only survive as long as a certain dysfunctional trembling and awe-struck experience of their hereness survive.

Art as a timely or temporal marker of the elementary hereness of things precedes the economic activity of the active human being that is bent on subjugating the natural environment to instrumental or utilitarian schemes. But it also precedes any uneconomical passivity from which little more than mindless dereliction can be expected. As such it opens a mindful and awe-full abode of being with and caring for things that is neither economic nor uneconomic, but both.  Understood in this way, art initiates a certain fragile economy that leaves its experiment with economic preservation (the careful gluing of foil to an antler and carefully fixing the antler to a tree stump or trunk, for instance) exposed to the ravages but also continued productivity of time. These works will soon show the signs of natural erosion and corrosion, but this wear and tear can be productive in ways that the artist may have in mind, but also may not even anticipate. Consider for instance the process of oxidization that took away the golden or brass shine of the new bronze wire used for Life’s substance captured and turned it into a dull brown. This browning process is exactly what made the yellow or gold (depending on the weather and time of day) of the tree sap distinguishable from the wire and rendered it visible in a way that it was not before. Sari anticipated this, but will also be the first to acknowledge that time has more such metamorphoses in store for these works, many of which will also surprise her. The fragile economy of art exposes art to time. It turns it into an event, that is, into something that is still coming to pass. It affords it a future register that cannot be anticipated. It allows it to keep on happening.

The invitation to the event (one can also call this an open hospitality to the event given the way the event invariably exceeds the terms of the invitation) is the artist’s most forceful comment on the reductive economies and economisations with which humanity seeks to suppress or tame the event (the stockpiling that will see us through no matter what happens). This comment also becomes evident the moment one enters the Blairbeich Plantation by literally passing through the first intervention, True value revealed. Wood is the gold of Finland. Economically speaking it is Finland’s most significant natural resource. But there is more to wood and to trees than timber and the economy of forestry. Some time ago a motor vehicle burnt out right here at the entrance to the Blairbeich Plantation. The heat caused the bark of a number of close-by trees to split and curl back. Over the years scar tissue and new growth turned these cracks in the bark into thick erotic slits (compare the slit canvases of Lucio Fontana) that reveal the inner wood of these trees suggestively. For Sari the revealed parts with the thickened bark around them look like the pages between the closed covers of a book. She painted them gold so as evoke the gold leaf edges of ancient narratives and teachings. True value revealed she calls them ironically so as to also satirise the economic reduction of trees in her native Finland. Her irony thus prompts a return to the invaluable origins of ancient sites, ancient woods and ancient books; sites, woods and books from which emerged the stories of the gods, from which emerged also the stories of Thor.

These stories of and experiences with original sites are the substance of life; they are the golden sap of ancient trees. Their harvesting nevertheless remains a frail and minute endeavour. Droplets of gold – like random trappings do they hang suspended in fine bronze wire cobwebs. And so did our ancestors hang when they imitated the spiders from which they sought some protection while sleeping. An early way of seeing saw a hammock in a cobweb, noticed the way it not only ensnares but also suspends and spares. By imitating the animal world did the first humans emerge or e-merge from that world. All culture is ultimately a frail hammock-like suspension a meter above an animal world of elementary life and death.

This applies to the emergence of Thor, but also to the towering skyscrapers and other concrete entrapments that humans manage to build on the foundations of the first frail suspensions that marked their emergence from animality. The post-9/11 world knows that one is no further away from imminent harm in the mile-high air-conditioned offices of high finance than one is in a fleece-lined hammock a meter above the earth. In the times we live, the latter, perhaps for reasons of its modesty and simplicity and closeness to the earth, for reasons of its very exposure to the earth’s sovereign and spendthrift disregard for all economisation and the intimacy that results from this exposure, strangely beckons us with a deeper dimension of sheltering of which we mostly remain ignorant and oblivious. And so does the modest cairn hidden in the grass on the top of a hill. Ancient cairns were sepulchres. But compared to the mountains of building rubble and debris under which modern humanity has repeatedly allowed its members to die and rot (9/11, Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bagdad, Basra, Gaza etc.) these cairns signalled a mindful preservation of humanity in the wake of death, not its utter destruction and defiling. The graves marked by cairns continued to shelter. They remained part of a world of in which Thor could emerge any moment still; a world in which death (the remains of a stag in this case) became, in both senses of the word, new growth; a world that remained irreducibly a surprising unearthing of the hidden; a surfacing; a revealing of the invaluable.

The GPSes of this world were rather rudimentary, though. Little more than almost random indications of “north”, “south”, “west” and “east”, you can count yourself fortunate if you find them, let alone find your way with their help. But if you lose your way you can always look again towards the cairn for your bearings. Apart from their function as sepulchres, they have more recently become known as road markers. This is hardly surprising, given the way their more ancient usage invariably points us to the ultimate destination to which all our destinations lead. They keep us on track with a simple regard for the fact that the substance of life is in fact quite insubstantial and frail. Its capturing consists in nothing more than a “long enough” experience with time; a marking of time that is “long enough” to register at least once the emergence of a god, the springing of new growth, the offing of things. How long is “long enough” then? We do not know. We only know that “long enough” is invariably brief.

Johan van der Walt

These thoughts have been drawn freely from two viewings of the Blairbeich Interventions, various discussions with Sari Lievonen as well as readings of Martin Heidegger, Jean Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Georges Bataille and W.G. Sebald.