Touching Fragments of History

The Finnish photographer Heli Rekula translates a geographical journey into a narrative about the trauma experienced by Carelians after the Second World War.

Heli Rekula, As the Crow Flies, 2017. Photo: Toivo Himanen, 1928. From the archive of Toivo Himanen.

The French philosopher and art historian Hubert Damisch once claimed that photography had been completely misunderstood and that its defining feature was in fact delay – the interval between the opening of the camera’s shutter and the development of the film. The photographic delay may have become progressively shorter and shorter as digital photography has gradually become the norm. Nevertheless, there is something fascinating in Damisch’s notion: what if the photographic were not defined by the documentary, but was situated in the period in which neither the motif nor the image existed?

In her exhibition As the Crow Flies at EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art, Heli Rekula explores several kinds of photographic and archival intervals, or delays. Looking at various found objects, such as educational slides of solar eclipses from the 1910s, and images printed from the artist’s grandfather’s film archives, the viewer is also reminded of the photograph as a memento mori. The past shown in these images is definitely a foreign country, inaccessible and distant. It’s also foreign in a very concrete sense: the places shown in the photographs from the 1930s and 1940s were yielded to the Soviet Union in the peace treaty of 1945, and are now part of Russia. The Carelian Isthmus, where these towns were situated, forms an interval in itself – or a delay – as it is the separating and connecting piece of land between two waters and between two cultures.

Heli Rekula, As the Crow Flies, 2017. Old postroute in Bergen (the beginning).

The images depicting 1930s Carelia form the central part of As the Crow Flies, an exhibition which continues Rekula’s now almost thirty-year critical examination of the photographic medium. This time, the artist has devoted herself to researching and retracing the geographical route between the Norwegian city of Bergen and the Russian city of Saint Petersburg. In turn, she transposes this geographical journey – of which Carelia is a necessary connection point – onto a temporal one, about the place in the 1930s and 40s.

Knowledge of the historical postal route first led Rekula to look for its traces near Bergen. Not far from the city on Norway’s west coast, she found ghost-like presences of the former route in the landscape, in the form of paths carved into the mountain by the actions of hundreds of years of carrying mail from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This has resulted in a series of beautifully recorded views in both black and white and colour, presented as photographs as well as photogravures. The time-consuming and quasi-obsolete method of photogravure chosen in these particular prints emphasises the artist’s concern with both light and time and their effects. By slowing down the process, these images show that temporality is a central concern in the exhibition.

Another part of the exhibition consists of photo albums and excerpts of letters from Rekula’s family archives from the 1930s, when her family lived in Carelia. These materials are placed in an old-fashioned display case, mimicking the way local museums present historical material. Prints made from the albums and from the artist’s grandfather’s negative collection have been almost monumentally enlarged, and are presented on the walls of the exhibition space. Among them are photo-collages, such as a diptych of an image depicting a soldier surveying the land from atop a hill, placed next to an enlarged image of a solar eclipse. I wonder if this unexpected juxtaposition suggests photography’s power to record and document the absence of light? Or is it perhaps symbolic of the dark times of war that were approaching?

Heli Rekula, As the Crow Flies, 2017, installation view. Photo: Ari Karttunen / EMMA.

Like letters and postcards, images circulate the globe, in constant motion, carrying with them changing and shifting messages. Aby Warburg claimed that images could become charged with emotion and affect; for him images were Pathosformel – forms capable of carrying and encapsulating traumas across temporal divides. In As the Crow Flies, memories of traumas seem to be barely touched upon, but perhaps these monumental reproductions, photographs with tear and wear now magnified, become silent witnesses to traumatic events that have taken place between the moment of the snapshot and the present?

The ambiguity of archival images such as these leaves the viewer uneasy: the buildings and ruins devastated by war become restless monuments to the forced migration of Carelians, echoing the contemporary refugee crises. Yet, they also reveal that the Second World War remains a difficult and contested point in Finnish history. Photographic messages from the past demand to be continually re-read, re-framed and re-interpreted for their historical meaning and contemporary political significance to become visible. This exhibition is part of the process of re-inscribing the histories of Carelian refugees into Finnish history. As such, the deceptively objective look of the re-photographed snapshots suggests that there is a layer of conflicting feelings and meanings beneath their glossy surfaces. Personally, I feel that the work has only just begun: the larger political framework remains ambivalent and guilt-ridden, due to the double meaning of the Second World War in Finland. The nation became re-unified for the first time after the horrors of the 1918 civil war in an uneven struggle with the Soviet Union, and yet the military union with Germany remained ambivalent and suspect. Perhaps the work of memory begins by having the courage to touch and to present fragments of history? This is exactly what Rekula dares to do in the exhibition.

Heli Rekula, As the Crow Flies, 2017, installation view. Photo: Ari Karttunen / EMMA.