Cresting below the cloudline in the airplane, I was welcomed to Finland by glimmering streetlights and groves of trees checkering the snowy ground. The hype was founded — Finland is beautiful in the winter.
But this project isn’t about walking around and admiring snowy trees (although it is a nice perk). Finland’s environment has engendered a culture of hardy fortitude and generosity. The weather and geographic isolation require that Finns stay in-tune with nature while relying heavily on their neighbors. (If you fall through a frozen lake or hit a reindeer with a car, someone had better be looking out for you.)
The Finnish culture and language (uniquely impenetrable and unlike any other language in the world) have steadfastly survived centuries of Swedish and Russian reigns. Finns eagerly define their identities by their homeland and the culture of sisu.
Sisu refers not to the courage of optimism, but to a concept of life that says, “I may not win, but I will give my life gladly for what I believe.” It stands for a philosophy that what must be done will be done, and it is no use to count the cost. – p. 10 “Of Finnish Ways” by Aini Rajanen
This watchfulness and dedication to what “must be done” has evolved into an egalitarian social structure that is lauded around the world. Notable acclaims from this collaborative spirit (and high tax rate) include:
- One of the best educational systems in the world
- One of the happiest countries in the world
- Stable health welfare system
- Efficient and widespread public transportation
- Beloved female president, Tarja Halonen, for the past 12 years
However, as generous as Finns are to each other and to many foreigners, no place can be completely utopian. Finns are battling a burgeoning reputation for ignoring racism toward African and Muslim immigrants. And Finland, most likely because of the dark, dark winters, has a high (but dropping) suicide rate.
So why research the arts here? Well, Finland has a very notable statistic: no country in the world spends more per capita on the arts.
The residency that is hosting me, ARTELES Residency in Hämeenkyrö, only functions at an affordable cost for artists because it receives support from the government. Artists at the ARTELES Residency often work in sound, performance, or sculpture – not commonly well-funded practices in the art world – and are inspired to create intellectually challenging work by the sights, sounds, and materials from the surrounding forest. Teemu Räsänen, ARTELES Residency Director, jokes that in the winter, the residency is really the only thing happening in this rural community. After all, on this snowy side road, the studios (a renovated schoolhouse) are the only buildings that are not farmhouses or barns.
After spending my first day settling into my stereotypically Finnish (stunning in their simultaneous simplicity, beauty, and utility) accommodations — unpacking, laying out supplies on my work table, shopping for traditional Finnish food at the local grocery, and relaxing in my first authentic sauna — I am ready to pick artists’ brains here at the residency and in the surrounding towns about how the philosophy of “sisu” influences their art and how that art in turn influences the Finnish community!