From The Russian way (Opus 31, 1996)
The ceiling of the bedroom is painted a faded sky blue. There are
two large rusty hooks screwed into the beams and from these, long
ago, the farmer hung his smoked sausages and hams. This is the room
in which I’m writing. Outside the window are old plum trees,
the fruit now turning raven blue, and beyond them the nearest hill
which forms the first step to the mountains.
Early this morning, when I was still
in bed, a swallow flew in, circled the room, saw its error and flew
out through the window past the plum trees to alight on the telephone
wire. I relate this small incident because it seems to me to have
something to do with Pentti Sammallahti’s photographs. They
too, like the swallow, are – aberrant.
I have had these photographs in the
house now during two years. I often take them out of their folder
to show to friends who pass. They usually gasp at first, and then
peer closer, smiling. They look at the places shown for a longer time
than is usual with a photograph. Perhaps they ask whether I know Sammallahti
personally? Or what part of Russia were they taken in? In what year?
They never try to put their evident pleasure into words, for it is
the secret one. They simply look closer and remember. What?
In each of the pictures there is at least one dog. That’s clear
and it might be no more than a gimmick. In fact the dogs offer a key
for opening a door. No, a gate – for here everything is outside,
out side and beyond. Boundless.
Notice also the special light, the light
determined by the time of day or the season of the year. It is, invariably,
the light in which figures hunt – for animals, forgotten names,
a path leading home, a new day, sleep, the next lorry, spring. A light
in which there is no permanence, a light nothing longer than a glimpse.
This too is a key to opening the gate.
The photos were taken with the panoramic
camera, such as is normally used for making wide-section geological
surveys. Here the wide-section is important, not, I think, for aesthetic
reasons but again for scientific, observational ones. A lens with
narrower focus would not have found what we can now see, and so it
would have remained invisible. What exactly?
Children know it and so do nomads. Yet
neither nomads nor children write such things down. So I have to invent
cumbersome phrases which have little to do with boundless land. Not
even the dogs can help me. Not yet.
We live our daily lives in a constant exhange with the set of daily
appearances surrounding us – often they are very familiar, sometimes
they are unexpected and new, but always they confirm us in our lives.
They do so even when they are threatening: the sight of a house burning,
for example, or a man approaching us with a knife between his teeth,
still reminds us (ungently) of our life and its importance. What we
habitually see confirms us.
Yet it can happen, suddenly, unexpectedly,
and most frequently in the half-light of glimpses, that we catch sight
of another visible order which intersects with ours and has nothing
to do with it.
The speed of a cinema film is 24 frames
per second. God knows how many frames per second flicker past our
daily perception. But it is as if at the brief moments I’m talking
about, suddenly and disconcertingly we se between two frames. We come
upon a part of the visible which wasn’t destined for us. Perhaps
it was destined for — night-birds, reindeer, ferrets, eels,
whales… Perhaps it was destined not only for animals but for
lakes, slow-growing trees, ores, carbon…
Our customary visible order is not the
only one: it co-exists with other orders. Stories of fairies, sprites,
ogres were a human attempt to come to terms with this co-existence.
Hunters are continually aware of it and so can read signs we do not
see. Children feel it intuitively, because they have the habit of
hiding behind things. There they discover the interstices between
different sets of the visible.
Dogs, with their running legs, sharp noses and developed memory for
sounds, are the natural frontier experts of these interstices. Their
eyes, whose message often confuses us for it is urgent and mute, are
attuned both to the human order and to other visible orders. Perhaps
this is why, on so many occasions and for different reasons, we train
dogs as guides.
Probably it was a dog who led Sammallahti
to the moment and place for taking of each picture. In each one the
human order, still in sight, is nevertheless no longer central and
is slipping away. The interstices are open.
The result is unsettling for those who
are not nomads. There is more solitude, more pain, more dereliction.
At the same time, there is an expectancy which we have not experienced
since childhood, since we talked to the dogs, listened their secret
and kept it to ourselves.
Soloveckie, White Sea, 1992
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