With her stunning short film Birds in the Earth (Eatnanvuloš lottit, 2018), Marja Helander is the latest winner of the legendary Risto Jarva prize, awarded for the 40th time at Tampere Film Festival in March. Helander’s Sámi background contributes to the critical imagery of her works, but she does not wish to reduce her work to political pamphlets.
Marja Helander (born in 1965) is a media artist and photographer based in Helsinki. Previously perhaps best known for her photography, she has successfully moved to media art in the recent years. Her newest short film, Birds in the Earth (2018), won the main prize and the Risto Jarva award at Tampere Film Festival. The film follows two ballet dancers as they dance their way through the villages and woods in Lapland, all the way to the steps of the Parliament House in Helsinki.
Birds in the Earth addresses many political and cultural issues concerning landownership in the Sámi area, but Helander says that she also wants the film to work on a more universal level. “There are a lot of references to issues concerning Sámi people that Finnish people don’t necessarily recognise, but I don’t want my work to be a political pamphlet,” Helander explains. “I want to leave room for the viewers to make their own interpretations.”
The idea for Birds in the Earth started with a specific image Helander had in mind. “I knew Birit and Katja Haarla, the two dancers in the film, and I thought it would be amazing to have them perform the choreography of The Dying Swan on the steps of the Parliament House, dressed in traditional Sámi clothing. The rest followed from that.”
Besides the political commentary, the film also wows with its striking landscapes. Helander’s background in both painting and photography ensures that each shot in her video works is visually compelling and beautifully composed. “I started to take photographs as a teenager when my father bought us a camera, but then I studied two years at Liminka School of Arts, and got really into painting,” she recounts. She later studied painting at the Lahti Institute of Fine Arts.
Creator of Absurd Imagery
So, how did she become a photographer and not a painter? “I took a course on photography, taught by Veli Granö, as a part of my studies in Lahti, and we worked with the medium in a very creative way. We used a technique that produces very painting-like photographs, and I got really excited by that.” During that time, Helander did a series of photos called Sukupolvet (“The Generations”), which was a finalist in the 1994 Fotofinlandia competition.
“I also did paintings and installations, but as people kept asking for photographs for exhibitions, I started to follow that route.” After getting her M.A. in Photography at the School of Art and Design in Helsinki (now a part of Aalto University), and apart from her artistic work, participating in group exhibitions and having those of her own, Helander focused more on her work as a freelancer photographer for ten years . “But then I turned 40 and started to think that maybe I should try to really put effort into pursuing a career in art. It was kind of a ‘now or never’ situation,” she says.
Helander’s first video work was the absurdly comical Trambo (2014), where she, dressed in traditional Sámi clothing, drags a huge trampoline on the snowy mountains in Lapland. “I was thinking how that bloody trampoline is on every yard in Finland, even in Lapland. From Hanko to Nuorgam, trampolines have taken over Finnish backyards,” Helander laughs. “I thought that it would make an incredible image, me dragging the trampoline in the snow, because it’s such an absurd object.”
Helander notes that her Sámi background has influenced her art, but it does not define it. “I don’t think anyone wants to say that okay, I have this one thing that defines everything I do,” she points out. “Me being a Sámi woman isn’t really a factor in my landscape paintings and photographs. It is more visible in my video works, but not all of them deal with issues related to Sámi politics or culture.” In the video installation The Flowers of Kola Peninsula, for example, she intercuts video material of huge mining factories with old herbarium flowers, commenting on the vast pollution in the area.
Although Helander’s single-channel video installations can also be screened as short films, she says that she primarily works in the context of media art. “My installations are very visual, they aren’t very long, and there’s no dialogue, so I think they work very well in gallery spaces.” Birds in the Earth is the second work Helander has been submitting to film festivals.
Helander is currently working on both film and photography. She is going to be a part of an exhibition at the Finnish Museum of Photography in December, and she will attend a group show “Viidon Sieiddit” at the Sámi Museum Siida. She is also planning on doing a video work based on well-known Sámi folktales.
For more information and requests on Marja Helander’s works, please contact AV-arkki’s programme coordinator Tytti Rantanen, firstname.lastname@example.org