Art historian and visual artist Kimmo Sarje, PhD (b. 1951), best known in Finnish architecture circles for his academic research on architect Sigurd Frosterus, increasingly utilises the aptitudes of his artistic-scholarly self to make, as an analytical observer, precise observations of the built environment. Sarje’s latest book An Apartment on the Prospect (Artemisia editzioni 2014) is a tiny but disquietingly weighty analysis of the Russian city of Petrozavodsk, where he spent a month as a Nordic scholar in summer 2003.
The idea behind the book is clear and seems to form an epilogue to Sarje’s relationship with Petrozavodsk. During his stay, he kept a diary, walked around the city – more like an idle flâneur – took photographs, made local acquaintances and read the war diaries of Finnish information officers as well as other literature about Karelia and the armed conflict between Finland and the Soviet Union during World War II. Sarje first displayed his findings at the Photographic Gallery Hippolyte in Helsinki in December 2011, and this latest artistic book extends further the scope of the exhibition.
At first glance, the book speaks quietly and serenely to its reader. It seems to be composed of small-sized, tourist-like snapshots and excerpts from texts in Finnish, English and Russian scattered among the pages. The photos illustrate items and furniture in Sarje’s Petrozavodsk residence, studies of the interior space and light of the staircase and views out to the streetscape. When one takes a deeper look, the book penetrates shamelessly into the metaphysics of Soviet Karelia and the global political and cultural tensions of our time.
I really don’t know what draws me here and there to the far end of Russia, or to Karelia in general. Finnish self-understanding. Yes. It also has the appeal of something warded off and rejected. The idea of Greater Finland, the heroism and suffering of Finnish soldiers and the poor condition of the margins of the former Soviet Union. Yes.
– Excerpt from Kimmo Sarje’s diary, dated 20.9.2003.
It may be coincidental, but 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War and 70 years from the end of the Continuation War. These historic events enhance the lure of the book even further. The book gives a face to history which one can gaze at, and gives it a voice which one can listen to. Sarje’s Petrozavodsk residence carries another strange coincidence: the building was a dormitory for Finnish nurses during the Finnish occupation, and Sarje’s very own apartment was put at the disposal of the young Soviet politician Yuri Andropov during the 1940s. History becomes condensed and concrete in the space and place which Sarje tries to capture with his camera. Our own time gains a literary perspective with excerpts by communist leader Otto Wille Kuusinen, author Olavi Paavolainen and president Mauno Koivisto concerning the war, ideology and Finnishness.
The book concludes with an essay In the Name of God and the Kalevala, previously published in the Uutispäivä Demari newspaper in Helsinki and the Karjalan Sanomat newspaper in Petrozavodsk. The essay outlines a psychological backdrop to the Continuation War by analysing contemporary writings about wartime Christianity and the position of the national epos as a definer of Finnish culture.
Kimmo Sarje. Asunto valtakadulla – An Apartment on the Prospekt – Квартира на проспекте Денина. Artemisia edizioni 2014.