The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

December 28, 2012

Finnish cemetery captured in photos

Photographer will show his work at arts center

Star Beacon

ASHTABULA — The January photographic exhibit at the Ashtabula Arts Center will feature “A Poignant Idyll:  The National Cemetery of Finland,” by Eric Kotila Jan. 5 through Feb. 5.

 Czarist Russia moved the captal of Finland from its historic locale in Turku to the garrison peninsula of Helsinki in the early 1800s.

The western beachy area called in Finnish Hietaniemi or Sand Cape was considered an ideal burial ground for Russian soldiers. Gradually, the small military cemetaery expanded to include civilians including Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Jews, Muslims, etc., each primarily in his or her own religiously delimited areas.

Today, Hietaniemi National Cemetery in Helsinki is a multifaceted and bucolic environment which has grown up over two centuries to become Finland’s national place of mourning. Through its enchanting landscape architecture, sculptural artistry, and soldiers’ fields, the cemetery encompasses in a self-conscious way what it means to be a modern Finn.

A ‘gesamtkunstwork’ or total artistic environment, Hietaniemi Cemetery—or more appropriately cemeteries—varies significantly in style and layout from one part to the next. Spacious, sunny and rational at one end, it is labyrinthine, cramped, and gloomy at the other.

Many of the most illustrious artists, writers and cultural figures in Finnish history lie here. The remains of senators and representatives, five presidents, and a massive number of soldiers speak to Hietaniemi’s importance as a charged political nexus. The very high sacrifice this relatively young nation has paid for freedom—especially since proclaiming independence in 1917 and fighting off a Soviet attempt at takeover during the World War II era—is most evident in the deceptively serene meadow of low, identically shaped young men’s headstones in Swedish or Finnish which lie alongside the sea.

“I first stumbled upon the intimidating perimeter wall of the Cemetery by accident on my last humid evening in Finland in early August 2003,” says Kotila. “To me the extensive burial grounds unfolded as a wonderland of art, history, humor, design, belief, multiculturalism and nature. A canopy of immense, leafy trees shielded endless rows of graves in Swedish, Finnish, Russian, and English, many adorned with intriguing sculptures, quotations, or bas-reliefs. Crunchy gravel pathways gently worked their way between the plots down to the shore.

“Headstones ranged from cracked, illegible, mossy blocks to rounded granite markers polished to a mirror-like finish and engraved with modern, sans-serif type. As a graphic designer and artist, I found the variations in typography, language, and memorial designs to be revealing of the time and sensibility of their making. In particular, on an area called ‘Artist’s Hill,’ it seemed as though the bold graves were in competition to most daringly showcase the accomplishments of the musicians, poets, painters and architects buried beneath.  Here, asymmetrical, modern and near featureless stones stood in close proximity to art nouveau and neoclassical designs.”

With the assistance of the Finlandia Foundation and the Institute of European Studies at UC Berkeley, Kotila was able to return to Helsinki in 2009 to embark upon his photo exploration.

“Nothing I shot was staged or altered in any way, my photos simply document what I found. I hope, too, they attempt to capture at least some of what is not visible in this wondrous and poignant Nordic Elysium.”

The exhibit can be viewed during the Ashtabula Arts Center’s regular business hours, Monday – Thursday 9 a.m. – 8:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.  Admission to the gallery exhibit is free.