“To attain a sense of inner freedom, one must have solitude and space galore. Add to these the mastery of time, complete silence, a harsh life and surrounds of geographic grandeur. Then do the maths, and find a hut.”
Sylvain Tesson, Consolations of the Forest.
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Over the course of two summers, Finnish artist Milla Koivisto resided on the small lighthouse island of Bengtskär, Southern Finland. Employing a mixture of photography, field recording and film, Koivisto set out to capture the isolation and stark beauty of the island. The results were incorporated into her wonderful Kaiku project: an ongoing multimedia work which combines Finnish storytelling and folkloric tradition with themes of memory, silence and nature.
Over a range of creative endeavors, Kaiku has demonstrated Koivisto’s ability to weave captivating narratives into pressing debates on community and environment. We were delighted to talk to Milla about Bengtskär, the Kaiku project and her recommendations for travel in the Southern Finnish Archipelago.
Firstly, could you give us an overview of Bengtskär?
Bentskär is the tallest lighthouse in the Nordics and was built in 1906. It rises 52 meters above sea level and has 252 steps which in a spiral staircase lead up to the beacon. It is located in the Baltic Sea in an area called the Archipelago Sea in Southern Finland.
What drew you to Bengtskär for your Kaiku project?
The Kaiku Project is inspired by the Archipelago Sea area. I grew up on an island close to the lighthouse and had visited it as a child. I love the area. The Archipelago Sea is the biggest archipelago in the world and a place I call home.
I was living in England at the time and my husband was going to spend the whole summer away, so I decided to apply to be a lighthouse keeper for the summer. I have always been fascinated by remote places. The more isolated a place is the more opportunity I see in it. I am particularly drawn to the sea, perhaps because I was brought up on an island.
Did you have any set artistic goals, or was it about becoming inspired by the island and seeing what would come of it?
The first part of the Kaiku Project is a book; an illustrated, fictional story set on a small island. I wanted to create a whole world around the story using sound and moving image. I decided to do this by creating a set of short music films titled Kaiku Series which took inspiration from the narrative. The first installment to the Kaiku Series is 'The Old Woman' shot in Bentskär. In this film I wanted to portray the barrenness of the landscape which is a huge feature in the story. I knew I wanted to shoot on the island but I did not have a set plan of what I wanted to capture.
I read that you also helped out at the island guesthouse. How many people came to visit?
Yes, I was part of a team managing the every day operations of the lighthouse. This meant everything from chopping fire wood to warming the saunas, carrying supplieswhich we got from the mainland, to giving guided tours to the visitors and cooking and baking in the kitchen and collecting unhatched eider eggs.
The little lighthouse inn has six 2-6 person rooms and boats bring daily visitors to the island from two ports Hanko and Kasnäs in mainland Finland. During the summer period the inn is fully booked there might be as much as 200-300 visitors daily. But if you are lucky you might be the only guest on the island.
How did living on the island affect your creativity? Was it more about having time and a place to reflect?
Because I am from that area and the memory of that landscape and my longing to be back there was what initially inspired the project, I think it was more about feeling like I had returned home. It had been over ten years since I last visited the archipelago area and the island I was brought up on.
I think when ever you are in a place that you are attracted to or inspired by whether its a particular city or a natural landscape your creativity flows. For me being on the island I was just fascinated by everything around me. And because there is no separation, because I was living amongst it all it was wonderful to witness it so close by and I felt really privileged. Every corner I looked at had something worth documenting. Spring/early Summer there was the 200 eider ducks living with us on the island, first courting, then nesting and then hatching, and that process was fascinating to watch. Or in Autumn when the jellyfish arrived to the waters all around the island and I was just hypnotised by these peachy-purple ghosts of the sea. There is also a large colony of toad and frogs living on the island and no one knows how they ended up there and why they are so successful there.
I think what makes me feel so good in these natural environments is the feeling of not having to be anything more then what you already are. You are just one little piece in a massive puzzle and thats enough.
And presumably it’s a change of pace from modern life?
Definitely. One of the greatest things for me was to see the childlike wonder in people, children and grownups alike when they arrived on the island. Everyone was just so excited to explore the little island and its granite rocks. It is such a fantastically isolated barren place. It is quite absurd to walk up the spiral staircase to the little cafe and be served freshly baked cinnamon bun in the middle of the Baltic Sea. And in the evening you can sit in the candle lit sauna and afterwards jump into the water. There you have all the ingredients for happiness.
Where else in southern Finland would you recommend visiting?
The whole Archipelago Sea are is wonderful. You can visit big and small islands with villages or completely natural. You can camp or take a bike and use the connecting ferries to hop from island to island or try kayaking in the archipelago and spend the night under the stars on small desolate islands with only seabirds and the occasional seal as your companion. It is so easy to be outdoors particularly during the light summer season when there is barely a night. And you get to be quiet and alone close to nature as there is only about 5.5 million people in Finland and a lot of space to roam.
I would recommend visiting the islands of Kemiönsaari, Jurmo, Kökar, Högsåra, Utö to name a few.