Sacred Sites

Ulla Shemeikka’s photos invite the audience to think about different types of rituals. The majority of the images focus on rituals connected with Saint Nicholas of Bari. Only, little historical data can be traced around this figure. The earliest historical date is the 5th century when the cathedral dedicated to Saint Nicholas was built in Myra. Also, in early documents, Saint Nicholas’ tomb is already a known place. These details suggest that people were aware of some sort of cult around St Nicholas then. The origins of the cult are earlier.

Shemeikka has photographed some major sites that are related with Saint Nicholas’s life, places that are sacred for many of their visitors. These locations continue to be popular pilgrimage destinations where the devotees connect with the saint. Often sacred sites are believed to hold transformative power. Written and oral traditions that connect miracles to these places are widespread. Yet, the pilgrimage itself is a ritual that people who honor Saint Nicholas participate in. Also during the visits to the sacred sites, the believers may engage in different rituals. Visit offers an occasion to thank for a prayer that was answered or to ask for the saint’s help.

Sometimes rituals leave material evidence. People can bring gifts – especially to thank the saint for his help. Shemeikka has photographed letters left on the sites. They pay witness to more rituals – an individual who wants to record the particular words dedicated to Saint Nicholas. Writing makes communication with the saint more permanent and official and thus can give it an increased value. Words directed to the saint are recorded, and cannot be altered. When the visitor leaves the site, the written message remains there waiting for an answer. It is evident that Saint Nicholas is somehow believed to have access to the contents of the letters.

Shemeikka’s photos on sacred sites also address the intersection between official and unofficial cults and private and public spaces where one engages in different religious rituals.  Alongside the official cult that the churches offer, there is room for a rich tradition of unofficial practices that for instance the rituals linked to Saint Nicholas represent. Visits to sacred sites are described already in ancient sources. Thus, these sites have welcomed believers for centuries. Some of Shemeikka’s photos reflect the continuously changing rituals and traditions linked to the sites.  

Finally, the timing of this exhibit in the middle of the global pandemic is remarkable. On the one hand, with restrictions on gatherings, people have needed to switch their religious practices from the public to a more private one. When many, especially religious rituals, are typically celebrated with some type of community, there is longing for shared meetings and gatherings. When will we again do that?

On the other hand, not all rituals are religious. The pandemic has called us to ask where we can find meaning and comfort, and it has pushed us to establish our own rituals. We have read how baking, spending time in nature, artwork, and other activities have become rituals that people regularly engage with. No matter what the ritual is, similar to that of visiting sacred sites, it aims at providing comfort and connect to traditions.  

Dr Hanna Tervanotko 
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
McMaster University, Canada

…and once again, the shadows wake me up…

“The clearest most memorable feature of a work of art is how it arises, and in telling of the most various things, the finest works in the world in fact tell us about their birth.”
-Boris Pasternak

Indeed, it is probably not by accident that Ulla Shemeikka’s work brings to mind a poet’s definition of art. And related to that, the first question that arises when attempting to discuss the Finnish artist’s photographs, which certainly display a fine poetic sensibility, is that of their domain. Yes, the technique is photography, but her landscapes and interiors display a wide array of painterly qualities in their treatment of theme as well as colour, tone and shade – a position that raises questions pointing far beyond merely formal features, as we will see. In fact, it seems part of the very essence of Shemeikka’s work to resist the safe but limiting clichés of traditional classification, or, for her part, her position avoids the safe but limiting clichés of being defined by the use of techniques and methods associated with only one particular medium.

Trained in both painting and photography, her crossover approach, the amalgamated visual language of the two fields she ‘speaks’ as her ‘natives’, is the manifestation of a position that connects her to the contemporary context also in the sense that here, there is no painter or photographer but an artist with a certain sensibility and attitude, who defines her creative identity through this language. And it is when it comes to discussing Shemeikka’s artistic identity and position that I need to refer back to the lines quoted above from the Russian poet’s autobiographical Safe Conduct1. In his Definition of Poetry, Pasternak writes this: 

It is all that the night hopes to find
On the bottom of deep bathing pools,
It’s the star carried to the fish-pond
In your hands, wet and trembling and cool.

Besides the apparent parallels with the imagery of Shemeikka’s landscapes, such as Saggö (2007), Jurmo (2005), it is the stance that the artist takes which evokes associations with Pasternak’s (and others’) concept that, art is not a fountain but a sponge, to use the Russian poet’s definition once again. In other words, according to this view, the job of the artist is not to impose his or her self on their subject but to withdraw to the extent of being present as an observer or a partner in nature and amid the stream of the world’s phenomena, and let the forces at work in the world show themselves in the work of art, to allow the processes of the world to take over, let the world tell about its permanent creation, which then becomes equivalent with letting the work speak about its own birth (see the excerpt from the poem, where ‘it’ refers to art).

As some of her landscapes in the Jurmo and Saggö series are reduced (or elevated) close to monochromy, while other series and individual works to basic shapes drawn playfully by light at night (Mural, 2009), it is the painterly and poetic qualities of the world that are explored. The message in the Finnish artist’s work is the image, the experience is the aesthetic quality of the process and of the result, while the ethic is that of the observer who explores by allowing space for the world to evolve, and records its creation – remaining close to its purest and clearest possible rendering – in order to let the phenomenon’s painterly quality, beauty to appear at its fullest. This close rendering is necessary also for the notion of the aesthetic to be relevant here, as it is not an inherent quality of the works’ subject – nature or physical objects are not beautiful per se. It is in perception that the aesthetic quality emerges.

Fully consistent in her approach, all of the above is also true of the works where Shemeikka arranges the scenes. Some night interiors (02.40, 2010; Mural, 2009; Mural II, 2009,) are spontaneous records of the play of light and shade, which are the most basic visual phenomena, and address the dominant sense that connects man to the world. Other interiors (Un Couvert Au Jardin, 2011; Le Couvert, 2011; … And Once Again, the Shadows Wake Me Up…, 2011) are set up only to observe lights, shapes and forms even more closely, by providing a kind of playground for the visual experience to be born. Even where the female figure appears, it is equivalent in its function to other objects (that is, other subjects) in the scene – in the noblest sense of the term ‘equivalent’. 

Although the presence of the female body definitely brings warmth into the picture, this warmth is not related to the fact that she is in underwear. The element of eroticism is not present, the source of the intimacy is the silence and closeness of the observation, and the harmony of the beauty of the living creature with that of all the other phenomena around it, rendered visible by the same play of light and shade. In other words, the intimacy comes from bringing the place of the observation of basic natural and physical (optical) processes close, inside the house – from domesticating the natural processes, domesticating the experience. 

Technically, this observation takes place in the form of using the camera with wide apertures and long exposure times. Most of what we see here takes place at night or at dawn, times of higher consciousness of light and shade, the way these physical phenomena ‘paint’ or ‘draw’ the spectacle (with the constructivism of Rodchenko and Moholy-Nagy apparently present in the treatment of light and geometry). In this sense, with its eye open wide and long, the camera is not only a tool but also a metaphor of the artist Shemeikka’s position as the observer – yet, silent but far from mechanical and cold, this observer is highly human in her ethical stance and sensibility. 

Kozma Zsolt
Art Curator

1 Boris Pasternak, Safe Conduct: An Autobiography and Other Works. London: Elek Books, 1959

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