Photo: Japo Knuutila
Hangon Tulliniemessä on jäänteitä 1940-luvun saksalaissotilaiden tukikohdasta.

Poetic archaeology investigates the aesthetics of the past

Art and archaeology are used to uncover the history of a Second World War German camp in Hanko.

Tulliniemi, a free trade port in Hanko, is the southernmost tip of Finland. In 2014, the city of Hanko opened a nature trail in Tulliniemi, which used to be the location of a German transit camp through which hundreds of thousands of German soldiers travelled to fight in the northern front, and on their way back to Germany, in 1942–1944.

All that remains from the camp are three barracks, which artist Jan Kaila and photographer Japo Knuutila stumbled upon while hiking along the trail in the spring of 2014.

As both Kaila and Knuutila had previously studied historical topics using artistic methods in their projects, they became immediately interested in the three buildings.

Kaila and Knuutila consulted the local museum about the barracks and came into contact with archaeologist Jan Fast, who had already started doing research in the area. The three men began collaborating with the intention of finding out ways in which scientific and artistic practices are different from each other.

Artists doing the trowelling

In the autumn of 2014, Kaila and Knuutila, who are both artist photographers, were given a tool they had never used before: an archaeologist’s trowel.

"Digging takes a lot of time and patience. We occasionally took part in the excavations although we mainly focused on taking photographs of the finds and the environment. Most of the finds were everyday items with little value, but some of them were more extraordinary", says Kaila.

The excavated glass objects look particularly strange, as they have not aged at all; instead, they look like someone had just used them the day before. The most striking find for Kaila was a large sack full of soldiers’ hair left behind by the camp barber.

"The hair of the Jewish prisoners was cut off and collected during the Holocaust. Finding hair that the camp barber had cut off the heads of the German soldiers was particularly startling from this perspective."

Poetic archaeology

Kaila and Knuutila will show the results of their research project at the Exhibition Laboratory of the Academy of Fine Arts in August, 2017, and later in an exhibition in Hanko in 2018. The exhibitions will feature finds from the excavation, photographs of the finds, as well as a radio play based on a German soldier’s correspondence.

"Modern art frequently makes use of methods that are similar to those used in archaeology, such as archival material. In this project, we explore the question of what will happen when we complement the scientific method with “poetic archaeology”, which is methodologically based on aesthetic and experiential elements", says Kaila.

The relationship between art and archaeology will be the topic of discussion at KuvA’s Research Days on Wednesday afternoon, Decemeber 13. In addition to Jan Kaila, Japo Knuutila and Jan Fast, the afternoon will include talks by the renowned archaeologist-curator Ian Alden Russell, a researcher of conflict archaeology Suzie Thomas from the University of Helsinki, and Turo-Kimmo Lehtonen, Professor of Sociology at the University of Helsinki.

The Doctoral Programme of the Academy of Fine Arts will organise the Research Days in December 12–14, 2016. This public event, which is organised for the second time, consists of four independent sections, which include a total of 24 talks by researchers of KuvA, doctoral candidates and invited guest speakers.

You can take a closer look at the programme of the event here or visit the event’s Facebook page here.

KuvA Research Days, December 12–14, 2016
Exhibition Laboratory
Merimiehenkatu 36, Helsinki
Free admission