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Saari – Island of Relations

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (Meditation XVII), 1624

We approach Kuninkaansaari by water. The boat navigates along Kruunuvuori watershed area, the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea between the islands of Helsinki. Someone has named the islands that rise from the sea and the seas under which the islands are interconnected and form one unified crust. The sea is also a solid layer of saltwater surrounding the continents, accounting for 97 percent of all water on Earth. The combined processes of the sea, the land that rises from it and the surrounding atmosphere create the conditions for life on Earth.

In her opening words of Meeting the Universe Halfway Karen Barad states: “Matter and meaning are not separate elements” and she goes on to define the very interesting concept of “intra-action” as the entanglement of matter and meaning which exclude any notion of causality. Instead she states that each body or entity are “intra-acting” with each other and through this they are also mutually constituting one another. If one can internalise this way of thinking one is bound to act and re-act to both animate and inanimate matter in a different, more humble way; taking into account that each time there is any kind of encounter both parts are altered.

In the introduction of the anthology New Materialisms, Ontology, Agency, and Politics by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost they state “What is at stake here is nothing less than a challenge to some of the most basic assumptions that have underpinned the modern world, including its normative sense of the human and its beliefs about human agency, but also regarding its material practices such as the ways we labor on, exploit, and interact with nature” Thoughts like these have been of importance when approaching, dealing with and contributing to Kuninkaansaari.

The Swedish, Russian and Finnish armies, in turn, have wanted to control the sea area of the Gulf of Finland and have built defence construction on the islands as protection from each other. People have shaped the soil, species and nature of Kuninkaansaari for their own purposes. But with the changes in warfare technology, the defensive forts of the Helsinki islands became obsolete, becoming unnecessary first and then ruined. Kuninkaansaari is full of human traces: paths and dirt roads, ramparts and gunpowder cellars, caves at the water’s edge, and bunkers whose walls are slowly crumbled by the roots of plants that have grown on top of them. The paths grow closed and prohibition signs are buried under the flora. It is a short history we consider when thinking of how humans have impacted on Kuninkaansaari. And it becomes even more interesting in this perspective, or through this, to make oneself aware of the different modes of our being and co-existing with the island. To consider closely our arriving to the island, our staying and leaving and re-encountering it again, altered at a later stage.

It is also close at hand to consider an alternative notion of time altogether. Put simply or concretely; just watch the smooth stones on the shoreline, washed or hone round and slick by endless waves and edges of ice and grind slowly over a timespan, already difficult for us to grasp, to gain their forms. Return here to the beach and let the stones alter you – and be aware – you might alter their existence too. But to add an even more infinite perspective, like Quentin Meillassoux (in After Finitude) consider an “absolute temporality”; “Thus, it is a question of establishing that the laws of nature derive their factual stability from a property of time that is indifferent to our existence, viz., that of the non-totalizability of its possibilities.” This is a breath-taking speculative thought that when applied open up an infinite array of possibilities to re-think our presence and being in the world.

The brief poem No Man is an Island by John Donne (1624), which started this text could just as well concern an island in itself. There is an exciting contradiction here, as in this poem the mythological meaning of an island becomes clear. As traditionally, and also here, the island is seen as the figuration itself of an independent, isolated entity perhaps easy to convey or grasp as a whole but dwelling deeper into any specific island this notion will essentially prove an illusion. Perhaps especially in the case of an island like Kuninkaansaari with its rich and varied human history that has impacted on its formation, its structure and even its nature. So, taking a closer look, one sees that everything is connected and formed through reciprocal relations as well as the timeline of our human history proves quite insufficient.

Ulrika Ferm and Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger

Art on Kuninkaansaari

Uniarts Helsinki’s Saari 2020 (Island 2020) art event is characterised by its respectful approach to the unique qualities, ecosystem and silent history of Kuninkaansaari island.

The programme features intimate, multi-artistic performances, installations, workshops and discussions by Uniarts Helsinki students, educators, artists and researchers on Kuninkaansaari.

Find out more about the event on Uniarts Helsinki’s website.

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