Maija Blåfield, Scenic View (detail), 2023, four-channel 4K video installation, color, sound, 15 minutes.

Maija Blåfield, Scenic View (detail), 2023, four-channel 4K video installation, color, sound, 15 minutes.

Maija Blåfield

Climbing up the stairs to the exhibition halls of Helsingin Taidehalli, I could already hear Maija Blåfield’s voice. Blåfield not only writes, directs, shoots, and edits her films, she also narrates them. Although I was used to her soft and calm tone, guiding the viewer in a patient and inviting manner, there was something perplexing about it: I couldn’t decide whether or not she is a reliable narrator. For instance, in her most recent work, Scenic View, 2023, is she adopting the role of documentary commentator, or is she recounting a fairy tale?

Blåfield is particularly interested in the mundane and how, even in the most ordinary circumstances, reality can be deceiving. Often, our own eyes lead us astray. In her film Kulta-aika (Golden Age), 2015, she tells a story in which, while traveling in a war zone, she sees a burned-out house and notices a pair of men’s long underwear that has been hung out from one of the balconies to dry. She takes a photograph of the scene and travels home, telling everyone a moving story of bravery and care in the middle of devastation, symbolized by the image of the underwear. It is only later, after developing the photograph, Blåfeld realizes what she’d seen was really a shredded piece of the building itself, hanging from the torn facade.

Misinterpretations, and documentary cast as fantasy (or vice versa), hold Blåfield’s oeuvre together. She is not only concerned with human perception, but with the nature of the camera and how it transmits stories. For example, in her film The Fantastic, 2020, she interviewed people from North Korea about how Western movies smuggled into the country framed their understanding of the outside world. How could they have known whether depictions of space travel or cell phones were plausible?

This exhibition, “Tarinoita tienpientareelta” (Roadside Narratives), followed the twenty-year arc of Blåfield’s career from her student work to the present. The large series of photographs from 2022 that lent its title to the show encompasses a travelogue-like collection of snapshots with small written captions for each image. However, as the exhibition showed, Blåfield is above all a filmmaker. Among the six moving-image works presented in the show—along with The Fantastic, Kulta-aika, and Scenic View—is Tuhoutumisesta ja säilyttämisestä (On Destruction and Preservation), 2017, in which she combines documentary film techniques and essayistic narration. Again, she tells us incredible stories, from that of a suitcase lying on the bottom of the ocean to an eel living 150 years alone in a dark well.

In the four-channel installation Scenic View we see a brown bear in the borderland between Finland and Russia, a calm enough area in which to film, without disruption by humans. Here, in the middle of nowhere, Blåfield pans her camera across the landscape and then reveals the artificial depiction of nature; everything has been arranged, designed, and rearranged by the filmmaker. Blåfield illustrates the ways in which documentaries can associate the most unlikely things with each other in convincing ways. For instance, in one part of Scenic View, the camera floats above a snowy forest while the soundtrack talks about roaming bears, even though during winter months the beasts would be hibernating. The audiovisual scenography of nature documentary is exposed bit by bit. Blåfield shows how the bear is lured to the woodland scene with dog food when the story requires it. A few small tricks turn the forest into a fantasy version of itself while Blåfield’s voice guides our gaze and our interpretation. As she says in the film, “I can narrate anything at all, and you will see it.”