Jussi Kivi



Cave 1425 Mustikkamäki (Blueberry Hill), Kontula, Helsinki 2002

Cave 1425 Mustikkamäki (Blueberry Hill), Kontula, Helsinki 2002


During World War I the russians built a ring of fortifications around my hometown Helsinki as part of a broader strategy to defend St. Petersburg. The October revolution brought this huge undertaking to a standstill and Finland gained independence shortly afterwards. Among the most impressive structures still in existence today rank the trenches cut deep into the cliffs and the circa one hundred caverns intended initially for use as ammunition depots and bomb shelters.

Arnold Böcklin: The Isle of Dead, 1880

Arnold Böcklin: The Isle of Dead, 1880

The army and the arms industry actually used some of them as such during World War II, after which they were put to various purposes. Some were swallowed up by urban development yet a few abandoned or never completed caverns can still be found in the forests on the city outskirts. The granite walls of the trenches leading to the caverns are covered by moss that has grown undisturbed there for decades. Today, some of the trenches look like a natural phenomenon, an impression underscored in the best cases by sylvan wilderness and lush undergrowth. Civilisation lends the place a particular aura too, with a hotchpotch of metal scrap and rubbish piled up over years. This heightens the anti-social profile often attributed to the modern suburban forest. Young people have used the caverns there as alternative ‘youth clubs’, which has given rise to all kinds of things of a sort that might better go unnoticed. Homeless people have evidently camped in the caverns too, although these are damp, cool and anything but comfortable. Not that one runs into people here often, though their traces are everywhere to see. These are places where people evade anyone who threatens to cross their path, places where anything might have happened …

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Hercules Seghers: The tomb of Horatii and Curiatii, circa 1615-1639

I began to make irregular jaunts to these caverns towards the end of the 1980s. In the winter of 2002 I photographed one of the largest open caverns as an experiment. While making the shots I lit the dark cavern by flashing my torch around. Then I had typical small-sized prints made in a photo shop. All the images on the film were underexposed — with one exception. This one successful shot, however, which had cost me so much trouble to make, was highly significant; for although the focus of my work in the preceding years had been something else entirely, my interest in photography revived the moment I saw it. The reason was that this one photograph had something painterly about it — a quality way beyond the usual scope of photochemical production. It was evidently a case of a paranormal, art-historical phenomenon of sorts. The postcard sized print with which I left the photo shop suddenly morphed into a masterpiece of painting, entrusted to my care. I returned to the caverns and once again, seemingly portentous after-images began to take shape in the light cone of my torch. They beckoned from the depths like spirits of the underworld. And the underworld from which they sprang was the tradition of a certain type of darkly coloured european painting.


Unfinished cross-shaped cave 1243, Kivikko, Helsinki Basic drawing from ministery of defence underground mapping project 1937-39, updated 2005

The first to emerge from the shadows were numerous versions of Arnold Böcklin’s  Isle of the Dead as well as the cavern and abyss idylls of the frenchman Courbet, who was actually held to be a realist. At the entrance to the cavern was waiting the master himself, Caspar David Friedrich, whose nights, cliffs and landscapes of ruins are unrivalled everywhere — except in the natural world. The path into the thickening darkness pointed in this direction. I decided to apprentice myself to a master immediately and thereupon met another teacher: Leonardo and The Virgin of the Rocks, along with Altdorfer and Dürer, the ‘Albrechts’ of the sixteenth century. The list would not be complete without Hieronymus Bosch, the lesser-known landscape painter Roelant Savery and the, when not avant-garde then certainly experimental, Hercules Seghers. Italian Salvatore Rosa was also convincingly represented in these macabre galleries of the suburban forests, as was a string of lesser-known seventeenth century dutch painters and one or two German romantics. Every last one of them predated the invention of electric light. And Doré, of course, even though he was mainly a graphic artist. The forgotten tunnels transmogrified into museum halls and endless galleries. Sublime centuries of art spoke from the cliff face. I aspired now to higher things.

I usually set off on my photo expeditions only at dusk, so daylight would not impair the ambience. Slowly taking photographs in the dark often stretched the hours spent underground deep into the night. This too had an effect on the photographs. Likewise the underground odorous landscape plays a part in the proceedings. Just as a painter’s mood is lifted by the smell of oil paint and sol vents, I, too, have something similar to confess. When I fill my nostrils with the first few hits of that archaic, simultaneously dry, damp and mildewed odour  so typical of underground caverns my body is racked by waves of inspiration and suspense.

Caspar David Friedrich: Rocky reef on the sea shore, circa 1824 

Caspar David Friedrich: Rocky reef on the sea shore, circa 1824

The Cave Research Department / Drawing office

The world is not only a picturesque combination of nocturnal odours and light, however. It soon became evident that the character of the caverns might be investigated on other levels than painting. Further research was necessary. I had first researched archaeological inventories in order to locate caverns. Then I studied archives and laid my hands on a file containing ground plans of caverns from the period 1937–39. The caverns had been surveyed at the time on behalf of the Ministry of Defence as a means to assess the extent to which such forgotten underground spaces in the depths of the forests might be used in the case of a war. Equipped with copies of the ground plans I began new field studies. I updated and enhanced old maps by adding to their content the strata of civilisation found in the caverns — in a manner not unlike that used for archaeological excavation plans. All kinds of scrap and rubbish have been dumped in the caverns over the years, everything from broken bottles to the rusting corpses of bikes and iron beds and even burnt out cars. Some of the remains found there speak of underground activities: evidence of campfires for example, or wood dragged inside to be burned. Occasionally one even comes across ritual-mythical arrangements in the caverns, composed of fragments of mirror, candles or stones and twigs laid out in various forms, which have all disappeared by the time one returns or altered their form.

Caspar David Friedrich: Mountain landscape, 1810

Caspar David Friedrich: Landschaft mit Regenbogen.

In archaeology, examining finds is one of the primary research methods, and it can be applied equally to this kind of romanticist inquiry. The objective in this case, however, was not the distant past but the rich and constant permutations of subconscious life in wastelands and small forests on the urban periphery. The caverns themselves are portraits of a sort, depicting both the margins of civilisation and its inner core. They are the geological-expressionist and disregarded consequence of a macabre, megalomaniac policy, peppered with irrational contemporary addenda. Such disregard is tied up in turn with their message: that which the caverns reveal of a culture that brings forth such environments then shuns them.

Cave 1245, "The theater", 2006

Cave 1245, “The theater”, 2006

Further research: Onward into the depths

In addition to the aforementioned project, the scope of research was soon extended to include landscape research above ground into similar types of environment from the perspective of picturesque realism.The range of underground projects meanwhile spans more ambitious targets. Among these deep mines and the underground networks indispensable to urban infrastructure.

Activities in the cavern research department have not been wholly unproblematic. Certain objectives have proved to be dangerous, and independent research into certain objects implies a measure of illegality and possibly undesirable juridical repercussions. It is for this reason that such activity, which in stylistic terms may rightly be called romantic, is presently attributed the additional mythical aura of underground art…

John Martin, Bridge over Chaos, 1826

John Martin, Bridge over Chaos, 1826