It was a cold, dark night in Helsinki.
At least, it would have been. Instead, throngs – yes, throngs – filled the streets and sidewalks, out to enjoy Helsinki freshly covered in snow.
Once we arrived in Helsinki and were confronted with truly soul-chilling cold, it would have been easy for the fair maiden and I to stay inside and, say, watch Finnish TV (which seems to be an amalgam of reality TV, the Simpsons, French news, and mobile gambling app commercials). Instead, we were, like real Helsinkians, venturing outside for Lux.
Lux is an annual light-art event in Helsinki. During the week, artists both from Finland and its Nordic partners as well as from around the world set up public art light installations to lure Finns and tourists out of their winter routines. In addition, there were food trucks set up near the Senaatintori, businesses seemed to stay open far later, and public buildings offered interactive exhibits and “book cafes” for children. Lux 2016 even came with a map, designed to lead you through the otherwise dark streets of Helsinki. You were directed through acute-angled city center streets toward intersections where bulbs or beams shone seductively or towards a park that hummed with music.
All roads led toward the Senate Square, where shifting paintings projected on the massive Helsinki Cathedral. And it looked like this:
There were other favorites of course, quite a few of them. In terms of style, form, medium, and execution, they were all different. One was a cloud composed entirely of recycled light bulbs and encouraged people to change its illumination. Another was a commentary on medical wellness in the big city. There was a flashing sign that read “NOWHERE” above a metro stop.
What they shared was a sense of levity. Some were more serious in topic than others, but they all treated their subject with a sense of joy. Take a look for yourself:
It was not what I expected when I saw the sun set before 4 pm. But that’s how the Finns are, I think. In the dead of winter, when this soft American might be bundled up in bed, they nearly force themselves out of their houses and into the streets. They design happenings, events, public art to lure people together.
Consider also, for example, the Helsinki Documentary Film Festival. When temperatures are expected to be south of 25 Fahrenheit, theaters around the city (many of them independent, art-house theaters) will show documentaries to inform and inspire and encourage conversation.
The fair maiden will be seeing Bolshoi Babylon, a documentary about the famous Russian ballet after an attack on its artistic director. We’ll both be seeing War and Peace of Mind, which uses archival footage and interviews to tell the story of the Finnish civil war. And there are many more, too many to just list here. In fact, the only reason we’re not going to spend the 10 days glued to a cinema seat is that there’s just so much more to do here. (And I have, like research to do.)
Just last night, we walked up the main road to the Helsinki Music Center and watched three students from the Sibelius Academy music program perform music from their school’s namesake as well as three other northern European composers. The music was beautiful, the room striking, but I was surprised to see just how many people were out, on a Tuesday, in -15 degree weather.
And based on my research thus far, that’s a part of the Finnish character. It may be difficult and cold and dark and generally unpleasant, but there’s a lot to do before summertime comes. There’s an element of perseverance to the Finns and it’s admirable.
After all, it has to warm up eventually.