Rob St. John ~ Örö

Örö is a multi-media extravaganza, another aesthetic triumph from Blackford Hill.  The pack includes an installation film, an artist’s book, a lathe-cut 7″ and an additional hour and 33 minutes of season-based field recordings from the former military island of Örö in the Finnish archipelago.  This is where Rob St. John spent time in midwinter and midsummer, marveling at the reclamation of the island by local flora and fauna while drinking in the rich biophany.  His walks around the island are documented in the sound files, colorfully described as capturing “the creaks and groans of midwinter sea ice, the birdsong of midsummer pine forests, the hum of military radar, the chirps of insect life in sphagnum bogs, the echoes of abandoned underground bunkers, and the resonations of navy boat cannon fire.”  The score, including contributions from Andrew Wasylyk and Pete Harvey, is condensed to a pair of “singles” on the lathe-cut.  There’s a lot to watch and read, and the sounds make a fine companion to the book while the installation video has it all.

The island itself, only 3 x 2 km, was home to farmers until the First World War, when it became a fortress built by the Russians with “forced labor,” and was subsequently bombed by the Russians after the transfer of power back to the Finnish Armed Forces.  Considering the violence that took place on this small island, it’s a wonder that so much avian life returned.  Meanwhile, nature – vines, grasses, local trees – began to reclaim her own, as metal rusted and once-strong structures tumbled.  St. John separates the process into eight sections, the titles themselves telling the story: Exposing, Framing, Patterning, Surfacing, Weathering, Diffracting, (De)Composing, Emerging.

It’s no surprise that the sound of water is all around, from waves to sea ice to healthy, flowing streams.  Living in the barracks in midwinter, the artist studies the nation’s winter words: Tykky, Viti, Tykkylumi, Kuuraparta, Ajolumi, Paukkuva.  His cameras record the stillness of the season, the peace of the landscape, the contrast between rust and snow.  Hydrophones catch the sounds of life beneath the sea.  Experimenting with ice lenses and lichens, the artist changes real into surreal, raw material into impression.  Even the film stock is buried and frozen, unearthed and thawed, participating in the weathering of the land.

St. John returns in midsummer to find the island awash in color and sound.  He leaves the beaten path, transecting the wild.  MIDI enables creative sonic conversions: photosynthetic readings of a birch tree, surface data from an offshore buoy.  Microphones are attached to stretched piano wires to measure the inaudible.  Caesium-137 levels are transformed into sine waves, while hypoxia is reflected through a music box and plankton personified by celesta.  In this soundtrack, every sound has its purpose.  Just as birdsong carries embedded meaning, these sounds speak the history of the island.  Whether visual (cyanotype) or aural (reverberation), the art is a reflection of the subject.

While watching, one may challenge one’s self to find the connection between left and right image, image and sound.  Yet the ultimate connection is that between humanity and environment.  In a gentle, beautiful and grace-filled manner, Rob St. John underlines this connection, suggesting that should we tread softly upon the earth, she may yet recover from her wounds.  (Richard Allen)

Available here

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