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Maria Lax’s cinematic renderings of reported UFO sightings in Finland

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One of two OpenWalls Arles 2021 series winners currently on show at Galerie Huit Arles, Some Kind of Heavenly Fire is resonant of an 80s sci-fi blockbuster

In the 1960s, residents of a sparsely-populated patch of Northern Finland reported numerous UFO sightings. A local journalist investigated the phenomenon and gathered his findings into a scrapbook. Some decades later, his granddaughter – photographer Maria Lax – found this book, and set about retracing his steps. She interviewed those who had seen the numinous lights, and their narratives came to inform her own photographic series.

© Maria Lax.
© Maria Lax.

Lax’s Some Kind of Heavenly Fire – one of two series winners of OpenWalls Arles 2021, currently on show at Galerie Huit Arles until 26 September – is a richly layered project. It is also a humane one, giving form to the stories of people long reluctant to reveal their experiences. One interviewee all but dragged Lax into a cupboard. “He was absolutely terrified,” the artist recounts, “because he found what he saw traumatising. But he also found it traumatising that people didn’t believe him.” Lax’s work tracks both individual trauma and that of the region; an agricultural, economically-depressed area often ridiculed by Finland’s metropolitan south. “The media mocked people quite mercilessly,” Lax explains, “and it definitely left scars.”

Lax previously worked as a cinematographer. Her first impulse was to direct a film. But securing funding was difficult; she turned to photography instead, quickly finding that the medium suited her desire for creative autonomy. “When you’re a photographer,” she explains, “you’re a director as well.” There is something of Lax’s previous profession in her work, which has the romance and majesty of 80s blockbuster cinema. One image is suffused with the glow of the aurora borealis, itself a sort of celestial fire. Another captures the cosmos itself. Even human-made light sources, like the neon signs on a block-like hotel, become eerie.

© Maria Lax.

Lax’s Some Kind of Heavenly Fire – one of two series winners of OpenWalls Arles 2021, currently on show at Galerie Huit Arles until 26 September – is a richly layered project. It is also a humane one, giving form to the stories of people long reluctant to reveal their experiences. One interviewee all but dragged Lax into a cupboard. “He was absolutely terrified,” the artist recounts, “because he found what he saw traumatising. But he also found it traumatising that people didn’t believe him.” Lax’s work tracks both individual trauma and that of the region; an agricultural, economically-depressed area often ridiculed by Finland’s metropolitan south. “The media mocked people quite mercilessly,” Lax explains, “and it definitely left scars.”

Lax previously worked as a cinematographer. Her first impulse was to direct a film. But securing funding was difficult; she turned to photography instead, quickly finding that the medium suited her desire for creative autonomy. “When you’re a photographer,” she explains, “you’re a director as well.” There is something of Lax’s previous profession in her work, which has the romance and majesty of 80s blockbuster cinema. One image is suffused with the glow of the aurora borealis, itself a sort of celestial fire. Another captures the cosmos itself. Even human-made light sources, like the neon signs on a block-like hotel, become eerie.

© Maria Lax.
© Maria Lax.

There is also something of film in the series’ technical rigour. “The light,” Lax explains, “had to be just right.” Lax shot at night during the long Arctic winter, when temperatures regularly plunge to -30 degrees C. She regularly drove to remote locations. There were  many surprises. One evening, Lax heard a rustling in the pitch-dark night. “I did the classic horror film move,” she recalls, “and shot with a flash to see what was out there. And it was a reindeer.” In Lax’s image, it looks like a creature from another planet.

© Maria Lax.

Lax’s meticulousness extends to Some Kind of Heavenly Fire’s photobook, which imitates that of her grandad’s scrapbook. “It was a running joke,” Lax recalls, “that I was a bit over-attentive to detail.” She scoured stationery shops for the perfectly sized notebook. Nights were spent hand-crumpling reproduction newspaper clippings and attaching photographs using a specific type of red Japanese tape. “I’ve emptied all the post offices,” Lax says. Even the typeface was specifically designed, taken from old magazines found in an abandoned house next to that of Lax’s parents. The resulting book is a work of art in itself.

As well as Galerie Huit Arles, Some Kind of Heavenly Fire is also being exhibited at PHmuseum Lab, Bologna. Lax commissioned a friend to compose a sound piece to accompany the images. In the future, Lax hopes to work on more multimedia projects. “The goal,” she says, “is definitely to get into installations. I want to create something that you can actually experience, as well as look at.” Her next project, a collaboration with a friend, will focus on light pollution, especially that caused by LEDs. “I want to dissemble the LED spectrum,” Lax explains. “It’s getting very technical.” On the evidence of Some Kind of Heavenly Fire, few photographers seem better suited to the task.

Some Kind of Heavenly Fire is on show at Galerie Huit Arles as part of OpenWalls Arles 2021 until 26 September 2021

Some Kind of Heavenly Fire is also available at Setana Books 

maria-lax.com

Joe Lloyd

Joe Lloyd is a freelance writer on art, architecture and photography (and any combination of the three). Based in London but revitalised by regular travel, he is particularly interested in cityscapes, socially-motivated practice and gastronomic history.

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