Helsinki in January turned out to be an excellent place to take pictures with the little bear. At first sight, one might think we had landed in a very modern European city in the middle of a very cold winter month. Once we looked deeper and deeper, however, there were little fragments of something we had not expected to encounter.

It could have been the cold, or maybe the shortness of the days, but it felt as if nature had a very different level of importance here in the city far up north. It actually often felt as if we had landed in the midst of long-term negotiations between humans and nature. What a fascinating place to visit. And what a fascinating place for the bear to “see.”

I had started taking pictures of the little bear when in Death Valley a few years ago, at the lowest point of the western hemisphere. Nature was just so overwhelming there and so impossible to photograph that the bear became a bit of a helper to access that feeling of being incredibly tiny in a gigantic, beautiful yet overwhelming place.

In some of the pictures previously published at The Morning News the bear stands in a landscape that humans have just barely begun to enter. Later, when we traveled to Paris (and Washington, D.C. and other places closer to New York) the environments the bear encountered were almost completely manmade. They felt very fascinating and intriguing, but they were very obviously the products of human imagination and maybe, thus, they were easier for the viewer (and the bear) to grasp?

Helsinki was a very different place altogether. Yes, on the surface it appeared to be a very modern, contemporary city, but the materials and the way these materials were used were often incredibly close to nature—not taken from it, just barely borrowed. The hotel room in which we stayed, for example, was 97 percent composed of recycled materials; wood was not only used, it was used in a way natural enough to keep it as close as possible to its natural state.

Then there was the cold. It was the whipping frightening wind that made it very clear how tiny and vulnerable we all were and how lucky to be given some wood and glass and fire to build a warm shelter. The light was silvery and subtle, but it also did not come in abundance. Snow entered slowly at first and then in amounts that would have slowed down even New Yorkers. What an interesting environment to enter and observe and be amazed by!

The bear and I were in town to visit Kiasma, the amazing contemporary art museum designed by the American architect Steven Holl. The space is incredibly interesting by itself (there is a picture of the bear in the main entrance hall scaling what appears a gigantic snow ramp), but now this exhibition environment is populated by hand-picked pieces from an international group of artists as part of Ars 06, an important contemporary art show which takes place in Helsinki every five years. The range of work reached from the timeless gouache paintings by Amy Cutler to the snow globes by Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz, and reached all the way to video installations like one by Mai Yamashita & Naoto Kobayashi.

It was fascinating to look at the work of Ars 06 with the bear as a mediator of sorts. The environments encountered were created by human artists, but the ideas, and often their execution, felt to be toying with scale as well. In the same photograph in which the bear appears to be climbing the seemingly snowy ramp towards Kiasma’s galleries there are two swans flying overhead. The birds, as well as the animals gathered in the next photograph, were part of an installation by the Swiss artists Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger. In the next photograph, the bear feels tiny in the stream of projections of love in a large piece by Charles Sandison.

Next, the bear appears, let’s say, to be a wanderer admiring the snowy peaks over a sea of fog in the next picture, a bit like “Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer,” the 1818 painting by Caspar David Friedrich. The mountains and the sea of fog here are a fragment of an installation by Mariele Neudecker. The photograph in which the bear stands on a golden floor near a gigantic dark boulder was shot inside a fascinating room installation by the Finnish artist Maaria Wirkkala.

I wonder if bits of this feeling I’ve described—of closeness to a very powerful nature in a manmade environment—survive in some of the 15 photographs of the gallery published here. After all, the pictures themselves are just a very thin layer of observation and they include a bear—one about as fragile and tiny as a bear can get.

The journey continues. Maybe little parts of not yet discovered questions are still waiting to be answered? Maybe there are many answers in the images already made. One has to look to see.


TMN Contributing Artist Witold Riedel is a draftsman, photographer, and writer who explores the often-unfamiliar corners of the seemingly familiar universe. He was born in Poland, lived in Germany (in the city where the Grimm Brothers were born, actually) for many years, yet is a New Yorker by choice. He recently moved to Brooklyn. More by Witold Riedel