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Culture

Turku sheds light on one of Finland's mysteries: darkness

Not many people love the dark. But in Finland, that's what wintertime is all about. As one of Europe's Capitals of Culture in 2011, the southwestern city of Turku has set its sights on brightening up its nation's image.

Darkness

How do you respond to the dark?

It's dark. Pitch black. But the atmosphere in a small hall in the Finnish city of Turku is still lively. A group of Germans are visiting this European Capital of Culture project - and they're laughing, talking, singing and dancing to music played live on the accordion. Of course, no one can know for certain if the music really is live, and if people really are dancing, since it's totally dark.

People have to use their imaginations, said Paula Väinämö. The artist has invited visitors to "Pitchblack Nightlife," a project that puts darkness in the spotlight. There's a bar, tables and chairs, and a dance floor, but absolutely no light.

"Because it is completely dark, a completely different universe opens up," said Väinämö. "People can get their fill of culture, but in an entirely changed way. Darkness isn't empty; it has a lot of colors, just different ones."

Talking to avoid disappearing

The artist, who has strongly impaired vision, sees her dance project as an experiment. How does darkness affect the people who enter into it? How do people react when they become blind and join other blind people for an hour and a half?

The circumstances become the same for everyone, but people vary in the way they respond, Väinämö said. "Some people think they cease to exist when they become still, so they get quite loud and talk the whole time," she added.

Others feel relaxed and secure in the darkness and enjoy their time. Some get scared and just want to get out and into the light as soon as possible. Pretty much each of the total 1,000 visitors has reacted in a new way, the artist said. The group of Germans, at any rate, can't stop talking - an active struggle against the darkness.

Dreary day in Turku

The climate in Turku can induce depression

More than just winter blues

It's a struggle the Finns are familiar with. When the winters get long and longer, their psyches are taxed. There's even a special word, Kaamos, for the weeks of polar night in the northern part of the country. The phenomenon of Kaamos depression is an issue psychology professor Simo Saarijärvi repeatedly addresses. He frequently treats patients suffering from its symptoms, and has given several lectures on the condition in connection with the European Capital of Culture events.

Saarijärvi estimates that some 400,000 people in Finland take anti-depressants. "We're all mammals, and our brains simply react to the change between light and darkness," he pointed out. "Animals adapt to those changes and live accordingly."

People in Finland, however, often don't do that, Saarijärvi said. In particular, those living in the southern part of the country - in the bigger cities like Turku or Helsinki - simply ignore the long period of darkness.

Karaoke in the dark

Karaoke in the dark is one of Turku's projects

But those who throw themselves into their work and do not take breaks are putting their health at risk. Two percent of Finnish people, the psychologist said, have developed serious wintertime depression, and up to 30 percent of the population has depressive tendencies during that season. Kaamos symptoms are more common among people in southern Finland.

The psychology professor, however, has a tip for those suffering from the dark months. "Do as most mammals do and take a break when it starts getting dark outside; that's what the Finns up north do," he said. In northern Lapland, people take a more relaxed approach to life - "Luppo time," he called it.

But Finns also try other methods to beat the blues, like taking lots of Vitamin D, which is appearing as a supplement in more and more foods on supermarket shelves. Light therapy has also become more common in treating depression.

Feeling light through darkness

Turku artist Paula Väinämo, on the other hand, is relying on darkness for her source of inspiration.

"Maybe people can just relax better in the dark because no one can observe what you are doing," she said. "It's also a way of being able to listen to your body and take care of yourself better."

The Germans visiting Pitchblack Nightlife had a hard time of it, though. "Darkness is just not for me," said one visitor.

Psychologist Saarijärvi drinking tea in his office

Psychologist Saarijärvi knows a good way of beating the blues

Other Pitchblack projects will continue throughout the Culture Capital year - radio plays, visits to gallery exhibitions galleries and theater plays. All in the dark, of course.

And that's the whole point of the entire darkness project, said coordinator Päivi Lönnberg. The Turku artists sat down together and thought about what was typical of Finland, and everyone agreed on the dark.

"What's key is finding the positive aspects of darkness and also, developing personal strategies for dealing with it - that's the best way of fighting off the monsters in the dark," he said.

Author: Klaus Jansen / als
Editor: Kate Bowen

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