Running across 2019 and 2020 at Kiasma (museum of contemporary art)—part of the Finnish National Gallery—in Helsinki is the exhibition “Coexistence” that explores how humans relate to other animals and all of nature. Environmental issues have come into sharper focus in the realm of art with the eco-crisis of the 2000s. “Coexistence” adds to the conversation, calling into question the place habitually awarded to human beings as the sovereign above other animals and nature. The exhibition comes under Kiasma’s yearly theme centering on “the good life” and invites us to contemplate as to “whose” good life are we considering when we look at the environment as a whole.
Works in the show are varied, created by artists from Scandinavia and beyond, revealing a number of phenomena and concerns, local and global. Some works serve as warnings, bringing into focus the disastrous effects of human pursuits on fauna—for example, the disruption of food chains due to exploding human population and consumerism in the Norwegian archipelago, where hungry birds have been finding used cans instead of fish. Other topics include the tricky dynamic between nature and culture, how through history human exploration and conquests have led to the migration of flora across continents, the symbiotic relationships among organisms microscopic and macroscopic, the economics behind the exploitation of earth, the fragility of things, the colourful splendour of the natural world. We are also introduced to a world of rites and alternate knowing, in particular, the Sámi understanding of existence, its concept of an intimate bond between land and people.
The show is a call for empathy and solidarity—including between species. It also interrogates the limits of human knowledge and imagination.
Learn more about some of the works in the exhibition below:
1952, Finland. Lives in Jyväskylä.
Stuffed birds are a common sight in museums of natural science, but the puffin in Jussi Heikkilä installation is no ordinary specimen. Its colourful beak has been replaced by a tin of Norwegian canned fish. The Norwegian archipelago is home to a thriving puffin population, but their numbers have seen a drastic decline due to overfishing that has resulted in a depletion of fish stocks.
Heikkilä is an internationally acclaimed Finnish conceptual artist. Conceptual art can take anything as its material. Central to the work is its idea and the thoughts it brings forth. Heikkilä’s art often deals with the disruption of the Earth’s ecological balance. He takes an active interest in ornithology, and many of his works are themed around birds.
1946, United States. Lives in New York.
The display case contains a letter and a piece of wood holding seeds. The work was donated to Kiasma by the artist Alan Sonfist. In 1992 Sonfist sent similar packages to 100 museums. In the accompanying letter, he wrote that it was high time for art to begin celebrating nature instead of human achievement. He voiced particular concern about pollution and the threat it posed to the forests of the world. The ARC seed packages sent to museums by Sonfist are like miniature time capsules, or arks, carrying the seeds of the future.
Sonfist is a pioneer of the earth art movement, known famously for his environmental sculpture Time Landscape. For this work, he cordoned off a plot of land in New York’s Greenwich Village and replanted it with native species. The hemlock forest that once grew near the artist’s childhood home has been an important source of inspiration for Sonfist, whose art expresses a pro-environmentalist stand.
1973, Finland. Lives in Utsjoki and Numminen.
Shawl fringe threads of the traditional Sámi dress, gákti, have been tied to rowan branches hung from the ceiling. The artist Outi Pieski (born 1973) describes the work as a three-dimensional drawing of the Lapland fells. The threads are translucent, for the scenery is so familiar to the artist that she knows exactly what lies behind each hill. Many of Pieski’s installations feature scarf fringes tied to branches using a traditional Sámi handicraft technique (duodji). The ritualistic process of tying the threads is a key part of the work.
Pieski is a Sámi artist whose work fuses northern landscapes and Sámi culture. Her work portrays the intimate bond between the land and the people, which is an integral part of Sámi culture. Pieski draws inspiration from Sámi visual heritage, while also addressing issues related to the status and rights of Finland’s indigenous minority, using art where political avenues are blocked.
1945, United Kingdom. Lives in Bristol.
This work was created during one of the artist’s walks in Avon, England. Long has made notes on different coloured details in nature. He has also kept a record of the precise point at which he made the observation. In the work, these colour observations follow the sequence of a colour wheel. White light, which is mentioned in the title, contains all the colours of the spectrum.
Long is one of the most well-known representatives of land art. Land art installations are created directly into the landscape by using materials from the environment. The movement emerged in the 1970s in reaction to the commercialization of art, spurred partly also by the rise of the ecological movement. One of Long’s most famous works is a photograph of a path in long grass. The path was made by the artist repeatedly treading along the same line. Many of Long’s works revolve around walks, and their documentation as images, maps and texts.
1974, Nigeria. Lives in Antwerp.
The four woven textiles portray arms, legs, trees, patches of land and other objects connected by a network of blue and red strings. The blue strings represent flowing water. The hands in the bottom left and right corners grasp the red threads that connect everything in the composition.
‘Fragilologist’ is a word invented by the artist to describe someone who studies fragility. The work was originally created for Kiasma’s ARS 2011 exhibition. The woven textiles study life’s frailty and how humans relate to the environment. The weavings are based on the artist’s detailed drawings of the Earth’s natural riches and their exploitation under the laws of supply and demand. The compositions were designed by Nkanga and woven at the TextielMuseum in Tilburg, the Netherlands.
1984, Finland. Lives in Helsinki and Hyrynsalmi
The large canvas shows a close-up of a human face. The smaller painting portrays a demodex, a microscopic mite that lives in the follicles of human eyebrows and eyelashes. The two paintings form a diptych. The artist Alma Heikkilä reflects on how all organisms are dependent on one another. The diptych makes visible something that normally goes unnoticed in our daily lives: we exist in a state of symbiosis with billions of microbes, bacteria and organisms. These invisible microscopic beings are critical to our health and wellbeing.
Through her art Heikkilä seeks to find new ways of working, thinking and exercising agency in this era of eco-crisis. She weighs up the environmental impacts of her practice by monitoring her energy consumption, choosing sustainable materials, and favouring eco-friendly forms of travel.
Heikkilä is a founding member of the Mustarinda Association, a multidisciplinary collective of artists and researchers whose aim is to promote the ecological rebuilding of society, diversity of culture and nature, and the connections between art and science.
1959, Singapore. Lives in Sydney, Australia and Port Dickson, Malaysia.
Tropical plants dominate the black-and-white photographs. A closer look reveals snippets of text hidden among the vegetation.Simryn Gill cunningly disguises the torn and cut pages as part of the plant life in order to raise questions about the relationship between nature and culture.
The texts are excerpts from works such as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. These books explore themes such as the human-nature relationship, the history of colonialism and cross-cultural encounters. These themes have personal relevance for Gill, a Punjabi artist who studied in India and the UK and currently divides her time between Malaysia and Australia.
Kalle Hamm and Dzamil Kamanger
1969, Finland and 1948, Iran. Both artists live in Helsinki.
1982, Suomi. Ainala lives in Savonlinna.
This work consists of four parts: a collection of plant illustrations, a map, a book, and audio works. The watercolour studies portray various ornamental and edible plants that are commonly found in Finland, but which are all originally non-native.
The map depicts the routes of the plants to Finland. The spread of plants from continent to continent has been influenced by historical events such as exploration and conquests, as well as trade and the quest for profit.
Kalle Hamm and Dzamil Kamanger are long-term collaborators who explore themes such as cross-cultural contacts and the global movements of plants and people. The work also includes a series of audio works by Hamm and musician Lauri Ainala.