Your work deals a lot with symbiosis and co-operation, and about our collective deep non-separateness with other organisms, which is also present in the materiality of your work. It also shows in your collective working methods. What made you interested in this, and what collectivity means in your practice? Who are your collaborators and companions at the working process?
These are all big questions for me, that I have no answers for. Partly my work is just spending time around these questions and the amazement. I like to read and learn about biology. Often the things I learn are too much for me to digest / understand and they seem to challenge for example the way I have learned to think about my body, my individuality. I feel there are not enough words and images about these issues, the foundation for thinking is incomplete in our culture. I think that in general making art is always very collaborational. All my thoughts and actions are basically borrowed from other artists and thinkers and that is just how it is to all other artists too. I don’t share the thought that an artist is a god-like person who can create something new out of thin air. When thinking about my body as an ecosystem with several species I start to think about what is actually me and my body and who is making decisions. My working methods rely on the actions of the materials.
A tree needs to grow for me to be able to use a wooden stretcher. Many of the images are made in collaboration with the pigments and inks. I like to collaborate with water and chemical reactions that can occur. For example, the way water evaporates makes the image a certain way. Often there is non way to predict the exact outcome and that makes me very excited and motivated.
Symbiosis is an important shaping element in the evolution of many organisms and biodiversity. How much do you consider evolutionary aspects in your practice, or can you name some ways how your practice has shaped your understanding of evolution, or biological interactions?
At some point I got very interested in the microbial level of life. I’ve been enjoying learning about bacterias. Through this interest I’ve also learned more about evolution, bacterias seem to act very differently from mammals. Trying to think about life through microbial life forms has challenged a lot of my thinking about what life is and how evolution happens. In general I still think I’m really in the beginning of learning.
Could you tell a bit more about your relationship with (natural) sciences and implementing scientific knowledge into your work?
I’m quite interested in learning new things. I enjoy reading books and articles. Occasionally I have taken part in open lectures and field trips with experts. Maybe my favorite topics are the human body, bacterias, species and processes in old growth forests, especially decaying tree trunks, mushrooms and slime molds. Lately I’ve also been fascinated in soil life and nematodes. I don’t do bioart or like to use live materials.
I see myself as a very typical human artist who makes images of something that I see important and meaningful. The end results of the art works are art not science. In the works I interpret what I have thought / seen / I’m interested about. I like to often include the human body to the work either by the scale and placement of the work or with the imagination of the human body. I see that as a good starting point to thinking of other life forms and my place and essence. I wish to do art works from situations that are very difficult to do scientific imagines. Often for example images of bacteria are made with computers based on laboratory images and they are focused on depicting one live species. I’m interested in the more chaotic setup where there are live and non living things, organic and in organic compounds etc. I wish my works could function as a resting place where one can ponder and digest scientific viewpoints. I think many thoughts around symbiosis are super challenging and contradict our current ideas about humanity. I hope there will be much more new studies on biology that have open questions and not so much research that is focusing on very limited questions for example around the forest industry or certain human illnesses.
You are also actively speaking about and acting for ecological transition in the art field in general. What is your personal position about art and artists’ role in our time of environmental crises? What do you think is art’s significance?
I often think art has hardly any significance in society. Although, after meeting many people from various fields whom I really personally admire, I’ve learned that almost everyone considers that the significance is somewhere else. So, maybe making art can have an effect on someone who can continue the thinking also in other forms. I think that art making is also a very tangible occupation. We handle materials and work in many locations. It’s a good way for me to act in society through my profession. I think it’s necessary and interesting to look for optional working methods inside the art making methods and the institutions. As an art professional I can take part in the discussion and as a group we can try to find and learn the better working methods.
What comes to your mind when thinking about fungi / mushrooms / polypores, who appear to be regular collaborators in your work. What is your relationship with them?
I use the shapes of polypores a lot. I guess one reason is that I like how they are always attached to something. At the same time very large parts of the polypore / fungi in general are hidden. They are hidden inside soil / tree trunks but also hidden because of the size, with human eyes they might not be possible to see. I’m endlessly interested in their activities with other species. It seems there is a lot more to be found in science and that many things will never be “found” by humans. I love this idea that there is so much more on the planet that we know of. I think it’s very exciting and inspiring. Humans have some capability but I don’t think we can really figure everything out with our mammal bodies and brains. I also like that fungi are something that exists in our personal bodies.
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Artworks made by Alma Heikkilä are often attempts to depict things that cannot be experienced through the human body and its senses. These things include microbial life forms that are too small to be consciously encountered in everyday life; the forest ecosystems where important processes are located underground and inside plants; and many large-scale phenomena that happen at such speeds and scales that they are beyond our comprehension.
In spite of their gravity / complexity / impenetrability, Alma often returns to big questions like: What is life? What is it to be a human? What is a human? How does the body function together with other bodies and lifeforms? What does it mean to say that life in the biosphere is symbiotic? She seeks ways to articulate the deep dependencies of humankind. In her work, Alma wishes to make space and time for wondering and digesting contemporary scientific perspectives. She does this mainly through developing painting and installation-based works with paint and plaster, which she understands as collaborations between her; the materials; and other artists and thinkers.
Given the planet is mired in several ecological crises that will enormously impact the future, Alma tries to foster different ways of working, acting, and thinking when approaching art through life and practice. This impacts how she makes decisions about working methods, materials (with an awareness around scarcity), and travel (for example, she endeavours not to fly).These small beginnings are ways to acknowledge and work against dominant values embedded in the cultural field that deeply conflict with scientific knowledge about the current nature of our lives. One reason for the difficulties around reacting to environmental problems is that we don’t see our dependency on other life forms and processes.
Alma is a founding member of Mustarinda, an association of artists and scientists. The work and the time spent with the Mustarinda group has had an invaluable impact on her artistic practice.
friable wood, 2022
inks, plaster, polymer resin, acryl, polyester, aluminum, cotton
270 x 240 x 35 cm
friable wood, 2022, by Alma Heikkilä