My exhibition SAARI/ISLAND was on display March 15-June 15, 2017 at the Nordic Northwest in Portland, Oregon. SAARI/ISLAND takes a nostalgic look at my childhood experience growing up in Finland, where nature is all encompassing and gives life its rhythm through the passage of the seasons.
SAARI/ISLAND started with the idea of water. The concepts of melting and flooding have a special resonance for me. I grew up an urban kid in the winter, enjoying snow play, and lived an island life in the summer, planting, harvesting, picking berries, and fishing. Reading the signs of Northern nature and memorizing the names of plants, berries, and flowers, along with their seasonal patterns, was part of my life.
Much later, I studied at the University of Hawaii in Manoa. I discovered many different climate zones on the islands of Hawaii. In addition, life next to the Pacific Ocean left me with a sense of existential vulnerability. I became fascinated with the contrasts in our existence. The vast scales of the Global North and Global South needed attention. From a climate change perspective, the distance and gap between the two was overwhelming.
With climate change, everything might be different. How will the changing temperatures affect growth in the Arctic region? Seasons are a necessity in the North. What will happen in the Southern hemisphere, which is so sharply different from the Northern hemisphere? These questions left me with many more questions. I moved to New York City, and from there, traveled to the California coast, visiting national parks and trying to reconnect with the Pacific Ocean. During these trips, I collected photographs of each place I visited. I started doing this while living in Hawaii. I felt that the contrast between different places called for a documentary lens, and created much of the artistic work by itself.
All the photographs in SAARI/ISLAND come from a close investigation of California’s Big Sur, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks. Burned forests and the Pacific Ocean became images of beauty. However, experiencing these things first-hand was shocking and humbling.
The images included in the exhibition were a selection from my nature portfolio. I chose to juxtapose photographic and painted works to reflect my experience of coastal forests, showing how nature shifts between beautiful and horrible. The Pacific coastal region struck me as barren and isolated. The scale of nature there creates a sense of prehistoric time. I wanted to trace back and re-imagine prehistoric and early times in our human existence. My paintings offer a glimpse of changes over time – metaphoric landscapes inspired by the Finnish Kalevala, Viking symbols, animals such as swans, lizards and insects – thus hinting at possible futures.
Artist as Expert
Global warming is changing life’s balance. Artistic works contribute to this global conversation. Making art is an act of sharing, and this sharing becomes a contribution to our knowledge bank. Art can support climate science. Through the scientific method, science looks for evidence to validate a hypothesis. Art is also a research method that explore hypotheses, or questions. The artistic process includes multiple layers of adding, revealing, going back, and correcting. Artists can acquire knowledge from direct experience. They have the advantage of being able to dive deeper, and go beyond the normative process of science questioning. Some of the knowledge gained from artistic practice is tacit, hard to express or re-tell. When it comes to climate change, a deep interest in the subject is crucial.
SAARI/ISLAND included an installation titled 1-button Rainjacket. It was inspired by Hurricane Sandy, which hit the East Coast of the United States in 2012. The rain jacket used in the piece dates back to 20 years ago, and is labeled “Landsend unisex apparel.” It was used in New York City during Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Then it became an installation piece.
How can we give tribute to one person’s experience, and at the same time, make it a shared experience? One way to look at this is from the point of view of phenomenology. Phenomenology is a philosophical, first-person methodology used to explore the structures of experience and consciousness. It stresses the importance of our perceptions, and states that we are in the world ultimately as bodies. What is great is that phenomenological philosophy already has lots of ideas about art and artists.
In 1945, French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote Phenomenology of Perception (Phénoménologie de la perception). In this book, he builds upon the idea of phenomenon as simplistic being-in-the-world structure, and develops further the role of perception in our actions. We are primarily here as intentional bodies; the body is not a separate entity from our consciousness.
Artists can use phenomenology – in other words, they can use personal experience to access knowledge from within. From this perspective, an artist can only directly address her own perception. Again, from this perspective, there is no one single idea or experience of climate change.
SAARI/ISLAND reflects a personal connection to nature, yet the bigger theme of climate change is a shared one. I was curious about environmental changes, and ways to portray them through the artistic process. The timespan between the different works was only few years. But rather than emphasize the years between the works, I planted the idea of change as affecting us in the future. If there had been a narration as backdrop for this exhibition, it would have started with stories from my childhood island environment and expanded to the current events. For sure, the stepping back and correcting would be partial. This artistic process requires more going-back, and adding to the current state.
An art show can contribute in a number of ways. SAARI/ISLAND added to the conversation about how changes in our environment affect our ways of being with and experiencing nature. This particular show looked at water and coastal forests, bringing forth the oppositional concepts of energy, conservation, and degradation. These ecosystems need our attention.
(Top image: Water Spirit, 2017.)
Inka Juslin is a dancer, visual artist, and writer from Finland, currently living in New York City. She holds a PhD from social sciences/cultural studies, and artistic research. She was a visiting scholar in the Performance Studies Department at New York University in 2007-2010, and in the Department of Germanic Languages at Columbia University (2011-2014). She has created works in collaboration with artists and scholars, using dance, performance, video, photography, architecture, fashion, and other means of visual storytelling to create intersectional, interactive, and live performances as well as installations. Her recent exhibition SAARI/ISLAND was on display until June 15, 2017, at the Nordic Northwest in Portland, Oregon.