Splice: Re-examining Nature

By Mike Watson

Kira O‘Reilly, Be-wilderment (Nature Drag), 2017, performance. Image Antii Tenetz

Oulu Museum of Art, Finland, 20 May – 12 November

A return to the issue of nature and our relationship to it is central to this exhibition, which opened in collaboration with the Bioart Society. The show includes 16 artists and four artist duos, all of whom are involved in ‘bioart’, a field dedicated to art that incorporates natural growth in its production. Such practice serves to bridge the gap between art and nature by making the artistic process itself a mediator between the manmade and the natural.

Many of these works blend scientific processes with natural processes, hinting at scientific processes that serve to augment nature. In this light Antero Kare’s SWAN (2000) features a polyurethane swan, modelled on Scandinavian cave paintings, and upon which microbes are encouraged to grow, creating a vast mould-covered, almost monstrous-looking creature housed in a vitrine to protect the public from its spores. The work not only symbolically points to prehistory via its reference to cave painting but also reminds us that humans are in a constant relationship with microbial lifeforms that live on our skin and in our guts. We are deeply connected to nature even as we perpetually try to analyse and separate ourselves from it.

Tuula Närhinen’s Saltwatercolours (2012) presents the residue left in 12 soup bowls after reducing ten litres of seawater once a month from the waters around Harakka Island, south of Helsinki, from May 2012 to April 2013. Next to each bowl a handmade stock-cube, derived from the condensed seawater, is placed as a record of the changing state of the Baltic Sea during the course of one year. The work serves as a reminder of humanity’s ongoing and impossible task of refining and containing nature, while all the time contained within it.

On the opening night, visitors were invited to leave the museum and walk towards a nearby lake, where artist Kira O’Reilly, sporting a green sequinned dress, stood waist-deep in the near-freezing water. Holding the gaze of the assembled visitors, the artist slowly walked to the shore before putting on stiletto heels and picking up a dead wild salmon, which she carried as she slowly walked into the museum and around the three ground-floor exhibition rooms that host Splice. In tribute to Joseph Beuys’s How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), O’Reilly proceeded to show each artwork to the salmon, slowly, mournfully, with a tear running down one cheek. In a seminar held at the museum the following day, O’Reilly said that she began to think of our relationship with nature “as a drag performance”, restoring “some forgotten, romantic, remote, perhaps never seen return to the pristine”. Ilkka Halso’s Kitka River, a digital c-print made in 2004, depicts an imaginary landscape inspired by a Finnish lake but appropriated with Photoshop to include an array of towers, canopies and viewing platforms. This work points to the absurdity of an overromanticisation or overdevelopment of nature. During her opening-night presentation, curator Nina Czegledy said her intention had been to “provoke the politics of nature”. The question raised by this exhibition is what role such a politics of nature leaves to the human being, and whether it is then possible to speak of ‘politics’ at all. After all, the notion of the political is a human one. In any case, Splice showcased a bold new area of enquiry that will hopefully diversify debate within the arts away from the purely ‘social’ or ‘political’ and towards other fields of inquiry.

From the Summer 2017 issue of ArtReview