Riikka Tauriainen, 2022
born 1979 in Finland; lives and works in Zurich
Riikka Tauriainen (*1979) grew up in Finland and now lives in Zurich. In her installations, videos and performances, she explores such subjects as ecology, post-colonial theories and gender issues, operating along the boundary between art and science, fact and fiction.
The group of works entitled Hydrocommons is based on the idea of the fluidity of bodies, of the connectivity that exists between all more-than-human protagonists, as author and cultural theorist Astrida Neimanis put it in Bodies of Water. In Hydrocommons Tauriainen explores water phenomena, set in a post-humanist realm of ideas. She studies the extent to which our kinship with other bodies can be seen as deeply materialistic relationality.
Riikka Tauriainen studied in Tallinn (Estonian Academy of Arts, BA in Photography), Essen (Folkwang University of the Arts, Communications Design) and Berlin (Weißensee Academy of Art Berlin, Faculty of Fine Arts / Sculpture) and obtained her Master’s in Fine Arts from the Zurich University of the Arts. Her work is shown internationally, among others at the Bâtiment d’art contemporain in Geneva,
Siemens Sanat in Istanbul, the Center for Contemporary Art in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst in Berlin, the Helmhaus in Zurich, and the Swiss Art Awards in Basel.
She has taken part in biennials in Turkey, Croatia and Switzerland and participated in artist-in-residence programmes in Genoa, Italy, and Anyang, South Korea. In 2022 Riikka Tauriainen was awarded the ZF Art Foundation Scholarship in Friedrichshafen, Germany.
In 2021 she presented her most recent works at the Kunsthalle Nairs, Scuol, the Shedhalle, the Haus Konstruktiv in Zurich, Switzerland, and in 2022 at Radius CCA in Delft in the Netherlands. The ZF Art Foundation is showing her current exhibition Ecotone Encounters at the Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen, Germany, until the beginning of December.
On Riikka Tauriainen’s Strategies of Becoming Landscape
When Riikka Tauriainen first told me about her project as part of the ZF Art Foundation scholarship, about her collaboration with the Institute for Lake Research in Langenargen and the Zeppelin University Friedrichshafen, and about her video and the installation she was planning, I imagined something different from what I actually got to see. I imagined we’d find ourselves immersed in the world of research into Lake Constance; that we’d get an induction into its methodologies and findings and be introduced to groundbreaking and staggering examples of lacustrine research, the likes of which we had never heard of before.
At first glance, none of this is on display in the space-defining installation staged by the ZF Art Foundation at the Zeppelin Museum. Besides the video with its surround sound and bluish-greenish-yellowish lighting, the installation also comprises sculptures embodying underwater currents, their lightweight wooden plinths meandering snake-like. Recumbent upon them are fluid forms fashioned from cast ceramics studded with stones, shells, bleached shards, beer mats, driftwood, and other found objects. What we see are currents and sediments – models of the lake bed – floatingly raised: a representation of an underwater landscape, but not what we understand by research. Information about plankton notwithstanding, the video likewise features only a short sequence of images in which so-called sediment traps filled with deposits are brought up to the surface from the bottom of the lake and then analysed in the laboratory. What are they testing for? Pesticides, oestrogens, cocaine, microplastics, nano-silver, arsenic? We don’t know. The voice-over speaks about care. Instead of getting explanations about this aquatic research, we hear about the ubiquity of care, of caring and of the carer: “Like a longing, emerging from the troubles of neglect, it passes within, across and through things.”¹ In other words, just like the water itself, care for and about water permeates the language of the video, the research, and the art. Yes, it is care that connects art with science; care provides the starting point for the project: everything casts off from here. Only later do we come to realise how much the lake research has actually shaped the project. It’s the matrix that lends it a voice in the first place. As Riikka told me, plankton for example would not even have been on her radar had it not been for the contagious enthusiasm of the Langenargen researchers for these sensitive creatures and how it spilled over to her; and had they not introduced her to their methodologies with such intensity that she herself was then able to adopt them here and there, in the microscopic examination of samples, say.
And so we immerse – of course we do. We’re drawn into the water which, in the installation, unfolds like a landscape. A landscape not created through seeing and spatial distance, as is usually the case with landscape as a historical construct. Here the underwater landscape is created mainly through sound, through aural involvement and physical stimulus. Over and over, albeit intermittently, there is a trickling and splashing, a gurgling and swirling of vortices. A distorted, horridly clanking, polyphonic cyborg voice narrates, a voice-over of the many from outer space. Then, there are transitions featuring the celestial singing of faeries; waves, and tooting. The clamorous din of machines. We move through the installation as if in an aquarium, a lake: “I feel my feet. I feel my feet slipping between the smooth rocks, touching the soft bottom of the lake, connecting to the earth. I feel the tenderness of the soles of my feet. The throbbing sensation overtakes my whole body to leap to the depths towards rest, slowly clinging to the pores of my skin.”²
The video images flow incessantly, fording the space with their light, and colouring it. We begin to sense, to feel part of these images, part of the water world, of the water creatures that we are now becoming, along with the images and the sculptures within the space. Time and again, images depicting water from above, multiple directions of flow, upstream, downstream. Waves, rivulets, interlaced with aquatic plants, so close they are indiscernible. We are always in the midst of it all, seeing details; only once, at the beginning, do we gain a sweeping view over the melancholy grey lake, occupied by resting waterfowl. And so, as this stream of light – like starlight, as the video once points out – traverses the space, we traverse the space, this model-like atmospheric underwater realm. These are naturecultures, indivisible into conventional notions of nature versus culture. To what category for instance do the quagga mussels that migrated from the Aral Sea belong, exploiting the technologically upgraded and globalised waterways as they travelled in the ballast water of shipping vessels? Now supplanting the triangular Dreissenidae freshwater mussels that first began migrating in the 1960s? Both are hemerophiles, drifting in the wake of human civilisation. Riikka Tauriainen does not refer to these mussels by name; she collects and displays them, alongside others; either you are aware of them as undesirable protagonists because you live there, or you see them as commonplace water dwellers, as nature itself … The naturecultures we ‘encounter’ in Ecotone Encounters are inseparable from the technological media and scientific approaches with which they are replicated: the camera that seeks to home in from every direction, sometimes from above, sometimes in the water, at times still, at others in motion; the hydrophones that reproduce the underwater sounds while vectoring their own noise along with them, so much so that you don’t know what you’re really hearing; or the meanders of wood and cast ceramics reminiscent of models from landscape architecture used to simulate wetlands for future landscaping designs. Everything we see here is permeated, encountering, influencing all others, and altering them. Nothing stands alone: neither the found objects from Lake Constance nor the images and sounds with which these fluid beings are conjured up. Ecotone Encounters literally occur here: aesthetic encounters of boundary zones, of systems and beings in transition: “Ecotones are areas of steep transition between ecological communities, ecosystems, or ecological regions along an environmental gradient.”³ Ecotone: these are particularly species-rich and fertile places,⁴ (eco)tones that effect; (physical) tension that enables motion. Encounters: these are encounters between the many, relations, constellations; it is a touching and embracing, a careening and colliding, a flowing: not just as a harmonious coming together, but as intrusion, too, as displacement, flooding, and drowning. These are women in Pakistan drowning in tidal surges because they were not allowed to learn to swim.⁵ These are invasive Black Sea gobiids that have not yet reached Lake Constance for the simple reason that a hydroelectric power plant across the Rhine – a killing machine par excellence – has so far prevented them from doing so.
The installation operates as an event. That’s why it doesn’t raise the usual question of the meaning of what’s on display here; instead, what is it that’s coming together here and how? What do the set pieces shown here, the sculptures, models, light constellations, the sounds and the noise, the singing, the clanking voices and the images in the video actually do? The text overlays about phytoplankton? I feel they’re trying to mobilise us; they’re eager to talk; they’re narrative forms. They speak of anthropogenic climate change, of the collapse of ancient ecosystems, of system changes. They speak of the tiniest, most invisible beings, of other connections, of where we earthlings are headed, and what will – or might – become of us. They do so at, in and with Lake Constance – bearing in mind that here the lake is not a passive water landscape, but a composite of currents, sediments, boats, feet, human waste, herons, plants, fish, mussels, plankton, water samples, and graphs on a computer screen. All these entities are restless matter and have – occasionally undesirable – agency; they shape, they form, they are Lake Constance.
In the video this restlessness and uncertainty about where we stand and who we are at a time of change, this fluidity that enfolds all that lives, is generated first and foremost – alongside the multifarious water-related and flowing images and their sound – via the change in the voice-over/s guiding us through the narration. This strange and increasingly distorted voice, comprising always many voices and echoes (a polyphony amplified by the 4-channel audio installation) is recognisable as the artist’s own voice, warped and overlaid in a machine-like way. In the subsequent sequences it is replaced by a quiet, not to say sadly plangent female singing voice, then humming (evidently the artist’s voice once again), subsequently overlaid by a penetrating childlike voice before transposing into written text towards the end (or the beginning) – overlaid by the increasingly loud din of machines, by ship’s horns at the outset. In other words, all is in flow. All is in flow among these noisy, imploring and melancholy creatures. Who are always more than one. What remains unclear is who is speaking, who is the I grounding their feet: the artist? the visitor? Who is the us: us human beings as homo oeconomicus or as utopian beings in the making? “Some of us make our own light.”⁶ Then we’re back again in the third person, e.g. talking about the creatures impacted by the overly warm water. Is it the plankton or are these other water creatures? “Evaporation and condensation, the boiling heat thickening the air, heavy as water – more fit for gills than lungs. […].”⁷
These quiet, singing passages are particularly powerful for they herald something that is irrevocably transient. A moving singsong; gills made of lungs are what’s needed. Opening and carrying us through the horrors of global heating and its unwanted changes and deaths. These horrors surface only briefly, as noise, as written information about the disruption to the communication of underwater creatures in the form of acoustic smog. For Ecotone Encounters actually opts for a different strategy, namely the invocation of the magic and diversity of that which is, rather than of loss. And so we experience the beauty and singularity of creatures dancing and breathing in the water. Plankton. Its strangeness outlandish and unfamiliar, yet somehow also akin to tadpoles, sperm, fish-like creatures that we as human beings once were. That we (are able to) become once again, here.
Ecotone Encounters is thus an example of those current artistic strategies I have referred to elsewhere as the appropriation of the process of becoming environmental and ecological. By this I mean a new type of politicised emotional charging that explicitly shows the human body as part of nature and naturecultures. By the same token, this (counter-)appropriation of the process of being environmental seeks to explode essentialist notions of wholeness. It is supported also by those new materialist feminists whose texts feature collage-like in the polyphony of the voice-overs, thereby making this concern a multiplied and disseminated one.⁸ “These artists seek to use different strategies in order to try to escape the catastrophe and trigger a momentum of transformation in a world that has become decrepit. Riikka Tauriainen for example translated a phrase by the feminist theorist Astrida Neimanis into German and proposed it as a luminous neon sign on the façade of an administrative building on the busy bank of the Limmat river: Mein Körper ist Moor, Mündung, Ökosystem. This seemingly naturalising sentence, in its essence an advertising slogan, affects and impacts passers-by in their physicality and environmentalism. It lays bare the fact that the river on their doorstep is water flowing always to the sea while connected to us both physically and infrastructurally. Our lavatories, our hormones, our cosmetics […] end up in the water, on glaciers, in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, in fish, turtles, bacteria. In us. That too is the essence of becoming oceanic.”⁹ In both Mein Körper ist Moor, Mündung, Ökosystem and Ecotones Encounters, Riikka Tauriainen stages a specific process of bodies becoming landscape: becoming water, marshland, diffuse. She refers to the dominant construct of landscape as a drained, passive surface location of seeing, of shaping and enjoying, and transforms this construct into a wet underwater location of hearing, cohabiting and touching. A landscape obsessed with diffusion and agency: things flowing and becoming entangled, occurring, and taking hold of you, me, them.¹⁰ In this aesthetic activity of things fluidising lies an entire world, perhaps a future one.