My principal interests as an artist are in questions surrounding climate justice, migration and the human relationship with nature, and the complex social and ecological issues emerging from this relationship. These interests were, to some degree, already a part of my practice when I lived in Finland but have been brought into sharp focus by my own experiences as a migrant. Understanding what it means to be displaced from one cultural, social and ecological environment and then to establish a home in another, which is fundamentally different, has been the basis for the emergence of my recent projects. These have combined aspects from my earlier practice – the site-specific elements for example – with an explicit exploration of the communal and social experiences of migrants and with the participation of those specifically with a refugee and asylum seeker background.
As a migrant myself my projects are grounded in my own experience of finding and making a home which emerged from a desire to explore, to engage with, and to understand the corner of the world that I moved to. In my experience, landscapes and the nature they represent and host, provide a psychological and emotional link between a country of origin and an adopted country even when they present very different characteristics. Finding my way into the countryside, experiencing the landscape and nature that surrounds my adopted home city (Newcastle upon Tyne) helped me to put down roots – to begin to feel at home.
My projects have emerged from this experience and through sharing what I have discovered about building a sense of belonging. According to Anne Ring Petersen, the migration experience “involves a multi-layered and multi-territorial process of losing one’s sense of feeling “at home” in one place and, in most cases, regaining a sense of personal, social and political belonging elsewhere through an ongoing process of “regrounding” or “getting-back –into place” (1)
My recent participatory projects have sought to address this aspect of the experience of the migrant and displaced peoples communities – a sense of being ‘out of place’, alienated, searching for belonging and beginning to lay down roots through engaging with and discovering new environments, cultures and natural landscapes – trying to provide some of the conditions in which a feeling of being at home might be established.
Unfortunately, it is often the case that refugees and asylum seekers are housed in the most deprived parts of a city, often in inadequate housing and with limited financial support. Effectively they are confined to the urban spaces in which they are housed by a lack of both economic and cultural resources. The means to access the rich natural and cultural resources of this new living environment is too often a rarity, and this often acts to restrict the opportunities to establish a common ground for a dialogue with the host community to emerge.
The starting point for my participatory projects has been the provision of access to the natural environment, to the beautiful countryside, which we have in abundance in the North East. I wanted to share what I had discovered about this new world and about its function as a foundation for building a sense of belonging.
Using this approach – and basically, this has meant walking, talking and taking meals together in rural Northumberland – these projects have invited members of the refugee and asylum seeker communities to explore what constitutes a sense of belonging for them (2) and how this might be propagated and grown through experiencing nature and landscape, through cultural hospitality and shared understanding.
In order to provide common reference points for discussion and exploration we undertook a series of curated ‘foraging’ walks through various landscapes; the post-industrial, nature reserves, and the historic landscapes and properties maintained by The National Trust. The National Trust is a national collection of ‘heritage environments’ that have come to exemplify some particular aspects of the concept of ‘Britishness’. This makes them interesting places to visit in themselves. They are also extraordinary and unique places, and stand in stark contrast to the often deprived and run-down environments that displaced people are sometimes housed in. The houses and gardens are pristine and immaculately cared for – they are places of the unreal, show homes of the historic, ideal and unlived. They are points of departure into escapism; into the fantasies of those who established them as temples to themselves and their ability to shape and contain nature; and into the fantasies of a shared national, ‘British’ past that never really existed.
These landscapes also point to the real consequences of this imagined nation and contain traces of the colonial past in both botanical and architectural contexts – a material history of appropriation and destruction in which a selective and acceptable model of migration, importation and cultural otherness is applied like stucco to the gardens and interiors – the careful construction of a quarantined past that excludes the inconvenient details.
It has been a very powerful experience to visit these places with our diverse group and to think about what is being presented to us – how these spaces position us, which history is being told and what that tells us about our present and its own obsessive nostalgia for the never was. Each of these projects culminated into a creation of a participatory art work. The one I will describe here emerged from the understanding of the importance of bio/botanical migration in landscape formation that these curated ‘foraging’ walks highlighted and is called Delicate Shuttle (3). It was presented as part of the Great Exhibition of the North in June 2019.
The framework for the piece was the cultural symbolism that plants carry and I found a particularly charged example in the White Poplar which is now a commonplace tree across Britain and one which we regularly encountered on our expeditions.
The White Poplar is itself a migrant – originating in Central Asia and gradually, by way of southern Europe, making the journey here over thousands of years until it has become a familiar part of the landscapes. The White Poplar is also an important player in human history and is freighted with symbolic meaning that has accrued since the beginning of recorded storytelling and across a number of cultures.
For example, in the cultures of Assyria and Mesopotamia, White Poplar was burned as a part of divination rituals. In Greek mythology, the tree belongs to resurrection and is associated both with the ability to endure and overcome a struggle, as well as with time and the memory of loved ones lost. Hercules was crowned with a garland made of White Poplar leaves when he defeated the fire breathing giant Cacus, and in a similar tale he made a victors wreath when, as one of his 12 labours, he dragged Cerberus from Hades. For the Romans, arbor populi was the tree of the people and was used to decorate buildings and public spaces during celebrations and for the Celts the tree is associated with victory, transformation and vision.
These myths not only point to the importance of the tree to human societies but their similarities show how meaning and significance is transported between places, as the symbolic language of the tree migrates with it and embeds itself in new locations, finds new cultural homes.
In my new project Omens – making futures I have used another ancient cultural practice as a centre around which we can explore common aspirations and build shared understandings.
The project created the opportunity for local and migrant communities to meet around a discussion of cultural traditions and their hopes and fears for their futures. The symbolic element around which this was organised was the casting of ‘omens’.
The projects draws upon the tradition of molybdomancy – a divining practice from ancient times involving melting metal over an open fire and pouring it into cold water and then interpreting the resulting form.
During my childhood in Finland this tradition formed part of the family’s New Year celebrations. After we had cast our individual metal ‘omens’ we would hold them in the light of a candle and interpret the shadows they produced to forecast our fortunes for the coming year. It was a much anticipated and magical part of New Year and an important storytelling activity that brought together the past and the future for all of us.
Through the process of omen casting and interpretation each sculptural element is at once individually and collectively produced. The energetic interaction of metal and water produces something new. In bringing together these very different materials something both beautiful and provisional is created – like the exciting emergent forms that are forged when different communities come together and share and integrate their cultures. We saw something of these forms emerging through the project in the new friendships made, the stories told and the celebrations of differences and similarities shared.
The project also reflects on the relationship between the experiences of displaced peoples who are often confined to urban environments and the understanding and expectations of rural communities (who are often opposed to migration despite having limited engagement with migrants) and seeks to establish positive dialogues within and between these communities. Through sharing a meal and starting a dialogue around the objects we made we began a process through which common goals could be established and understood.
In these difficult times, the idea and experience of migration is of particular concern to creative and cultural practitioners whose home and work has always had an international dimension. Brexit and the deeply disturbing resurgence of xenophobic, populist and fascist ideologies, the policy of building barriers and closing borders makes it especially important to bring forth and highlight the positive impact of migration and for us to begin again to develop social values based upon hospitality, friendship and neighbourliness.
Reflecting on the nature of beauty, the Finnish philosopher and environmental aesthetician Yrjö Sepänmaa wrote: “Beauty is not only a surface property, a matter of appearances, but the beauty of processes” (4). And although it is not a fashionable concept – too vague and unprofitable – we need to once again find that which is beautiful between us. To take beauty seriously. To make it political.
It is political in the sense that it is made together, decided together by people. It is a process. Each iteration of the project has been subject to an evaluative and creative process in the sense that an approach, a method, that engages with and foregrounds the effects of shared environmental experiences and the possibilities of those as a means to build dialogue and friendships has been applied and evaluated and reassessed and reapplied. Out of process a commonality is emerging that is not culturally exclusive but makes a space for new voices and that recognises the positive contribution of these experiences and their saying.
The beauty of these ongoing projects reaches far beyond the notion of exhibition as a destination for art projects. Each and every person who was part of the work has brought to it their politics, their history, their culture and customs, their friendship and hospitality, to the places we visited, the walks and conversations we had, everything we encountered and shared together. This process draws an outline of human relationships and connects us all in the great task of protecting and appreciating that shared outline. It delineates what is possible.
Projects been supported by Arts Council England, D6 Culture, Gem Arts, Counterpoints Arts/Platforma, The Finnish Institute in London
Images by: Dario Colombo, Arto Polus, Janina Sabaliauskaite, Henna Asikainen
(1) Anne Ring Petersen etc. Migration into Art. Transcultural identities and art-making in a globalized world. (Machester University Press, 2017), p. 9.
(2) One important realisation of these projects has been that the participants bring culture and experience with them and it is not simply a case of introducing them to aspects of their new geography but also of exploring how these things intersect and change the experience of members of the already existing community.
(3) The title of the piece comes from Bruno Latour who writes: “In the eyes of our critics the ozone hole above our heads, the moral law in our hearts, the autonomous text, may each be of interest, but only separately. That a delicate shuttle should have woven together the heavens, industry, texts, souls and moral law – this remains uncanny, unthinkable, unseemly.” We Have Never Been Modern, (Harvard University Press Cambridge, 1993), p. 5. Basically, Latour observes that the world deals with its problems in silos, narrow approaches which do not look at the wider picture, with each addressed individually, and what is most needed is a delicate shuttle to weave together our interconnected concerns.
(4) Yrjo Sepanmaa, The Beauty of Environment, (Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki, 1986), p. 100.