Tuomas A. Laitinen addresses important questions of ecology and climate change through a series of glass-made structures and installations
The octopus has earned a spot as perhaps one of the most visited subject matters in art. From 19th century Japanese erotica through to modern painting classics, the eight-armed sea creature has drawn many artistic practitioners in with its alluring symbology and anthropomorphic influences. Mysterious, intelligent, adaptable and fluid; the tentacled and unpredictable animal represents both wisdom and strategy. For instance, in the recent documentary My Octopus Teacher, we saw the ocean protagonist cover herself with shells to hide from impeding prey, outsmarting the sharks in an instant as she continued to poke her many legs into its gills. So it’s no wonder the octopus has caught the attention of artists and designers over the years, with Tuomas A. Laitinen being the most recent – an artist who works across video, sound, glass, algorithms, plus chemical and microbial processes.
In his most recent body of work Tuomas merges the line between art and science, weaponising materiality and craft to take a crystallised view at the world of ecology – that which is done so through octopus-shaped glass structures and compositions. The work, named Acid coral template, has been presented at the inaugural Helsinki Biennial this year, and he’s also recently been commissioned by Daata to create an AR artwork for the launch of the platform’s AR app – a continuation of what was first commissioned by Daata in 2020. “I had been researching protein crystallography for a few years and started to think about how I could translate this data in my work,” he tells me. “In that video work, I used the protein models to create these very baroque body augmentations for the animated characters in the video.” Simultaneously, at the time of making, Tuomas was working on coral growth simulations and eventually these two worlds collided. “The protein model for this particular coral is based on the Yersinia Pestis (plague) bacterium. So there is a weird fictional metamorphosis woven into the fabric of the work. A bacterium becomes a speculative coral. It’s not really about representing the data as such but making an interpretation, a translation, or a transmutation of it and consequently placing it into new environments through AR.”
Tuomas grew up in a small Finnish town, a place known the centre point for glass production in Finland and in the 20th century. He started working on his installations as a teenager using junkyard materials and scraps, “so that was my fist touch to art, even though there were no such categories in my mind then,” he says. After a stint in music, Tuomas decided to attend art school and pursued his studies at Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, which is where his love of sound, moving image, 3D animation, light and installation first bloomed; his debut glassworks were created around 10 years ago and “were basically custom lenses for a camera”, while his first augmented reality piece was borne in 2016. Now living in Helsinki, he often works with various artists and researchers to question the role of ecology and production, often employing a profound mix of translucent materials such as glass and chemicals, as well las microbial processes and algorithms.
For the last five years, Tuomas has turned his focus onto the eight-legged creature and its home: the coral reef. “I’ve been making glass sculptures for octopuses as an attempt to find ways to think with these extraordinary lifeforms and, on a larger scale, ocean ecosystems. The octopus started to feel like a relevant conductor for opening up various ecological questions, providing a tentacular and modular model for organising ideas and artworks: ‘nine minds’ in one body. There is always a core brain there, but the structure allows a certain decentralisation to happen.” In a wider context, Tuomas strives to question ecology but also to touch upon the various mythologies that are attached to it, “and ideas coming from processes of knowledge production.” He adds: “And in some way, an element of cli-fi and sci-fi is present in the entanglements of my work – especially climate fiction, where the weather or the ecosystem is often seen as a protagonist. The current path in my work started in 2010 when I discovered some key texts from feminist new materialist theorists. That moment presented a major shift in perspective, and it is still affecting a lot of my work.”
And now, when thinking about the relationship between ecology and sustainability, it’s universally thought of as a delicate and necessary relationship. Conserving the earth’s waters, soil and ecosystem is vital in order to remain harmonious with the environment and the incoming – or better yet the present – affects of climate change. Tuomas’ work not only proves the impact of art when it comes to raising awareness of climate change, but that it’s a an aesthetic reminder of how fragile the natural world can be, where with just a shudder, slap or bash it can break it into tiny fragments.
“For me, the idea of ecology is something that emerges from being sensitive to processes of mutual coexistence,” he explains. “When I think of ecology, I often come back to the notion of overlapping symbiotic processes and questions of biodiversity. At the level of making art, it means that individual works (like this coral reef) emerge out of an extensive world building or thought process rather than clearly defined project boundaries. A certain bundle of actions and reactions allows a specific outcome or a life form to appear, and I think that this is a sort of a parable of an ecological process. Feminist theorist Deboleena Roy talks about this notion of ‘feeling around for the organism’ in her book Molecular Feminism, and it’s been one of the important reminders on how to look for kinship with other-than-human lifeforms. And then, on another scale, as a citizen concerned with environmental issues, I am trying to find ways to support youth climate actions, but on an artistic level, it’s all about these subtle differences and tentative approaches.
It seems to me that understanding different scales and the resulting perspective shifts are quite crucial tools in relation to thinking about ecological transformations.”