Chambers of Wonder

Renowned artist James Turrell constructs a light-bending installation at Swarovski Crystal Worlds

Photo by Florian Holzherr

The manipulation of light may at first sound like a dumfounded task made only possible by those born into the supernatural. Yet the reality is, James Turrell has perfected it for decades. Recognised world-wide for his installations and holographs, the American artist has long produced light-bending visuals and optical illusions on mass, on site and in situ. Atmospheric and provoking, Turrell’s expansive body of work has therefore garnered reputable status amongst the art world for its momentous depiction of light and how perception can be completely flipped on its axes – from skylight pieces providing a portal into the world above, to projections and constructions offering a new outlook on light and depth.

And now, Turrell’s latest endeavour is an installation of Shadow Space named Umbra, constructed permanently in Chambers of Wonder as part of Swarovski Crystal Worlds. Since opening in 1995, Swarovski Crystal Worlds has welcomed residents including Yayoi Kusama who premiered the infamous Chandelier of Grief, a rotating and immersive fixture composed of Swarovski crystal; or Into Lattice Sun by Lee But, an architectural translation of the utopian landscape. For this latest addition, Turrell was the perfect suitor. Carla Rumler, cultural director of Swarovski and curator of Swarovski Crystal Worlds says how Turrell’s credulous work has “always” been on her mind; “he was on my wish list,” she explains. A “logical” addiction to the site replete with its own iteration of the Seven Wonders of the World, Turrell is the first to avoid the use of crystal entirely. Instead, fragments – or “ingredients”, as Carla puts it – are adorned in such a way that it gives off a similar effect to the glassy composition found in crystals. Whether it’s the contraction of light, the reflection; “Turrell works with spectral colours a lot and in an essential way,” she adds.

Photo by Florian Holzherr

“I am very much taken to how light works in crystal,” says Turrell in an announcement. “Umbra is about the light that is in the soft shadow. In a lunar eclipse, you have the soft light as opposed to the very strong light that you saw reflected off the moon. This is a kind of light that is very soft and filling that I love. If you are looking at this piece, it is not about the light that surrounds the edge, it is the large expanse or panorama of this very soft light that actually comes from the reflection in the room.”

The Turrell and Swarovski pairing is an apt one at least, not only in the attention to detail but also in the likemindedness between both company and artist. “He doesn’t work with everybody,” shares Carla, “we are very honoured that he’s worked with us.” It was a harmonious discussion as to what would be included in the installation, wherein both sides deliberated the medium that would best fit the space and purpose of the artwork. “It turned out that Shadow Space is the perfect one for us,” she adds, taking into consideration the size and audience experience. “We said, ‘what colours would you like to use?’ He said how it was a surprise.” Causing no moment of hesitation or worry – it’s James Turrell, after all – there couldn’t have been a more suited and enjoyable outcome. This is a thought reciprocated from both sides. “He was very happy with the output because most of his forms are made to be temporary,” adds Carla, “so the quality of the room here is so perfect. It’s like approaching an artwork or a picture that will not go away. He was so impressed by the quality of the room because he’s never experienced it so precise.”

Acid Coral Template

Tuomas A. Laitinen addresses important questions of ecology and climate change through a series of glass-made structures and installations

A Proposal for an Octopus, series, 2019. Photo: Jussi Tiainen

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.”

PsiZone, 2021. Installation view, Helsinki Biennial

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.”

Haemocyanin, 2019. Still from the video

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.”

A Proposal for an Octopus, series, 2019. Photo: Jussi Tiainen

Protean Sap, 2020. Stills from the video

The Same Sea

Port takes a trip to the Finnish island of Vallisaari for the Helsinki Biennial 2021

©Matti Pyykko, Helsinki Biennial

A group of 330 islands conjugate around the coastline of Helsinki, establishing an untrammelled and easy getaway from the humdrum of city life. It’s normal for locals to boat around here, whether that’s in lieu of the sauna, work or heading home from the mainland. Life in the Finnish capital feels serene, and the calm streets of the more urban environments – free from any queues – only solidifies this as a place where happiness, nature and the environment matter above anything else. 

While leaving the port of Helsinki on a refreshingly crisp day – the locals explained it was unusually cold for the time of year – that’s when I first caught sight of the many tiny islands, most of which are decorated with a wooden hut or left untamed and completely wild. Some are homes, others are summer houses or places to soak up the heat of the sauna. Then there’s the rocks, poking out of the water with abnormally smooth edges; they sink into the sea bed with little effort, windswept and altered by the tectonic shifts of the surface below. It took a mere 20 minutes to arrive at our destination of Vallisaari, an enchanting island and home of the Helsinki Biennial – an event presented by Helsinki Art Museum (HAM), directed by Maija Tanninen-Mattila, and curated by Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola.

Making its debut on the island with 41 artists from Finland and across the globe, the biennial’s new location is a land that’s diverse and rich in its formation. Few people could have entered Vallisaari a handful of years ago, due to it being used as a military base for the Russian Army – the remnants of which are still astonishingly present today. With a title of The Same Sea, the works involved in the biennial’s festivities reflect on the island’s history, as well as the interconnectedness and dependence that the world has on its oceans. With the climate at the fore, this is highlighted immediately as you board the island, where visitors are stunned by the confrontational work of Finnish artist Jaakko Niemelä’s Quay 6 (2021) a large, red structure that cups the shore line as it explicitly denotes the impending threat of rising sea levels. Below, I round up a few key highlights from the event, consisting of sculpture, sound and installation that each reflect on our climate emergency. 

Jaakko Niemelä: Quay 6, 2021 ©Maija Toivanen/HAM/Helsinki Biennial 2021

Jaakko Niemelä: Quay 6 (2021)

Designed as the island’s greeting, Jaakko’s installation has been construed of scaffolding, painted wood structures, water pipe and pumps. Commenting on the drastic effects of climate change and how the rising sea levels will greatly affect our lands and civilisation, the alarming piece directs its focus onto the melting of Greenland’s northern ice sheet; if it were to disappear in entirely, then sea levels will rise to six metres – the height of the structure.

Teemu Lehmusruusu: House of Polypores, 2021 ©Maija Toivanen/HAM/Helsinki Biennial 2021

Teemu Lehmusruusu: House of Polypores (2021)

A hybrid of natural processes, research and sound, the Helsinki-based artist’s installation is given anthropomorphic qualities as it listens to decaying trees before converting the noise into music. The work is likened to an instrument made of soil, and visitors are invited to touch and place their ears onto the large tubular structures to listen to its deep and vibrating hum. There are four structures in total, each of which is crafted from mushrooms, electronics and decaying wood. 

Margaret & Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring: Helsinki Satellite Reef, 2021 ©Maija Toivanen/HAM/Helsinki Biennial 2021

Margaret & Christine Wetheim: Crochet Coral Reef, The Helsinki Satellite Reef (2021)

The world’s coral reefs are depleting, suffering greatly from pollution and heat exhaustion as a result of climate change. This handmade crochet piece, crafted by two LA-based sisters, is a passionate response to the matter; it reflects on the long process of building the sculptures as well as the lack of time that animals (and the reefs) have on our planet. The project has travelled to New York, London, Riga and Abu Dhabi in engaging with more than 10,000 participants; the sisters will also work with local Finnish communities to crochet a reef in Helsinki.

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: FOREST (for a thousand years…), 2012 ©Maija Toivanen/HAM/Helsinki Biennial 2021

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: Forest (for a thousand years…) (2021) 

In a calming corner of the island’s woodland, an immersive sound installation encourages its visitors to perch on tree stumps as they listen to various sounds: aircrafts flying above, birds, explosions and choir song. The Canadian artists’ work comments on the sounds that a forest will hear in a lifetime and, in this case, the different points in history for Vallisaar. Its listeners are exposed to yelling, screaming and gun fire, but equally they are connected to the trees around them, personifying nature as a delicate and fragile entity. 

Lutfi Janania

The Honduran-born botanical artist creates objects and sculptures coined from the natural world

The Central American country of Honduras is rich in flora. So immense that it runs miles, canopied amongst mangroves, cloud forests and long lines of coast stretching across the Caribbean Sea, to the north, south and Pacific Ocean. It’s marked by high and rainy mountainous slopes of the country’s highlands, dense in oak-pine forests and delicious woodlands that spreads for valleys upon valleys. Yet despite its vast occupancy of luscious lands and lively fauna that inhabit it, Honduras has also undergone some dramatic environmentalist issues. This includes the loss of soil fertility and soil erosion, plus the depletion of forests where trees have been harvested for lumber, firewood and land. Its fragility is only increasing, but it’s also these very pines, leafs and flowers that serve as a delectable backdrop and inspiration for one particular artist working today, Lutfi Janania.

Lutfi is a Honduran botanical artist who was raised amongst the rainforest and mountains of San Pedro Sula. After emigrating to New York City, the artist was in search of a new utopia – one comparatively different to the green facades of his upbringing. And, in doing so, he started working in the fashion industry whereby he learned about construction, colour and texture; the key elements to his work now. A few design roles later, and he finally ventured out on his own as a stylist, working on editorials and employing the use of flowers within the backdrops and more subtle accents of the shoots. This is the moment when he realised he’d found his utopia, or better yet his “passion for creating fantasy through experiences that could be harnessed through botanical design,” he tells me. Naturally, this led to the launch of his own design studio, Rosalila, during which he works with botanicals to build objects, sculptures and installations.

Corallia. Shot by: Maksim Axelrod

“I live for the idea of creating a fantasy, transforming a dream into reality,” he continues, noting how this was fully harnessed once he’d moved to the USA. “I imagine it as materialising an enchanting and otherworldly environment and the creatures that live in it.” Through freshly cut tropical plants used in installations through to various assortments of trimmings and flowers, Rosalia is indeed a “fun, flirty, exotic yet very elegant” outlet for his goals and view of the world. “Think of that sensation when taking in the lively rays of sun in the tropical beaches of Honduras while holding a delicious spicy margarita in your hand.”

Lutfi’s reasons for venturing into the field of botanicals stems wholly from his past. His familial home, for instance, is located on a nature preserve, built by his grandfather amongst the wild forest. Describing the environment as being “literally Jurassic in size”, Lutfi had the entire ecosystem at his fingertips. “The trees tower over my house and provide habitat for a variety of tropical birds and giant variegated monsteras, and other plants which climb and drape all over their entirety. Coming of age in such company really shaped my understanding of colour texture and light.”

The typical compositions of a forest tend to be centralised, as the plants reach for the light in their journey to photosynthesise. Lutfi’s work, however, completely defies the laws of gravity, and of the rainforest for that matter. He relies steadily on light, weight, balance and, of course, gravity, to stretch and spread his pieces to achieve questionable angles. Reaching branches are paired with dried florals, “which seem to simultaneously bloom and weep”, while curved woods and obscure silhouettes are formed through the skill of finding stability within his striking sculpture pieces. It’s an art form in itself.

Looking inwards, and beyond the outer layer of wildness and beauty, you’ll notice how Lutfi’s structures are more than just a display of expansive nature. He picks his materials depending on the stories that they speak, especially those that tell tales of their homelands. “And because of my upbringing in the bioreserve of Honduras, my relationship and experiences with the natural world have led my inspiration to be often rooted in nature,” he explains, weaponising both permanent and sustainable objects in order to reach the studio’s environmentally conscious goals. “At Rosalila, we have a conscious practice; we don’t believe in a wasteful way of designing. We repurpose our materials, pushing their limits and boundaries.” 

Leafy Sea Dragon. Shot by: Leon Hernandez

The Leafy Sea Dragon sculpture embodies this entirely, as its’ construed of hand-preserved botanicals, manzanita wood branches and crystals. “The piece explores negative space, grandeur and fantasy with an emotional connection,” adds Lutfi, who collaborated with a family-owned fabricator in Queens to create the Italian rainforest marble base, and a Brooklyn-based metalworker in Brooklyn to weld the brand stand, before adding in the botanical work crafted by the studio. It’s an immeasurable piece with strands and spikes alluding to the ever-growing quality of nature; punches of pinks are tossed amongst the desolate, earthy tones of the environment, causing a fiery juxtaposition of fertility and sterility that plausibly takes a stand against the dwindling lands of the rainforest.

All of Lutfi’s pieces encompass a myriad of materials, be it marble, quartz, brass, manzanilla wood, curly vines and hand-preserved botanicals. And through the marriage of the man-made and natural, his pieces are greatly provocative. “My desire is to convey emotions, feelings and sensations and the dualities in them,” he shares on a final note about the work’s impact. “When compiled together, these vignettes with crooked leaves generate sorrow, curiosity, anticipation and longing. In stirring such emotions, the environment begins to take shape and the life within the work becomes evident. The dried, dehydrated material is not just preserved, it’s persevering and actively creating. What appears to be dead is very much alive.”

Portrait in front of sculpture. Shot by: Ricardo Rivera
The Mirror. Housed by: @Ashya.co. Shot by: @equatorproductions
Corallia. Shot by: Maksim Axelrod

Julian Rosefeldt: An Artist’s Manifesto

Port speaks to director and artist Julian Rosefeldt about his film Manifesto, a meditation on modern artistic manifestos in which Cate Blanchett plays 13 different characters

FLUXUS / MERZ / PERFORMANCE, Manifesto © Julian Rosefeldt

Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto, a feature length film derived from an art installation of the same same name, is a tough sell on paper. The film is divided into thirteen sections, each with a different main character played by Cate Blanchett (a la I’m Not There, in which Bob Dylan is embodied by six actors, including Blanchett) who recite excerpts from over fifty individual manifestos of art, from Dada to Dogma 95. Alongside a touring exhibition of the sections simultaneously projected onto separate screens in an overwhelming sensory soundscape, the more conventionally structured film of Manifesto, in which the sections are stitched together into a 90 minute feature, premiered at Sundance Festival in January, and has its general UK release later this month.

SURREALISM / SPATIALISM, Manifesto © Julian Rosefeldt

What relevance do these artistic credos, some of which are approaching their centenary, have for people not in the art world? “The art world is a bit of a closed circle,” explains writer, director and producer Julian Rosefeldt from his home in Berlin. “We’re imprisoned in a white cube where we always speak with people who don’t necessarily have to be convinced, because they agree with everything we have to say already. We consider these important issues, but we don’t talk to the right people about them.”

STRIDENTISM / CREATIONISM, Manifesto © Julian Rosefeldt

In different hands, this cerebral mixture could easily have produced quite a dry film: one to be cautiously admired, rather than enjoyed. Yet, Rosefeldt and Blanchett pull off the impressive feat of making these scholarly manifestos digestible, comprehensible and almost conversational.  In Blanchett’s portrayal of a dizzying range of characters – including a homeless man, a single mother and a ballet choreographer – century old texts written almost exclusively by dead, white men, go through a certain democratisation. “I wanted to depict a kaleidoscope of society,” Rosefeldt says.

SITUATIONISM, Manifesto © Julian Rosefeldt

The film is also tonally diverse. The second section features a wild-eyed homeless man, screaming through a microphone with only a post-apocalyptic wasteland to act as witness. This is immediately followed by a stockbroker extolling the virtues of speed and technology that complicated the Futurist movement with overtly Fascist overtones. In Manifesto’s most arresting sequence, Blanchett presides over a Dadaesque funeral mourning (and simultaneously celebrating) the death of art. This scene was filmed in the dying light of a brief winter afternoon in Berlin, Blanchett nailing the eviscerating speech in just one or two takes.

DADAISM, Manifesto © Julian Rosefeldt

This palpable sense of unease and impending catastrophe is punctured by scenes of surprising comedy, such as sculptor Claes Oldenburg’s ‘I Am For An Art’ recited with reverence by a Southern mother saying grace. “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum,” she intones solemnly, her three children and husband (played by Blanchett’s actual family) propped up on steepled fingers around a rapidly cooling Sunday roast.

SURREALISM / SPATIALISM, Manifesto © Julian Rosefeldt

The dashes of humour in the film often arise from such ironic distance between text and situation. A manifesto of conceptual art, parroted by an aggressively made-up, Elnett-haired parody of a Fox News reporter, cannily raises the spectre of fake news: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. All of current art is fake.”

CONCEPTUAL ART / MINIMALISM, Manifesto © Julian Rosefeldt

Bar the opening lines from the Communist Manifesto, the texts are artistically apolitical – though between the lines such declarations are always political. “In Q&As after the screenings, people again and again refer to the political circumstances of today”, Rosefeldt explains. “When the first Futurist manifesto was published on the front page of Le Figaro in 1909, it acted as a kind of an ignition, a spark, that infected a lot of artistic manifestos at the time. We are living in a moment that is, in a way, comparable to the tension felt between the wars. The world is upside down and people read in those manifestos a kind of call for action, or an anti-populist call.”

FLUXUS / MERZ / PERFORMANCE, Manifesto © Julian Rosefeldt

Audaciously, Rosefeldt combines manifestos from decades apart in the same section, bringing Wassily Kandinsky (1912) and Barnett Newman (1948) into conversation. “Of course, it’s quite disrespectful towards the original writing,” Rosefeldt says bluntly. “Within these circles there is as much contradiction as agreement. But in art, as in history and fashion, everything repeats itself. Ideas come up, disappear for a while, and then forty years later have their rebirth.”

FILM, Manifesto © Julian Rosefeldt

In the last section, in which the manifestos of cinema’s auteurs including the Dogma 95 duo Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg are coalesced into a lesson, the lively contradiction between different authors is more explicit. Through Blanchett’s earnest teacher, the director Jim Jarmusch writes “Nothing is original” on the blackboard and instructs a class of ten year olds to “Steal from anywhere”; a sentiment that the firmly tongue-in-cheek Dogma manifesto contradicts in the next sentence. “That’s a bit how I remember school,” Rosefeldt chuckles. “From the same person, you get both complete bullshit, and things that actually make sense.”

Manifesto: Live From Tate Modern takes place across the UK on Wed 15 November. Manifesto goes on general release on 24 November. See manifestothefilm.com for full details.

Hella Jongerius’ Lessons in Colour

The Berlin-based Dutch designer draws on her studio’s 15 years of research in a solo show that unpacks our relationship with colour and how it has changed 

In her solo exhibition at the Design Museum in London, Berlin-based Dutch designer Hella Jongerius calls widespread preconceptions of colour into question. Chief among these is the idea that, as per paint charts and standardised colour systems, our experience of individual colours is static and unchanging. As Breathing Colour invites us to take a closer look at the way colour behaves, the designer makes a case against the processes of industrialisation that limit how we perceive colour. 

A phenomenon called metamerism lies at the heart of Jongerius’ research. In colorimetry, metamerism refers to the way two colours can look the same under one light source and different under another. To this effect, the exhibition is divided into separate spaces that simulate natural light at specific times of the day – morning, noon and night – and their effect on colour. Each installation includes a series of three-dimensional objects as well as textiles in order to show that materials and shapes also play a role in our perception.

Below are five takeaways from Jongerius’ in-depth interview with the Design Museum.

Colour is subjective

“Colour is very subjective. It is different for every person, every surface, shape and under changing lighting conditions. This makes colour mysterious and ever-changing.”

Industrial colour systems don’t reflect the full spectrum

“I miss the changeability, the options, that will allow us to read and re-read an industrially produced colour, like we do with works of art. Perfectly arranged, immaculate industrial colour systems don’t offer us the full potential of colour.”

Colour changes throughout the day

“Morning tones are pastel coloured, soft but fresh, with less yellow and no black. Then comes the sharp light right from above at noon, bringing very brisk contrasts and structure. Colours look greener and more reddish.”

Reflections colour everything

“If you take notice, you see just how much is coloured by reflections: whole walls and spaces are toned by it. A grey day is therefore even greyer because there is not enough intense light to cause these reflections.”

Materials impact colour

“The surface and colour of an object defines how we interact with it, how we use it at first and over time. A sense of touch and feeling things strongly influence the relationship between object and user.”

Breathing Colour by Hella Jongerius is on show at the Design Museum in London until 24 September