For the length of his career, artist Henrik Håkansson has been an observer of plants and animals. He has captured the final moments of a fly with his camera, brought a goldfinch to perform at a concert hall, and created installations of uprooted spruces against the white backdrop of art galleries. Similar to a natural scientist, Håkansson’s method is to study and observe nature.
For its tenth anniversary, the IHME Festival asked Håkansson, one of Sweden’s most internationally renowned artists, to create a new work for this spring’s festival. The end result of the process of nearly two years is Håkansson’s first ever commission, THE BEETLE.
Premiering in May, the movie features the beetle Hylochares cruentatus, which dwells in a tiny willow forest in Myyrmäki, Vantaa. When presenting the premise for the work at a press conference last November, Håkansson was quick to give credit for his topic to entomologist, professor emeritus Jyrki Muona.
”This is Jyrki Muona’s beetle, and the work would not exist if not for him. Usually, I discover the topics for my works myself, but this time, things took a whole different turn. Muona lent me his expertise, while I was merely browsing it,” Håkansson says.
A little over ten years ago, Muona and researcher Lena Brüstle detected a population of beetles in a willow forest beside the Myyrmäki railway station that they initially took for a sister species, Hylochrares populi. Brüstle described the species in her dissertation in 2009, and it has since been known among entomologists as Hylochares cruentatus, a rare species of false click beetles endemic to Finland.
Paula Toppila, Executive Director of IHME Festival, brought together Muona and Håkansson as the latter was in search of a Finnish species of animal for his work.
The special expertise of Jyrki Muona proved extremely valuable. Last June, when the film was scheduled to be shot, the weather happened to be so cold that not a single beetle reared its head from under the bark. By examining traces on the willows, Jyrki Muona selected twigs that might house beetles and took them indoors to the studio.
In the warm studio, four false click beetles finally made their entry in front of the cameras. On the lit, glossy surface, the animals engaged in behaviour typical of their species in its natural habitat: walking, flying and jumping.
How can a small, barely noticeable beetle be observed by human senses in the first place? How to grasp the essence of its being? In THE BEETLE, Håkansson uses three methods to ease the seemingly impossible task.
The first of these is to remove the subject from its natural habitat. According to Håkansson, this changes the process of observation. He has himself only encountered the beetles in the film studio. This is not the first time he has used the method. In the famous work BirdConcert Oct 23, 2005 (Carduelis carduelis), presented at the Frieze Art Fair in London, a single goldfinch performs at the Royal Academy of Music concert hall.
“A tree becomes a Christmas tree once you bring it into your home. A painting by Picasso changes whether viewed in a museum or in a field. This is, of course, a basic principle in art: how we perceive it, and how our perception changes when a work is moved and brought inside a white box. As Picasso said: ‘art is a lie that enables us to realize the truth’.”
The second method is to slow down the speed of events. By recording the beetles’ with a high-speed camera, every last detail of their subtle movements was captured on film. The jumps and steps of the beetles are viewed by the audience at a speed 5,000 times slower than reality.
“By slowing down events and processes, I try to both grasp them as a whole as well as understand myself. I believe that we should also otherwise slow down the pace of our lives,” Håkansson says.
The third method is music. In the piece THE END (2011), an ensemble of musicians and singers performed music composed by Håkansson’s friend John Coxon. Three years later, as the film was presented at the Sydney Biennale, its music was played by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. As the music for THE BEETLE, Håkansson chose the recording of a live act by Mika Vainio, a pioneer in experimental electronic music who passed away in 2017.
“We changed nothing, and kept Vainio’s music precisely in the state in which it was recorded. I feel that as if by accident, Mika’s composition creates the false click beetle its own language of sorts. The music makes it vibrate,” Håkansson says.
“Music is a language written in rhythm and notes that affects all of us in different ways. It is both a direct form of communication and an abstraction.”
The population of Hylochares cruentatus in Myyrmäki, Vantaa numbers merely at some 10,000, a fact that sets a melancholy undertone for THE BEETLE. How long can this insignificantly small group of beetles, whose existence is only cared for by an equally small group of people, hope to evade extinction?
Håkansson is hesitant to specify whether his works carry a message of ecological disaster.
“My works are certainly about the footprint that humanity collectively leaves on nature. Still, I consider them not as declarations, but rather as musings and reflections on our environment.”
“There is nothing new about environmental issues, as they have been a topic of discussion since the 1960s. Granted, they did not back then draw headlines in quite the same magnitude as today. Humankind seems to be an expert in accelerating destruction. We think of ourselves as gods, but we are first and foremost only animals. This fact seems to be easily forgotten, even by the world’s most brilliant scientists. As I am obviously a part of the destructive behaviour, I am not sure whether it is something I want to condemn in my works. Still, it is definitely something I think about,” Håkansson says.
IHME Festival at Korjaamo, Helsinki, on 25–26 May, 2018. See the full programme