Saari Residence


On movements and matters of oysters and lianas

Harriina Räinä and Pedro Hurpia at Titanik Gallery.
Pedro Hurpia & Harriina Räinä | Clutch | 11.8.–10.9.2023

Come close – see, sense, trace – the gestures of movement enveloped in the calcium carbonate rings of a Pacific oyster shell, or those embedded in the ridges of a Mil-homens liana. Like the bones and tissues in our own bodies, these matters are living archives of motion, attachment, habitat, freedom to roam, systems, intervention, and proximity. They connect and converge, make and unmake, and hold within them millennia of knowledges. What can we learn from spending time with oysters and lianas? Is it possible, as humans, to understand their ways of moving, attaching and mattering? What happens when we witness, as well as imagine, the intricacies of these two organisms and the forces that they negotiate with?

The artists and Saari alumni Harriina Räinä and Pedro Hurpia – though situated thousands of kilometres apart – both share their working spaces with their respective counterparts, the oyster and the liana. For Harriina, who has spent time engaging with Itabo oysters in Japan and European oysters and Pacific oysters in France, it is the oyster’s shells sourced from abroad with which she shares her studio on Harakka Island, Helsinki. In this materially layered place, the artist observes and contemplates the shells’ traces of growth and attachment on a daily basis and views the shells themselves as active parts of the oyster’s body with their own agencies. Though there is a marked distance between the oyster’s habitat and the artist’s studio on the shores of the Baltic Sea the vibrancy of this bone-like matter and the presence of the encircling waters encourages one to attune to more watery ways of existence. In meeting with Harriina in her studio, I experience some of the facilitative leakages that she describes as becoming apparent when working in porous places such as this: “I am leaking towards the environment and the environment is leaking towards me.”

Pacific oyster farm at low tide, Cancale, France, 2022. Photo: Harriina Räinä

Pedro adopts a similar contemplative and embodied practice. He walks for hours in the liana-laden Atlantic Forest in Southern Brazil, making drawings and notes before returning to his studio to construct models and mechanisms. During our video call he invites me into the verdant forest, his “backyard”, through a series of photographs and, here from afar in Finland, I can appreciate the intensity with which lianas grow. It is interesting to observe that the wires and coils that flourish on his desk mimic the liana’s own vivaciousness. Pedro comments that, in moving to this remote location four years ago, his relationship with lianas has intensified and he has become more familiar with the forest’s seasonal changes: “I started to observe how the forest changed during the year; how the vines spread out and slow down large trees but also create pathways for animals in the canopy.”

Threaded throughout the work of each artist is a desire to reveal the gestures and mechanisms of movement and matter. As we converse, Harriina reflects on her transition from printing with Gofun (a white pigment made from Itabo shells) to engaging with oysters more conceptually as a way of further fathoming her longstanding curiosity in the agency of matter: “I am interested in the agency of matter; how everything is in process and movement all of the time.” Though they appear lifeless, the clusters of oyster shells that lay on a central table in her studio continue to unfold before us: she comments on how these shells are not dead but rather part of a process of dying. In observing them, one can see that their layers of skin-thin bone bear the traces of a life lived ­– or living and dying – with the seas. In more watery conditions, these shells derived from Atlantic, European and Pacific oysters in Europe and the U.S. would (re)configure through a host of invisible movements. Each shell-formation is made from the flows of the sea; the coming together of minerals; the attachments to, and becomings with, other shells; the returnings to the seabed as sediment. Whether Harriina believes that there is an order to this, she does not say. Instead, the artist notes that things are messy despite our best efforts to control everything.

Video still from Pedro Hurpia’s video.

In contrast, Pedro is vocal about the systematic movements that he surveys in the forest: “I want to speculate on the complex dynamism with which lianas grow. The way they spread out and rearrange themselves makes me imagine that there is an order behind it. It is a silent and slow operation far from human perception.” In engaging with the liana, the artist continues his research into how things are viewed from different perspectives, particularly in modern science and popular belief. He reflects that, while lianas can drain trees of their resources, they also have healing qualities. Alongside their building of pathways, shelters and habitats for other organisms, Mil-homens lianas have been used medicinally by indigenous communities in the region for generations. In speaking, he shares images of dried and wrinkled medicinal Mil-homens, as well as a botanical lithograph of a liana from the 19 th century. The contrasting perspectives represented by these two examples show how differently the same plant – and its movements and mattering – can be seen or experienced.

In their time spent with these organisms by the sea and in the forest, the artists have gained a deep connection to the intricate ways in which the oyster and liana move, grow and attach. The latter, the act of attachment, plays a central role in Harriina’s practice with oysters. She reflects how, as a larvae in the ‘eyed stage’, they are able to move with a leg and use it to attach themselves to a place – a rock or another oyster – for life. The artist shares with me images of oyster larvae that will be painted onto the window at Titanik Gallery: dozens of eyes and legs can be found amidst swathes of circular hatchlings. Having had the opportunity to work with an oyster farm in Brittany, France, she is able to describe some of the methods used in oyster cultivation: “They prevent the attachment from happening by turning the sacks or physically hitting them. it’s a strong process.” This separation technique ensures that the oysters remain detached – singular – for use in the food industry and ultimately alters their growth patterns. Harriina explains how their instinctual urge to come together and create oyster reefs which are, in turn, really rich ecosystems is stunted. In a series of photographs, the artist places cultivated shells in dialogue with uncultivated shells – seemingly more organic in form – to reveal the traces of culture and commerce that become embedded in several types of oyster.

Though there are multiple arguments for oyster farming over, say, cattle farming– the negative reverberations caused by this aquaculture are still plentiful. Harriina notes that the ethical issues with mammals are more black-and-white than with bivalves due to humans knowing little about how the latter feel pain. While oysters are carbon sequesters and facilitate water filtration, oyster farming, like any intense act of cultivation, alters the animal, the seabed composition and the benthos. Moreover, the notion that oyster farming doesn’t take land perpetuates our society’s prioritisation of land over sea. Harriina highlights that “no, but it takes seabed. This argument tells us a lot about our relationship to the seas.” In a terrestrially-orientated society which seeks to contain things, the sea disrupts its concept of control as, quite evidently, things leak: the artist notes that, in her work, uncultivated does not mean wild but rather represents the leakages from oyster farms. She introduces this element of messiness through a floor installation made of oyster shells, sea salt, and water from the Aura river. The piece, which references oyster ‘nurseries’, questions the control in ‘caretaking’ while promoting the agency of water in both farming and art: “Art is dry as we want to keep it archival. When moisture and water come in, life starts to come in and things start to grow and so on.”

Pedro proposes a more speculative than evidential approach in his deciphering and (re)imagining of the liana’s movement and growth. While still heavily influenced by his tactile forest walks, the artist’s videos and sculptures create spaces in which logic and imagination meet: they invite us to adjust to a slower rhythm, to notice the liana’s movements and, in turn, attune to smaller motions in other natural and human-made environments. The artist speaks of practices of attention and patience and of leaning into a perspective that is not his own. He notes how, in his threading through the undergrowth, the tangle of lianas becomes so intense that he feels himself being pulled towards them. Upon hearing that lianas are both creative and destructive forces, I ask what can we learn from a plant with such paradoxical capacities? Pedro responds with a comment on the necessity of oppositional forces for equilibriums to occur: “There is always an oppositional force. Sometimes it might not be a proportional one but there is always a movement to keep balance in the forest. Movement keeps balance, an equilibrium.” He later adds “equilibriums take time and involve other agencies and invisible processes.” This overlaps with Harriina’s interest in the agency of matter and how organisms, like oysters, come into existence through processes and time-scales that we are not attuned to noticing.

In coming out of the forest and into the studio, Pedro creates a time lapse of a liana to reveal the plant’s slow movements, up and up. A separate video translates the seemingly chaotic growth patterns of lianas into a rhythmic dance: his hands choreograph replica vines to wriggle up and down. Both of these videos, presented in black and white, invite us to engage with a different type of time – one that Pedro calls elastic time: “It’s a concept that emerged in a previous project on deep time. It considers how, with elastic time, we could see the movement of lianas. It’s presented like a dream, being shot in black and white.” Within the gallery, the artist plans to replicate the liana’s movements with sculptural works, one of which, a small electrical device, mimics its growth patterns by rotating a curved rod at a slow speed – a challenge for even the more attentive viewer to notice its gentle and intermittent motion. He also ideates ways of visualising the liana’s capacity to transport something from one place to another, as well as the streams of energy present in self- sustaining systems, by building models of mechanisms like the Flow Rack often used in the logistics industry. The artist’s playfulness in bringing natural and human-made systems into dialogue with one another draws our attention to the physical but also the ideas-based seepages that occur between worlds.

There exists a porosity between these bodies of work that comes from the permeable capacities of the oyster and the liana but also from the ways in which Harriina and Pedro engage with their creative counterparts. It is evident that each artist has spent time with these organisms and their habitats, seeking to shift their own perspectives as well as those of their prospective audiences. In their practices, each artist makes visible the seemingly hidden movements and mattering of the oyster and the liana, and invites us to attune to alternative agencies, paces and scales. How might we think and move differently if we could see the oyster’s coagulation with a neighbour’s shell or the liana’s tendrils twisting upwards to join the canopy? In attuning to smaller movements – those found in the skins, tissues and bones in and across multiple organisms – we might, with time, change our own ways of moving and alter the shape of larger reverberations to come.

This article draws on interviews carried out with Saari Residence’s alumni artists Harriina Räinä and Pedro Hurpia in June 2023 in connection with their upcoming exhibition in August 2023 at Titanik Gallery, Turku.