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Biennial installation created as a result of a hunt for plastic

For artist Tuula Närhinen, who has worked on Harakka Island for over two decades, trash that washes ashore tells a story about humans and our time.

“Bright colours stand out when hunting plastic,” says artist Tuula Närhinen. Her works are made of plastic debris that washed up on the shore of Harakka Island because of the southwest wind prevalent in Helsinki. Due to the artist’s diligent trash hunt, the island’s shore is now clean. According to Närhinen, plastic trash tells us about our time because it is a trace of human action: “Plastic represents the present day brought to us by the sea.”

This interview was conducted in May 2023, after Helsinki Biennial’s technical producer transported the plastic parts of Närhinen’s work from Harakka to Vallisaari Island with a small Buster motorboat. On Vallisaari, the small and colourful plastic debris that was collected and sorted by the artist is being turned into an installation called Plastic Horizon (2019–2023). The artist will place it on a 20-metre-long shelf that hugs the wall in one of the island’s historical gunpowder cellars. “The shelf is parallel with the sea from where the trash comes from,” says Närhinen.

Artistic identity intertwined with Harakka Island

Närhinen’s artistic identity is entirely built on Harakka Island. Her 20-year span of working on the island may soon be over because the artist studios’ rental agreement period is ending. She is worried about the situation and considers it important to speak for the island’s artist community, which is comprised of 30 people.

When working on and wandering around Harakka Island, Närhinen is constantly in contact with the sea. “When I travel from and to Harakka by boat, pulling the oars and tying the boat to the bank with a rope, I’m in constant contact with water. I observe the winds and the quality of water. You cannot go without noticing algal blooms, for example.” Boat service to Harakka Island only operates from April to October. During off months, you need a rowing boat of your own. “The last two winters have been hopeless in terms of walking on ice. The climate change is especially visible when working on an island.”

Närhinen, a Doctor of Fine Arts, started in the painting department of the Academy of Fine Arts, but now works with installations. “Lauri Anttila was an important teacher for me at the Academy of Fine Arts. He made photography sculptures where moving in a certain landscape – journeying in general – is important, and the works are situated between cultural history and nature. Perhaps you do not have to paint the landscape but you can enter it, walk around, and bring the landscape to life in the form of an installation. I guess it is some sort of continuation of landscape painting. It involves moving around, collecting, composing, and assembling. Walking in nature is an important aspect in my practice. It does not happen by staying still – you must leave the room.”

© Helsinki Biennial/HAM/Sonja Hyytiäinen

Shock tube detonators from blasting sites are common sea waste ending up in goose nests

“The sea sorts the trash by bringing lighter waste closer to the surface. After a storm, the waste drifts different distances from the shore. Highest on the shore are light and small plastic pearls, which are hard to collect,” says Närhinen. Nowadays, plastic bags and bottles are rarely found on shores, whereas black bottle caps, toys, babies’ dummies, and snus packages are frequently found.

The artist occasionally finds pieces of plastic tubing floating in the water and picks them directly from the sea. Närhinen says it is a common piece of waste these days, as shock tube detonators are used in non-electric ignition systems in mining and construction site blasting operations.

Plastic-coated shock tube detonators were used in the construction of Länsimetro and Kalasatama, as well as in underwater blasting to deepen the shipping lane leading to Hernesaari cruise port. When exploding, the shock tube detonator breaks into pieces, with the light parts ending up in the sea and, eventually, drifting ashore. In Plastic Horizon, we see a lot of shock tube detonator parts in various colours incorporated into the work.

“This spring’s ‘trend colour’ for shock tube detonators seems to be neon green – inspired perhaps by Finland’s Eurovision Song Contest representative Käärijä.” Barnacle geese, who build their tight nests from common reed, tie colourful shock tube detonator into their nests. “I am not surprised that animals love the colours of plastic waste – I like them myself.”

3 quick questions

Book/film/other cultural product I would take with me to an island:
“A map or nautical chart.”

The best island snack:
“Gourmet snack: a slice of rye bread with cold-smoked salmon, horseradish paste, and a lettuce leaf.
Everyday snack: a slice of rye bread with cheese, cucumber, and/or tomato.”

Desired island companion:
“It is best to go to an island alone. When walking by yourself, you make observations instead of focusing on your companion.”

Original text in Finnish: Reetta Haarajoki
Translation: Elävä Kieli Oy