Interview by Hanna Joensuu | Photographs by Patrik Rastenberger, courtesy of Kunsthalle Helsinki; Vesa Aaltonen, courtesy of Turku Art Museum; Maija Astikainen, Raimo Saarinen and Hanna Joensuu | English editor Nelli Iivanainen

Raimo Saarinen is a visual artist and sculptor based in Helsinki. He graduated from the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts in 2017. In his art, Saarinen deals with the Western concept of nature, and its problematic view of humans acting as separate individuals towards nature. Nature’s temporality and ability to regenerate are the core motifs of his art, where he uses living plants and other organic materials.

Young Artists 2019, Kunsthalle Helsinki. Raimo Saarinen, Granite Block, 2019. On the right the artworks are by Elina Autio. Photo, Patrik Rastenberger, courtesy of Kunsthalle Helsinki.

Saarinen is known for his Neosgaia sculptures; the large-scale islands hanging from the ceiling in the Kuvan Kevät 2016 Degree Show of the Academy of Fine Arts, and the preserved microecosystems in the series Skenaario (“Scenario”) in the joint exhibition Keskeneräiset utopiat (“Unfinished utopias”), held in 2017 in the Sunila pulp mill area designed by Alvar Aalto. We saw tulips in bondage in his work Martyrs in the joint exhibition A night within days with visual artist Arja Kärkkäinen at Galleria Huuto February 2019, and two balconies covered in underbrush in Lehto (“Grove”), as part of the installation What does home feel like in 2018 in the residential area of Jätkäsaari in Helsinki. Now he is showing new works in the Kunsthalle Helsinki’s annual showcase of Young Artists 2019. His new sculpture installation Eyes Open in the Dark is on in Turku Art Museum’s Studio through 19 May.

Raimo Saarinen in his studio. Photo, Hanna Joensuu.

Raimo Saarinen’s studio is like a secret laboratorium of a botanical garden. In the middle of a lush collection of green plants and bright light lamps is a little desk. At a comfortable 45% humidity, it is not just a perfect environment for his materials but a perfect getaway from the cold, penetrating breeze of March, just a touch before winter gives way to the early signs of spring. “This is exactly the kind of place where I would want to work”, he says. 

Raimo Saarinen, Neosgaia, 2016. Photo, Raimo Saarinen.

We often see living plants and other organic materials, such as wood, soil or mold in your art. When did you start working with living plants?

“The first time I used living plants in my art was in the exhibition Devil’s Nest – Pseudo Scientific Studies of Nature in the Art Academy’s art space Vapaan taiteen tila (“Space for free art”) in 2013. It was my first solo show. I decided to construct it as a process throughout the exhibition. I experimented spontaneously with different materials. For instance, I used living tulips of which some I split open and preserved in jelly, I grew crystals out of fertilisers on mirror surfaces, and made all sorts of objects from plaster.”

Incompleteness and material experiments still play a significant role in Saarinen’s artistic practice. Living materials introduce an element of surprise into the mix and keep the works in a state of constant change. The materials’ lifespan goes on organically even after the artwork’s creation. At first glance, Saarinen’s artworks attract with their neatly isolated and organised fragments of nature or ecosystems. A closer observation often reveals something unusual, either something unexpected or unwanted, eg. chains shackling flower buds, cigarette stumps or plastic bottles in a planting, or rotten molds inside what seems to be a collapsed ecosystem. These memorandums of the human impact on nature create a post-utopian vision in Saarinen’s art.  

Raimo Saarinen, Martyrs, 2019. Photo, Raimo Saarinen.

“I use a certain aesthetic to draw people’s attention, although the themes I work with may be difficult, and not something that everyone would like to deal with. In that sense I take advantage of the aesthetic to avoid being immediately rejected. Some pieces are more attractive and some, like the collapsed ecosystems in Scenarios, are more challenging to approach. I have also learned to understand these rotten ecosystems, they are very much alive with molds and fungi. They are very unfamiliar, and remind us of death and decay. Maybe that is why they are unpleasant at first glance. Another approach I use is to humanise nature in the hope that, maybe if the audience can empathise with the suffering of chained or restrained plants in my exhibition, maybe they will also do so in real life”, the artist explains.

Young Artists 2019, Kunsthalle Helsinki. Raimo Saarinen, Granite Block, 2019. Photo, Patrik Rastenberger, courtesy of Kunsthalle Helsinki.

In Kunsthalle Helsinki’s exhibition Young Artists Saarinen is showing a new sculpture, Granite Block. The title is in sync with the work’s appearance. The piece resembles a huge boulder of granite, threateningly wedged into the ceiling at the doorway of the sculpture hall. The illusion of heavy stone has been realised with paper mache and paint. 

Imitating fragments or scenarios of nature seems to be a pivotal theme in your practice. What fascinates you about mimicking a boulder of stone?

Granite Block imitates something very ordinary, the Finnish granite, that might seem a bit absurd or pointless. It is interesting to play with gravity and make something very light out of something that in reality would be almost too heavy to handle. The material allows for me to play with different impressions.”

Another approach to Saarinen’s practice derives from the tradition of sculpture and stone as an esteemed, but also very demanding material, that is hard to master. 

“You know, for a long time sculpture was about mimicking something, about transforming the stone into another form, to represent something that already exists. Sculpting stone requires a lot of work, even marble, which is considered a soft stone. I really admire those who know how to handle stone. In my art, it has never felt like a primary working material. For me, it feels unnecessary to work my way “through a grey stone” as the Finnish proverb goes; to make huge efforts to transform the material into something else it already is. I’d rather do the exact opposite. I like the idea that the material itself is worth imitation as it is – as a boulder of stone.” 

In his most recent practice Saarinen has specifically been interested in the Finnish soil. What is today Finland’s soil, was formed to most parts during and after the last ice age, and the marks of ice age in the landscape tell of past climate changes. Finland also has one of the world’s oldest bedrocks, the lifespan of which contains billions of years. 

Stones and imitations of stones at Raimo Saarinen’s studio. Photo, Hanna Joensuu.

Are stones been taken for granted? 

“Oh yes! I think the lack of appreciation is evident in the ways it is utilised. Ancient rocks are mined and blown up in the air without much consideration for their diversity and role as part of the natural landscape. We have a very old bedrock here that formed deep underground and remained on the Earth’s surface after the ice ages. So often rocks are hidden under moss, turf, or finer soil matter like sand, silt and clay. I am intrigued by the vivid colouring of rocks and the veins of crystallised minerals running within them.” 

Raimo Saarinen, installation Eyes Open in the Dark in Turku Art Museum, 2019.
Photo, Vesa Aaltonen, courtesy of Turku Art Museum.

The investigation of the Western concept of nature is also present in Turku Art Museum’s exhibition Eyes Open in the Dark, which shows a cross-section of the Finnish soil in a landscape sculpture. The piece has been built on-site, and consists of thirty pieces made out of soil and plants. 

What has motivated you to turn your gaze into the underground, the hidden parts of nature?

“I have always been fascinated by cross-sections of different ecosystems and understanding how they function. The underground has such a huge effect in the life of plants, and these different visible and invisible layers interact with each other. I think the general conception of what the ground underneath us consists of is very much based on imagination.” 

Saarinen got the idea for this piece after showing microecosystems, Scenarios, isolated inside glass in the exhibition Keskeneräiset utopiat in 2017. With time, some of them started showing interesting transformations. 

“The roughness of some soils began to sort in the glass jars, and channels began to form through the plant roots. This interested me more and more, and the investigation of soil has been mindblowing. I got to see the University of Helsinki’s soil sample collections, they were just amazing with their colour layers and everything!

Raimo Saarinen, Scenarios, 2017. Photo, Raimo Saarinen.

Because preparations for the exhibition took place in winter, digging the frozen ground to get soil was out of the question. So the piece in Turku Art Museum consists of different types of sand I got in order to form my own version of the cross-sections by mixing different sand qualities. It feels preposterous to buy these natural processed products, that have ended up in bags, in order to try and restore them to their original state. After all, they are materials that can be found anywhere.”

Eyes Open in the Dark installation in Turku Art Museum. Photo, Vesa Aaltonen, courtesy of Turku Art Museum.

Eyes Open in the Dark imitates Finnish natural landscape and its various soil formations and layers. On the surface level we see living plants that, however, are not found in the Finnish forest.

“I am interested in this combination of Finnish soil, or the imitation of it, and exotic plants that do not belong to that landscape. I wonder how this can reflect the changing nature. The climate keeps getting warmer, and the soil has an effect on what species will survive in the end. The soil is so alive many meters down below the ground, and definitely not just a pile of dead stones.”

Raimo Saarinen’s exhibition Eyes Open in the Dark in Turku Art Museum.
Photo, Vesa Aaltonen, courtesy of Turku Art Museum.

Next Saarinen will work in collaboration with the Lönnström Art Museum in Rauma, Finland. The piece Floating Island was selected as the museum’s next commissioned contemporary art project that aims “to generate broader discussion and influence thinking,” says Jenny Valli, Director of Lönnströms Museums.

The planning of the island begins this year, and it will be moored in its place somewhere in the waters of Rauma’s shore within the next couple of years. With this project, Saarinen wants to raise questions about the role and responsibility of man as a constructor of the environment. Changes in shorelines affect the landscape, which is a global phenomenon. The piece contemplates the differences between shaped and modified, as well as the value of pristine nature, and asks what are the limits of change we are prepared to accept.

“The vision of Floating Island is uptopistic, like a fantasy or a dream of an island. The foundation will be made of concrete pontoon, that will look as close to a real rock as possible by colour and by shape. The size of the island needs to be large enough to sustain a functioning ecosystem where plants survive independently. The vegetation needs to be adjusted in salt and local conditions.”

The underlying theme in Saarinen’s work is to question the Western concept of nature, which has a strong impact on our environment and culture. According to it, man is seen to be distinct from nature, and it justifies the control and shaping of nature for his own purposes.

What are the effects of our views of nature and where does it all come from?

“This whole mindframe is so inherent for us, that its effects are hard to see in our own environment. The history of it is hardly being discussed. Ancient philosophers laid the foundation for Western civilisation and also science, and natural philosophers seeked to explain natural phenomena rationally instead of former, mythical explanations. Different disciplines have also categorised and modified nature; it has been researched, mapped, sorted and organised. The transition to monotheistic religion also contributed to the decreased worship of nature. In the Christian concept of nature, nature has been created for man. The intellectual aspect of it has gone along with industrialisation and Western development.”

How do you place your practice along with this tradition? What do you hope the audience finds in your works?

“I use the same method of sorting and classification in my own practice, when I try to understand nature and what we are doing to it. At the same time, I also try to break free and open up these thinking patterns. I hope that through my works, the viewer could surrender to his own imagination and playfulness – and escape the categories of everyday life and reality.” 

Young Artists 2019 exhibition at Kunsthalle Helsinki from the 30th of March until the 26th of May.

Eyes Open in the Dark at Turku Art Museum through 19 May 2019:

More about Raimo Saarinen:

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Young Artists exhibition, which had its debut at Kunsthalle Helsinki in 1939. Young Artists 2019 exhibition is co-produced by the Artists’ Association of Finland and Kunsthalle Helsinki and it is based on an open call, with a shortlist of 25 artists and one artist group selected for the show out of a total of 500 applications. The four-member jury chaired by artist Jaana Kokko consisted of Kunsthalle Senior Curator Kiira Miesmaa and student representatives Aleksandra Kiskonen from Helsinki’s Academy of Fine Arts and Miia Varis from the Turku Arts Academy.

All the artists featured this year are Elina Autio, Siiri Haarla, Jussi Haro, Venla Helenius & Anna-Sofia Nylund, Maiju Hukkanen, Hermanni Keko, Nadiye Koçak, Komugi Ando, Sini Kähönen, Arja Kärkkäinen, Jenni Luhta, Anna Matveinen, Aro Mielonen, Milja-Liina Moilanen, Anne Naukkarinen, Rosaliina Paavilainen, Leena Pukki, Eeva-Maija Pulkkinen, Salome Rajanti, Mira Roivainen, Raimo Saarinen, Kristina Sedlerova, Astrid Strömberg, Pekko Vasantola, Maria Viirros and Niina Villanueva.

Around Journal presents a series of interviews of some of the artists exhibited at Kunsthalle. Previous interview of visual artist Aro Mielonen here.