Alma Heikkilä, Dark Biosphere, 144 x 115 cm, 2019, mixed technique.
Alma Heikkilä, Body of, 50 x 60 cm, 2019, mixed technique.
Alma Heikkilä, Detail, mixed technique.
Ki Nurmenniemi & Alma Heikkilä
Foro Buonaparte 68, Milano
Ubiquitous, not visible nor recognizable in any form
Every fourth animal on this planet is a nematode but I have never felt their presence. Walking barefoot, have my feet touched their gentle tips? I lay on the ground imagining the soil life beneath me slowly sifting through my body. Food going through my body, my colon. Food going through the worm’s body. Neat piles of poop left in our wake. The soft and flexible tunnels that are our bodies slowly twisting around each other. Us reaching towards the rhizomes in the earth, or them reaching towards us.
Working with paint, plaster, resin, space, and light, Alma Heikkilä creates spaces for imagining processes that occur on the forest floor, underneath the surface of the earth, and inside the dark, soft tunnels of our bodies. For her solo exhibition at the Milanese Tempesta gallery, she presents a new body of work portraying intricate patterns of growth and decay.
Heikkilä is fascinated by the complex relationships and transformations that create thriving ecosystems. Incorporating swarms of minuscule sculptural elements into her paintings, Heikkilä portrays organisms whose ecologies and capacities humans are only beginning to appreciate. Heikkilä’s works make visible the abundance of life teeming inside a rotting tree trunk or beneath the soil surface. Countless soil organisms, only perceptible with the aid of a microscope, are found living in total darkness. Even without sunlight, life radiates from the depths of the earth.
Below and above ground, organisms depend upon one another. One of the key transformations in the history of life on earth was made possible by a mutually beneficial relationship between fungi and plants. Through mycorrhizal connections, fungi aided plant life in adapting to life on dry land. The formerly aquatic plants were still in the process of developing roots of their own, and the symbiosis with the fungal partners helped them in accessing mineral nutrients and water. In exchange, the plants gave carbohydrates to their fungal companions. This arrangement proved so helpful that even today 90 percent of land plants still maintain a tight relationship with mycorrhizal fungi.
In addition to transporting water and nutrients within ecosystems, the underground mycelial networks formed by fungi convey various chemical signals underground. Scientists have only recently begun to learn the secrets of these subterranean communication networks, sometimes referred to as the wood wide web.
Heikkilä’s works depict these symbiotic connections, the relationships that form between unrelated organisms. The webs, filaments, and rhizomes painted by Heikkilä form patterns of interdependency. They evoke questions about connectivity and collectivity. Beyond illustrating the intricate co-dependencies that make up the web of life, Heikkilä asks how it would be possible to better attune to the more-than-human ways of being and knowing, to the collaborative processes and entangled intelligences that might easily go unrecognised.
As an example, consider the acid-yellow slime mold Fuligo septica. Thanks to its looks, this amorphous organism is more commonly known as Scrambled egg slime or Dog vomit slime mold. “A pulsating yellow splat” is a befitting description of its appearance. But there is so much more than meets the eye: even without a centralised brain, this critter has turned out to be a master problem-solver. It often appears as a plasmoid organism, an aggregation of undifferentiated cells that apparently not only learns by becoming habituated to various stimuli, but it can also store “memories” and share its learnings with its fellow slime molds. These slime molds show a sort of collective intelligence that puzzles scientists and fuels the imaginations of artists. They have offered astonishing insights into the evolution of collective behaviour and learning. The research with slime molds has even encouraged some scientists to consider if a cell in itself could be a cognitive organism.
Heikkilä strives to develop and evoke not scientific but sensorial knowledge about bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and other poorly understood or underappreciated organisms that constantly recreate the basis of life, but whose collective activities remain largely hidden and unknown. Without their complex interactions, the earth would be uninhabitable for humans and many other animals. More importantly, plant and animal life as we know it would not have been able to evolve in the first place.
Heikkilä’s works often introduce a macro-scale which enables looking at these organisms in a new light and highlights that they have a far bigger role in planetary processes than their individual size indicates. Through the enlarged scale and unexpected compositions Heikkilä also makes a point that humans will never get the complete picture: life’s mysteries will always escape our perceptual capacities and systems of knowing.
A single spoonful of soil may contain a billion bacteria, a million fungi, and ten thousand amoebae. On a microscopic level you see: bear-shaped, six-legged tardigrades cantering through water droplets filled with single celled amoeba and bacteria, tiny nematodes (nearly microscopic and worm-like) flapping about in a larger stew of giant earthworms, centipedes, terrestrial crustaceans (more commonly known as sow bugs), pseudoscorpions, and mold mites, roaming through mini landscapes of boulder sized sand, silt, and smaller clay particles, all surrounded by a complex network of fungi mycelium that bridge communications between the rhizospheres of grass, herb, and tree roots extending into the dark underground.
Alma Heikkilä, Detail, mixed technique.