By Iisakki Härmä. Translated by Richard Foley.

Maria Huhmarniemi is interested in the symbiosis of bioscience and contemporary art. When the two can join forces, art becomes an effective way to popularise scientific findings. Art also has the aesthetic potential to challenge practices that have long refused to look beyond the boundaries of the natural sciences.

In December 2009, Maria Huhmarniemi was setting out her collection of coffee cups, saucers and pastry plates on the floor of the University’s Valo gallery. From the upper floors of the expansive space, the viewer could discern the pattern formed by the dishes: a clover and a butterfly.

But it was no ordinary butterfly; it was Capricornia boisduvaliana (leaf-roller butterfly). It’s a species that thrives in the traditional environments common some decades ago as well as on riverside meadows and dry grass fields. With many such areas now overgrown, the butterfly has become a critically endangered species.

In Finland, Capricornia boisduvaliana is no longer found anywhere except in the village of Oikarainen near Rovaniemi, and there, too, it is in danger of extinction if the hydroelectric station planned in the area is built.

In looking at Maria’s work, Fragile, the viewer might well notice that the pressed glass coffee cups date from the 1960s and 1970s. That’s right: they’re flea market finds. For anyone who looks into the history of the objects, the ecoactivism in the work begins to come more compellingly to the fore.

Does this mean Huhmarniemi is an activist-artist out to save the planet? Not quite, although there’s no doubt she’s trying to have an impact with her art.

“Next, I plan to contribute to an exhibition at the Arktikum dealing with berry picking, and I have a feeling it will prompt discussion”, Huhmarniemi says, and con­tinues:

“My works are journalistic in the sense that they provide context for the themes and give the works a certain edge. But the art leaves some latitude for those who come to experience it.”

Huhmarniemi doesn’t believe that art as such will save even Capricornia boisduvaliana, but she is convinced that interaction among artists, natural scientists and ecoactivists can create a new, constructive atmosphere – one that might some day nudge the world in a more ecologically and socially sustainable direction.

In her ongoing doctoral research, Huhmarniemi has taken a particular interest in the potential of such cross-disciplinary cooperation in the field of art education. She is focusing on the ideas and tools that bioscience and contemporary art can offer one other.

Collaboration with biologists had a part to play in the butterfly installation, which was the first of three art exhibitions connected with her doctorate.

“The butterfly was suggested as a subject of the exhibition by Mikko Paajanen, who does research on butterflies, and Piia Juntunen, who teaches art and biological geography”, Huhmarniemi adds.

Previously, Maria planned to do action research designed to integrate art education and biological geography in the comprehensive school, but her research interests then shifted from the school closer to her own turf, the university.

Huhmarniemi has extensive experience working on projects geared towards the regional and social impact of the University of Lapland. Examples include the many workshops on winter and environmental art she has organised with schools and other groups in Lapland and the Barents region.

As part of her current research, she is considering how art universities can work with bioscience and, on the other hand, with local communities to pursue ecologi­cal goals.

The turning point was the advent of bioart in Finland at the end of the present decade. In 2008, Huhmarniemi was involved in founding the Finnish Bioart Society at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station.

The pressed glass coffee cups, saucers and pastry plates form a critically
endangered butterfly Capricornia boisduvaliana in Maria's work Fragile. Photo by Maria Huhmarniemi.

This past spring Huhmar­niemi spent her first research leave, heading to Vienna to familiarise herself with the literature and with exhibition catalogues in the field of bioart. In July she continued this work at an artists’ residence in Berlin.

While in Central Europe she also visited the well-known Ars Electronica Center in Linz. The Center is a forum where bioart not only applying genetic techno­logy and neurosciences but commenting on these disciplines has become a focus of interest in the 2000s, buffeted by the swell of interest in media art.

What commands the most column space in the press are the most shocking experiments, such as Eduardo Kac’s GFP Bunny, a transgenic rabbit with fluorescent protein, produced in a laboratory as a work of art.

“The image of a rabbit glowing green typifies popular writings on bioart, but it’s high time such discussions die out”, Huhmarniemi says.

Experiments designed to create a sensation mystify the image of the artist as one who creates something new, but they do little to question the practices and ethics of science. Indeed, the big bio­tech companies would prefer to think of bioart as something that will dispel the public’s fears about gene technology.

Personally, Huhmarniemi would rather see the bioartist as an activist stimulating ordinary people to take an interest in and discuss science rather than as a renaissance genius.
Examples of this role can be found if one looks at the PigeonBloc project, where pollution sensors were attached to trained pigeons, or the web magazine Bio­tech Hobbyist, which has directions on cultivating and sterilising one’s own skin cells in a microwave oven.

In art education, art has always been seen as having an instrumental value, and Huhmarniemi, too, approves of art being used to popu­larise science.

“Although art has a value in itself, it can nevertheless be used for other purposes. Even then, at least at its best, art will not lose its essential character.”
Maria Huhmarniemi
• Born in Rovaniemi in 1977
• Graduated from the University of Lapland as an art teacher in 2002
• Has worked at the University as Lecturer in Art Education since 2004
More about Maria