'In Search of the Present' at EMMA explores humanity, nature and technology

Espoo Museum of Modern Art chief curator Arja Miller talks to STIR about curating tech-driven artworks by Refik Anadol, Dora Budor, Sougwen Chung and others for the exhibition.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Dec 09, 2022

Espoo Museum of Modern Art (EMMA) is Finland’s largest art museum, located on the country’s coastline in Espoo. The institution, which is over two decades old, recently opened an exhibition that explores the intertwined relationship between nature, art and technology. The exhibition In Search of the Present, curated by chief curator Arja Miller, features works by Refik Anadol, Dora Budor, Sougwen Chung, Stephanie Dinkins, Teemu Lehmusruusu and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer among many others. Each visual artist has a pre-existing enquiry which explores one of these three themes in depth, creating an enriching and informative juxtaposition when placed together. The exhibition title, In Search of the Present, refers to an eponymous collection of essays (1929) by 20th century Finnish author Olavi Paavolainen that examines the experiences and identities of modern people in a rapidly changing era. The art exhibition includes two newly commissioned artworks by Sougwen Chung and Raimo Saarinen. We caught up with Miller to learn more about the showcase.

A Cross-Section of an Imaginary Slope, 2022, Raimo Saarinen | Raimo Saarinen| STIRworld
A Cross-Section of an Imaginary Slope, 2022, Raimo Saarinen Image: Paula Virta; Courtesy of Espoo Museum of Modern Art (EMMA)

Through the work presented at In Search of the Present, we see how art is capable of furthering our relationship with nature via technology. Although the distinction between nature and technology might be easy to take for granted, when we dig a little deeper can one really see technology as separate from nature, considering it is birthed by the human mind which is itself intrinsically  part of our natural environment? To this end, can we draw parallels between the construction of technology and artificial intelligence and the innate intelligence of nature? In discussion with Miller, the chief curator says, "The artists of the In Search of the Present not only use different technologies, such as AI, but also draw our attention to the question of what intelligence is. Technology and nature are not opposites for these artists, but technology is seen as a collaborator and even as an extension of the human mind.” This perspective is a reassuring notion, at a time when many artists find their profession threatened by new AI-powered systems (like DALL E 2) that is taking the art world by storm.

The Preserving Machine, 2018-2019, Dora Budor, The Saastamoinen Foundation Art Collection. | In Search of the Present | Raimo Saarinen| STIRworld
The Preserving Machine, 2018-2019, Dora Budor, The Saastamoinen Foundation Art Collection Image: Paula Virta; Courtesy of Espoo Museum of Modern Art (EMMA)

Anadol, a Turkish-American data artist, is a stellar example of how machine intelligence can enhance a creative practice. Miller tells us, “His work is an AI data sculpture that draws upon a dataset of more than 90 million images of nature that are publicly available on the internet. The result is a captivating, constantly developing digital painting created by artificial intelligence and composed of colours and shapes we associate with nature, but which exist only as imagined by the machine.”  Chinese-Canadian artist Chung explores a more literal collaboration with technology by painting with a robot. Chung utilises an EEG headset and biofeedback technologies linked to her own brainwaves and the robot. The collaborative paintings are on view at In Search of The Present.

Machine Hallucinations: Nature Dreams, 2021, Refik Anadol | Raimo Saarinen| STIRworld
Machine Hallucinations: Nature Dreams, 2021, Refik Anadol Image: Paula Virta; Courtesy of Espoo Museum of Modern Art (EMMA)

In another art installation by Croatian artist Dora Budor, the viewer is presented with a more philosophical, contemplative approach. Budor, based in New York, presents a large scale installation titled The Preserving Machine, which is inspired by a science-fiction short story written by Philip K Dick in 1969. The installation possesses a hypnotic and melancholic quality, with a solitary robotic bird flying around a large dome. While the bird is free to fly, it is still very much captive in its enclosure. Miller draws parallels between the fiction and the installation saying, "(The story is) about an attempt to preserve classical music in times of war and cultural collapse. In the story, a scientist invents a machine that can encode musical scores into bodies of living animals, such as birds. Dora's work illustrates a somehow dystopian future, but it also discusses interestingly the themes in the exhibition, the complex interrelations between technology, nature and culture.” The installation brings up many feelings for the viewer, forcing us to ask the question ‘To what end?’. Technology is a gift, no doubt. But unchecked it could destroy more than we bargain for. So, when employing the use of technology, we must ask ourselves ‘To what end?’, to encourage intentionality and awareness in our actions.

Steensen’s HENKIIN HERÄTETTY, 2018–19, Jakob Kudsk | Raimo Saarinen| STIRworld
Steensen’s HENKIIN HERÄTETTY, 2018–19, Jakob Kudsk Image: Paula Virta; Courtesy of Espoo Museum of Modern Art (EMMA)

Continuing this train of thought, we must also consider the price of showcasing tech-based artwork. As we go forward, institutions must prepare themselves for the additional weight of curating tech-driven installation art. Miller says, “Our skilled technical team including our conservators is a must, as it supports the artistic process, especially in this kind of tech-heavy and production-heavy exhibition. For sure, this is the kind of exhibition that requires technical expertise and maintenance on a daily basis.”

Arja Miller, curator of the exhibition | In Search of the Present | Raimo Saarinen| STIRworld
Arja Miller, the curator of the exhibition Image: Ari Karttunen; Courtesy of Espoo Museum of Modern Art (EMMA)

Miller concludes by saying, “I hope viewers take their time with the different artworks. For example, I’d like to encourage people to put on the VR headset of Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s Re-animated and dive deep into its immersive story of a bird from an ancient Hawaiian island, or to interact with the AI sculpture, called N’TOO, created by Stephanie Dinkins.” EMMA has also produced a mobile guide to the exhibition where viewers can access artists’ interviews.

Exhibition view: ‘In Search of the Present’ at EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art Video: © Paula Virta / EMMA

The exhibition closes on January 15, 2023.

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