Art, technology and nature intersect at Finland’s Espoo Museum of Modern Art

What is intelligence, where it can be found, and where it can go, asks Espoo Museum of Modern Art group show, featuring Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Refik Anadol, Raimo Saarinen and more

Robots holding paintbrushes, part of artwork at Espoo Museum of Modern Art: Sougwen Chung: Assembly Lines, 2022.
Sougwen Chung: Assembly Lines, 2022
(Image credit: © Paula Virta / EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art.)

‘This show is not only about art and science, but about science that is partly real, partly speculative and partly imaginary,’ says curator Arja Miller of ‘In Search of the Present’ at Espoo Museum of Modern Art (EMMA) in southern Finland. She is standing in front of a paper bag tethered to a rope that is ‘breathing’ in and out. Entitled Last Breath, it’s a replica of the bag Finnish movie star Seela Sella breathes into, shown in an accompanying film, and is by Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (whose participatory work honouring pandemic victims, A Crack in the Hourglass, An Ongoing Covid-19 Memorial, we featured in 2021). 

The new work is disturbing, and will be even more so when 85-year-old Sella passes away, but Lozano-Hemmer sees this, and previous Last Breath editions in Ecuador, Canada, the US and Cuba as a ‘romantic attempt to capture the passing presence of a person’.

Actress Seela Sella in artwork by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Last Breath, 2012, 2022.

Seela Sella & Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Last Breath, 2012, 2022

(Image credit: © Paula Virta / EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art.)

Lozano-Hemmer is one of 16 artists showing at ‘In Search of the Present’, the second of an ongoing series of exhibitions that began at EMMA in 2016. The show’s title refers to Finnish author Olavi Paavolainen’s 1929 essays on humanity in rapidly changing times, and all the artists explore the intersection between nature, technology and art. 

Artwork by Refik Anadol: Machine Hallucinations: Nature Dreams, 2021.

Refik Anadol: Machine Hallucinations: Nature Dreams, 2021

(Image credit: Espoo Museum of Modern Art)

‘I didn’t want it to be difficult to grasp. I wanted to create visual experiences that you don’t have to be an expert to understand,’ says Miller in front of an abstract film by Turkish artist Refik Anadol. A pioneer in the aesthetics of data and machine intelligence, Anadol fed 90 million images of landscapes into AI and allowed it to interpret them in its own unique way. It’s mind-blowing and hypnotising, and totally new. As Miller points out: ‘Anadol is creating art and images that we have never seen before because the tech didn’t exist.’   

Plants on mound. Artwork by Raimo Saarinen: A Cross-Section of an Imaginary Slope, 2022.

Raimo Saarinen: A Cross-Section of an Imaginary Slope, 2022

(Image credit: © Paula Virta / EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art.)

A landmark of brutalist architecture from the 1960s, EMMA lends itself perfectly to large, site-specific works, two of which were made for the show. Finnish artist Raimo Saarinen built a vertical slope covered in plants that has plastic drain pipes and tubing running through it. His point? That what we see and think of as natural may well not be, and that the imprint of humanity, even if it is hidden, is everywhere and has a huge impact on ecosystems. Earlier this year, Saarinen sent out a similar message with his concrete Floating Island, which looks ‘real’, despite being anchored off the shore of the Finnish town of Rauma.

Artworks by Agnieszka Kurant on plinths at Espoo Museum of Modern Art

Agnieszka Kurant: Post-Fordite no. 6, Post-Fordite no. 7 and Post-Fordite no. 8, 2020 –2022

(Image credit: © Paula Virta / EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art.)

Post-humanistic concerns – biometric surveillance, the power of algorithms, the co-existence of humans and other beings – are popular themes. Polish artist Agnieszka Kurant takes a speculative look at what geological formations might be left when we have consumed all the minerals on the planet and abandoned it for life elsewhere. Her Post-Fordite rocks are made from Fordite, a colourful by-product from Detroit’s car-making industry that looks like agate. The colourful fake ‘fossils’ represent the time when humans made cars. 

Series of screens showing artwork. Stephanie Dinkins: Conversations with Bina48: Fragments 7, 6, 5, 2, 2018.

Stephanie Dinkins: Conversations with Bina48: Fragments 7, 6, 5, 2, 2018

(Image credit: © Paula Virta / EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art.)

In a series of filmed conversations, American artist Stephanie Dinkins befriends Bina48, the first Black female robot, and together they try to make sense of consciousness, emotions, family and civil rights.  

Chinese-born artist Sougwen Chung is a pioneer in human-machine collaboration, and in a new work, her family of robotic arms paint her stream of consciousness, recorded while she was meditating. The arms, holding paint brushes, make slow, human-like brushstrokes on paper, and remind viewers that tech doesn’t always have to be fast-paced and frenetic.

Robot arm holding paintbrush, part of artwork:

Sougwen Chung: Assembly Lines, 2022

(Image credit: © Paula Virta / EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art.)

‘All the artists in the show ask what intelligence is, where can it be found and where can it go,’ says Miller. And they’re not just talking AI, human and machine intelligence, but the intelligence of nature too. This is often hidden, misunderstood and underestimated. In the face of giant ecological challenges, this show hopes to change those perceptions.

‘In Search of the Present’, until 15 January 2023, Espoo Museum of Modern Art, emma.fi

Person with VR headset and Jakob Kudsk Steensen: RE-ANIMATED, 2018–19

Jakob Kudsk Steensen: RE-ANIMATED, 2018–19

(Image credit: © Paula Virta / EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art.)

Faces on wall at art museum

Heather Dewey-Hagborg: Stranger Visions, 2013.

(Image credit: © Paula Virta / EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art.)

Sculpture on plinth: Stephanie Dinkins: Not the Only One, 2018

Stephanie Dinkins: Not the Only One, 2018

(Image credit: © Paula Virta / EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art.)

Mosaic of flower pictures on wall

Anna Ridler: Mosaic Virus, 2019

(Image credit: © Paula Virta / EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art.)

Two paintings in museum. Brandon Lipchik: paintings, 2019–21.

Brandon Lipchik: paintings, 2019–21

(Image credit: © Paula Virta / EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art.)

Emma O'Kelly is a freelance journalist and author based in London. Her books include Sauna: The Power of Deep Heat and she is currently working on a UK guide to wild saunas, due to be published in 2025.