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Halikonlahti Green Art

by Jeff Huebner

Tuula Nikulainen is late, but I'm not surprised. She said she'd be busy out in the field, somewhere around Halikko Bay, not far from here. So it could've slipped her mind. We'd made plans several days ago for her to pick me up at the old wooden train station here in the city of Salo, on the southern coast of Finland. But a half-hour later, on this cool cloudy Friday afternoon in mid-September, there's still no sign of the organizer of Halikonlahti Green Art, the most ambitious art-and-ecology initiative in the Baltic region as well as Finland-a country known for the symbiotic relationship of art and nature--or of her blue van. ("Halikonlahti" is Finnish for Halikko Bay.)

Design for
Design for "The Magic of Water"- Jackie Brookner's floating bird & remediation islands. (Image courtesy: Halikonlahti Green Art.)
Maybe she thought I meant the Salo Art Museum, which happens to be located in an old railroad roundhouse; I can see it from where I'm standing near the train platform, a couple blocks away. The museum is where I first met Nikulainen, a well-known local felting artist and folklorist, a week ago, during the opening of HGA's "Waterways" show, the second in a five-year long trilogy of exhibits that is running until 201-perhaps longer--and is billed as a "cross-artistic and -scientific environment event." The group is trying to raise people's awareness of local pollution-and to help clean it up, too.

Even in a crowd a hundred folks--from well-heeled patrons to dreadlocked artists, mingling amidst 14 artworks addressing water contamination issues--Nikulainen stood out with her red poncho, flowing dark hair, and earthy, forthright, if slightly harried, demeanor. I'd come to Salo to see renowned New York ecological artist Jackie Brookner's "bio-sculpture" and water-remediation project, taking shape by the bay, but I didn't know where it was or how to get there. At the opening, Nikulainen and I had made plans to meet a week or so later.

Now, after phone calls, we agree to rendezvous at the museum in a half-hour. While waiting there, I take another look at the exhibit, co-curated by German eco-artist Georg Dietzler and museum director Laura Luostarinen, both HGA partners. It features Finnish and other European artists whose work often deals with environmental issues, including Osmo Rauhala, George Steinmann, and the team of Kalle Hamm and Dzamil Kamanger, whose two works-a video in the museum, and a window display downtown called the Salo Water Shop-comment on the alleged natural-ness of bottled water. (The latter is one of a number of mostly temporary public-art projects around town.)

Soon the 48-year-old Nikulainen appears, wearing mud-encrusted boots, and, after an apology, we're off in her van to the end of the bay, a nature reserve three kilometers (two miles) away. It's where a group of environmental designers from Scotland's Ecovillage Institute have just begun to build Brookner's The Magic of Water, a series of floating bird-nesting islands that will have pollution-filtering and water-cleansing plants. When it is complete, perhaps in fall 2009, there will be nothing else like it in Finland--a country more known for "environmental" than "ecological" art--or anywhere else, for that matter.

"There's a long deep history and a deep feeling of connection to nature, to the earth, here-it's part of Finnish culture in a wonderful way," Brookner would tell me in Salo later. "But the art that has come out of it is a different kind of environmental art, it's different than work that is ecological. It's much more 'Andy Goldsworthy.' I think Goldsworthy was looking at Finnish art...I'm interested in work that actually does something to effect a situation, to make it better."

"I'm not interested in art and nature-I prefer nature without art," says Nikulainen, who, like many Finns, is fairly fluent in English. "But we wanted to do art as action, as something proactive."

Halikonlahti Green Art and Ecovillage Institute teams building
Halikonlahti Green Art and Ecovillage Institute teams building "The Magic of Water"- Jackie Brookner's floating bird & remediation islands. (Image courtesy Jackie Brookner)
Salo is located roughly midway between Helsinki and Turku, the country's oldest and third largest urban center-a two-hour train ride connects them. It is a pleasant city of about 25,000, not terribly distinctive, an age-old trading and craft place-Iron Age settlement, 16th century market town-but now generically, un-quaintly modernist in the typical Finnish urban sense. Still, it has an air of low-key prosperous industriousness, "a garden town that is humane," as Mayor Matti Rasila has put it. There are some old wooden buildings, a well-groomed riverfront, several stone bridges, a nice market square with a stage. The country's first radios and TVs were made here. Now it's where Finnish giant Nokia makes its mobile phones, the region's largest employer.

But problems lurk beneath-sometimes upon-the surface. Due to human activity as well as quirks in marine geography, the water quality around Salo isn't as pristine as those ubiquitous pretty postcard pictures of Finland's forest-mirrored lakes. The Uskelan and Halikon Rivers run through or near town and empty into the bay, where two 30 to 40-mile long narrow fiord-like inlets also converge; the inlets are separated by a large island, Kemiö, that widens at its southern end towards the Gulf of Finland's open sea.

"It's just the character of the bay," points out Nikulainen, as she drives down a manicured, tree-lined road surrounded by bay, river, and lagoon; they all seem to blur together here. "It's very closed, very brackish, very sensitive...It's a very closed sea that doesn't get new fresh water from the big sea."

Halikonlahti Green Art has been working with biologists, ecologists, and other experts to assess the conditions of water, land, and wildlife in this nook of the gulf/sea, supported by Finnish government, European Union, and foundation funds. The major problem is eutrophication, states Päivi Joki-Heiskala, a limnologist working with the Salo regional administrative office. This is when an excess of chemical nutrients spur plant growth and decay, reducing oxygen content, causing organisms to die, and decreasing biodiversity.

"The rivers carry lots of nutrients to the bay," she e-mails. "So agriculture is the main reason for the eutrophication of Halikonlahti Bay and also for our Baltic Sea, especially near the coasts. They use fertilizers in agriculture-nitrogen and especially phosphorus-which are the main causes," along with sewage treatment plant effluents.

There has been hazardous and solid waste dumping, too. One controversial artwork created for the first HGA exhibition in 2006 (in which dozens of pieces were shown in the museum and around the bay) was Crime Scene, by Marjukka Korhonen and Sari Poijärvi. In it, the Helsinki artists assayed and then marked three contaminated outdoor sites with police tape, including bay areas. They collected samples of soil, water, and garbage in evidence bags, and then displayed them in the museum along with documentation and lab analyses.

Some were worried about exhibiting it and offending the authorities, according to Nikulainen, but the bay-dumping is said to have stopped. "I think that bad media-press articles and radio programs-made people finally do something for the polluted area," Korhonen later told me. "So it wasn't good image for the city of Salo."

"We consider Halikonlahti Green Art very important and pleasant," e-mails Mayor Rasila. "It is part of our long lasting and wide Green Valley idea of social sustainability, ecologically and energy-saving development."

Halikonlahti Green Art and Ecovillage Institute teams building
Halikonlahti Green Art and Ecovillage Institute teams building "The Magic of Water"- Jackie Brookner's floating bird & remediation islands. (Image courtesy: Jackie Brookner)
Nikulainen would know something about water: she has been surrounded by it most of her life. She was born and raised on Hirvensalo, an island near Turku, about 35 miles to the west, and since 1987 has lived on Kemiö, where she and her husband raised five children, only one of who now lives at home. To get there--and back-she has to take a car ferry, some miles south of Salo.

Since moving to the island, Nikulainen has become known as a textile artist who felts sheep wool into tent and painting installations. She earned a degree in "Folkloristics" from the University of Turku, and has exhibited her works throughout Europe. While teaching in Mongolia in 1992, she learned how to make felt the way the nomads did: a wooden roller of wetted-down wool is dragged around behind a horse. Now she does it that way, too, as "a joint effort of human and nature."

She recalls the water changing when she was a teenager. "In the 1970s already there were some problems, in the bay and Baltic Sea. People who have been aware of nature have spoken about this subject for 30 years. It's only the last 10 years it has been a public problem." She adds, "Since I was very young I have been interested in environmental problems and how to solve them. This has been a natural development for me."
Several years ago, Nikulainen decided to act. She launched Halikonlahti Green Art in 2004 with a program called "Sunny Future," a series of seminars among Salo-area artists, biologists and other scientists as well as citizens and local officials. "I invited them together to ask, 'What can we do together?'" she says. The aim, she says, was "to unite art with the protection of the natural environment," either with works that increased awareness of preserving nature or that in themselves preserved it.

The following year Nikulainen recruited Köln, Germany-based ecological artist Georg Dietzler to be co-curator, and she says that "he helped create many contacts" for the project. He is known for his sculptural installations involving oyster mushrooms, which help eat up PCB-contaminated soils, as well as organizing media-arts exhibitions.

The 50-year-old Dietzler-who's in Finland periodically--has also contributed several writings on art and sustainability for HGA publications. He said it was important to become involved in the effort because (among other things) it "offers such a wonderful prospect of going deeper into topics dealing with art and ecology. Such long-term thinking offers to strengthen a network for the Baltic Sea region and some additional regions."

After a call for proposals, the first exhibition was held in the summer of 2006 at the Salo Art Museum and at site-specific, public locations around Halikko Bay. It featured 35 works by 42 artists, with the theme of humanity's relationship to the environment, and included such works as Timo Vartiainen's bird shelters, Anna-Lea Kopperi's reed-cutting project, and Sikke Kiviranta's wooden sea-observation station, in which equipment was provided for visitors to do research and reports on water, weather and wind. (These are ongoing.)

Halikonlahti Green Art and Ecovillage Institute teams building
Halikonlahti Green Art and Ecovillage Institute teams building "The Magic of Water"- Jackie Brookner's floating bird & remediation islands. (Image courtesy: Halikonlahti Green Art.)
No artwork was done in 2007 due to budget constraints, and the HGA team began planning exhibits and programs for the following year, including the two-day "Grassroots" art and ecology conference staged in Helsinki this past spring. Yet, as much as the art succeeded in raising awareness and engaging the community, participants thought Salo needed projects that would make a visible and permanent impact on the environment.

"I'm interested to be political," comments Nikulainen. "'Political' is a bad word, but I want to have not only discussion, but to really do something. We are looking to be active, political-to just changing the discourse. To go into it and really create reactions..."

Nikulainen parks the van at the entrance of the nature reserve, called the Halikonlahti Bay Bird Trail. It is a two-mile-long path around the perimeter of two adjacent lagoons near where the rivers meet the bay. It is a tranquil landscape, ringed by reeds, grasses, and groves, as well as two wooden observation towers from which viewers may see some of the 260 bird species identified in the area. It teems with seabirds and songbirds, waders, and waterfowl-sandpipers, plovers, turnstones, bitterns; 110 species breed here.

But you'd never know from looking at this European Union-established conservation site that it has a despoiled past: The lagoons were used as wastewater reservoirs by the Salo Municipal Sewage Treatment Facility for over 20 years until it stopped using them in 1982. Now, the problem is mostly in the sediment, which contains residues of heavy metals, oils, and fatty organic pollutants, according to local scientists.

Halikonlahti Green Art and Ecovillage Institute teams building
Halikonlahti Green Art and Ecovillage Institute teams building "The Magic of Water"- Jackie Brookner's floating bird & remediation islands. (Image courtesy: Halikonlahti Green Art.)
"We have not yet found any indications that the nutrient rich water or the polluted sediment of the ponds would cause harm to the bird fauna," e-mails Kimmo Savonen, a biologist with the Turku Environmental Protection Office, adding that the heavy metals "are in quite stable conditions in the sediment layer."

There is another problem: Small mammals like American mink are eating the eggs and chicks of vulnerable, land-nesting birds such as black-headed gulls, Arctic and common terns, and mute swans. Black-headed gulls-also preyed upon by hawks and crows--have "declined significantly" since 1970, according to local bird expert Seppo Sällylä. This has a ripple effect because many duck species prefer to nest in gull colonies.

Nearby, on a narrow strip of land between the bay and a lagoon, Galen Fulford and Lisa Shaw of the Ecovillage Institute, along with local artist Kimmo Ylönen, work on and off shore. Wearing waterproof suits and boots, they're assembling a stack of lightweight polyethylene pipes into what Fulford calls a "bio-matrix" -one of a series of raft-sized structures composed of 4-foot-diameter hexagons. These matrices form the platforms for Brookner's three floating islands; the islands will be between 25 and 50 feet long and include vegetation and other features.

(Brookner has been working with students at the Salo Regional Vocational School to create lightweight concrete "rock" sculptures for the islands, so hasn't been out in the field lately.)

Halikonlahti Green Art and Ecovillage Institute teams building
Halikonlahti Green Art and Ecovillage Institute teams building "The Magic of Water"- Jackie Brookner's floating bird & remediation islands. (Image courtesy: Halikonlahti Green Art.)
"We're trying to replicate structures found in nature," explains Fulford, referring to the hexagon shapes, which resemble ice crystals-"to withstand the force of freezing water."
He's a founding partner in EI, an ecological design and engineering organization based in Findhorn, Scotland. It has created wastewater treatment and recycling projects around the globe-India, Bolivia, Russia, China-including waterway-restoring "floating planted ecologies" systems similar to those it is building here in the bay. (Fulford and Shaw are from Vermont, and married.)

Three matrices have been fitted and screwed together; two sit on water, the other on land. These will form one island. Others will be soon be assembled. Then, over the next month or so, and then again next summer, they will be topped with layers of materials-geogrids and geotextiles, gravel and Leca (clay pellets), peat moss and flax matting, reeds and grasses (both dry and planted), and sculpted "rocks" as well as a range of plants whose roots will hang in the water and transform pollutants into nutrients for their metabolism.

"We're trying to create a habitat," says Fulford, "and as soon as you start to think about that scientifically, it becomes incredibly complex."

But this particular habitat-funded by the City of Salo, the European Union's Agency for Rural Affairs, and the Nessling Foundation-is particularly special. "It's artists who are coordinating and who are part of it," says Shaw, EI's environmental educator and an artist. "Often it's developers or a city or a business. It's great to work with other artists and to have so much of their vision and aesthetic. It's also cool, because it's not like we're putting a sculpture on top an island. The island itself is a sculpture."

When the EI team is done working for the day, Ylönen shows me the artwork he built for this year's HGA exhibition, installed just steps away in the bay. Jetty is one of six new environmental works made by artists in or near Salo waterways this year. It's a wooden, wire-meshed sauna "dock" that juts out from the reedbed into the water, and is filled with discarded plastic containers that he'd collected around Halikko Bay.

"It was a way of recycling things," says Ylönen, who lives on an island in the Turku Archipelago. "The idea was to make it beautiful so it wouldn't spoil the scenery."

Jackie Brookner can't imagine making art that helps solve the planet's problems in any other way but aesthetically. I later caught up with her at the Salo artists' cottage, a former inn along the fabled King's Road. A trim 63-year-old with cropped black hair, she exudes a warm familiarity and energy that belies her occasional dire forecast-unless we all pitch in together to fix things pretty quick! "Aesthetics is totally crucial," she says. "That's how you affect people's hearts. That's how you get people's attention. That's how you make people care."

Halikonlahti Green Art and Ecovillage Institute teams building
Halikonlahti Green Art and Ecovillage Institute teams building "The Magic of Water"- Jackie Brookner's floating bird & remediation islands. (Image courtesy: Halikonlahti Green Art.)
All of Brookner's water-remediation public-art projects-realized over the last decade at sites near Dresden, Germany, in Cincinnati, San Jose, and West Palm Beach, among other places-have restorative as well as artistic features. They include "living sculptures" covered with plants like moss with the capacity to filter and clean water, and have been created collaboratively with designers, scientists, governments, and communities. After receiving her MA from Harvard University, Brookner was a studio sculptor for many years, and part of the 1980s SoHo art scene. She now teaches at the Parsons School of Design.

"I like multi-functionality," she says. "I'm very greedy. That's why I make sculptures that are ecologically functional. I like to be as economical as possible. What can be done with the same thing? How many levels can it function on? That excites me a lot."

The Magic of Water had a relatively short gestation. HGA co-curator Georg Dietzler, (who knew Brookner) and Nikulainen invited her, and she first came to Salo to scope things out in May 2007. Several possible sites were offered for a project, but Brookner says she "quickly zeroed in" on the bird lagoons. She spent a lot of time listening to experts-biologists, environmentalists, city and regional officials. "I said, 'What does this place need?' That was my question to different people." For one thing, she learned that swans, ducks, terns, and gulls needed safe nesting sites.

Brookner also learned that a thick regional report had recommended dredging and chemically treating the lagoons. However, both were costly. "Plus," she says, "you're not really solving the problem--you're just putting it somewhere else." So she recommended using plants to clean pollutants, which would as well make the water healthier for birds. "I said, 'It takes a long time, but it works. Let's try that here - let's test it!'...I want, as often as possible, to do something in a place where it hasn't been done."

The HGA team agreed, and Brookner submitted her proposal that fall (though with some later modifications). The large central island, with sculptures and plants, will be for the birds. The two smaller islands will contain plants for phytoremediation; solar energy will power underwater aeration of the roots (which speeds microbial processes and sediment metabolization), and also trigger a mister that will spew clouds of mist on sunny summer days. All islands will be anchored, so that after they have cleaned up one area, they can be moved to another spot.

"Fifteen years ago when I started talking to people about water, and the problems of water, you would've thought I was out of my mind," says Brookner. "It was not in people's consciousness. People weren't aware of the dire state of water. But there's been a huge shift, thank goodness. Now green is the buzzword."

Halikonlahti Green Art hopes to keep it going.

Halikonlahti Green Art and Ecovillage Institute teams building
Halikonlahti Green Art and Ecovillage Institute teams building "The Magic of Water"- Jackie Brookner's floating bird & remediation islands. (Image courtesy: Halikonlahti Green Art.)
While the technology is proven, Brookner emphasizes that The Magic of Water is an "art and science project." Between March and June, people have to stay away from the site because birds will be nesting. Planting will be finished in July. How well will birds take to the islands? How well will the remediation process work in the long Finnish winters? "This is only a small help, and [we will] research to do more," says Nikulainen.

Still, the HGA team and the city are already talking about building more floating islands in the lagoons. The organization recently snagged another grant from the Helsinki-based Maj and Tor Nessling Foundation, which funds scientific research in the area of environmental protection.

And then? HGA will continue in 2010, when the exhibition theme will be land use, and into 2011, when Turku will be the European Capital of Culture. In the meantime, and in subsequent years, Nikulainen, Dietzler, and others plan to create an interdisciplinary network, with similar organizations and initiatives in the Nordic and Baltic Sea region, perhaps beyond, reconnecting art and science, nature and culture. HGA would be just one among many nodes; the group has already hooked up (and hopes to do something) with the Norway-based Living Cultures.

Tuula Nikulainen (Photo by Jeff Huebner)
Tuula Nikulainen (Photo by Jeff Huebner)
"We would like to have Norwegian Green Art going on in one place, and Estonian Green Art, maybe at the same time," proffers Nikulainen. "We could create and exchange ideas--ideas could flow, like music is flowing, from one artist to another artist. It could be like a conductor who's done a musical composition, and other artists can do their own kind of version, make their own original work out of it..."

For further information:

Tuula Nikulainen: www.halikonlahti,net

Jackie Brookner:

Ecovillage Institute:

Georg Dietzler:,

Jeff Huebner is a Chicago-based art journalist and freelance writer specializing in public art whose articles have appeared in ARTnews, Sculpture, Public Art Review, New Art Examiner, Landscape Architecture, Labor's Heritage, E: Environmental Magazine, as well as the Chicago Reader, Chicago magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and many other local and national publications. An author or co-author of several books on community murals, he is currently exploring art, nature, and environment in Finland.

© 2010