Hertta Kiiski wants young people to stay hopeful about climate change

Oona Kauppi interviews Finnish artist Hertta Kiiski on her work Milky Way for PhotoIreland Festival 2021

In the midst of climate-induced anxiety, Hertta Kiiski’s artwork stands out like a beacon. The Finnish artist’s colourful installations combine photography, film, live performance and textiles, yet broach some of the more pressing issues of our age. I sat down with Kiiski at the beginning of July to talk about Milky Way, her double-commission for PhotoIreland Festival 2021, running from July 1-31. We discuss the environmental theme of her work, the label of “activist art”, and the message that she wants to communicate to our generation.

When Kiiski heard of PhotoIreland Festival’s theme for 2021 – “the politics and poetics of food”, hence the slogan “Bite the Hand that Feeds You” – she was immediately interested. “My work mainly focuses on animal rights issues,” she explains. “Collaborating with PhotoIreland on this year’s theme felt very natural.” Kiiski is a long-time vegetarian; her history with conscious consumption dates back to school. Much of her art probes the relationship between humans and animals and questions the ways in which this relationship could be made more equal.

In preparation for her commission, Kiiski researched Ireland’s food culture. She soon found that the dairy industry holds special weight in the Irish context. “I became interested in the ethics of livestock transportation. Since they are not of use to the dairy industry, male calves are transported to Central Europe, where the market for calf meat is considerable. When they reach Central Europe, they are fattened for months before they are slaughtered.” Kiiski was immediately struck by how young the calves are when they are shipped out. “It was heart-breaking to learn about,” she says, citing this moment of empathy as the starting point of her project.

“In its intended space at Project Arts Center, Milky Way is an installation set inside a black box room and illuminated with colourful spotlights.”

In its intended space at Project Arts Center, Milky Way is an installation set inside a black box room and illuminated with colourful spotlights. There are two painted cages, the same size as those used to transport calves. Each is draped with fabric that is printed with photographs. Originally, Kiiski’s teenage niece and daughter, Irma and Elli, were meant to perform live as part of the work. Covid-19 restrictions prevented them from coming to Dublin, so they filmed the video in Finland and included it in the installation. “Instead of having live performers, the viewers become performers,” Kiiski explains.

In the video, Irma and Elli look waveringly at the camera. They wear cowhide-printed dresses that are embroidered with large tears. Each girl holds a baby bottle filled with milk, the same kind used to feed calves, Kiiski tells me. The reasons for including them were twofold: “First of all, it seems ridiculous that humans drink cow’s milk when it is intended for calves. But the calves are also transported when they are so young that they cannot drink milk on their own.” As Kiiski’s girls speak, their words are barely discernible over the soundtrack of mooing that blasts from the surrounding speakers. “[Irma and Elli’s] performance is very “ASMR”,” Kiiski says, smiling. When she clarified that they are speaking in Finnish, we joked about cows having their own language too, which is just as cryptic as the girls’ whispers.

“Kiiski is particularly thankful for Irish artist, Róisín White, and her Young Milky Way Explorers supplement, the guide to Milky Way catered specifically to families.”

Milky Way is meant to be suitable for all audiences. For this reason, Kiiski worked hard to make it inviting, gentle and non-violent. She points out that there are many ways to enjoy Milky Way: “A two-year-old can see the work and think ‘What a nice truck!’ or ‘What funny mooing sounds!’, they can watch the spotlights change colour and touch the fabrics,” she explains. In contrast, “an adult will understand the gravity of the topic.” The presence of Irma and Elli is also meant to increase the relatability of the work for younger viewers. Kiiski is particularly thankful for Irish artist, Róisín White, and her Young Milky Way Explorers supplement, the guide to Milky Way catered specifically to families.

While the Finnish artist finds colours and tactility to be helpful in attracting the attention of children, her use of the former also lightens the atmosphere around her art. “I’ve worked on a lot of serious political issues in the past and I’ve always used flamboyant colours in depicting them,” Kiiski says. Her reason for doing so is partly a question of taste. However, it also consciously opposes the austere way that political issues are usually represented in art. On the topic of animal rights advocacy, Kiiski returns to this argument. “Milky Way is unlike typical animal rights material, which is intended to induce discomfort in the viewer. Only those who are firmly rooted in the movement can bear to look at the evidence,” Kiiski admits. “My approach is more aesthetically-driven.” In deviating from the norm, Kiiski aims to make difficult topics accessible to a larger audience.

Milky Way is, in many ways, centred around the environment and sustainability. “I tried to use as many recycled materials as possible so as not to be at odds with the themes of my work,” Kiiski is quick to note. The photographs printed on the textiles range from transport trucks to elements of the natural world. The latter feature seaweed and tree bark; Kiiski likens their role as protective units in nature, synecdochically, to nature as a whole. “Even though nature itself can easily be damaged, it’s also very powerful and has a strong defence system,” Kiiski reflects. The third length of fabric is peppered with planets, courtesy of Nasa’s archive photos of the Milky Way. “There’s a bit of wordplay there: when I realised that the Milky Way could be related to the transport of calves, I chose it as the title of my work,” Kiiski explains. “There is also a grandiosity about the [cosmic] Milky Way. It reminds us of how small all living things are, despite the human effort to rule over other beings. In the end, we are just as small as cows”, she laughs.

“Kiiski is hesitant to call Milky Way activist art. ‘I value the work that activists do, but as an artist, my platform is different from theirs,’ she says.”

Nevertheless, Kiiski is hesitant to call Milky Way activist art. “I value the work that activists do, but as an artist, my platform is different from theirs,” she says, before elaborating,In politics, oftentimes, the focus is on the rational. Through art, it’s easier to reach people on an emotional level.” Kiiski feels a deep gratitude towards her platform as it allows her to discuss the issues that she finds important. “If even one person were to realise how grim [the animal world] is in contrast to what is presented in children’s books, I would be satisfied,” she tells me. Kiiski is not opposed to labelling her art “soft activism”.

Milky Way explores the ethics of consumer culture with uncharacteristic playfulness and humour. Kiiski is unconcerned about certain aspects of her work going over viewers’ heads – the positive aura of Milky Way permeates through all levels of understanding. She does not think it is the job of young people, inheritors of a doomed planet, to fix their parents’ mistakes. Instead, Kiiski believes in our generation’s potential to act responsibly and in such a way as to protect our planet. “Today’s young people care about what they consume. They are open-minded and they are well-informed. One might even say they are unselfish. This optimism is what I want to communicate through my art.”