2023 Zheng Mahler, Soilspace, digital print on fabric, 40m x 5 m. © HAM/Helsinki Biennial/Sonja Hyytiäinen
‘Soilspace’ has evolved in response to a multitude of worldly occurrences. First, it speaks to our own grounding, where over the past three years, unable to travel from Hong Kong due to pandemic restrictions, most of the works we have produced have been reflective of the environment where we live, Lantau Island, the largest island in the archipelago. Initially, the development of Soilspace seeded in direct connection with our previous work The Green Crab, which explored the speculative archeology of feng shui in Singapore’s urban development. Soilspace seeks to continue building on this sensing of geographies of archepelago cities, with Helsinki like Singapore and Hong Kong, forming a new layer in this dialogue around the less visible worlds that give life to the spaces we cohabit within.
During the final pandemic lockdown, with schools and workplaces closed, we started tending a garden plot at a local community farm started by our neighbors here in our village. It became our ‘garden school’ for our daughter, and important for our general wellbeing. It shaped our lives over a period of seasons as we came attuned with thinking about our patch’s soil, the growth and decay taking place, the myriad of insect life, the weather, and how ‘soil communities’ and histories embedded there affect various microcosms of life which grow from these conditions. In particular, was how soil communities move at their own pace, with plant growth and soil conditions always defying expectations and existing in their own space and time, in companionship with the practice of tending. Thus, we took our garden patch as a metaphorical framework to how we approached the site-specific commission for the Helsinki Biennial, and decided to link our soil community with the soil histories with the area around Baana, and how they intersect with wider human histories that ultimately affect the development and our relationship with wider/urban landscapes. For us, we drew a resonance between the archipelago we live in, Lantau and Hong Kong, and the lens through which we wanted to research the Helsinki archipelago. Additionally, being gifted the site of Baana invited us to consider the flows and histories of movement of the site and space, the former train track carved below the road surface level, between the coolness of earthen walls, to accomodate different flows of movement and paces. We wanted to reconsider that instead of looking ‘along’ the path that one might encounter with the length of the work, moving would also mean looking ‘below’ and ‘within’ the grounds you walk upon and travel through at that site. Thus Soilspace intends to consider the spatial qualities (soilSPACE) and the multiplicity of flows (soilsPACE) that characterises and has given, and continues to give, life to Baanaa’s soil communities.
Our research became like a continuation of tending to our garden, and exploring a grounds previous life;
“ The first step involved tilling the ground, preparing and aerating the lumpy clotted soil by pushing the shovel through the dirt and then smoothing it with a rake. Considerable construction detritus was unearthed and removed in the process and told the story of the ground’s previous life.Sometimes those histories involved decay and death, and the decomposition of flesh and life. Sometimes viruses arrived from afar, a piece of porcelain, a grain of rice, a scrap of fabric, traded through multi-hued hands carrying its own scents and messages. Sometimes a soil community told a story of violence, murder and ghosts. At one point, a line was traced through the soil, from their site to the edges of the island, in one of the garden’s trenches which the public often traversed. It had once been a trade route for ants, insects and other citizens and led directly to the harbour, which in this case was a basin of disease. Along the trench a mural was designed which told the story of the soil and its secrets, a subterranean genealogy of microbes that stalked the archipelago in primordial timescales.”
Looking into the history of the Baana site and surrounding Helsinki unearthed a connection to many cities; how many cities, like Helsinki, are built on graves and burial sites, often connected to military occupations, massacre sites, and outbreaks of disease. Immediately, it resonates with more recent collective emotions of the entire world emerging from the shadows cast by the Covid pandemic, and a reminder of lives lost and cemeteries overflowing with causalties of a contagious disease. Over time, these bodies who have inevitably joined the soil communities once they have come to rest now find themselves forming the foundations of new growth, new communities. Whilst the presence of nearby cemeteries commemorate past lives, a living soil community, that these lives continue to be part of, thrums and thrives underfoot in our daily lives, where the historical-cultural coexist with the geological and biological, interacting across multiple temporal axises.
The piece performs as a subterranean portal into these ideas with the 3D representations reflecting folkloric, historical and biological cross section, across time and surrounding spaces. Digging into the geological, cultural and biological histories and realities of the site conjured up a rich tapestry of elements, textures and organisms all mixing together, over time and in place. In the unfolding image, Finnish bedrock, while extremely old and stable mixes with soil layers that are geologically young, so infill, moraine, cambisol soil type jostles with ‘Helsingite’ (Helsinki granite), rapakivi granite, mafic and felsic volcanic rocks and old sandy glacial deposits. There are hints of swampy earth and tar from past economies, and more contemporary elements, like asphalt and crushed stone, bone, feathers, animal hair, feldspar, chamotte and ancient crushed pottery tempered with shells that connect with underwater worlds, or feathers to connect with the celestial heavens. Quarried stone and water mingle with prehistoric artifacts of former coastal communities, the bronze and iron jewelry, broken swords, cauldrons infused with their own believed life force, and animal bones from sacrifices past. Ghostly apparitions of talking rocks, bears, elk, birds and boats (which prominently figured in folklore and previous livelihoods, yet remain physically absent from archeological records) coexist alongside resting bones from nearby cemeteries dug for lives lost to violent massacres, and cholera and plague epidemics. Alongside residues of lives once lived and geological lifeforms, a multiplicity of microorganisms, in the matter of bacteria, parasites, fungi, algae, protozoa, nematodes, which typically make up many soil communities commingle with tiny insects (ants, mites, worms, larvae), decaying organic and plant matter, and microparticles of pollutants.
In many ways, Soilspace becomes a celebration of the Finnish idea of väki, the inherent energy that resides within every living being and within all elements. We decided to have the piece perform as a form of ancestor worship to acknowledge the multitude of spirits residing in the soil that have shaped and will continue to shape the site that flows from central Helsinki to the island of Vallisari. Drawing from the Finnish tradition of Kekri, and connecting with our own personal cultural backgrounds and their histories of ancestor worship practice (Chinese Ching Ming / Chung Yeung, and Latvian Velu Kakus /Kapu Svetki), the flowing scroll of 3D representations reflecting all the ‘soil spirits’, is a entry window of a larger spirit house (the city, the islands and surrounding lands) with auspicious food (pomelo and pineapple) and joss stick offerings in the corner, a distant gift from our home, to carry message of recognition to the soil communities there in Helsinki.