Maa: porosity, permeability, filtering, enmeshment, darkness, energy and communication
posted by Aino Johansson on 3 July 2023

ARS BIOARCTICA 23.5.-11.6.2023, Aino Aleksandra Johansson

Maa, maa: I am touching this soil (maa), ground (maa), land (maa), country (maa), terrain (maasto), state (maa), landscape (maisema), dirt (maa) Earth (Maa), the world (maailma)* 

In Earth's deep cavities, we can hear the soil soul (band)..

I am writing this in the shiny, bright nucleus of midsummer in southern Finland, a while after returning back from Kilpisjärvi/ Gilbbesjávri, summer solstice in between these moments of arriving, returning, processing and remembering again. Planetary distances have been at their most this year 2023 for me, as I’ve travelled from Helsinki winter to spring in Rishikesh, North India, and a tropical/subtropical summer in Tiruvannamalai and Auroville in south-India, Tamil Nadu – to then pass my way via Helsinki to the northernmost parts of Finnish state and to Sápmi. This has been extraordinary for me as I’ve not travelled that much very far, due to both economical and ecological reasons. 

After touching waters, soils and winds far away, I arrive here with small bags of soil samples, one of them being the red sandy soil from Auroville in India, a karma-yogic centre of education and a utopian township, an ongoing project launched in 1968. During my week in Auroville I visited among many places, the Revelation forest – a rewilding project on the deserted lands, and Matrimandir, a monumental golden sculptural and architectural piece for the purpose of meditation and collective gatherings.  The roads and paths were like red veins, as all soil material was red in colour. 

The act of taking a sample of soil from the ground sometimes feels quite violent; when I kneel down on the surface of Earth like going for a prayer,  I’m aware of it’s livelihood and connectedness to the ecosystems around and also the gesture of taking a sample (especially on a petridish) is loaded with the aesthetics of western science and a nuances of extractivism and even arrogance. Taking samples from protected or culturally and ecologically charged areas is also full of tensions and I am constantly having dialogues and thought processes with this.  In doing soil chromatography I have many motives and ways of taking samples, related to endangered species and biotopes, biodiversity, the role of soil in ecosystems, as well as other planetary aspects and personal experiences, but it first started out connected to mining and the movements trying to protect lands from it. I wanted to give soil a voice. When I kneel down to take a sample, it does feel more like a prayer, or like an act of listening closely.

22. May I travel from mid-spring in Helsinki, where all wild greens have just spread across Earth’s surface like an explosion – and as I’m being transported by trains and buses like in a time machine going back in seasonal time, towards early spring, leaves of trees and plants get tinier and tinier. I’m sleeping most of the time, wondering will I also get younger.. or dive into exploring some layers of my being in the past...? Already on the way I notice paying attention to time-scales in the landscape, and also autobiographical and pretty human-centered thoughts too, whilst also meditating and having deep and vast experiences of unity in my bodymindsoul. Thinking of age, humanity, mortality, eternity, deep time and feeling the need to rest.

As I reach Kilpisjärvi on 23 may, the landscape shifts to arctic: heavy ice covers the lakes and snow still lays on the tops of the rocky dark fells. The moving creature becomes slower and tinier too, as the landscape is formed by large monumental elements, a phenomenon I will be encountering many times during the next three weeks. I’m reminded of Tarkovsky’s film Solaris for some reason, I don't even remember the film very well. As the tiny bus takes me further, it seems like birch trees perform some kind of a dance of becoming and ageing in front of my eyes: the mountain birches shrink and seem like meandering tough oldsters, living persistently in the austere subarctic ecosystems. There is a similarity in the life of an artist, in the ecosystems of the artworld, to my experience. I feel like I’ve arrived in another reality, another zone; geographically, but also mentally.

I was here 10 years ago, and walked one week in the fells, formally to reach the top of Halti. I still remember these forms of landscape quite vibrantly from that one hike. But this time I get to work at the biological station, which has been a bit of a romantic dream since then. It’s connected to my fictional idol,  from the Nausicaä- valley of the wind, a 1984 Hayo Miyazaki animation film.

As I arrived – Leena Valkeapää escorted me to my residency in Kiekula, and as she leaves me there, I notice little signs of slight worry, warm compassion and a little mysterious curiosity regarding how I will take in the experience. Spring is late here; there are still formations of snow in the landscape around Kilpisjärvi, everything is very still, quiet and I’m the only resident of the house. Both of the permanent residents of the same yard circle are on vacations elsewhere and the tourist season hasn’t started. Landscape from the window is almost completely black and white, the sun is up and bright and the subarctic vegetation is still in its most silent and hidden form, yet to sprout. Snow moves on the ice a bit with wind. I only now realize the sun doesn’t go down at all, and that the nightless night that I associate with summer is already here - together with snow. I feel like I’m on a space station on planet Earth. I dance with myself whilst cooking and doing the dishes. I speak and wave to reindeers who roam around the yard sometimes. I perform self-care rituals. The possibility of becoming a bit patty (mökkihöperö) is present in both a nervous and excited mindset.

First full day here, I get an introduction to the biological research station from Hannu Autto, and talk with the janitor Kalevi about the hypothesis of pines once growing here and his son, who is working in the incomprehensibly deep mines of Kiiruna in Norway. I feel like everyone I meet here is ready to have long leisurely chats about everyday life, the environment and weather – and also my social behaviour changes in this psychogeography.

Residency-life: having a limited time and space to do some things encourages me to plan and measure my movements, how I use my time and where my energy moves: somehow I think of myself as a human-antenna, an organism, a form of life that is at the same time my intimate experience of living, but also my tool, my apparatus for sensing what is inside and outside of “me”.  Lately – even though my interests very much lie in other than human perspectives and species, and in connectedness of all, I’ve felt like also putting focus on humanity instead of escaping it: whether spiritual, cultural, philosophical, ecological: I admit to be human and work with that, of course it being also just creature surrounded by countless narratives and definitions, which we can try to create anew too. Actually,  immediately after this sentence I want to put on my butoh-performance clothes, torn and burned full of holes and go stick myself in a tree and feel out some lichen-likeness..

The anxiety of the first nightless night is gone and next night I’m already in flames: building a DIY dark room, creating my own little darkness in the persistent light, for the making of soil chromatography, which is one of the main things I’m here to do. The beautiful mountain/ fell Pikku-Malla dominates the view from Kiekula laboratory and it happens to have a very similar shape to my eye as the mountain Arunachala in Tiruvannamalai in India. Both mountains, as also Sána fell, which stands in its hugeness just behind Kiekula house, have multiple layers  of something that can be called “holy” in many contexts, colonialist or capitalist mythologization and also ecological values, preservation issues and most probably many meanings to both people and other species living around them in deeper time perspectives. Then there is what meets the eye and experience of this apparatus called Aino: whenever I look out the window there is Malla – for some reason smiling, safe and feminine to me. Malla is strictly protected, but it’s also the only ‘Luonnonpuisto’ in Finland where people can go and walk, but only on the path. I hang the chromatograms to sunbathe on the window against the view. I’m so excited to have this kind of working space and goof around with  goggles and pink clothing.

The concept of 'holy' is to take and delimit one thing or an area to be transcended above all around it, in some way meets the concept of a nature reserve; taking one area and protecting it. This protection I ofcourse practically support, promote and work on, but also see the problematics of these borders - for both 'holy' and 'protected' - as in planetary ecosystems everything touches everything, and in life, everything could be trated 'holy'(valuable/to be taken care of/important/a miracle of life), both horizontally and vertically, both up and down. Speaking of holy and clean (nature) I am also entertained by the fact that soil is also called dirt in English, bless this holy dirt.

I make the first chromatograms the second night here, even though my supplies are short, and I need to be a bit reckless and use tap water instead of distilled, because I want to look into the Auroville soil through this process. Auroville soil seems through chromatography to be very homogenous, quite sandy, I’m surprised to get an almost monochromatic black, grey and white circle inside another circle, without much further details from this intensely red soil, even after fixing my chemicals and water. The picture does look a lot like the map of Auroville, which is a circle inside another circle. While chromatography is cooking, I dance outside with the heavy wind and icy feels, as I work on an upcoming performance. The first days and nights are separated from each other only by my waves of tiredness; my inner clock glitched immediately as I got here. There's a timelessness present, the stillness and spaciousness of the surrounding landscape together with all-encompassing light makes me feel like I have a lot of time. I send some voicemail to my love and some friends. Many processes, personal and work related, take place. 

During these three weeks I get to follow the famous ice of Kilpisjärvi-lake, its slow process of melting, and I get a view on it from both at the shore and from the heights of Sána, where I get a map-like view on the whole area from a godlike perspective..

As days go by I realize how this place is giving space for clearing  and gathering of my practice, realizing my projects and their connections. In addition to my artistic practices, both individual and collective, I am doing forest conservation activism, forest mapping volunteering and studies of environmental education, and they all intertwine.  In this environment these different approaches, cultural perspectives, and the presence of natural science methods and data feed each other. Kilpisjärvi biological station is inspirational and I spend some time in the library looking at the archives and books, and valuing the fact that they are not only in digital form, but something to touch and hear.

In the background like radiation is the landscape, landforms, weather conditions, the spectrum of life, and especially light, which radiates anonymously through everything. The intimate experience of being on the planet and the humanity that curiously wants to find out and explore are present. Naming things, learning classifications and the unnamed experience alternate. Above all, I am here to listen, watch, experience, learn and experiment: open to what the place suggests and shows. Some very human questions arrive: What is a good life? What is enough to live a good, satisfying, non-violent and above all loving life for a human as part of this planet? What to do with the time I have left? I won't go further on this now, as this is already becoming a novel.. 

Late morning coffee, I stare at the Swedish state side of Sápmi on the other side of Gilbbesjávri, and I think of soil, air, water and life, and as they are in front of my eyes, the borders of states seem very strange.. Conversations with Leena and Oula Valkeapää enlighten and deepen my understanding of the Sápmi perspectives, and from the biological station I get a lot on the biosphere and research done here, even though of course just scratching the surface of the landscape in both.


Soil (maa) is the layer of landscape and ecosystem I focus on. I'm  working on several different art projects, all of which in some way are related to the Earth(Maa) and soil(maaperä). Soil has fascinated me for a long time and I touch it as a poetic-ecological entity. It is not ‘just’ matter (aine, materia, mater) but a process and a happening of intermingling and diffusing of both mineral forms, organic forms, decaying, heat transmitting, pores of air and streams of water, perking, straining.. It is not only the sum of its many different components, but is an event and a place: a continuous, disintegrating, nurturing and nourishing process of death and life. Soil is porosity, permeability, filtering and communication. Soil is a process marked by transformations and border crossings. 

By soil I mean (maybe incorrect in scientific terms) here both the organic and the mineral soil, both the top layer and the layers deeper, towards geological formations and their decay and enmeshment. This mixture, multiplicity and paradoxicality fascinates me in the soil, the soft stuff where life begins and ends. 

Soil is also home for the mycelium and roots of plants and fungi to live, move and transmit the Sun's energy, nutrients, water and information inside its own darkness. Certainly a lot of unknown and undiscovered lies there too. The microbiome of the soil and the various living organisms, also animals create diversity, which is of great importance to all living things. We are all made out of the same elementals. Soil is both unity and diversity.

The connections and derivations of the word soil -‘maa’ in Finnish associates to broader entities: to planet Earth (‘Maa’), to the world (‘maailma’;maa& ilma;air) and to the landscape(‘maisema’), as well as verbs 'maata' (to rest, to lie down) and 'maatua' (to decay, to compost), which kind of refers to eternal rest and circulation of life, creative and life sustaining powers in 'maalata'(to paint), ‘maadoittua’ (to ground /oneself), and the mythological creatures in many northern cultures, that live underground, 'Maahinen', are also interesting. Onomatopoetic and free association brings me  to English 'mama' and the Latin 'materia'>< ‘mater’, japanese concept of ‘ma’ (between the beginning and end, gap, space, pause), powerful connections.

I make only day trips in the terrains during my residency since this time I'm not prepared for staying overnight. Although, many of my ‘day trips’ actually happen night-time. I’m on the top of Sána at midnight, the view is otherworldly. Sána gives me a lot of experiences of scale: I definitely feel very very small and fragile trying to get around it in a few hours.. Snow and melting, bubbling, pulsating waters everywhere, under snow, underground, appearing and disappearing are giving me both joy and obstacles. Monumentality is obvious, and it just simply shifts the experience of scale and time. Simultaneously we tiny humans as a collective can incautiously destroy whole ecosystems and species from the slopes of a huge mountain like Sána and elsewhere. 


Circular paper chromatography of soil is a technique developed in the 1950s in connection with composting and biodynamic farming to find out the quality and attributes of soil. As I’ve looked into it also in the workshops we have organized in Bioart Society with my colleague Sirja Moberg, I’ve grown to understand that the interpretations and applications of this particular chromatography method are not so thoroughly and methodically studied, that it could be used in modern science,  but it has potential. There are intresting hypothesis on how o inerpret the spikes, channels, rings and colours of the chromatogram, as well as a lot of associative speculations. What interests me in this method is its visuality and the ambivalent aesthetic-esoteric nature that emerges from the methods of science.

But above all, doing chromatography in all its slowness offers the opportunity to sit with, feel and think about soils, places and their contexts.  For me soil chromatography has also been like a magic trick: a way to let the soil breathe its own surprising picture on the paper through the process. Chromatography is a way for the components of a certain liquid or matter to be separated, and this process points out to the diversity of soil(s) too. It is also like cooking something special: it takes time, it's quite precise, but there's a lot of waiting in between, which opens up a possibility to be with the soil. 

The chromatographies I receive from the soil of Sána are immensely beautiful. I also make some from the homesoil of an endangered (VU) moss, Schistostega Pennata -’Aarnisammal’ in Finnish, that is a fascinating species in many ways and an important species in old growth forest protection. For me, learning forest mapping and nerding moss and lichen species has sbroadened my understanding of forests and species enourmously.

Although I recognize a resistance or a conflict towards the omniscient and distinctive methods of science in some regards, the sample taking and the reductive aspects, methods of science are anyhow also tools for deeper understanding, opening eyes for diversity, cherishing and of preservation of also non-human life and entities. I consider these aesthetics both with “new” eyes through a certain unlearning and an awareness of the incomprehensibility and the mystery of existence and sometimes I look at all the narratives and associations that I’m aware of and learning. 


As I combine bodily performance art in the form of butoh practice, which includes both spiritual and somatic wholesome approach and bioart in the form of a biochemical method, my interests of both everyday life and practicality, ritualistic and mythological and scientific are intertwined. Butoh is also sometimes described, in one of the many definitions which it escapes, as an 'earthy' form of dance, as opposed to classical western ballet for example, that has direction towards up, a lightness, a verticality in the form of jumping towards the sky, butoh is being, feeling and thinking towards the ground, the enmeshment of the soil, the Earth. Butoh is a soil(soul) dance, as it is also a dance of transformations.

In the landscape, the human form, its mortality and temporality meet the different temporalities of other species and the landscape: the changes are intermittent but at different rates. I move in the surrounding, immersed in, but aware of my being a human and my influence, and at the same time giving the opportunity for the experience of oneness.

This blogtext is just one tiny part of what moved through me in Kilpisjärvi and after. Very much looking for ways to find space for this process to further develop and be visible to the world.

I’m very thankful for the presence and conversations with the people of the Biological reasearch station, especially Hannu Autto, and to Leena and Oula Valkeapää, Mervi and Susanna, colleague Camille Auer who was a peer artist in residency (after my first week alone), as well as Pablo, Diane and Irwin.

*I took some freedom in the translations; soil for example is translated as ‘maa-aines’ or ‘maannos' or ‘maaperä’, as well as ground is also ‘maaperä’ or ‘maan kamara’, and other words have alternative translations as well.

Aino Aleksandra Johansson (Nausicaä)

Links for further exploration: 


Instagram: @ainojohansson_artist

Earth Forces: @maanpuolustusvoimat

Soil chromatography:


“The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity - in diversity. Today Auroville is recognised as the first and only internationally endorsed ongoing experiment in human unity and transformation of consciousness.”