Hanna Tuulikki at the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, Pier 2/3
Indra Wills, MA (Art Curating) student
It has been – to put it lightly – an extraordinarily arduous few years, with so much upheaval. We are battling climate change, war and violence, and disease. We are also expected to deal with our emotions, be ‘good’ human beings and work tirelessly to put food on the table, clothe our bodies and keep shelter over our heads. To find solace becomes ever more difficult as the world rapidly changes around us. So, when we need a ‘break’, where can we turn? And when we seek answers, who do we ask? When reality feels lost, how can we find it? In a moment of relief, I felt the answers to these questions begin to emerge as I quietly watched Seals’kin, a short film by British-Finnish artist Hanna Tuulikki commissioned for rīvus, the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, and currently on display until June 13 at Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay.
Tuulikki was born in Brighton, England in 1982. She now resides in Glasgow, Scotland’s cultural hub. Tuulikki is a composer and performer. She uses modes of costume, choreography, music and installation to create an experience that becomes existentially aware of its environmental place through Aristotle’s mimesis. Seals’kin was filmed on Newburgh Beach in the Ythan Estuary of Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Here, where the North Sea connects to the mouth of the freshwater river, grey and common seals feed on fresh salmon and play and lounge in their spare time. Using Scottish Selkie folklore as a base narrative, Tuulikki imitates the local seals responding to their land while unpacking notions of identity, transformation and loss.
Scottish writer Duncan Williamson (1928-2007) was a traditional storyteller. In his 1997 book Tales of the Seal People, Williamson delivers tales of ‘Selkies’, beings who transform from human to seal and back again. Selkies adapt to the wet and dry environment using their seal skin; dressing themselves with it for the water, taking it off to reveal their human form for the land. Legend says that if their skin is stolen while the Selkie is a human, the creature will live on, unable to transform back into a seal, stripping a part of their physical and emotional identity. Because of this, Selkie tales often revolve around their skin being stolen by a betrothed human, not wanting to live without their Selkie counterpart. Other storylines conclude as a Selkie becomes witness to a relative Selkie’s death – from slaughter or collision with a ship. Consequently, the Selkie witness will seek revenge on the slayers, capsizing their ship and killing the occupants. The Selkie are also known for their enchanting call, used to attract seals to the shore. In this way, Selkie folklore relates to the ancient Greek Siren, a half-human-half-bird mythical temptress who resides on the seashore. The Siren uses her sweet song to lure mariners to crash into the rocky coastline, destroying them. In both cases, the Selkie and Siren initially present as beautiful, innocent and at times erotic, yet their stories turn to tragedy, revealing deeper morals and truths as well as lessons in love and betrayal.
The reality is that seals are playful, curious and cute. They’re even referred to as ‘dogs of the sea’. They aren’t threatening to humans, we like them. Selkie tales combine this aspect of the seal with the creature’s human form to create a deep sense of empathy and compassion in the reader. So, when Selkies are taken advantage of, the reader likely feels sad. In Seals’kin, which appropriately translates to ‘seal family’, Hanna Tuulikki combines Selkie folklore, human embodiment, and the stunning, exposed Scottish shoreline to capture a film that is as enchanting and beautiful as it is meaningful and truthful. Tuulikki submits herself as a Selkie protagonist and shares with us a tale passed down through generations - a story that once might have been told over a whiskey in a Scottish bar, sheltering from the frost outside. Or read quietly in the morning sun with a cup of coffee. The tales are designed to offer us a different perspective, an escape from reality, and to provide insight into our very mortal lives.
The film begins with Tuulikki dressed in a dark coat, representing her human form. She carries a limp grey fabric across her arms, as if in offering - her Seal skin. The curators have used a black curtain to wrap us around the large monitor. The screen itself emits an inescapable glow as the comforting afternoon sun bears down on Tuulikki, connecting us to her moment. It is emotional. Tuulikki begins to mimic the call of the seal or Selkie in what feels like a chant or prayer. We see from the seal’s perspective as she makes her way down to the shore, where the seals playfully respond, inviting her to follow. Their energy lifts the weight of Tuulikki’s aura, as we see her eyes well with tears.
Tuulikki’s song echoes through the space of Pier 2/3, just as it echoes over the sand dunes where she stands. As we watch her prepare to transform out of her human body and into a seal, we ask; is she preparing to let go of a human lover? Or is she dissatisfied with being human? Tuulikki’s thoughtful direction and tender acting of these scenes allow us to ponder questions like these. Yet she also connects us more deeply to the narrative of the film by inviting silence into the space. We are not distracted by flashing lights or conversation. We are quiet, as she is and as the seals are. In this quiet is peace, and this element makes for a uniquely beautiful contemplation.
As the film continues, Tuulikki extends herself into the Selkie seal form. We see her stretching out on the beach, mimicking the movement of the seals as they recline in the distance. She is learning from them. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher of the 4th Century BCE, describes the creation of art as an act of mimesis. A form of imitation, not to copy, but to feel inspired by - an ecology to re-create. Tuulikki uses this philosophy to extend meaning in her film. She mimics the actions of the seal because she appreciates them. She wears their skin with the intention of becoming one with nature, learning how to swim and play and feed just as a seal does, without the destruction that humans create. Tuulikki offers us an opportunity to ask ourselves, what can we learn from nature?
The film also responds to Newburgh Beach as place. The Ythan Estuary is only 7 kilometres long but is home to hundreds of species and is a popular breeding ground for ducks, fish and other animals, including seals. The Estuary encompasses an array of land types, making for a diversity of flora and fauna. Because of this, the site has qualified as a Special Protection Area under the European Union Directive, and has been extensively studied by scientists. Additionally, in 2017, the seals were listed specifically under this protection, meaning humans cannot interfere with them on the land. So, Tuulikki opens our awareness to the responsibility and obligation to conserve. She embodies the seal to personify these beautiful animals, lending to our ability to watch and feel connected through empathy. We are made as vulnerable as the skin of the Selkie. And nature is vulnerable to us.
The act of transformation also offers further interpretation. As the film concludes, and as the sun falls out of the sky, Tuulikki descends into the water. The film ends as Tuulikki, now a Selkie, is submerged. We do not see her return from the water to the land, or transform from a seal back to a human. Is this Tuulikki performing an act of acceptance? And, by acceptance, I mean the acceptance to which the allegory of the Selkie leads: acceptance of our true form.
In using her own body as a metamorphic vessel, Tuulikki evades biological identity to challenge our emotional consciousness. In the transformation from one body, the human form, to the other, a seal form, there is one constant: the soul. The soul continues carrying its weight for us to live with and resolve. Although we can make physical alterations, we are nevertheless left to deal with emotional distress and sadness. Does the ecosystem respond in the same way? Tuulikki offers us a platform for us to consider this responsibility and truth. Reflecting on our own difficulties, can we build empathy towards others? Maybe the world with its flora and fauna as well? I found myself captivated by Seals’kin. The film is successful in many ways. It is emotional, contemplative, playfully bizarre and refreshing.
Indra Wills is currently completing a Master of Art Curating at the University of Sydney. Indra commenced her tertiary studies at the National Art School, Sydney, where she completed a Bachelor of Fine Art, majoring in ceramics and landscape drawing. Indra is drawn to the philosophy of art as culture, ideas and society changes.