Traces from the Anthropocene: Working with Soil (2018–2019)

Research Pavilion #3: Research Ecologies, Venice, Italy

Traces from the Anthropocene: Working with Soil is a multidisciplinary research project that addresses the ecological consequences of human imprint on the geological environment through ceramic art. The evolving research project takes place both before and during the Research Pavilion #3, in the context of Venice Biennale 2019.

Part of the soil and sediment sample gathering places around Venice lagoon. The red colour of the roofs of Venice is due to the colour of the local clay. 

In this research, soil is used as the material mediator to explore and communicate the intertwined relationship between human and environment. All natural environments contain diverse raw materials that can be used for making ceramics. The mineral composition of these materials varies depending upon the place where they are gathered. In this project, the human footprint in the geological environment is explored with artistic methods combined with chemical analysis. As ceramists traditionally work with local earth the context of this study is the contaminated soil of the Venice lagoon. The principal places of interest are the artificial canals of the historical centre, Porto Marghera’s industrial area and Murano islands. During the process local soil is gathered and then analysed for anthropocenic contaminants. Later local brick clay is used to coil large ceramic forms and finally the analysed, contaminated soil is used to paint on the ceramic vessels.

Sediment sample gathering from the artificial canals of the historical center of Venice. Photo: Pauliina Purhonen

Sediments rise from the bottom of the Venice canals as the canals are being prepared for dredging in February 2019. Video: Riikka Latva-Somppi

In this research craft making is understood as a philosophical space that enables us to think through the ethical and ecological concerns related to the stage of our environment. Craft making is used as an embodied practice that enables us to establish a dialogical relationship with the local environment. This is seen as a valuable act through which to (re)consider the relationship between human and nature profoundly. This study asks, would working with contaminated soil be able to raise awareness of the relationship between human and material world and their entanglements? This artistic research relies on experiential knowledge that is achieved and captured in tandem with the evolving creative working process that takes place during this study. The Traces from the Anthropocene: Working with Soil project builds on a collaboration with artist-researchers from Aalto University’s Department of Designs Empirica research group and the experts of contaminated soil from the Finnish Environment Institute SYKE as well as visiting researchers and artists. The anthropocenic traces in the soil and sediment samples have been analysed at the Department of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering of Aalto University.

Working with Soil project takes place in a form of a research laboratory both before and during the Research Pavilion #3 and forms one of its research cells called Traces from the Anthropocene together with the Insects among Us project conducted by the University of the Arts Helsinki. Aalto University is also part of the Research Pavilion research project Artistic Intelligence Research Alternator AIRA. The Research Pavilion is an ongoing project created and hosted by the University of the Arts Helsinki. The Pavilion is created in cooperation with the Louise and Göran Ehrnrooth Foundation and international partner institutions: Aalto University, Valand Academy of Arts at the University of Gothenburg, University of Applied Arts Vienna, Interlab Hongik University Seoul, and Taipei National University of the Arts.

The activities of the Working with Soil project during the Research Pavilion #3 include displaying results, studio practice, audience engagement and discursive events.

You can follow the research cell in the Research Catalogue.

Setting up the Research Ecologies exhibition at the Research Pavilion #3. Photo: Tzuyu Chen

Project schedule:


Preparations and preliminary research.

February – May 2019

Gathering of soil samples from the artificial canals of the historical Venice centre, Porto Marghera’s industrial area and Murano islands, then analysing the samples for anthropogenic contaminants. Read about the First research expedition to Venice in February 2019.

Sediment sampling at Ponte Rosso, Venice, in May 2019. Video by Pauliina Purhonen and edited by Riikka Latva-Somppi

May 8, 2019

Opening of the Reseach Pavilion #3.

Riikka Latva-Somppi (on right) and Maarit Mäkelä discussing the exhibition items with opening guests at the Research Pavilion #3 on May 8, 2019.

July 11 – August 28, 2019

Living research laboratory at the Research Pavilion #3. The public is able to witness artistic studio practice and the process of building and painting large vessels using local clay and the materials collected during the project. Audience is also invited to participate in the workshop.

August 20–21, 2019

Material Encounters event at the Research Pavilion #3.

A two-day long event, including a concert-lecture that showcases the outcomes of a residency period, during which musicians and ceramists worked side-by-side forming a parallel discussion of musical and gestural rhythms. The event also includes discussions and presentations on materiality, archipelagic thinking, and the intertwined relationship between humans and soil. Audience is welcomed to work with local clay.

Registration for the event.

Experiments with the Venice soil samples on Finnish earthenware. Video: Maarit Mäkelä

September 10–31, 2019

Traces from the Anthropocene: Working with Soil exhibition on view at the Beta Space gallery at Aalto University campus in Espoo, Finland, during Helsinki Design Week.

Project team:

Maarit Mäkelä, project leader (Empirica leader, Aalto University)
Riikka Latva-Somppi, artist-researcher, curator (Empirica member, Aalto University)
Priska Falin, artist-researcher (Empirica member, Aalto University)
Pauliina Purhonen, research assistant (Aalto University)
Tzuyu Chen, research assistant, audience engagement (Aalto University)
Catharina Kajander, artist (Aalto University alumna)
Ozgu Gundeslioglu, visiting artist-researcher (Akdeniz University, Turkey)
Jussi Reinikainen, senior research scientist (The Finnish Environment Institute SYKE)
Outi Pyy, leading expert (The Finnish Environment Institute SYKE)

Hannu Revitzer, research engineer, collaborative partner (Aalto University, School of Chemical Engineering)
Dena Bagi, researcher, collaborative partner in audience engagement (University of Sunderland)
Helen Felcey, artist, collaborative partner in audience engagement

Exhibition team (from the Contemporary Design MA course Curating and Storytelling):

Tzuyu Chen, MA student (Aalto University)
Hanna Kutvonen, MA student (Aalto University)
Pauliina Purhonen, MA student (Aalto University)


Finnish Environment Institute SYKE
SanMarco – Terreal
University of the Arts Helsinki
Research Pavilion #3

Tzuyu Chen (on left), Hanna Kutvonen, Riikka Latva-Somppi, Pauliina Purhonen and Maarit Mäkelä celebrating Research Pavilion #3 opening with the head of Aalto’s Design Department Tuuli Mattelmäki (on right).

Research Pavilion #3: Research Ecologies

May 9 – August 28, 2019, open 10 am – 6 pm. Visitors can meet artist-researchers between 10 am and noon. Closed on Tuesdays.
Free entry.

Address: Sala del Camino, Campo S. Cosmo 621, Giudecca, Venice

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