An approach to art making which links art & science - Sanna Kannisto

An approach to art making which links art & science - Sanna Kannisto.

My supervisor, Julie, mentioned Sanna Kannisto as an artist to look at, especially the book Fieldwork - Sanna Kannisto.

The essay in the book, Immense Disorder by Steve Baker has some great observations & quotes by Kannisto in it:

This essay covers and condenses her large project, started in late 1990 in forests in Brazil, French Guiana and Costa Rica. For it she worked alongside scientist in the field in these places. Kannisto has summarized her practice as:

“I’m interested in how nature is portrayed and represented in the practice of art and science. And how we approach nature or tropical forest through different methods, theories, and concepts and according to different needs. To me it’s more about trying to research human ways of seeing and working than claiming to make research on nature.”

In her work she tries to reflect the opposite perception of the work to the scientific. “The forest is present as something that we cannot quite reach or explain. It’s uncontrolled and chaotic”

“The work displays a deep fascination with scientific procedures and with the historic representation, but has its own distinctive relationship to order. This relationship was challenged by the impossibility of representing in any conventional manner, the baffling complexity of the tropical rain-forests in which all of these works were made” (pg 1)

Her photographs are reaching out, a faltering illumination of chaos: the entire reality of the forest seems to be created by the light. When the light disappears or when the weather conditions alter the perspective, the immense disorder of the forest becomes clear. The forest in the photograph becomes more like a surface and no longer gives any information about itself”

frogstud4Like any photographer, Kannisto uses available light to capture her imagery, at times this is natural and other times the rainforest or its animals are illuminated by artificial lighting set ups. This juxtaposing approach creates interesting contrasting sets of imagery.


Kannisto’s work are a response to what she sees as an inadequacy of the scientific worldview. The forrest is presented as an active and almost willful presence

Field science is a lot about measuring things, while Kannisto is interested in that which slips away or only just remains in the frame.

Also in what is left behind by the scientist at times in the forrest has captured her eye.

What is of interest to me is the similarities between science and photography (which is now less evident with the use of digital camera’s). Both are use method, whether this is to display or arrange to capture, or to measure and document.

To be good at either you have to be methodical,while still open to the unexpected. A closed mind is neither a great scientist nor a great photographer.

Kannisto creates a ‘contrived’ space in which she photographs things, but also simply records visual evidence of scientist experiments, both in field office and in the field.(pg 2)

These contrived spaces are obvious, as in many images she does not hide her light box set up. Just like a scientist, who may record in a journal or on a spreadsheet, Kannisto reveals her ‘journal’ in her many of her images.

This creates a sense of scientific within her work, as it is obvious how a plant is supported in the set up or how a bird is attracted to the nectar.

aristolochiaHer use of white background spaces is in reference to the early printed natural history illustrations. It is mimicking ‘man’s desire to control nature’. Against a white background, objects are clearly under observation and ready to be classified. (pg 3)


Again here her almost pseudo scientific documentation has a historical reference. Her use of the white light box creates a space against which the plants or animals are more obvious. At times the backdrop is graph paper, making you question whether this is a set up or real scientific recording of a plant size & shape.


“When you are quite, calm, perceptive, you can see hidden things. The knowledge I have gained is not just about how different habitats, plants, and animals are interacting. It’s a kind of instinct, or being animal-like yourself.”

It deals with a situation where natural processes and something made by human’s tangle with each other. (pg 4)

Being part of a repeated visit to a site starts to open up the site, more is seen at each visit and to see more, you slow down. This allows you to start seeing underneath the many layers, as each time a new layer is revealed. This becomes instinctual, as she says, “animal-like yourself”.

Fritjof Capra explains “human hierarchies, which are fairly rigid structures of domination and control” are quite unlike the multi-leveled order found in nature.” He continues” The web of life consists of networks within networks.......In nature there is no above or below and there are no hierarchies. There are only networks nesting within other networks.” (pg 4)

As an artist, how do you document this? Without it looking like each level or network has been artificially separated from the rest?

This is something that I often question as I work with plants in my practice.

Other thoughts & comments while reading this essay and the imagery of Kannisto’s work:

I relate to her combination of set up and reality imagery - Utilizing others (in this case scientist) to create scenes for her to photograph and then also creating her own set up. This blurs the boundary between real scientific measuring & documentation/recording and make belief/myths through artistic interpretation/documentation.

The lack of human inclusion in the images leave them to be more open as to whether they are real or staged

Some of the images appear to be stumbled upon while exploring the rain forest areas in which the scientist are working.

  • Also enjoy the ‘still lifes’ images - their staged look, while still trying to emulate the way the plants may be found in their natural environment. The combination of the clinical, clean ‘box’ with the placement/arrangement of the natural materials - a real binary of chaos and reason (pg 4 Kannisto, Baker)
  • The simple use of props in many of these images, where some appear to reflect the support systems/mechanisms that many of the plants would have had in their natural habitats, such as solid metal stands with clamps.passioflora
  • The ‘fieldwork’ series again appear a combination of staged and real scientific experimentation, with many soft and contemplative moments of Kannisto herself portrayed as the scientist, while out searching for her subjects for the next staged set up.
  • I appreciate how her work overlaps so many different fields, such as photography; both staged and natural, botanical & early historical illustrations, anthropology, science & self portraiture.
  • With my own science back ground I understand the methodical approach she has used to create some of her set up’s, but also allowing freedom within some of these to explore this scientific approach creates some very ‘funny’ images. A scientist would have collected a part of a plant to document, but may not necessarily staged it’s presentation as Kannisto has done for many of the still life imagery.

  References: Book:

Fieldwork - Sanna Kannisto. (2011) editor Denise Wolff. With Essay by Steve Baker. Aperture Foundation Inc. Finland




Posted by Elle Anderson

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