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The mystery of the immortal

Artist professor Maija Tammi and graphic artist Ville Tietäväinen have created an art book that combines scientific research, art and storytelling. The object of research is the immortal polyp hydra.
valokuvassa pitkulainen polyyppi hydra mustaa taustaa vasten
Hydra vulgaris, photo: Maija Tammi

Biologist Cornelia Dulac has been missing since 2014. Her audiotapes were discovered at a remote cabin in Eastern Finland together with a fully-equipped research laboratory and a year’s supply of food. It is obvious that something had deviated from Dulac’s plans. She had been researching hydra, an immortal freshwater polyp.

The authors of Immortal. Lost Memoirs of Cornelia Dulac Concerning the Freshwater Polyp Hydra, artist, Doctor of Arts Maija Tammi and illustrator, visual storyteller Ville Tietäväinen, pull the readers into the world of forever-young hydra – under the surface of Dulac’s experiments and obsessive mind.

Tammi has been preparing a hydra-themed art exhibition and book for three years. Immortal is a clear continuation of her artistic career: Tammi has studied disease, representations of sickness and inanimate robots.

makeanveden polyyppi hydra, kuvitusta Immortal-teokseen
Photo: Maija Tammi

Her enthusiasm for hydra began already during her dissertation Sick Photography. Representations of Sickness in Art Photography, where she studied representations of diseases and, among other things, cancer cell lines that do not age. Her portrait series exploring the humanity of robots, One of Them Is a Human, has become widely known.

Tammi herself is also familiar with hydra: she visited the laboratory of a leading researcher on hydra Daniel Martínez in California and studied and grew them at Syracuse University in New York.

Ville Tietäväinen, in turn, has done numerous works as an illustrator and visual storyteller. His book Just a Bad Dream (Vain pahaa unta, WSOY, 2013), made together with his daughter about her nightmares as a child, was also a completely undefined piece, which posed categorization difficulties for both the publisher and the bookstore. It could not be found on the right shelf and was not easy to sell, although it received awards and nominations and was one of the most noticed books in the media in its year of publication.

Storytelling is glue between science and art

Immortal is an exceptionally hybrid work: it combines science, art and story. Few similar books have been made. The authors thank the publisher Aalto ARTS Books for courage and hope that all publishers would more widely have faith in publishing and marketing works of a similar nature.

Central to the story of Immortal is a mystery: it deals with the eternal questions of immortality and mortality that have interested humans throughout time. The approach draws on ancient myths, religions, and ethical issues.

How did the book get started, and how was the story built? Let the authors, both Aalto University alumni, tell themselves.

For some reason, there’s a particular feeling with this book of having created something that can’t be controlled."

Maija Tammi

How did you get to the topic? Why are you interested in hydra?

Maija Tammi (MT): To my recollection, I originally had in mind a book in which a hydra gives instructions on how to be immortal, but through conversations with Ville the book took a different form.

My earlier work White Rabbit Fever focused on the eternal division of biologically immortal cancer cell lines in laboratories, and while doing the work I wrote in my notebook in March 2016: "What about Hydra vulgaris?". I first photographed hydra in February 2017, and the more you know of them the more fascinating and weird they seem.

Ville Tietäväinen (VT): I ended up on the subject the year before last, when Maija suggested we make a narrative entity together instead of just a scientific or visual art project. In our previous cooperations, we have had a clear division: Maija has made the content of her books and I have worked as a graphic designer. But since I also have a long experience of making my own fictional stories, Maija now wanted me to join in thinking about the story as well.

How was the process of making the book?

VT: We talked for a long time about what kind of a book this was going to be – to what extent it would be fact and to what extent imagination. The theme of immortality was the only clue involved from the beginning. In addition to hydra, we also wanted a human perspective. We needed to understand what bothered our protagonist Cornelia Dulac: why was she so obsessed with immortality. This is Cornelia’s story, not ours.

Once the protagonist of the story and her motives had been built and we had decided to tell the story in her voice, I wrote a few strip-length three-screen treatment. Maija then began to fill the skeleton of the story with her years-long experience and knowledge of hydra research and anecdotes related to immortality.

At this point, we also got the idea to divide the narrative into the protagonist’s tapes and the remarks of us authors, that run side by side in the book. Already as we wrote the story, we were thinking, as visual narrators, how to make the layout of the book aesthetically and functionally match the specificity of the story and its format. Maija was also closely involved in considering the layout. The challenge was to combine a photographic art book, a scientific study and a novel into a natural entity that would have its own unique look.

MT: And I was definitely quite a nuisance when it came to the design of the book, I had terribly many opinions even about the lengths of the lines. Writing texts was relatively chaotic, something in between investigative journalism and writing a novel. Luckily, Ville made sure the story did not get slipped into side paths. Three professors and one literary scholar have also helped with the texts of the book. This could not have been done alone.

laboratorion näyttöruudulla näkyy kuva polyyppi hydrasta
Hydra in a lab on the microscope screen, photo: Maija Tammi

What have you learned and gained during this project?

VT: In terms of content and appearance, I was fascinated in finding how a story like this could be made in a way that both the text and the images and illustrations would enrich each other as instruments for storytelling.

I have learned that a unique story like this can be conveyed in a very exceptional way. And that even such a mixture of genres of literature can get published! The book industry is generally very conservative, and originality in marketing is almost a curse word.

As for Immortal, I don’t have high sales expectations, I rather think of it as a collectible artbook-like work – but who knows how the book, being in English, will be found out in the world.

MT: Combining art and science is tricky. Not impossible but often very challenging, and we may possibly have succeed in that due to using storytelling as glue. For some reason, there’s a particular feeling with this book of having created something that can’t be controlled. The theme of immortality at micro and macro level is inexhaustibly interesting.

As academician W.J.T Mitchell writes, images are like viruses that an artist inadvertently reproduces.

***

Immortal. Lost Memoirs of Cornelia Dulac Concerning the Freshwater Polyp Hydra by Maija Tammi and Ville Tietäväinen is released on 23 April by Aalto ARTS Books. The book is in English.

The book is part of the Immortal’s Birthday exhibition that will be presented later in the Forum Box Gallery by Maija Tammi and composer Charles Quevillon. The exhibition will be opened once the corona situation allows.

Maija Tammi (b. 1985) is a Finnish artist and Doctor of Arts, whose photographs and videos set the boundaries between disgust and admiration and examine the relationship between science and art. Tammi won the Fotofinlandia Prize 2011 and her works have been exhibited in Paris, Berlin, London, New York and Tokyo, among others. Tammi is an artist professor in 2020–2024.

Ville Tietäväinen is a Finnish graphic designer, illustrator and cartoonist. Tietäväinen is an architect, but he has worked since the 1990s as an illustrator, graphic designer and cartoonist. He has received the The Finnish Critics’ Association’s Critics’ Spurs in 2004 and the Finnish Cultural Foundation Award in 2011.

More information:

Read more about the book at Aalto ARTS Books store website

See video on Immortal

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