It is Summer, that magical, wondrous and annoyingly undark season that we Finns crave for when it’s not here and complain about when it finally is. With Midsummer and Summer Solstice upon us, it’s time to venture into another theme.
Meri Nikula is a performance artist from the Twin Cities of Haparanda, Sweden, and Tornio, Finland. She lives in one, works in the other and tours regardless of borders. Her instruments are her body and the voice which that body can generate, and she uses them for poignant statements, and, maybe surprisingly: healing.
When I look at your works, I see a lot of connection to nature, even when it’s in a man-made setting. Are you in touch with nature, in that sense?
Yeah, for sure. Ecological themes in my work are on the rise. I guess it kind of started in 2007 when I was graduating as a performance artist, creating my first solo piece called “In The Flesh I Reside”. So, my journey has been to first land in my body, to be here sort of just, “Ok, this is where I live”. We are living as human beings in this flesh suit with blood and bones and everything underneath, and I think it’s good to know, to be aware of it. Don’t take yourself so seriously or personal, because you’re just this lump of meat. And then this body lives on this planet, and because we’re not doing so well – humans are kind of suffering, most of us really suffering. And we’re messing up the planet. So, somehow, for me, the thing is that: OK, we need to become aware that we live in this precious, unique body and we live on this precious, unique Earth, and we need to feel connected – first with ourselves and then with the Earth, so that we can even be here. To live here and see the value in that, and love that which makes us then take care of it.
And somehow those themes are so important, no other intellectual concept seems to come in between those. I feel an emergency, so anything that I can do is somehow just to bring awareness to those things. Because, it’s another thing to know some facts and process that intellectually, but what my work does it brings you this experience of it, often a sensual, emotional experience towards yourself and then towards the planet.
How does that work when you do your healing thing? And can you explain the role of voice in that?
When I was growing up, I didn’t really get this society, like I don’t know why people are like this, why we do things like this. I thought that I can’t just fit in here, I don’t understand the way people live, somehow. Something is not clicking for me. I was studying music and I was singing, and I even finally went to the conservatory to study music: jazz vocal music in Rotterdam, and I was like “There’s something wrong.” I could not just stand on stage with the band and sing a nice song. I didn’t get it. I knew I had to sing, but it’s just not this, and it’s given as the only way if you want to sing. Then, while still in the conservatory, I started working with some very experimental Masters choreography students from the dance academy.
So, instead of getting into the music I was getting into the body. And, at the same time, I was learning this Chinese energy thing and doing yoga, and that’s when it all started to kind of blend in, like “OK, I cannot sing the way I should”, and I started then doing this improvisational thing where I would just let the voice go wherever it wanted. And I realised I really enjoyed that. And, um, that has been, kind of, my journey. I quit the conservatory and found this study between the Royal Art Academy in The Hague and the conservatory, and it was very, very free. Anything visual with anything with sound, and this is where I finally graduated after four years of doing all sorts of things. Yasmine Hugonnet, a Swiss-Italian choreographer who now lives in France, she really, profoundly affected what I do. Me without any dance background, I could join her classes and it would make sense.
So, instead of singing like a singer, I started singing like a performance artist, working with my own body. And then, while in the Netherlands, I went to this cranial chakral therapist, and she said that my energy was not in my body, but above my head – I could feel that spiral energy when improvising! And I asked her, what is this spiral thing above my head? She said, “it’s your life force, and it should be in your body!” So this may sound very esoteric and strange, but I needed to pull my energy fully into my body. And it’s been this journey of that and releasing my voice. When I say that I channel is that I have more and more learned to open so that I kind of empty myself. At that point, I really, deeply connect into the earth energetically to ground myself. Becoming this empty channel that then just transmits this energy as I see, completely free, just following whatever needs to happen, whatever comes out.
I didn’t really learn this from anyone, this combination. It’s been these years of exploring, years of coming into my body, of connecting with nature and with the Earth, and it’s still in process. I think it will be in process forever, like, just opening more and more.
Do you consider what you do as more of an artistic performance or an actual act of healing, or is it more? An internal kind of thing for you? Where does it flow and what does it give to you?
In general, I think creating something, whether you’re aware of energies or not, is always kind of healing. You sort of process things and let your subconscious work, and I think any kind of art is some sort of a healing process, as it is an act of creating something. But for me – when I do this stuff, it’s like I have a different kind of focus. If I’m going to perform at an art festival, I have to keep my artistic brain alive as well. Create a performance as an artist. Even though I intuitively think “OK, what is this about and what kinds of elements do I want to bring in?” But after I have brought some of those elements in, I work really physically and I need stuff that I work with, that are kind of direct. Different focus for different things. So for arts I need to have my artist self alive, and if I do purely like, meditative concerts where people have to lie down and I just sing and drum for them, play these crystal bowls and things, that’s more than that. I come as a healer, but it’s still artistically valid as well.
Of course, artistic meditative performances are very subjective to the audience, and this is the problem with nature healing or meditation – in the scientific way it’s not reproducible in the lab. How do you feel about that? Do you even care? Because if a placebo effect works as well, isn’t that a good thing?
Yes, that’s just as good. I don’t make any claims about my healing abilities or anything like that, it’s just when I again and again see what happens to people, how they process things, how they feel like – they transform in some way. I mean, you can’t really put my music in a laboratory and start off, you know, putting in molecules and figuring out what’s happening exactly. Then you could, sort of, measure what happens to people as they’re experiencing this thing and then again, they will have that experience. Whether it happens and why it happens don’t really matter. Really, it’s like if they feel like something gets released and they just get something profound out of it, then yeah, it works for me, doesn’t it?
I also don’t make any claim that my voice would do specifically some things. I use layered sounds and a little bit of technology, I have a loop machine and several layers of my voice and I can sing pretty high. I can sing quite low. And that’s what I mean, making it artistically valid – it’s not just an intuitive type of thing. I have some of my technical tools and it has a musical quality to it. OK, I say it’s high quality, but it’s more like any kind of movement is already precious. Any kind of sound is precious. Any kind of release you can get a little bit like, “ooh, wow, I released my thoughts for a second” – that’s valid and valuable and precious for me.
One of the important things for me would be to get rid of this black and white thinking in this world, because it’s very polarised right now. It’s like you’re either a spiritual person or you’re not. And I like to move in between these things, and have both as a possibility, rather than either or. Because what we need is more of an inclusive world where we can have several truths at the same time. To start being able to hold both. I think then we might find much wiser, richer solutions to everything. If we could get people who think completely different about stuff to somehow start coming towards each other and interacting, then we might find new solutions that you cannot find in those separate ends, only when you bring them together, when you let them merge.
Next: seasons. I was looking at your website, and the images of your work don’t show much autumn or winter – it’s all lush and green. Do you think that now that nature is sort of awake again, is it somehow closer to heart, when you think about the animistic and the naturalist side of being in touch with your body?
Well, I have always been really a Winter person. I just haven’t updated my website in a bit! But of course, it’s harder to connect your body directly to nature in the winter, because of the snow and the cold. But I’d also love to explore that. And will probably explore that even more, like: how does the body react to the cold? I find it very beautiful. I love Winter, the real magic Winter that we have that transforms all the sounds and forms. You can have a more intimate connection with the earth during the Summer, to really get in touch with the Earth, and Winter is a bit more spiritual in a way. All the whiteness, the sparkles, you can see the night sky, it’s a bit more cosmic kind of season.
The most important part of having seasons is that natural cycles are important to us. Here, up in the North, when the sun barely shows during the Winter and doesn’t go down during the Summer. Same with moon cycles, nature reacts differently to a full moon than a new moon. And I think, somehow for me, it’s also important. Maybe it comes with age, to be present in what’s going on, and try to honour that. Because I feel more and more that life is constant transformation.
What I think we don’t have enough of in the modern world are portals of some sort of initiation. I feel it’s very, very valuable. Like, sometimes I hold a ceremony or a ritual, to release something, to leave something behind, big or small, and I go through some sort of process. And after that I step into something else again, something new again, walking just like step by step, but stepping over some kind of threshold. And so, the Midsummer is a beautiful time for that. And you can do these things in a playful way, it doesn’t have to be so super super serious. But it’s these kinds of times when I think we’re somehow more aware, like, wow, this is the longest night, the longest day of the whole year. Just appreciating that, just enjoying that. Appreciation of life or whatever you want, you can add to that with your Midsummer magic – make wishes or whatever. But you leave something behind from your life that you’re ready to let go and move towards the next phase. It doesn’t have to become something to obsess over. But it just comes down to this thing of being aware, like, OK, life is passing kind of quickly, so let’s just appreciate this moment, what we have.
Haparanda-based Meri Nikula (FIN/SWE) is an experimental vocalist, performance artist and transformational healer. Her own voice and body are the core elements of creation.
Find out more about her performances and her art at https://merinikula.com
Meri Nikula was talking online with Pasi Pirttiaho