Swedish artist Henrik Håkansson’s film The Beetle – commissioned by IHME, one of the largest annual contemporary art festivals in Finland – presents itself with rotating semi-narrative and non-narrative sequences. Despite this experimental format, the 82-minute piece was screened as a motion picture at the festival; the film posters and theatre setting suggesting that hylochares cruentatus was making an appearance as a movie star.
This particular beetle was thought to be extinct, but was rediscovered in Vantaa outside Helsinki in 2004. By addressing its subjectivity, Håkansson draws reference to the current interest in post-humanist and eco-critical art. For instance, the film uses narrative sequences to explain how the world might be experienced by the beetle. Of course, Håkansson has addressed environmental issues in his art since the early 1990s, and there are attributes in The Beetle which echo his earlier work, such as his fondness for music and sound.
The music for The Beetle is based on a live show by composer and electronic musician Mika Vainio, recorded prior to his death in 2017. The buzzing and vibrating sounds are heard in between the calm panorama sequences presenting the habitat of hylochares cruentatus in the river Mätäjoki. Also, Håkansson has filmed the beetle on a surface where it was possible to record its movements, and the sound of the beetle jumping has been mixed into the music. The resulting soundscape creates a powerful sensation of space as it crescendos, while the beetle performs for the camera by stretching its legs and showing its magnificent wings. The sight-oriented human experience is questioned by the sonorous representation of space and its experience as resonance.
The IHME also screened two older pieces by Håkansson. The End (2011) shows a fly in a studio setting, while Birdconcert Oct. 23, 2005 (Carduelis carduelis) Part 1, a Frieze commission from 2005, shows a goldfinch’s concert in the Royal Academy of Music in London. Like in The Beetle, Birdconcert lets the animal Other take the part of a celebrated subject, this time a singing diva. Hilariously, the bird seems to comment on the tradition of the avant-garde, as it refuses to sing to its audience.
While The Beetle and Birdconcert place animals in the spotlight, the drama in The End is different. The accelerating and expressive music depicts the death throes of a fly as multiple insects are seen meeting their deaths by flyflap. In a sense, The Fly is less eco-critical than the two other works. Even the music echoes institutional aesthetics, as it relies on the established narrative conventions of film music. The Beetle, on the other hand, uses music to create ambiance, which suggests a philosophical use of film music as a concept, rather than a narrative tool.
Many scholars have pointed out that the environmental crisis is essentially a cultural crisis. With its cinematic form, The Beetle questions the current idea of culture and cultural institutions constructed by humans. Håkansson is also spot-on when he turns to musicians and composers in trying to articulate the life of the non-human Other. Not only does eco-critically oriented music have potential for depicting the intuitive experience of human beings – for example, the way the atmosphere transforms as the climate changes – but it can also help us to try to imagine non-human life. After all, music has a connection to an intuitive and archaic experience which ties humans and non-human animals together.