The World Is Flat – 21st Century Landscape: Borders, Power and Truth

“I can change through exchanging with others, without losing or diluting my sense of self.”
Édouard Glissant, Archipelago

The World Is Flat. Digital, imaginary gallery space outdoors. Internet. 16.12.2022 – The End.

The World Is Flat – 21st Century Landscape: Borders, Power and Truth -exhibition studies barriers – economical, political, real, utopian and hyperreal landscape in 21st Century. In order to study that and the effects of internet and possibilities it provides, it really is here, consisting of bits and bytes on 3D image at this very website. Under provoking title The World Is Flat, there, in the middle of flat digital field next to forest, is a winding, riverlike path, under a pavilion roof that resembles clouds. When you step in to a space of roughly 4 x 4 meters, there’s a selection of artworks – different landscapes. The path ends with a small dining table and a trembling, pale block of tofu, vibrating soybeans on it. A closer look indicates, that almost all the works in exhibition present a mountain, hill or a river in some sense. A sort of archipelago of works, one could say.

Is the world really flat then at all, and what kind of relation should we have on barriers and borders? The pavilion is lacking walls, so the works are exposed to humidity, rain, temperatures, mold, microbes, animals and insects in a dangerous and risky way. And furthemore: it exists only in the internet – the portal trough which last pieces of foreigness collide. The title of the exhibition is a straight reference to Thomas L. Friedman’s book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (2005), where he describes the collision of geographical and symbolic barriers and celebrates globalisation. Friedman’s label is a metaphor for viewing the world as a level playing field, a term in commerce, where all competitors, except for labor, have an equal opportunity. The flat Earth model is also a real belief on the form of Earth, an archaic conception of our planets shape as a disk. Many ancient cultures subscribed to a flat Earth cosmography. Yet, rise of conspiracy theories (including beliefs, that the world is actually flat), extremist movements, science denialism and pseudoscience is fierce right now. Is it rage of suppressed and those left outside – “labor” – at the level playing field, or just a huge, violent trauma enactment?

The cover of Thomas L. Friedman’s book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (2005).  Thomas L. Friedman is an American, Middle East and economy specialised journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, and has written extensively on foreign affairs, global trade, the Middle East, globalization and environmental issues. In The World Is Flat he describes how physical and metaphorical barriers and borders on earth have collapsed in the early 21st century, starting with the collapse of Berlin Wall and ending with “the steroids”, digitalisation and wide access to internet, platforms and open source systems. In the cover of the book, ironically enough, 17th century discovery trip sailboats or merchant sailboats have reached the edge of the “flat world” and are falling to waterfall at the edge of nothingness.
Image of a compost – one suggestion to a new, resilient symbiocene microbe level landscape

“Friedman is right that there have been dramatic changes in the global economy, in the global landscape; in some directions, the world is much flatter than it has ever been — but the world is not flat — in many ways, it has been getting less flat.”, wrote Joseph E. Stiglitz in Making Globalisation Work (2007). He describes, how globalisation is deepening socio-economical gaps, making cultural heritages disappear, causing corporatism, consumerism, accelerating climate change and social inequality. The result of current anthropocene period and globalisation, lack of boundaries is in the worst scenarios just homogenization. This is a view where globalised world could be seen in the end as a huge, gold topped cultural rectum making everything inside it just unrecognizable paste. 

Denialism (and escapism) in behaviour psychology is a defence mechanism that helps to avoid psychologically too painful or uncomfortable reality. Mirriam-Webster defines denialism as “the practice of denying the existence, truth, or validity of something despite proof or strong evidence that it is real, true, or valid.” In that sense, denialism and extremist movements are coping mechanisms and a response to obvious threat – a form of effort to resilience in that sense – and simoltaneously result of real flatness of the world, that is, globalisation and it’s obvious current effects. As in imaginary The World Is Flat -exhibition we can see, many of the landscapes in art history and present are directly and succinctly directly tied to politics, ownership, power, building national identities and escapist ideals. They also hit the core of problems of globalisation and new technology – climate change, anthropocene, fears and threats of homogenization and simultaneous urgent and obvious need for resilient (ex)change and utopias in order to survive as species. This means tremblement and abandonment of fixed ideas, redefining and rethinking the borders.

The World is Flat — 21st century landscape: borders, power and truth surveys this idea and transformation of global landscape in practice from three, also historical angles: Akseli Gallen-Kallela´s Kempele (1903) and Chinese Qi Baishi, Snow mountain after rain (1928) represent traditional paintings and landscape, a photograph from Edward Burtynsky´s Anthropocene (cover) and piece from Twelve Ideal Cities – Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas (1971) by Superstudio are optional landscapes of modern times reaching to hidden reality and utopias and The Observer (1999-2019) video by Rebecca Allen takes these themes further commenting virtual, hyperreal present. As last there’s an image of current tremblement, a vibrating tofu – food – by Shih-Chieh Ilya LI and Escher Tsai. Soybean Futures converts global soybean futures index data into sound waves; the speaker’s vibrations shake the tofu on the installation, suggesting how these up-and-down fluctuations affect human life. Besides, eating, to tofu, is a huge earthquake and act of redefining and breaking boundaries between lifeforms and species.

Imaginary The World Is Flat -exhibition is curated by Heini Heikkilä (FI), Iiris Elena Rusi (FI), Mengyuan Zhang (CH) and Chun-Heng Wang (TW). Its ideas originate from studies in Aalto University, Visual Cultures, Curating and Contemporary Art (ViCCA), Curatorial Theories Extended by Head of ViCCA Patrizia Constantin.

But is it real? Does it exist?
(Image: Mengyuan Zhang)
The World Is Flat is set on a open hybrid nature landscape and has no walls. In the middle of ”space” there’s a winding path resembling river, western linear thinking and timeline of the exhibition, and the selected landscapes and art works are from historical, traditional, modern and hyperreal times, ending to 21st Century sculpture and wide open view to future and nature.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Keitele (1904), one of 4 copies.

The World Is Flat starts with the golden stage of Finnish art: Akseli Gallen-Kallela´s painting Keitele (1904). Gallen-Kallela was a centre figure of Finnish national-romantic art and political movement at his time, and had important role in creating Finnish national identity. He was both cosmopolitan and nationalist, in person present in actions, that led to independence from Russia, civil war and later both world wars.

Gallen-Kallela idealised Finnish nature and often contrasted innocent purity with evil, dirty and sexually complex or problematic in his works. Keitele is a hangoverish painting, made during a countryside escape from a wet several weeks trip to Central Europe with composer Jean Sibelius and finnish poet Eino Leino. Keitele is idyllic view to peaceful lake after rain, a small island and a lot of fresh water. There´s absolutely nothing dirty in it. Keitele is a calm, beautiful countryside idyll.

Laura Beloff describes idyll as a counterworld and idealised escapism or distraction from ongoing in herarticle Hybrid Ecology – To See The Forest For The Trees (2020) in Art as We Don’t Know It: ”An idyll is a good description of typical representations of natural environment in art throughout the 20th century. For example, a large amount of paintings by 20th century artists in the Nordic countries include elements of the natural environment such as trees and forest — One can say — that these images show a kind of counterworld that opposed the ongoing industrialisation of the time.”, Beloff writes.

In Gallen-Kallela´s case, the ongoing is present in the painting too, on the symbolic weird grey tracks on the lake. They are similar to tracks of Väinämöinen´s boat on a lake in his other works. Väinämöinen is a character from myth Kalevala, the god of chants, songs and poetry. In many stories Väinämöinen was the central figure at the birth of the world. In Gallen-Kallela´s works he appears as a very old man, with sexual desire and lust. In famous Aino-taru triptych (1891) young, innocent and naked woman Aino drowns herself to avoid him. The fear for something powerful taking over, capturing, owning, forcing and controlling is an image of Finland under Russia, Finland being compared with the purity of a young girl. The desire for national identity and safe borders are obvious, but the painting Keitele can also be seen as a very idealised escape from ugly reality – the boat isn’t visible at all, only the tracks it left. Something might have just happened.

Also Keitele painting is a typical anthropocene landscape. It is a view of an owner, someone counting his richness and resource, a human, just one among all the other species and lifeforms looking at the land and announcing, “this is my property.”

On the other side of the world from Keitele, a different use of land and landscape already had a long tradition. Chinese Shanshui (山水) -painting means literally “mountain” and “river”. Taoism used it as a philosophical vehicle for meditation. The composition had to have certain elements, a path (river), a threshold and a heart (mountain). “Shanshui occupied the forefront of Chinese art from the 10th century to the 18th century, until the late Qing Dynasty, when Western imperialistic forces came to China and forced out commercial trade through military power.” writes Lee Tzu-Tung (The transformation of modern Chinese landscape painting). Until that, shanshui paintings were available only for the richest people in power, and made by politicians to distract people from seeing the ongoing. Qi Bashi´s Snow mountain after rain (1928) is said to have western elements and influences from cubism. The Chinese New Culture Movement (新⽂文化運動) from the mid-1910s to 1920s aimed to eliminate all the bad habits inherited from “old China” and hence establish new ones. 

Qi Bashi, Snow mountain after rain (1928)

From these idyllic, political sweat and power dripping traditional landscapes western landscape drifted to varying differently ideas of escape, deception and anthropocene. Edward Burtynsky´s works could be almost described anti-idyllic – his beautiful photographs are revealing views a colonialist, owning class or any western consumer really might not like to see. Anthropocene is a multidisciplinary body of work by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. The project’s starting point is the research of an international body of scientists who argue that the Holocene epoch ended around 1950, and that we have officially entered the Anthropocene in recognition of profound and lasting human changes to the Earth’s system.


(n) The proposed current geological epoch, in which humans are the primary cause of permanent planetary change.

We have reached an unprecedented moment in planetary history. Humans now arguably change the Earth and its processes more than all other natural forces combined. Climate change, extinctions, invasive species, technofossils, anthroturbation, terraforming of land, and redirection of water are all part of the indelible human signature.”, defines Burtunsky´s Anthropocene related website (

On the other hand, the ideas of idyll and espcape developed further, too. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Italian design collective Superstudio protested modern by poking fun at the status quo and imagining its own utopias and dreamed of future with no buildings. In one of the utopian cities and ironically critical Twelve Ideal Cities – Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas by Superstudio (1971) there´s nothing but non-bodily comfort and eternity in bubbles drifting on the sky.  

Almost like life in hyperreality, CGI and games. Virtual reality of today takes idyll and escape to next level – new technologies are providing landscapes that exist only in virtual reality. They are true ”level playing grounds”, a result of mankind’s unlimited desire for immortality and comfort, curiosity, creativity and desire to play god. Digital reality is a world of no limits in any sense. Rebecca Allen draws viewers experience back to the abstracted nature of the natural landscape in The Observer, which is designed in opposition to these obsessions. Viewer becomes an observer to a closed artificial world and the life that inhabits it, and is unable to influence or change its pattern of events.

Edward Burtynsky: Anthropocene
Superstudio: Twelve Ideal Cities – Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas (1971)
Superstudio: Twelve Ideal Cities (1971)
Rebecca Allen’s The Observer (1999-2019) and landscape / enter / life (1999-2020) mark a voyeuristic return to Emergence: a computer system that Allen developed in the late 1990’s, able to generate artificial life – an AI system that simulates life-like behaviors of animated artificial lifeforms. With these works Allen has created new contemplative videos akin to moving paintings that form a narrative through synthetic, unfamiliar world.
Shih-Chieh Ilya LI, Escher Tsai: Soybean Futures (2019) (Speaker, Stainless Steel, QQ Tofu)

The illusionary path of The World Is Flat -exhibiton ends with a piece of tofu that vibrates by the sound of changes in stock markets, if the pixelated imaginatory birds or ants in our imaginary field haven’t ate it by now. ”The earth is trembling”, claimed writer, philosopher Edourd Glissant (1928 – 2011). Glissant was a French writer, poet, philosopher, and literary critic from Martinique. He is widely recognised as one of the most influential figures in Caribbean thought and cultural commentary and Francophone literature. ”Systems of thought have been demolished, and there are no more straight paths. There are endless floods, eruptions, earthquakes, fires. Today, the world is unpredictable and in such a world, utopia is necessary. But utopia needs trembling thinking: we cannot discuss utopia with fixed ideas. Today we are always the object of bombardment, of bombing, of events, news, and so on and so on. We cannot escape that. And we have to manage with that.” (Glissant & Orbist, The Archipelago conversations).

In order to do that, we must encounter each other. Edourd Glissant´s isolarii and concept of archipelago (a little cluster of islands) might as well work as a metaphor for countries and individuals, nationalities and borders, anything that is separated by more or less agreed and imaginary barriers, the ones drawn in the map, or the ones languages, national identities or history of violence and fear create forming the ”sea” in between each other. Archipelago works also in describing what ever creature and organism in universe – entity, anything that has borders. Even a cell has membrane to separate the interior of the cell from outside.

Nevertheless, when Edouard Glissant uses the word, he imagines something that exists in opposition to the staid constraints of the continents. It, drifting, must encounter the realities of different, foreign places. Glissant talks about essential creolization, a descriptor for two different cultures that mix with one another, producing something wholly new. These are central questions about the construction of identity, need of borders, memory, and the world we strive to create. Glissant concludes: “I can change through exchanging with others, without losing or diluting my sense of self.

This is where The World Is Flat wants to set a spotlight, in resilience – the must for essential change in western narrative and its fixed ideas. “Tremblement is neither incertitude nor fear. It is not what paralyzes us. Trembling thinking is the instinctual feeling that we must refuse all categories of fixed and imperial thought.”, Glissant writes.

The world is not flat, but it is, and it´s not yours, but it is – we need to build a new, symbiotic and symbiocene image of “me” and world. New landscape, that is healing the trauma of centuries of colonialism and abuse, but not denying them, and blooms on a logic of tremblement and dance – as a result of healthier attitude towards borders and fear.  

The World Is Flat -exhibition. Image: Menghuan Zhang.

The World Is Flat -exhibition and its curatorial research is by Heini Heikkilä (FI), Iiris Elena Rusi (FI), Mengyuan Zhang (CH) and Chun-Heng Wang (TW). Heini Heikkilä (FI) is a MA of literature, art history, semiology and writing (Helsinki University). Iiris Elena Rusi (FI) is a visual artist (TUAS Arts Academy). Mengyan Zhang (CH) is an Architecture student in Aalto University department of Architecture and Chung-Heng Wang (TW) is a visual artist and ViCCA student from Taiwan. Experimental, imaginary The World Is Flat -exhibiton was originated in Master Degree studies of ViCCA (Visual Cultures, Curating and Contemporary Art) in Aalto University, Finland in Curatorial Theories Extended by professor, Head of ViCCA Patrizia Constantin. Visual Cultures, Curating and Contemporary Art (ViCCA) is a two-year transdisciplinary Master’s Degree Programme at Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture in Finland.
”Art, visual culture and the forms of organisation that go into making them public cannot be described as a mirror of society but rather they are and always have been an active agent in worldmaking. Characterised by a strong transdisciplinary approach across art, science and technology, ViCCA offers access to emerging knowledge and practices at the intersections of multiple fields through an arts-driven engagement with societal, political, economic, ecological and philosophical concerns.” 3D images, visuals: Menghuan Zhang, text: Heini Heikkilä.

Taidejulkaisu Totuus. Suomen virallinen taidejulkaisu. Truth. The Art & Music Magazine of Finland.



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