Hilda Hellström's Eppur si muove


2 June 2014

There is something wry about taking the topic of "movement" – imbued as it is with thoughts of rapidity and dynamism – and using it to reflect on continental drift. Earth's tectonic plates move at roughly the rate that fingernails grow.

D'Days is Paris' annual summertime festival of design and its constituent exhibitions and talks are based around a unifying theme. This year that theme was movement. It was this that prompted Swedish designer Hilda Hellström, at the request of the city's Gallery S. Bensimon, to present work styled after continental drift.

Hellström's contribution to the festival was Eppur si muove ("And yet it moves"), a phrase supposedly uttered by Galileo Galilei in support of heliocentrism. Hellström's Eppur si muove was a solo exhibition containing two large-scale jesmonite maps. Together the maps form an atlas, one showing the world's makeup 250m years ago, the other based on a National Geographic prediction of what the world may look like 250m years in the future."It displays the movement of the earth's crust," says Hellström, "and those natural forces are a recurrent theme in all of my work."

Hellström graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2012 with The Materiality of a Natural Disaster, a project that produced clay vessels from the radioactive soil within the exclusion zone surrounding the Daiichi nuclear power plants in Fukushima, Japan. Since then her work has centred on her Sedimentation Series, vessels and urns made from nebulous pigmented jesmonite that reference geological strata in a heightened, magic-realist fashion.

The maps are made in a similar vein. Built on a plywood backdrop, the terrains they depict are made of layered slabs of the same swirling jesmonite that characterises the sedimentation series, locking together to form representations of the continents and rising and falling to create mountains and valleys. "They’re intended to look like a topography coming out of the wall," says Hellström.

Of the two, the map depicting the earth's past is the more traditional. Its jesmonite is cut into squares coloured with seams of green and white and its landmasses are familiar: North America is near fully-formed, while a recognisable Africa and South America are collided together into the now-lost continent of Gondwana.

The future map is less recognisable. It is built of layered triangles of white jesmonite – with blue veins like dolcelatte – which assemble into an angular continent from which landmass extends like tendrils. It is alien and discomforting, realised in unfamiliar colours for a map and unfamiliar shapes.

"I didn’t want to create classical atlases everyone could recognise, although the one from the past is more that way," says Hellström. "The squares resemble a more familiar topography, while the other is far more futuristic in both shape and colours. It made sense to have the triangle system for the future in my head: it's a fantastical future."

The ornamentation of the atlases is a tie to the decorative qualities that have been evident throughout Hellström's work with jesmonite, especially at a time when she is beginning to push the material towards more functional purposes. Elsewhere in the exhibition are a series of tables that Hellström has created using the material as both a surface and structural element.

"I wanted to expand the Sedimentation Series and see how this works out," she says. "Also, that’s my education. I studied product design at the RCA so I don’t feel I need to just do these non-functional objects. I've enjoyed working with it in a more functional way."

With this increasing exploration of function, Hellström's atlases feel like a fitting culmination for one strand of her work with jesmonite. The series began as a take on the formation of geological strata, but with vivid colouration and patterning that was too surreal and otherworldly to be natural. It was, Hellström once said, an attempt to do something "even better than the real thing."

Eppur si muove seems a suitable endpoint for this idea. In her atlases, Hellström's jesmonite becomes the earth itself, albeit an earth that is stranger and more wonderful than that to which we are accustomed. If the Sedimentation Series presented hypothetical, quasi-magical rock formations, the atlases play this idea out on a grander scale: they represent how our world may have been and what it might become.