Big Be Hide by Alicja Kwade at the Helsinki Biennial 2021
Article may contain sponsored links

Island Inspiration: The Helsinki Biennial

Helsinki Biennial in Finland’s maritime capital city is the only international art event you need to know about.

Even the most avid art fans have long overlooked Helsinki as an artistic hub – but they won’t for much longer. If you’ve seen every gallery on home soil and are looking for international art events to spark your inspiration, look no further.

What is the Helsinki Biennial?

With the inaugural event in 2021, Helsinki joined a sturdy biennial (meaning “every other year”) club occupied by major art cities such as Sydney, Venice and Berlin. The event takes place amidst the unique surroundings of Vallisaari Island, offering a wild and mysterious backdrop to the creations of artists from Finland and around the world. The biennial was conceived with a future-orientated vision and a commitment to responsible exhibition-making.

If you can see yourself wandering through Vallisaari, looking out for artworks outdoors and inside historical buildings, gunpowder cellars, and empty residential buildings, Helsinki Biennial might just be the destination for you.

What makes the Helsinki Biennial special?

This prestigious new art exhibition in Helsinki is special thanks to the city’s peculiar geography and maritime history. Finland’s capital is fronted by more than 300 islands on the Baltic coast – some completely uninhabited and waiting to be utilised. The commitment to reinterpreting the coastal landscape is maintained after the event closes, and a new design and architecture museum will open in the city in years to come.

What was the theme of the 2023 Helsinki Biennial?

The Biennial’s second edition was titled “New Directions May Emerge” and curated by Joasia Krysa.

The catalogue’s introduction reads: “The biennial introduces three main conceptual threads: contamination, regeneration and agency. The Baltic Sea is one of the most contaminated waters in the world…yet, Helsinki Biennial proposes new layers of productive contamination as a cross-pollination between practices and ideas…and the concept of agency explores how human life, the environment and technologies can evolve together to produce new and unforeseen results”.

Which Artists Featured at the 2023 Helsinki Biennial?

This year’s event featured a cross-section of pertinent themes, contemplating the environment, pollution, colonialism, and many more.

Collective Zheng Mahler’s work explored the concept of ‘soil communities’, dedicated to the rich history of the subterranean. Dineo Seshee Bopape’s sculpture also spoke to the memory of the land, invoking connections to family and belonging, while soundpiece Red Forest alluded to the resilience of nature as it passes through these events in its history.

Elsewhere, Iranian-Finnish artist Sepideh Rahaa explored issues of food insecurity, clean water and nourishment alongside traditional methods of farming in the context of rice cultivation, and sandoponic garden PHOSfate demonstrated the potential of sand environments for growing crops.

Turning to the speculative, Emilija Škarnulytė’s film installation Hypoxia explored how oxygen depletion might affect how the ocean’s basin might look to a future archaeologist, while Keiken’s installation provided three different encounters of a spirit world, inspired by the collective’s visit to Thailand.

Keeping your eyes peeled was essential at 2023’s Helsinki Biennial; visitors could find all 15 of Adrián Villar Rojas’ sculptures scattered around Vallisaari Island, while Sonya Lindfors’s social choreography piece common moves took place in several sites across Helsinki.

By Judy Cogan. Photos by Maija Toivanen, Helsinki Biennial 2021