Big Be Hide by Alicja Kwade at the Helsinki Biennial 2021
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Island Inspiration: The Inaugural Helsinki Biennial

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

The inaugural event is taking place right now amidst the unique surroundings of Vallisaari Island with 41 individual artists (and some groups) from Finland and 27 other countries around the world. Exhibiting until 26 September, if you can see yourself wandering through Vallisaari on a last-minute trip, look out for artworks along a marked trail outdoors and inside historical buildings, gunpowder cellars, and empty residential buildings. To make the event accessible to all, and to shrug off art’s elitist rep, entry is free of charge. Here’s a rundown on what you need to know about how to embrace Hellsinki’s debut art biennial.

What’s Helsinki Biennial 2021 About?

The inaugural edition of the Helsinki Biennial is titled “The Same Sea” and curated by Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola. The head curators at the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM), who explain: “The ecological crisis means we are now on the cusp of enormous changes and this is defining our common future everywhere. The biennial’s [title] refers to this situation, which concerns everyone but affects different places in different ways. Like the sea, it is a complex, inconstant entirety that bypasses all boundaries and appears different depending on the perspective.” Putting on an art event of this scale, at this time, is a ballsy thing to do. But the city is more than proving its metal in the global art arena.

Has This Been a Long Time in the Making?

In a word: yes. The biennial kicked off on Helsinki Day (12 June) with the aim of combining world-class art, eco-awareness, and raw coastal surroundings and has been more hotly anticipated than most new editions to the international art calendar. After years in the making it is finally happening and there’s still time to lap up all its wonders. And it’s worth noting the biennial was conceived with a future-orientated vision and a commitment to responsible exhibition-making.

Where do You Need to go to See the Art?

In a positively joyous departure from the virtual events and online galleries of the past 18-months most of the art pieces are being displayed across the island of Vallisaari: a 15-minute ferry ride from the city centre. The island was a former military base off-limits to most Finns until it opened to the public in 2016. In the past it has played host to seafarers, pilots, seal hunters and a scattering of residents of the neighbouring islands, mainly military personnel and their families. The last remaining inhabitants left the island in 1996, and the site has been left mangled by tree felling, construction and explosions. For the artists it offers a wild and mysterious backdrop to their creations.

What Makes the Helsinki Biennial Different?

Helsinki joins a sturdy biennial (meaning “every other year”) club occupied by major art cities such as Sydney, Venice and Berlin. To stand out from the crowd, curators decided to lean into 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 will be maintained after the event closes and a new design and architecture museum will open in the city in years to come.

There’s a real eco-force driving the event. For example, during the de-installation process at the end of September, all the artworks will either be recycled, reused or retrieved by the artists themselves. All work on the island has been built during the daytime to avoid disrupting the native bat community with artificial lighting.

What Artists' Work Can You See There?

The exhibition promises to reflect on interdependence and eighty percent of the work on show will be new commissions or site-specific works inspired by artists previous visits to Vallisaari Island. The art is parallel with the nature and history of Vallisaari island surrounded by striking coastal landscapes.

Staying on point with the nautical theme highlights include Finnish artist Jaakko Niemelä’s large-scale installation that greets visitors off the ferry from mainland Helsinki; Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata’s lighthouse was constructed from scrap material found on the island and Janet Echelman, a renowned American sculptor, has created a structure that’s woven like a fishing net and is designed to swap in the wind.

Meanwhile Polish artist Pawel Althamer has created a short film mimicking a prison break on the nearby island of Suomenlinna. Others who have highlighted the terrain’s ruggedness: Polish-German artist Alicja Kwade with her sculpture “Big Be-Hide”, which features two huge mirrors and a boulder placed on a narrow peninsula by the sea, creating an optical illusion. The concept is said to form a commentary about our position in the universe, and a face-off between natural and artificial forms. While radical German artist Katharina Grosse’s work will span both the island and mainland.

Is There a Socially Distanced Version?

There’s no denying the fact the pandemic is still gripping the world. Already postponed from 2020 the Helsinki Biennial is largely outdoors, which should put many visitors' minds at rest, while indoor spaces will implement a carefully controlled visitor flow. The organisers have also implemented a hybrid model for the event with a comprehensive digital offering for those unable to attend in person: Quest Virtual Helsinki is a VR experience available from the Oculus store, and will transport global audiences to the heart of the excitement.

For more information and to plan a last-minute trip, visit the Helsinki Biennial website now

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