Not many opportunities are given to critically examine the intentions and ambitions of the first Helsinki Biennial, which finally has opened after being postponed in 2020. Themes such as accessibility, belonging, interdependence, and a common drive to overcome crises, be it COVID-19 or the pre-eminent threat of an ecological disaster, stand as irrefutable truths.
The biennial’s title, The Same Sea, metaphorically describes the situation where no one can renounce involvement in or responsibility for the current situation in the world. The only thing that can be discussed is in what capacity and to what extent we engage, realise our privileged position in the ecosystem, and begin to act.
The biennial is also the flagship of Helsinki’s development strategy, part of the city’s waterfront identity and ambition to be attractive in the right way. Here, art is a means to an end, a tool for creating the right conditions for a good life. It’s a safe and secure activity, ecologically sustainable and respectful of all forms of cultural diversity. Empathic.
The idea of an internationally relevant biennial has long preoccupied the city’s art and cultural circles. The equivalent in performing arts and music, the Helsinki Festival, has been one of the highlights of late summer since 1968. The closest equivalent in visual arts are the ARS exhibitions, organised by Kiasma (formerly known as the Finnish National Gallery) in Helsinki at slightly irregular intervals since 1969. Small-scale biennials and triennials have long been established in smaller cities, such as Turku, Rauma, Porvoo, and Mänttä.
The Helsinki Biennial is situated on the island of Vallisaari, in the small and scattered archipelago that the city now wants to make part of its cultural-urban profile. This integration of artworks in natural environments lends the project a hypothetical air, that of a site-specifically produced sculpture park. This is also linked to the biennial’s use of the island’s military history as a rhetorical starting point: many references are made to the settlements, the island’s social history, and relation to the surrounding external reality. To ensure the promised sustainability, the project has been produced in collaboration with and under review by the Finnish Forest Administration (Metsähallitus) and the Finnish Heritage Agency.
Of the forty-one participating artists and groups, one-third have worked in places other than Vallisaari, and many parts of the event also take place online. The thirty or so projects on display on the island are grouped around a three-kilometre-long walk through lush, and in many places overgrown, landscapes. The works can be divided into four types: those installed in previous residential buildings; works that make use of old ammunition depots; a handful of free-standing sculptural installations; and finally, performance-based works that involve the visitors in site-specific activities.
It is not a sculpture park, then. Although Tadashi Kawamata’s lighthouse, Jaakko Niemelä’s quay construction, as well as Alicja Kwadje and Laura Könönen’s stone installations all have qualities that would meet the requirements for one. Katarina Grosse’s spray-painting of the island’s old school also attracts attention in the midst of the greenery. These are all physical markings that more or less relate to the theme of the biennial.
The most successful spatial dialogues in the chilly old arms depots are made by Tomas A Laitinen, the trio Honkasalo/Niemi/Virtanen, Maaria Wirkkala, and Outi Pieski with her daughters Birit and Katja Haarla. They have all managed to create intimacy and a sense of materiality that make the spaces come to life. But in too many cases, the idea seems to have been to make the space function mainly as a public place, with flexible technical solutions for video projections.
Unfortunately, the same applies to many of the works displayed in former residential buildings. Dilapidated apartments have been filled with video projections, documentary photos, or other remnants and traces of a lived life. A far too fragile installation in the abandoned rooms by Marja Kanervo has been transferred to a video shown in a separate container outside the building. Pavel Althamer’s film about escapees in striped prison suits borders on the tragicomic. It was filmed on-site at the open prison on the neighbouring island of Suomenlinna with inmates serving their sentences. Biennial visitors can also participate virtually in the escape in a separate tent.
Thus, the island’s specificity and genius loci are never really established in the works. Perhaps the greatest potential for this is in the as yet unrealised sound-based works that will take place in the middle of nature: Teemu Lehmusruusu will convey the sound of mushrooms and rotten wood in a tower construction; Pasi Autio’s Bird Disco is planned to take place regularly over a few summer weeks with a simple technical construction and audience participation; Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s still unfinished installation with twenty-two speakers in a forest clearing is based on music by Arvo Pärt; and Samir Bhowmik and will invite visitors on a dramaturgical exploration in search of lost islands.
The importance of sound is prominent in the biennial as a whole and many of the works have more or less integrated audio-based elements. This gives several of the installations a specific atmosphere that opens up for an almost ritualistic rhythm, especially in relation to the soundscape of the surrounding nature.
Ultimately, the ritual as an aesthetic element is precisely what appears characteristic and relevant here, especially in relation to the dystopian theme in which the biennial is rooted. The ritualisation of the relationship to that which cannot be mastered, the pursuit of authenticity and participation, approximates an apology before nature. This is reinforced mainly by three not entirely new works depicting realities which have only now reached Finnish shores: Wanuri Kahiu’s sci-fi film Pumzi (2009) is about the struggle to save the last tree in Kenya; Hayon Kwon’s 3D animation 489 Days (2016) tells the tale of a beautiful flower that has grown stuck to a landmine in the Korean Demilitarised Zone; and Samnang Khvay’s video The Way of the Spirit (2016) in which a dancer wearing animal masks in mythical landscapes tries to connect with the spirit of nature.
The quest for a deeper understanding of (and with) both time and place runs throughout the biennial. For better or worse, the relevance of anchoring the biennial on Vallisaari in particular mainly lies in the island’s being a combination of a place for city dwellers’ recreation and an arena for the production of new art. This is palpably and sensibly summed up in a comment by Laura Könönen, whose work No Heaven up in the Sky (2021) will be permanently installed in a city park later this autumn: “Vallisaari is nothing but an empty stage, in the middle of which nature continues its closed existence without humans. Around its closed centre, we walk along a narrow strip looking at empty ruins, searching for the past and understanding of the eternal chain of cause and effect. For a short while it is now the place where the sky fell down.”