Helsinki Biennial embraces a new era

Viewed from a low level, shallow, rocky shoreline rising just above the sea in the foreground, Vallisaari island sits across the sea in the distance underneath a blue sky and pinkish clouds, bright sun shining from behind, but not above the island.
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The inaugural Helsinki Biennial 2021, is held on the Finnish archipelago, Vallisaari island, from 12 June – 26 September 2021. The biennial brings contemporary art to the former military island as well as further artworks on the city’s mainland. Helsini Biennial presents 41 artists and artist groups from Finland and across the globe, showcasing 75% new commissions and site-specific installations which engage with the cultural history, geopolitical location, and diverse environment of Vallisaari.

The biennial is proud to open to visitors after the challenges of the past year, and looks forward to welcoming international audiences as soon as travel restrictions allow, with a programme of digital and virtual activities enabling access from afar in the meantime. Whilst some artworks bring to life former gunpowder cellars and old residential buildings, approximately one third of the artworks on Vallisaari are sited outdoors along marked trails. All the artworks are visible when the biennial opened on June 12th and will remain open to the public in line with various Covid-19 scenarios.


This is a significant moment for the city of Helsinki and its residents. This biennial embodies the strength and ambition of Helsinki’s art scene and its position in the world as a city which values and champions creativity. We commend the Helsinki Biennial team for their unwavering efforts in bringing this world-class exhibition to life, during a time when we understand – now more than ever – the value art can bring to our citizens.

Jan Vapaavuori
Mayor of Helsinki
looking towards the camera, Mayor Jan Vapaavuori is sitting at a table in the Market Square, smiling whilst enjoying coffee on an overcast day.

Curated by Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola, head curators of Helsinki Art Museum (HAM), The Same Sea reflects upon the ever-pressing notion of interdependence. Artworks in the biennial explore diverse and topical themes ranging from humankind’s relationship to nature, time and change, borders and identities, and concepts of empathy.

Vallisaari forms the tangible and conceptual starting point for the curation of the 2021 biennial. Using the context of the island’s unique cultural history and natural environment, artworks have been placed in, and created for specific locations, in genuine interaction with their surroundings.

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Many of the sites on Vallisaari are incorporated into the artworks themselves. Dafna Maimon leads us through a cellar vault which have been transformed into a digestive system, and Tuomas A. Laitinen creates an alien habitat in a former gunpowder cellar. Samir Bhowmik hosts visitors on an expedition tracing the route of an imaginary subterranean and underwater cable which runs through the island. Sitting atop a former elevator shaft, Tadashi Kawamata’s Vallisaari Lighthouse offers a temporary, towering landmark comprised of found scrap material from Vallisaari, which can be seen from various viewpoints at sea, the neighbouring UNESCO heritage island of Suomenlinna, and the Helsinki waterfront.

Our relationship to the natural environment is explored further in other works. Greeting visitors as they arrive on the ferry from mainland Helsinki is Jaakko Niemelä’s installation Quay 6. Constructed from scaffolding and reaching six metres high, it mirrors the projected rise in sea level should Greenland’s northern ice sheet vanish completely. On the Eastern side of Vallisaari, Alicja Kwade’s Big Be-Hide is positioned on a thin strip of land that connects Vallisaari Island with the neighbouring Kuninkaansaari Island. The sculpture comprises two stones – one from Vallisaari and the other a man-made replica – either side of a mirror. The work poses questions about our place in the universe and highlights the continual transformation of the natural world.

Alicja Kwade's: Big Be-Hide 2019 art installation on Vallisaari island. Two large rocks, one silver, one ordinary, stand either side of a large mirror on a rocky shoreline under a grey and cloudy sky.
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Time and change and the imprint of Vallisaari’s former residents have provided ample inspiration for the biennial artists. Katharina Grosse’s in-situ painting and structure Shutter Splinter sweeps across the island’s old schoolhouse and the surrounding foliage. The building, unfit for human habitation for decades, will be dismantled following the biennial; yet the painting’s remaining traces will slowly vanish as the vegetation begins its new seasonal cycle. Grosse’s transient but visually striking intervention in the landscape is a reminder of the passage of time, evoking a dialogue at the intersection of cultural memory and natural process.Sámi artist Outi Pieski and dancers Birit Haarla and Katja Haarla present their first collaborative artwork Guhte gullá / Here to hear. Exploring the correlation between identity, place, and nature, the work asks: how can we mend our broken connection with the Earth? Drawing strength from the artists’ mother-daughter relationship, the work fills the vaulted basement of the Alexander Battery with dance, music and duodji, traditional Sámi crafts. Meanwhile, Hanna Tuulikki’s video installation looks at the concept of metsänpeitto (forest cover), a phenomenon in Finnish folklore where people go missing in nature, places become unfamiliar, and everything moves in reverse. Here the concept is used as a contemporary metaphor for the emotional trauma that comes with ecological awareness. The audio features a vocal improvisation based on traditional cow calling songs recorded on Hanna Tuulikki's now derelict family farm.

The desire for togetherness and empathy are central to the work of many biennial artists. Kyungwoo Chun’s two participatory works Bird Listener and Islands of Island are created with the help of biennial visitors: activating the role of the listener and narrator, the installations invite visitors to confront and discover themselves and others. The concept of empathy is also given further credence within the context of ecological ethics: inside the Alexander battery, Christine and Margaret Wertheim’s luminous Helsinki Satellite Reef simulates the undersea ecosystem and celebrates nature’s diversity as well as the power of collaboration. Made of recycled plastic, this handmade coral reef was created over time with more than 3,000 residents of Helsinki, manifesting as an urgent reminder of the vulnerability of coral reefs and their human-caused destruction. 

Katharina Grosse: Shutter Splinter, 2021. Commissioned by HAM/Helsinki Biennial 2021.
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Vallisaari – a unique paradise for urban nature 

Vallisaari is truly unique when it comes to urban nature. For many years Vallisaari was a military installation that was closed to the public. This allowed the nature on the island to thrive, especially as the plaster from the mortar used on the old military buildings created extremely fertile soil. Walking through this unique environment, it is easy to forget that you are just a 15-minute ferry ride away from Senate Square in the heart of the nation’s capital. Vallisaari is indeed the perfect destination for a short outing, especially for the wonderful views from the Alexander Battery.

Read more about the nature in Vallisaari.

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The inaugural Helsinki Biennial 2021, ‘The Same Sea’, will be held on the Finnish Archipelago, Vallisaari island, from 12 June – 26 September 2021.