Highlights From Finland’s Top Art Extravaganza

When the very first Helsinki Biennial launched in 2021, it was a pretty local affair as the world was just emerging from the Covid 19 pandemic. So this year’s biennial, that runs until the fall, is in effect the first one to attract the world’s art lovers. And it’s free, in part to promote Helsinki’s visual art scene at home and abroad. While Helsinki has a long history of design and architecture, contemporary Finnish art is not as well known. The biennial aims to redress this and it has done so by transforming the Finnish capital into a vibrant hub of creativity. From awe-inspiring sculptures to mind-bending installations and captivating performances, this new biennial embraces both established and emerging artists in a mesmerizing showcase of artistic excellence.

Nature meets Art

The main exhibition of the Helsinki Biennial takes place on the beautiful Vallisaari Island, a 20 minute ferry ride from Helsinki. The island landscape is gorgeous and the biennial art trail is a sheer delight in such surroundings. One of 328 islands that form part of the city’s archipelago, it is a former Russian military base with some of the army buildings still in tact. In 1808, Russia captured Finland and built a fortress on the island to guard its new territory. Finland was an autonomous duchy of the Russian Empire until 1917, when it declared independence.

The island setting provides a unique and immersive environment for experiencing art, offering an interesting contrast to traditional gallery spaces. The other Biennial venue is indoors, at HAM (Helsinki Art Museum).

This second edition, New Directions May Emerge, is curated by Polish-born Joasia Krysa (formerly artistic director at Kunsthal Aarhus, Denmark) and produced by HAM. Around 50% of the work from 29 international artists and collectives are new commissions and site-specific works. Although themes are serious, including environmental damage, political conflict and the impact of technology, the artworks are engaging without being too didactic. The biennial title is from a quote by anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, who suggests we should learn from “noticing” other people, animals, plants, environment to find new ways of living in, and understanding, the world.

Exhibition highlights

Of the 15 artworks on Vallisaari Island, some are within the Russian historical stone gunpowder cellars, others outdoors.

In one gunpowder cellar, Spanish artist Asunción Molinos Gordo’s ¡Cuánto río allá arriba! is an assemblage of water pottery: pitchers, jugs, canteens, basins that are no longer used. The exhibition taking its name from Octavio Paz’s 1958 poem, “El cántaro roto” (The broken jug), questions the myth of progress and is still relevant today where water, a basic human right, is traded on Wall Street.

In another cellar, Finnish artist Jenna Sutela’s Pond Brain, a water-filled bronze bowl with the shape of the artist’s head inside, invites visitors to rub it in order “to make it sing.”

In Sanctuary Mist, Helsinki-based artists Sasha Huber and Petri Saarikko create a mysterious mist above the surface of a pond that was excavated by the Russians for drinking water. The idyllic setting belies the potential perils below: weapons that lie in the pond.

Sámi artist Matti Aikio looks at indigenous issues in his film Oikos. Reindeers, frozen Lapland landscape and atmospheric music highlight the conflicts around the use of natural resources, nature conservation and energy production. He makes the astute observation that “we seem to be blind to the fact that there are not enough minerals for even one generation of electric cars on a global scale. Modern society is destroying ecosystems on indigenous lands for the sake of economic gains and fossil free energy.”

Outdoors in the trees and on walls, Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas has created a site-specific sculptural work called The End of Imagination. Fifteen misshapen, mixed media bird nest like sculptures are scattered around the island, inspiring a treasure hunt situation.

A wooden hut shows British artist Suzanne Treister’s series Technoshamanic Systems: New Cosmological Models for Survival, 185 watercolor paintings that suggest alternative visions of survival on earth and inhabitation of the cosmos.

Finnish artist Tuula Närhinen’s colorful work The Plastic Horizon (2019–23), highlights the tragedy of oceans filled with plastic waste. Sourced from beach- combing expeditions, the installation of discarded straws, bottle tops, toys etc is arranged by color, running the length of the stone building.

In HAM Helsinki Art Museum, works by Diana Policarpo, Bita Razavi, Tabita Rezaire, Tuula Närhinen and INTERPRT have taken over the large arched halls and a gallery space. Especially striking is Diana Policarpo’s massive, rock-like installation while Tuula Närhinen has gathered artefacts from the shores of the River Thames in London.

Other Helsinki Art and Design venues to visit

The Amos Rex museum was built for the 1940 Olympics which of course didn’t happen because of WWII. Known as “the glass palace,” the striking Modernist building opened as contemporary art gallery in 2018 and is now the most visited art museum in Finland. The current show (0n until 20 August), Generation 2023 invited creators aged 15–23 to take part in the exhibition’s open call. From 1,004 work proposals the jury selected 50 artists to participate in the exhibition. Work is wide ranging from gathering confessions to everyday observations of a fragment collector, from knitted diaries to monster outfits and photography.

Striking modern architecture including sleek lines, expansive windows and walkways of the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, provides a captivating backdrop for the artworks. The permanent collection includes Finnish and international artists like Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Elina Brotherus, Marlene Dumas, Mona Hatoum, Jaume Plensa and Ai Weiwei. The current temporary show is Bold Journey, a major retrospective on Tom of Finland, whose drawings of happy gay men proudly enjoying their sexuality were revolutionary at a time when homosexuality was a crime.

The grand Ateneum Art Museum, with Finland’s oldest and largest collection of art, has reopened after a renovation with a great exhibition of the nineteenth century Finnish painter Albert Edelfelt. The Ateneum’s permanent collection includes more than 30,000 national treasures from Finnish artists like Helene Schjerfbeck and Ellen Thesleff, as well as international masterpieces from Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh.

The Design Museum, one of the oldest design museums in the world, in a stunning neo-gothic red brick building, holds thousands of fascinating objects and its exhibitions span various design disciplines, from iconic furniture pieces by Alvar Aalto to the Marimekko dress worn by Jackie Kennedy to cutting-edge contemporary designs. The current show In the Bordelands features incredible textiles by Kustaa Saksi created with an unusual jacquard weaving technique. A number of large works specially commissioned for the exhibition are on show, each one telling a story.

Helsinki Biennial, until 17 September 2023 on Vallisaari Island and until 23 October at HAM. Free admission. Opening hours: Vallisaari Island Mon closed, Tues–Sun 11–18:00. HAM Mon closed, Tues 10–17.30, Wed–Su 11.30–19:00. Ferry tickets to Vallisaari Island are 19.89 euros return.

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