Helsinki Biennal: green culture

In spring 2020 Helsinki will host the first art Biennial on the former military island of Vallisaari. One of many programme items in the cultural strategy of the Finnish capital, which also wants to be CO2-neutral by 2035.

Biennials are currently the big seller in city marketing worldwide. Every year, biennials for art, design and architecture open in different locations. Besides the 2018 biennial in Riga, Toronto also celebrated a new art biennial this year. There are now more than 100 biennials worldwide and the tendency to select new locations for art is on the rise. 1 Because wherever cultural exchange takes place, space is created for new ideas, and different approaches to solving social, socio-cultural and political issues can be devised.

Since spring of this year, it has been known that a biennial for contemporary art will also take place in the Finnish capital Helsinki in June 2020. Maija Tanninen-Mattila, Director of the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM), is also Director of the Helsinki Biennial and has an overarching vision for the city in the far north: “We are the art museum of the city of Helsinki and we are happy to be arranging the first Helsinki Biennial on the island of Vallisaari. It is a great challenge to make the island accessible for art. Helsinki is very much defined by culture at the moment. That’s part of the strategy. The city is supporting our project with 7.5 million euros and a private foundation donates an additional 2.5 million euros – we can certainly do something with that.”

"Helsinki is very much defined by culture at the moment. That's part of the strategy." Maija Tanninen-Mattila

Ten million euros is a tidy sum. But the money is not only invested in works of art. A large portion of the budget is going to public transport and infrastructure on the mystical-looking former military island of Vallisaari, as there is not much there apart from a ferry connection from Helsinki, empty huts and country lanes.

As about 300,000 visitors are expected to descend on Vallisaari next year to admire art and nature, old ammunition cellars and catacombs must first be cleared out and prepared for the public. Water pipes must be laid from the mainland while at the same time efforts must be taken to ensure that the island, which is a protected nature reserve, does not suffer from the Biennial and its preparations. The island is home to rare bird species, bats and over 300 species of butterflies. No tree, branch or twig is to be damaged. A real challenge for the organisers and curators Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola, who also had to find the right artists for this special place.

“In the Nordic countries there is the concept of ‘Everyman’s right’, which gives everyone the right to do certain things in public,” says Pirkko Siitari during a visit to the island. “Take the forest, for example: no matter who owns the forest, you can pick berries or mushrooms. Nature is there for everyone”.

This is exactly the concept, that the Biennial follows. The 35 selected artists are all inspired by nature. The aim is to convey how important the preservation of nature is in today’s society. Taru Tappola: “Of course it is about the acute challenges we humans face when it comes to global warming and changes in nature. But we don’t want the artists to demonstrate this only in their works. It’s more about doing so subconsciously.”

Helsinki has set itself the goal of being climate neutral by 2035. It intends to achieve this target by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Helsinki by 80 percent. The remaining 20 percent are to be offset by renewable energy projects in regions outside the city.

The organisers share the goal of the city of Helsinki and are seeking to make the organisation and logistics of the Biennial as sustainable as possible. “Of course, this doesn’t work everywhere yet, but it will work for the art production that is done directly on the island,” says Pirkko Siitari. About 80% of the artworks are produced directly on the island and will be exhibited in Helsinki after the Biennial, reducing expensive transportation considerably. Half of the artworks come from Finnish artists such as Pavel Althamer and Hanna Tuulikki, and the other half from international artists such as Alicia Kwade, Katharina Grosse and Mario Rizzi.

"The island here is definitely not a white cube.” Pirkko Siitari

The works will be on display both in the former ammunition depots and out in the open. But the many catacombs and meadows on Vallisaari are still empty. There has not yet been any news about what exactly will be exhibited here.  “Some artists will combine indoor and outdoor space in their sound installations, video works and installations. But the island here is definitely not a white cube,” say both curators.

As with most museums and cultural institutions in Helsinki, admission to the Biennial will be free. Unrestricted access to culture is one of the strategies of the City of Helsinki and the Department of Helsinki Marketing, which, in addition to the city’s external image, also takes care of cultural promotion and sustainability projects.

The importance of culture in Helsinki can be seen in the many contemporary art museums, such as Kiasma, Amos Rex or HAM, and especially in the fact that the cultural institutions are always crowded. The Oodi central library in the city centre, which opened in 2018, attracts over 10,000 visitors every day to read, drink coffee or simply meet. The impressive building’s terrace offers a wonderful view of a large, car-free green square and other important cultural facilities.

It’s not only here that you get the feeling of being in a model city of the future, in which culture and sustainability are at least as important as economic and technological progress.