by Manu SharmaMay 14, 2023
Imagine experiential art, created in-situ in the natural surroundings, and the location in question is an island! Helsinki Biennial did just this in its latest edition that is under way at the Vallisaari Island in Finland. Themed The Same Sea, the works reflect on the idea of interconnectedness. Despite the stark diversity and even disparity of our contemporary times, at a macro level humanity is connected with everything on the planet. And the metaphor of the sea quickly conveys this idea. “The sea is endlessly transforming; it changes depending on time, place and each individual situation – and still, it is the same, continuous layer of saltwater surrounding the continents, simultaneously connecting and separating us,” say Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola, curators of Helsinki Biennial.
Most works at the event have been especially commissioned and created at the location. The flow intends to unfold the conceptual framework as a puzzle, “you start from one piece, and continue building the whole, piece by piece, artist by artist”, as envisioned by the curators. In a unique collaborative effort, the biennial has taken place through partnerships with environmentalists, historians, forest administration and the Finnish Heritage Agency.
I speak to the curatorial duo on their vision and special attention of ecology through the event.
Rahul Kumar (RK): It is intriguing to hold an art event of this scale at an island location, in natural environment. How do the works at the biennale converse with the Vallisaari Island, both in terms of immediate physical environment and associated histories?
Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola (PS and TT): The Helsinki Biennial is entirely rooted in its location; Vallisaari has informed both the tangible and conceptual starting point for our curation. Many of the artworks are new commissions, so they have been placed in, and created for, specific locations - in genuine interaction with their surroundings. It has been a truly exhilarating experience to witness how each artist has embraced the island as a context. In terms of its immediate environment, many artists have actually incorporated elements of Vallisaari into the artwork itself; Katerina Grosse, for example, has used the former schoolhouse building and surrounding foliage as a canvas for her in-situ painting.
Beyond its physical environment, Vallisaari also brings forth many other themes related to its associated histories. Though humans have spent just a short period of time on the island, they have left a huge mark on it. Its military history has inspired artists like Baran Caginli and Maaria Wirkkala, whist others including Inga Meldere and Marja Kanervo have chosen to focus and add their artistic interventions specifically on the traces left by former inhabitants of the island.
RK: Merely balancing the curatorial vision and artistic practices is a challenge. How was it to work with multiple agencies and stake holders – environmentalists, historians, forest administration and the Finnish Heritage Agency?
PS and TT: Multifaceted cooperation is needed in the creation and exhibition of art on Vallisaari, in order to understand and respect its unique wildlife, flora and fauna. The idea and location for each artwork was not only evaluated from an artistic viewpoint, but from the perspectives of nature conservation, the preservation of historical buildings, and the safety of the visitors and the artworks. Whilst we are familiar to working with multiple stakeholders in our work as curators at Helsinki Art Museum, the biennial instigated new dialogues with organisations specifically concerned with the natural environment. It has been a lengthy and at times challenging experience, but ultimately a hugely rewarding one, with many learnings that can be applied to future Helsinki Biennial editions as well as other exhibitions and events within the public arena.
RK: Please explain the curatorial vision of the biennale, The Same Sea, and how did you work to bring together a diverse range of practitioners at one place? How did you adjust the plans given the pandemic conditions?
PS and TT: Interdependence is the concept which underpins our curatorial vision behind the Helsinki Biennial 2021. The Same Sea is a metaphor for interconnectedness: despite our diversity and differences, everything on our planet is irrevocably connected to everything else - and therefore dependent on one another. The sea is endlessly transforming; it changes depending on time, place and each individual situation – and still, it is the same, continuous layer of saltwater surrounding the continents, simultaneously connecting and separating us.
We approached the selection of the artists and artistic practices, as a puzzle: you start from one piece, and continue building the whole, piece by piece, artist by artist. The selection was based on individual artists we were confident could respond to the specific environment of the island. Over the past few years, we went on multiple expeditions to the island with the artists, discussing it as a context for art and seeking suitable locations for the artworks.
Like many other events across the word, the pandemic forced us to postpone the inaugural edition by one year, due to delays in construction and production. However, over the past 12 months the biennial team and our participating artists have worked tirelessly to realise the artworks as originally envisioned. This has been a challenge to the artists, but they also used the extra time to deepen and develop their concepts further.
RK: Please share with us instances that were specific and unique to this event in terms of ecological lens for showcasing the art, given each work was site specific and the fact that extraordinary effort was made to respect the environmental concerns of the island.
PS and TT: Our curatorial process at the Helsinki Biennial has been significantly affected by the ongoing societal discussion concerning the ecological crisis and its consequences. In the first stages of curating, we invited people from multidisciplinary research group, BIOS, to carry out a survey of the biennial’s socio-ecological impact and the Vallisaari Island as the location of the biennial.
In the practical organising of the event, our team was guided by an environmental coordinator who helped us with implementing sustainable and ecological practices, and engaged a bespoke programme from the Finnish EcoCompass Environmental Management System to direct our entire production and infrastructure.
The environmental impact of the biennial will be carefully assessed and measured, and this information will be put into use in the upcoming biennials. The carbon footprint resulting from travel will be closely monitored, but it is more difficult to measure the overall ecological impact of the materials used in the works, the working methods and ways of presentation. When selecting the artworks, we placed special emphasis on works based on performances, events and sound, while also paying close attention to the longevity and recyclability of the material-based works. We encouraged the artists to use low-carbon materials in their works and favour recycled, borrowed, found, and reusable materials whenever possible. We also tried to minimise the number of borrowed works that would need to be transported from abroad to Finland and back.
Certain artworks were adapted to Vallisaari’s environment. For example, the site for the sound installation of Cardiff & Miller had to be chosen carefully so as not to disturb the bat communities living on the island. And for the sculptural installation of ATTAKWAD, it was a challenge to find a tree that was dying but not yet fallen.
RK: Finally, what are the guiding principles and how do they “embrace the new era” through this event?
PS and TT: The Director of the Biennial, Maija Tanninen-Mattila, has stated that Helsinki Biennial operates with a future-orientated vision. The guiding principles underline the ways in which it aims to offer an alternative framework for art events in a post-pandemic world. For instance, the biennial has a responsibility towards the environment at its core, and is an example of how art can marry with nature’s elements. As a new event within a busy global art calendar, the biennial is dedicated to creating a new space for art and artists which encourages innovation and responsible action. This kind of environmental awareness is imperative within the art world. The past year has been an enlightening one for all of us, where many now realise, for example, that we can meet virtually without clocking up airmiles and contributing to our climate footprint. We need to rethink these pre-existing patterns of behaviour and continually look to reassess the norm.
The Helsinki Biennial 2021 will run until September 26, 2021.