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The Helsinki Biennial sets precedent for social and ecological sensitivity

Curator Joasia Krysa talks to STIR about the upcoming Helsinki Biennial, titled New Directions May Emerge, and the idea of ecological revival.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Feb 13, 2023

The objective of art is to open the gates of the heart, inviting a deep feeling of inspiration, a wave of appreciation for being alive, right now, at this moment. The only other experience that can truly match this profound sense of overwhelm is the abundant beauty of nature—the intricate patterns on a leaf, the glittering sun on ocean waves. The Helsinki Biennial, an initiative organised by the Helsinki Art Museum, is bringing both these elements together in a standout event, scheduled to take place primarily on the Vallisaari Island from June 12 to September 17, 2023. The island, a part of a large archipelago, sits on the southern coast of Finland.

The Helsinki Biennial hosted its inaugural edition in 2021, and is a far younger venture compared to its veteran counterparts. For instance, the Venice Biennale, which can be traced back to the late 19th century. The advantage of such positioning allows the Helsinki Biennial to be inventive and experimental; which is precisely what the curatorial team has leveraged for its second edition. In a conversation with the curator, Joasia Krysa, STIR uncovers the ways in which the Helsinki Biennial is executing this experimental vision for their upcoming edition.

Adrian Villar Rojas, Mi familia muerta (My Dead Family), 2009, Adrian Villar Rojas | Helsinki Biennial | Joasia Krysa|STIRworld
Mi familia muerta (My Dead Family), 2009, Adrian Villar Rojas Image: Carla Barbero; Courtesy of Helsinki Biennial and Adrian Villar Rojas

Krysa is a Polish-born curator, currently based in the UK. Previously, she has worked as a co-curator on the Liverpool Biennial of 2016 and was also on the curatorial team of Documenta 13. The upcoming Helsinki Biennial, titled New Directions May Emerge, is derived from a quote by anthropologist Anna Tsing, who comments on the immense resilience of nature and its ecosystems in the face of severe adversity.

Krysa says, “I really like this idea that renewal is possible and that new directions might emerge, even under what appears to be irresolvable problems of impending environmental disaster and ongoing capitalist exploitation. This possibility, then, allows for the biennial to be situated in the context of the Gulf of Finland, so thinking beyond the island, beyond Helsinki, thinking about what it connects to—geographically and in terms of wider issues—to Estonia, Russia, Sweden, Sámi land, and elsewhere, as well as to geopolitics, indigenous relations, and environmental damage. The Baltic Sea is the most contaminated water on the planet in terms of dumped military munitions, and this reflects the link between technology and war.”

The works selected for this Biennial are woven together in order to trace back to these issues with artists like Matti Aikio, who discusses indigenous land rights, and Emilija Skarnulyte, whose newly commissioned film Hypoxia, raises awareness about phosphorus levels in the Baltic Sea and its far-reaching effects.

Suorranaddame, Installation, HFT 2013, Hammerfest,  Matti Aikio | Helsinki Biennial | Joasia Krysa| STIRworld
Suorranaddame, Installation, HFT 2013, Hammerfest, Matti Aikio Image: Courtesy of Matti Aikio

The Helsinki archipelago makes for the perfect venue for an exhibition like this, encouraging sensitivity to our effect on the natural world, while in the midst of a stunning natural landscape. While the first edition of Helsinki Biennial placed a keen emphasis on environmental issues, this year, it will widen its purview to examine social and technological ecologies, as well. "So, firstly, in terms of environmental impact, this means sensitivity to the context of Vallisaari island where the main part of the biennial takes place, reducing the number of works included, making considered choices about what the kinds of works, the processes through which they are developed, and what happens to them once the exhibition is over. Many of the works on the island are constructed from local materials, and one of our proposals is that some works will integrate themselves back into the island and age with it," says Krysa.

Born in the first light of the morning [moswara’marapo], 2022, Installation, Dineo Seshee Bopape | Helsinki Biennial | Joasia Krysa| STIRworld
Born in the first light of the morning [moswara’marapo], 2022, Installation, Dineo Seshee Bopape Image: Agostino Osio; Courtesy of Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan and Dineo Seshee Bopape

The approach undertaken by the Helsinki Biennial serves as a framework for art festivals across the world—to adopt and take inspiration from—as we venture deeper into a world that seeks to integrate and align with our natural environment. For the second edition of the biennial show, artists like Lotta Petronella, Andre Villar Rojas, and many others, are creating interactions and installations that celebrate the natural diversity of the island. "The idea is to contribute to the development of the local arts ecology in Helsinki and internationally, to build sustainable collaborations, partnerships, and friendships, that will last beyond this edition of the biennial," adds Krysa.

Songs to Earth, Songs to Seeds, 2022, multichannel video installation, Sepideh Rahaa | Helsinki Biennial | Joasia Krysa | STIRworld
Songs to Earth, Songs to Seeds, 2022, multichannel video installation, Sepideh Rahaa Image: Courtesy of Helsinki Biennial and Sepideh Rahaa

After working on multiple biennials in different capacities, Krysa’s vision brings together lateral aspects of the festival's overall purpose. Krysa shares, "One of the challenges for biennials is to negotiate relations between the local and global, between their insides and outsides—responding to the 'art world' and at the same time their position in the local environment and in everyday life.”

A portrait of Joasia Krysa | Helsinki Biennial | Joasia Krysa| STIRworld
A portrait of Joasia Krysa Image: Verna Kovanen; Courtesy of Helsinki Biennial

The Helsinki Biennial - spread across Vallisaari Island, HAM Helsinki Art Museum and other venues and public places in the city - will open its doors to public on June 12 and run until September 17, 2023.

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