Abandoned for Decades, a Small and Ecologically Marvelous Island in Finland Is Home to the First-Ever Helsinki Biennial

The show's curators and artists began from the premise that the show's carbon footprint should be minimized.

Alicja Kwade, Big Be-Hide (2019). © Maija Toivanen HAM Helsinki Biennial 2021.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning paean to the natural world, The Overstory, American novelist Richard Powers describes, in Proustian detail, the rich and wondrous stratum of a forest floor. It’s a vital feature of a forest’s ecosystem, with dead wood’s natural decay playing an essential role in maintaining its health and stability. Constantly at work in the moist shadows beneath the understory, the forest floor is bustling with energy, activity—and noise.

What does the slow decomposition of organic matter sound like? Finnish artist Teemu Lehmsuruusu lets visitors to the inaugural edition of the Helsinki Biennial listen in on the life-giving hum of decay. His solar-powered artwork, House of Polypores (2021), picks up changes on the forest floor via a system of sensors and converts these movements, through organ pipes covered with self-grown mycelium bricks, into meditative drones.

Like most of the works in the Biennial, the piece is installed on Vallisaari Island, a stunning location in the Helsinki archipelago that, though only a 15-minute ferry ride from the city center, has only recently opened to visitors. Entangled by the region’s geopolitics, it was used as a military fortification by the Swedes in the 19th century, then the Russians, and finally by the Finnish army. Abandoned since the 1990s and cleared by the Finnish Defense Force in 2008, the island has grown so rich and diverse in nature that some areas were deemed off-limits by the biennial in order to protect the organisms that inhabit it.

Vallisaari, home to the Helsinki Biennial. Photo: Matti Pyykkö.

Vallisaari, home to the Helsinki Biennial. Photo: Matti Pyykkö.

“They’re very sensitive,” the biennial’s cocurator, Pirkko Siitari, told a group of journalists while pointing at a lake that has become a habitat to six different species of bats. “All works were developed with environmental concerns and local species in mind.”

Titled “The Same Sea” to evoke the interconnectivity of all life on Earth, the first Helsinki Biennial opened to the public on June 12 after a pandemic-related one-year delay and with the tall aim of leading the way in responsible exhibition-making. In line with Helsinki’s 2035 carbon neutrality goal, an EcoCompass sustainability management system, developed by the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation, has been in use by the biennial team since 2019. (The press trip, for which six journalists were flown in from England, Germany, Holland, and Spain, will be offset in accordance with its guidelines).

In practical terms, this translates to curators Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola focusing on local productions and video installations to reduce shipping. Two large-scale sculptural works by Berlin-based artist Alicja Kwade—Pars Pro Toto (2018), shown at the 57th Venice Biennale, and Big Be Hide (2019)—were transported to Vallisaari, but will join Helsinki’s public art collection with a permanent location on the mainland.

Paweł Althamer, <i>Seven Prisoners</i> (2020) © Maija Toivanen HAM Helsinki Biennial 2021

Paweł Althamer, Seven Prisoners (2020). © Maija Toivanen HAM Helsinki Biennial 2021.

Though abandoned, the island is not free of human activity. When invited to produce a work for the biennial, Paweł Althamer learned that inmates from the open prison on the adjacent island do maintenance work on Vallisaari. He cast six inmates to co-develop and star in the VR film Seven Prisoners (2020), with the seventh played by the artist himself. The result is a magical realist jailbreak adventure that brings the escapees closer to nature, their feminine sides, and themselves. The artwork’s second part is a “making-of” documentary providing insights into the working process, and is more an art-therapy session than strict storyboarding.

With the biennial’s many open-air installations, the breathtaking and potentially transformative experience of meandering through the island’s lush nature is a well-thought-out curatorial device. It is all the more meaningful, then, to encounter works that illustrate the disastrous effects of global warming on the archipelago.

Jaakko Niemelä’s installation Quay 6 (2021) consists of a bright red wooden platform. It is shaped like the stone quay it is poised over, supported by 20-foot-tall scaffolding to indicate where the sea level would be if Greenland’s northern ice sheet were to melt completely.

Samnang Khvay, <i>Preah Kunlong (The Way of the Spirit)</i> (2016–17). © Maija Toivanen HAM Helsinki Biennial 2021.

Samnang Khvay, Preah Kunlong (The Way of the Spirit) (2016–17). © Maija Toivanen HAM Helsinki Biennial 2021.

Elsewhere, artists mourn mankind’s lost connection with nature. The video installation Preah Kunlong (The Ay of the Spirit) (2016–17) by Samnang Khvay focuses on Cambodia’s indigenous Chong community and their rituals. Installed nearby, the work Here to Hear (2021) is the first artistic collaboration between Sámi dancers Birit and Katja Haarla and their mother, artist and activist Outi Pieski. Inside a cavernous former fortification, they invoke Sámi deities with bass-heavy electronica and traditional handicraft.

Marked by its former military use, Vallisaari Island is dotted with bunkers and gunpowder cellars, which now house some of the biennial’s artworks. (There’s also a complex system of underground tunnels crisscrossing the island, which remains inaccessible for now.)

The location’s history is engaged through a number of artworks that touch on soldiers’ experiences and PTSD. Hayoun Kwon’s poignant animation 489 Years (2016) is based on a South Korean soldier’s account of reconnaissance operations in the Demilitarized Zone between the South and the North. She recounts being saved from certain death by noticing the striking beauty of a flower growing out of a landmine he’d nearly detonated. It is estimated that it would take up to 489 years to clear the DMZ of its landmines.

Hayoun Kwon, <i>489 Years</i> (2016). © Maija Toivanen HAM Helsinki Biennial 2021.

Hayoun Kwon, 489 Years (2016). © Maija Toivanen HAM Helsinki Biennial 2021.

Elsewhere on the island, artworks are installed inside the abandoned standard-issue apartments of the Pilot’s House. A series of oil landscapes, still lifes, and a self-portrait in uniform by Topi Kautonen are hung on the walls of the unit in which he used to live when he served as the army’s meteorologist on the island, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and drew inspiration from its dramatic shorelines.

Kautonen, who later worked as a museum guard, died in 2011. He never got to see his works return to the environment that had inspired them. If the biennial’s approach is any indication, the natural sceneries he had captured will remain protected.

The Helsinki Biennial: The Same Sea” is open through September 26, 2021.

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