An extensive programme of art, events, and digital initiatives at the first Helsinki Biennal
”Helsinki is a forward-thinking city, and the Helsinki Biennial is no exception,” tells director Maija Tanninen-Mattila.
2 Jul 2021

Vallisaari offers a truly unique experience in the Helsinki archipelago. Previously a military island, the last residents left in 1996 and now it remains uninhabited but rich with flora and fauna. This summer, it’s also the location for the first edition of international art event Helsinki Biennal, which will take place every two years.

As the director of the city’s museum of modern and contemporary art, Helsinki Art Museum (HAM), Maija Tanninen-Mattila has programmed exhibitions by artists including Gilbert & George, Yayoi Kusama, and Ai Weiwei, and most recently Katharina Grosse. She’s now also the director of Helsinki Biennal.

— We’re bringing together 41 artists from Finland and across the globe, she tells. The biennial is a major initiative by the City of Helsinki and Helsinki Art Museum. It opens up new possibilities for the Finnish art scene, which already has a strong connection with the international art world. Whilst Helsinki has always had a thriving arts scene, including our many galleries and museums, we hope the biennial will expand our artistic offering — for residents and international visitors alike. Helsinki is a forward-thinking city, and the Helsinki Biennial is no exception.

What are the highlights?

— It would be difficult to select just a few. However, I have admired how many of the artists have collaborated with local residents. For instance, Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s Helsinki Satellite Reef was crafted with over 3000 Helsinki citizens, from schoolchildren to care home residents. You can view their glistening coral reefs on Vallisaari and in the Oodi library, on the mainland.

Given the current situation, how do you handle the security aspects?

— A third of the artworks are positioned outdoors along marked trails, which enable unrestricted viewing conditions. However, our biennial staff are carefully monitoring the flow of visitors in the indoor installations; we have limited capacity for various rooms to allow for social distancing.

Speaking of the current situation, the digital programming has come to be a core part of the Biennial experience, to welcome international audiences.

— Digital artworks that feature in the Biennial can be encountered on the biennial website, including those by BIOS and Gustafsson&Haapoja. Several events will also be live-streamed on social media, and you can get to know the artists and artworks via audio and video interviews. We are also collaborating with Facebook Open Arts on some digital artworks as well as a podcast — more of that will be announced soon.

What else do you have coming?

— We have a host of events running across the summer, from Pasi Autio’s Bird Disco, to trips out at sea on an electric sailing boat with Antti Majava and energy philosopher Tere Vadén. Moreover, in August, Janet Echelman’s spectacular aerial sculpture 1.78 will be suspended above the city’s central Senate Square — something not to miss, says Tanninen-Mattila.

Dafna Maimon, Indigestibles, 2021