Helsinki, Finland

Honkasalo-Niemi-Virtanen, Lazarus (detail), 2021, mixed media. Installation view. From the Helsinki Biennial. Photo: Maija Toivanen.

Honkasalo-Niemi-Virtanen, Lazarus (detail), 2021, mixed media. Installation view. From the Helsinki Biennial. Photo: Maija Toivanen.

Helsinki Biennial


In his 1984 poem “The Same Sea in Us All,” Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski wrote about the ocean as something that both unites and separates. Organized by the Helsinki Art Museum’s Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola and taking inspiration from Kaplinski, the inaugural Helsinki Biennial, “The Same Sea,” brings the works of more than forty artists and collectives to the island of Vallisaari, a short ferry ride from the mainland. With a budget of seven million euros and free admission, the biennial is the largest contemporary art event in Finland today. Beyond its maritime theme, the exhibition tackles the former military island’s history and its ecosystems. Since the seventeenth century, Vallisaari has served as a home for seal hunters, seafarers, and Russian soldiers, as well as for Finnish army personnel and their families. Long off-limits to the public, the island has since 2016 been opened up, but with strict controls to protect the fragile native wildlife. Even for many locals, the biennial offers an opportunity to explore Vallisaari’s built environment for the first time.

Alongside the island landscape itself, the gunpowder cellars, storehouses, barracks, and other old military buildings serve as exhibition spaces. Sámi artist Outi Pieski has turned the cellar of an old fort into an intimate space with her upbeat video installation Guhte gullá (Here to Hear), 2021, which combines traditional Sámi duodji (handicrafts) with contemporary dance. Cellar arches also strike a beautiful harmony with the installation ΨZone, 2021, by Tuomas A. Laitinen, who works with organic video imagery, ambient music, and glass sculptures. For the duration of the exhibition and beyond, Laitinen is broadcasting an online radio show, ΨFM, streaming once a month at the full moon. The program employs artificial intelligence to weave samples of vocals using medieval scales into a never-ending composition based on the recombinant logic of genetic information in living bodies.

Many of the biennial’s participants grapple with the island’s history via site-specific interventions. For instance, Katharina Grosse, with her installation Shutter Splinter, 2021, has marked the human impact on the island by painting the facade of a deserted schoolhouse, slated to be demolished, with blazing colors. Hayoun Kwon’s animated video 489 Years, 2016, meanwhile, resonates with the island’s military past, telling the story of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Similar themes emerge in a twenty-two-channel sound installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, first exhibited in Documenta 13. FOREST (for a thousand years . . . ), 2012, takes the audience on a journey to the history of forests that have served as sites for human and nonhuman lives in times of war and peace.

The sea as a classic symbol for life and death presides over a multimedia installation by the collective Honkasalo-Niemi-Virtanen. The group, which consists of visual artist Felicia Honkasalo, musician and artist Akuliina Niemi, and dramaturge Sinna Virtanen, has made a name for itself with skillfully constructed works combining art and theater, often featuring a tactful deployment of sound and music. Lazarus, 2021, includes glass sculptures, neon signs, sound, and two videos; one depicts a man describing a medical phenomenon in which a deceased patient experiences an abrupt return of cardiac activity. Conjuring medical questions of life and death, Lazarus echoes Kaplinski’s poem, according to which the sea does not just surround us. It lives inside us as a force that is “red / dark / warm.”