“Not one grain of sand stirs without a shift in the shape of the universe: change one thing, and you will change everything.”
Wei Wulong, The Path of Tea, written in the 7th Century of Old Quian Time. Fictive quotation from the novel by Emmi Itäranta, Memory of Water.
We have chosen interconnectedness and the subsequent mutual dependence as the leading ideas of the first Helsinki Biennial. They provide a broad frame of reference for a number of different themes. These ideas seemed a very natural choice considering the current ecological crisis and also because Vallisaari is such a special location to work in.
We have entitled the inaugural Helsinki Biennial The Same Sea. The Same Sea is a metaphor for interconnectedness, which means that each thing and action has an impact on something else and supports the entirety. The ecological crisis has metaphorically brought us onto the shores of the same sea, but its consequences vary from one part of the world to the next, and it affects people and various species in fundamentally different ways.
Interconnectedness, and the mutual dependence that arises from it, are evident in the works presented at the biennial in many ways, and sometimes they are even reflected in the physical composition of the works.
Jaakko Niemelä’s large-scale installation greets visitors as they arrive on the ferry from mainland Helsinki and disembark at the northern quay of Vallisaari Island. The structure of the installation illustrates mutual interdependency: its various parts support each other – if one were removed, the entire tower would collapse. The work also provides a tangible sense of the threat posed by the rising sea levels. Similarly, instead of forming a seemingly chaotic heap, the materials used in Tadashi Kawamata’s lighthouse comprise a self-supporting entity. Janet Echelman’s work is in turn woven like a fishing net. When a breeze hits one part of the netted structure, the entire work starts to sway.
The sea is also the bridge that connects us to the main location of the biennial, Vallisaari island.
In other words, Vallisaari forms a starting point for the curators that is both tangible and conceptual. Vallisaari’s nature and cultural history are unique, and we have wanted to work in a site-specific way, placing the works in genuine interaction with the surroundings. Our goal has been to ensure that every work has a reason to be where it is.
In Vallisaari, the art works will be located along an old paved road that was used for artillery, either in old residential buildings and gunpowder cellars or in carefully chosen locations outdoors. Making and presenting art on Vallisaari requires complex cooperation with Metsähallitus, conservation biologists, and the Finnish Heritage Agency. The idea and site of each artwork have been evaluated from the point of view of nature conservation and preservation of historical buildings.
Art is parallel with the nature and history of Vallisaari island and opens up new, unexpected viewpoints of this magnificent environment. At the same time, it also mirrors our own times more broadly.
Sites as part of the artworks
Many of the sites are incorporated as part of the artworks, transporting the viewer to different realities. Dafna Maimon leads us through a series of cellar vaults that have been transformed into a digestive system. In the work by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, the woods surrounding the work assume the role of a narrator. Maaria Wirkkala will use the space of the vaulted cellars of the Alexander Battery building as a material in her installation, and Katharina Grosse will convert Vallisaari’s old derelict school building and its surroundings into a painting, while Alicja Kwade’s mirror will blend the horizons of the islands of Vallisaari and Kuninkaansaari.
The majority of artists will work on-site in Vallisaari, and what is more, the existing works we have chosen will also enter into a dialogue with the island. Works located on the mainland will also address the themes emerging from Vallisaari and the broader framework of the biennial, the idea of universal interconnectedness.
There are four themes and approaches related to Vallisaari island: relationship to nature, boundaries and identities, time and change, and empathy and community.
Relationship to nature
The global ecological crisis and Vallisaari’s unique environment have inspired many artists to work with our relationship with nature. Interconnection and interdependence are probably more tangible in this theme than anywhere else. The artists examine different natural processes, human relationships with other species, and various materials, elements and ecosystems such as water, soil and forests.
In Teemu Lehmuruusu’s work, technology enables contact with the organisms that live in the soil. It combines mycotecture – a structure made of mushrooms – with electronics and decaying wood. The anonymous art collective ATTAKWAD is interested in the polypores of the trees on Vallisaari. Tuomas A. Laitinen draws parallels between natural micro- and macro organisms and processes. His work functions like a living organism and will constantly transform during the biennial. The equality and interconnectedness of all living beings and inanimate nature is also at the heart of the works by Gustafsson & Haapoja. Their exhibition Museum of Becoming is on view at HAM Helsinki Art Museum through 17 January 2021. Antti Majava charts the past and the present of energy consumption, while Hanna Tuulikki examines the mythical dimensions of the Finnish forest in relation to reality and the illusion of national identity.
The biennial also features works that explore indigenous land rights. The works by Outi Pieski and Birit & Katja Haarla and Samnang Khvay examine how indigenous peoples’ bond with nature has been severed and how they are trying to re-establish that connection.
In the work by the art collective Honkasalo-Niemi-Virtanen, human life starts in the water, and it ultimately returns to the water. In Pumzi by Wanuri Kahiu, the vital role of water becomes tangible through its absence.
In our curatorial process, we have particularly benefited from discussions concerning the post-fossil world and ecological reconstruction with the BIOS Research Unit. We invited people from BIOS to carry out a survey of the biennial’s socio-ecological impact and Vallisaari Island as the location of the biennial. BIOS will be present on Vallisaari during the biennial: the researchers will open a research station in an old building by the fire station, introducing multidisciplinary ecological research and organizing discussion events on the relationship between the environment and the economy.
Boundaries and identities
Boundaries and identities are in many ways connected with Vallisaari both symbolically and more concretely. Historically, the island was fortified to secure national borders. The people on the island furthermore had to respect the boundaries within the island: there have been both restricted and unrestricted areas, and even today the island is divided into two parts – a recreational area that is open to the public and a closed conservation area. Joni Kärkkäinen and Jukka Tarvainen make reference to the dichotomous nature of Vallisaari Island in their work The Wall. Situated in the Töölönlahti Bay, the work is an invitation to cross borders. When re-contextualized on Vallisaari Island, Hayoun Kwon’s animation about the closed border zone between South and North Korea enters a dialogue with the island’s military history and the way its environment has reverted to its natural state.
Some of the participating artists explore how our identities are constructed through our homes, our sense of belonging, and the effect of our leaving a place. These themes are also connected to boundaries, violence, societal upheavals, human migrations and refugees. Mario Rizzi and Baran Caginli examine the loss of one’s home from the perspective of refugees. Caginli will also look at warfare, the boundaries it creates and their violent crossing. Uwa Iduozee investigates the question of identity between two countries. Vallisaari Island – being a defensive fort, on the one hand, and a result of various kinds of influences, on the other – can promote dialogue between different ways of thinking.
Some of the participating artists found inspiration for their themes from the daily lives of the past inhabitants of Vallisaari. Inga Meldere has collected memories from people who spent their childhood in the Pilots’ House from the 1950s to the 1970s. The research into the history of Vallisaari also led to the discovery of Topi Kautonen, who lived in the Pilots’ House with his family while working at the weather station of the Finnish Defence Forces from 1949 to 1965. On top of his day job, Kautonen was an artist who documented the landscapes of Vallisaari Island in his paintings, exploring different weather and lighting conditions. Kautonen’s works will return home for the duration of the biennial.
Time and change
The effects of human activities on Vallisaari Island have taken place in a short span of time, but they have had dramatic consequences. When the island was accessible to the inhabitants of the neighbouring islands, people used it for various purposes: as a pasture, a cemetery and a storage area. At some point, all the trees on the island were cut down. The topography has been mangled by explosions, earthworks and the expansion of the Kustaanmiekka seaway. The most recent change on the island was the construction of a plumbing and sewage system which connected the island to the mainland in 2019.
The construction of infrastructure can radically change the landscape and destroy entire geological layers. Samir Bhowmik examines this theme in his performative work which follows an imaginary underground cable running through Vallisaari Island. According to Bhowmik, the introduction of new infrastructure has not only destroyed the scenery but also erased the cultural memory of past generations. EGS meanwhile recreates islands that have been swallowed up as Helsinki has expanded, also adding a few fictive ones in the process. One of the islands will be located on Vallisaari, and the other seven in different parts of Helsinki.
We often conceptualize time and its passage – change – through material elements.
The human life span and its fleeting nature are made visible by Marja Kanervo’s through discarded objects and layers of dust in her work Block A. In Jussi Kivi’s installation, spaces and found objects conjure up a past which is examined from the perspective of an unknown future. Niskanen&Salo’s work transforms lights into sounds and music. The work was filmed at the turning point of the astronomical calendar, just before and after the summer solstice. This is when the amount of light, indicating the yearly cycle, remains the same for a short period of time.
Janet Echelman’s work is a reminder of the connection between time and the physical world. The name of the work refers to an earthquake which was so powerful that the resulting shift in the Earth’s mass shortened the planet’s revolution by 1.78 microseconds that day – consequently “erasing” the same amount of time from our chronology. The scale of the Geologic Calendar is made apparent in the cracking rocks by Sari Palosaari and the carefully whetted stone globes by Alicja Kwade. The veins, layers and colours within the rocks are evidence of their ancient creation processes. Laura Könönen’s work can also be understood as a symbolic description of change: it structures and truths which we have considered to be eternal and permanent. These may include our sense of security, conventional thinking, a belief or a way of life, which turn out to be unsustainable and irreversibly broken. The Place that was Promised is a work from IC-98’s Abendland series. The work refers to the demise of civilizations, empty promises and lost opportunities. From the human perspective, it is already too late – everyone seems to have vanished from the Earth without a trace. Human are surivived by plants and the rest of nature, which continue their existence and cycle of life at their own pace.
Empathy and community
The desire for togetherness and empathy are central to the work of many biennial artists. Empathy helps us understand the interconnectedness of the lives of us and others. In its various forms, art offers us an opportunity to learn and teach empathy.
Paweł Althamer created his work in collaboration with inmates of Suomenlinna prison. The inmates’ life stories serve as an exercise in empathy, just like Kuyngwoo Chun’s works, which focus on communication. One of Chun’s works invites you to listen to the birds, while in another, people are asked to write private messages which take on a communal character. Encounter is also at the heart of Meiju Niskala’s practice of radical empathy and collaborative work. Pasi Autio’s Bird Disco in turn juxtaposes collective fun with concern caused by the extinction of bird species. Rirkrit Tiravanija and Antto Melasniemi invite people to share a dinner in an installation that will be built at HAM-kulma.
At least 5,000 people from Helsinki are expected to take part in Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s communal project to crochet the Helsinki Satellite Reef. This is the largest number of participants that has contributed to this concept anywhere in the world. The people crocheting the coral reef will be able to identify with the slow rate at which a coral reef grows as innumerable organisms join together. At the same time, they will be able to see their own contribution as a part of a larger whole created by many different individuals. The work reminds us of the vulnerability of coral reefs, the sea and ecosystems, but also of what we can achieve when we work together.
The Same Sea reminds us of the fact that we co-exist on a planet where everything affects everything else, and that our survival depends crucially on all others around us and our environment. We believe that art has enormous potential and an important mission in our time; it has a unique capability to expand our way of thinking and to enrich our imagination. We can approach the world through art in many ways, and art can open new avenues for discussion, understanding and empathy into the shared cycle of life.
Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola, head curators of Helsinki Biennial 2021