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Re-Thinking Biennials During a Pandemic: Interview with Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola, Co-Curators of Helsinki Biennial

Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola. Helsinki Biennial/Matti Pyykkö.

We interviewed Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola, Co-Curators of Helsinki Biennial 2021 to get behind the scene insights of how the pandemic has affected but also created new opportunities for the upcoming Helsinki Biennial.

Due to the pandemic, the inaugural Helsinki Biennial has been postponed by one year until June 2021. When did you make the decision to postpone and can you describe if any unexpected opportunities have evolved from the pandemic, in terms of curating or artistic content for the biennial?

Even though all plans were ready for summer 2020, the pandemic slowed down many production processes. The postponement was not totally a bad thing! After the first shock, many artists have found the extra time as a chance to deepen their concepts and find new aspects and layers of interconnectedness in their works. The same applies to our curatorial thinking. The pandemic is a concrete evidence of our dependency on nature and each other. It has shown how acutely and truly interconnected the world is – and hopefully will teach us to act accordingly.

The sea as a bridge forms both the concrete and conceptual basis for your curatorial statement and Helsinki Biennial’s title, The Same Sea. The title also serves as a metaphor for co-existence and interconnectedness. From a curatorial perspective, has digital and online connectedness, or virtual interconnectedness, been a part of this or even take on a different meaning during the pandemic? Will this manifest itself in different realms of the biennial?

Digitalization makes interconnectedness possible in a new way that is ever more present in our everyday lives. We often forget how recently this has happened! The digital aspect is present in the work of Tuomas A. Laitinen, for example. The pandemic has made it vital that Biennial events, performances and talks will be accessible by livestreaming. The works of Terike Haapoja and Laura Gustafsson will also available online. The whole Biennial will be documented, and we are also exploring the possibilities of virtually experiencing some of the artworks.

The theme of the Helsinki Biennial also includes the relationship with nature, boundaries and identities, emphasising sustainability and maintaining nature’s ecological balance. Now that environmental issues have become more poignant due to the pandemic, have you been able to embrace any new ideas that further strengthen the curatorial statement, or artistic content, of the upcoming biennial?

Environmental issues have been embedded in our curatorial thinking from the beginning. This is due to the location on Vallisaari island and its rich nature, and to the fact that we are living in the middle of ecological crisis. The pandemic has strengthened our awaress of the importance of biodiversity. It has also shown that whether we want or not, our world is fundamentally interconnected and everything is dependent on everything else.

The Helsinki Biennial mostly consists of site-specific works, but time and change is also an underlying theme for you. Can you tell a bit about if any of the works are evolving in a surprising way—visually or conceptually, or even taking on a new life—due to this postponement of one year?

For example, Marja Kanervo’s installation in the old residential building on the island is about time and layers of life and traces left behind by the inhabitants. She has cleaned and revealed surfaces under decades of dirt. What we will see in the Biennial is a film of the installation at one point of its existence. The installation itself is slowly gathering dust again and has already begun its disintegration process. Another work by artist collective ATTAKWAD involves a dying tree. Since last spring, all the original trees chosen for the work have fallen down in storms and the placing of the works has changed a few times already. Teemu Lehmusruusu is using fungi-based mycotecture in his work, and this living material has to be grown anew for next summer.

Aside from the examples described by our co-contributors at RIBOCA and Busan Biennale (links below), have you been inspired by any other examples of how other biennales–or arts institutions–have created new innovative forms, or platforms, to reach out to their audiences during the pandemic?

Because so many organizations have moved their activities online, the pandemic has – paradoxically –also increased possibilities to take part in international events, talks and meetings. Online and contacts are now more important than ever. Riga Biennial has been an inspiring example. We have learned that travel is not always necessary in order to be in touch with art community. We have also learned to communicate with our audience in new ways using digital platforms. The change in our practices is important as our aim is to decrease carbon emissions.


Read the interview with Jacob Fabricius, Curator of the Busan Biennale, here.

Read the interview with Anastasia Blokhina, Executive Director of RIBOCA, here.


Interview by Claire Gould