Alicja Kwade, Big Be-Hide, 2019. Courtesy Maija Toivanen, HAM, Helsinki Biennial 2021

The Inaugural Helsinki Biennial Provides A Blueprint for Sustainable Affairs

Global art fairs are notorious for their carbon footprint—the Helsinki Biennial takes serious precautions for environmental health.

After the city of Helsinki pledged to become carbon neutral by 2035, it was inevitable for the city’s first biennial to elevate environmental consciousness from a mere aspiration to hands-on practice. Featuring the work of over 41 local and international artists, the inaugural Helsinki Biennial, is hosted at Vallisaari, one of over 300 unoccupied islands that make up Finland’s Archipelago Sea. Titled The Same Sea, Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) curators Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola attest to the sea as a ubiquitous force for all living beings’ interdependence and highlighting this coexistence is among the biennial’s main goals.

“When we began inviting the artists to participate, many were concerned about spoiling the island’s natural makeup,” says Maija Tanninen-Mattila, director of HAM which produced the show as part of the former mayor Jan Vapaavuori’s efforts to connect the local population with the city’s islands. Her team’s proactive approach to carbon footprint control, however, provides a template for biennials and other large-scale affairs that are notorious for their heavy production tolls.

Jaakko Niemelä, Quay 6, 2021. Courtesy Maija Toivanen, HAM, Helsinki Biennial 2021

When the Russian Empire ruled the island in the 1800s, Vallisaari was a hub for ammunition, and the prohibition of human inhabitance since Finland’s independence in 1917 has kept its Nordic flora and fauna intact. The city opened the island for recreational purposes in 2016 with a pledge to preserve the ecosystem. Now, the humble and utilitarian architecture of the island’s gun powder cellars, as well as the natural landscape, provides ample opportunities for the artists to exhibit site-responsive works around Vallisaari.

After a 20-minute ferry ride, guests are greeted by Quay 6, a 20-foot-tall installation made of scaffolding by local artist Jaakko Niemelä. The piece is a stark comment on the melting of Greenland’s northern ice sheet, 20 feet metal being the height of the projected sea-level rise from the glacier’s disappearance. “Previously, climate change was quite an abstract concept for people—for me too perhaps, but this summer, it has become much more tangible, due to everything that has happened with the global fires and floods,” he says. “I personally resonated with the immediate concepts and discussions which the biennial inspires, including its themes of interconnectedness and climate awareness.”

Maaria Wirkkala, Not So Innocent, 2021. Courtesy Maija Toivanen and Helsinki Biennial 2021

Like the show’s other artists, Niemelä’s process involved working with the biennial’s environmental coordinator, Kiira Kivisaari, to ensure the production did not threaten the island’s biodiversity. Joining science at the University of Helsinki, Kivisaari has been documenting the travel, water and energy consumption, logistics, and recycling associated with the three-month-long show. “A position like mine will soon evolve into a standard as companies and organizations become eager to look deeper into the subject rather than just talking about it,” she says.

There are multiple scenarios for the artworks’ lives after the show closes on September 26. Two sculptures by Alicja Kwade and another by Laura Könönen will join the city’s over 9,000-piece art collection and will be on public view in different neighborhoods around Helsinki. The remaining pieces will be completely recycled, adapted to reuse, or returned to the artists. Kivisaari does not come from an art background, but she learned that unorthodox mediums are favored in contemporary art. Fabrics and plastic are the most challenging materials to recycle, especially given the show’s vicinity to water. “These works are highly susceptible to molding on the island, and once they’re contaminated, recycling is quite difficult.”

EGS, Archipelago of Past and Future, 2021. Courtesy Maija Toivanen, HAM, Helsinki Biennial 2021

Utilizing the local environmental management system, EcoCompass, has been effective in sourcing, storing, and auditing data for the show’s de-installation process as well as its future editions. Managed by the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation, the tool has been used in similar events across the country to manage carbon footprint control, as well as assessing and filing the goals. Besides practicing ecological preservation, the biennial gives voice to artists who work in the field. Finnish environmentalist research collective BIOS’s involvement began with training the biennial team on carbon reduction before installing art on the island—and they eventually joined the show with Vallisaari Research Station, an educational video installation about the global economies’ failure to address climate change.    

“We are still learning about controlling our carbon footprint for future editions,” says Tanninen-Mattila. She considers the show, which is free (besides the roundtrip ferry ride), a success for bringing people closer to art and to nature at the same time. A major achievement, according to the director, has been to prove that sustainability can be a twofold concept for biennials. “Art is also more sustainable when more people see it.”

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