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Launching an art biennial is a brave thing to do for any city. Debuting one now is even more courageous. Helsinki is elbowing its way into the global arts calendar by hosting one of the first major events to go ahead this summer: the inaugural edition of the Helsinki Biennial, which will display works by 40 artists from 17 countries over the next three months.

While the overall aim is to increase the city’s standing in the international art ranks, it’s clear that the organisers have also decided to celebrate the sheer pleasure of leaving the online viewing room behind. “We are hoping to attract people from all over the world but also want to offer locals a way to finally enjoy art in person again,” says the biennial’s director Maija Tanninen-Mattila. “Helsinki’s challenge is not that there isn’t great art but that we have not had enough exposure in the art world.”

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Alicja Kwade’s ‘Big Be-Hide’ sculpture 

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Part of Laura Könönen’s installation ‘No Heaven up in the Sky’
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The ferry to Vallisaari 

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Klippan, one of Helsinki’s islands

To stand out from other events of this kind, Helsinki has decided to lean into the city’s peculiar geography. Perched on the Baltic coast, Finland’s capital is fronted by more than 300 islands – many of which are underutilised; some are completely uninhabited. “It is a maritime art event where art takes over untouched islands,” says Tanninen-Mattila. Other than being part of the city’s maritime strategy, which aims at finding solutions for these islets, the biennial is also being used to boost residents’ morale. To make the event accessible to all, the city decided early on that entry would be free of charge. “It’s not aimed only at the so-called art elite,” says Tanninen-Mattila. “We have toured nearby schools with the artists, who have talked about their work.”

“Helsinki’s challenge is not that there isn’t great art but that we have had not enough exposure in the art world”

Most of the pieces on display are clustered on the verdant island of Vallisaari. A 15-minute boat ride from the city centre, this former military island was once a mystery to most Finns: it was only officially opened to the public in 2016. When monocle visits, there is a palpable sense of excitement on board the ferry that delivers visitors to the grounds. Choosing this place as the main site for the biennial makes the exhibition feel distinctly wilder than other similar events. “The pristine, almost virgin nature coupled with the decay of the former military buildings makes for an edgier art experience,” says the biennial’s co-curator Pirkko Siitari. Her colleague Taru Tappola agrees. “We believe that the island’s bunkers and untouched nature provide a new kind of platform and source of inspiration for the artists,” she says.

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Visit to Vallisaari 

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Installation by Tadashi Kawamata

Three quarters of the works on display are new site-specific commissions that the artists created after visiting Vallisaari. “Unlike a museum exhibition where you first agree on a theme and then choose the artists around it, we wanted to have an element of interactivity between the artists and the site,” says Siitari. For Polish artist Pawel Althamer, this meant creating a short film mimicking a prison break with inmates from the open jail on the nearby island of Suomenlinna. Canadian duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller created a sound installation that visitors can experience while seated on tree stumps in the forest. Others have highlighted the terrain’s ruggedness: Polish-German artist Alicja Kwade’s sculpture “Big Be-Hide” features two mirrors and a boulder placed on a narrow peninsula by the sea, creating an optical illusion. “It’s a crazy island that changes all the time. It’s rough but also beautiful, which is a great source of inspiration,” says Indian multi- disciplinary artist Samir Bhowmik. His performance, “Lost Islands”, reflects on how humans use technology to conquer nature by guiding visitors on an expedition through an imaginary underground cable network.

This commitment to reinterpreting the coastal landscape will be maintained in the future. “We will probably stay on Vallisaari for the next edition of the biennial but our plan is to take over more islands in the years to come,” says Tanninen-Mattila. And with a new design and architecture museum set to open in the city over the coming years, a repeat visit will be more than justified.

The Helsinki Biennial runs until 26 September; helsinkibiennaali.fi

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