The Helsinki Biennial, Now Delayed Until 2021, Champions Finnish Artists

It may be delayed until 2021 due to the coronavirus, but the citywide showcase is on track to give Finnish contemporary art the push it deserves.

It may be delayed until 2021 due to the coronavirus, but the citywide showcase is on track to give Finnish contemporary art the push it deserves.

Like most cultural events this season, the inaugural Helsinki Biennial has been postponed until next year due to the novel coronavirus. “We believe this is the most responsible option when considering both our local citizens and international guests,” says Helsinki mayor Jan Vapaavuori in a statement. “This way too, the biennial can realize the inspiring exhibitions that were envisaged and receive the international engagement it deserves.”

In 2019, we interviewed Maija Tanninen-Mattila, director of the Helsinki Art Museum, about what to expect from the biennial and the Finnish capital’s budding art scene. The show’s themes, which touch upon interconnectedness and mutual dependence, take on entirely new meaning as the world continues to grapple with the pandemic. —The Editors


Biennials may be all too common in today’s crowded fair landscape, but that isn’t stopping Maija Tanninen-Mattila, director of the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM), from helping initiate one in her home city. In early 2019, the Finnish capital announced its inaugural fine art biennial in the summer of 2020, joining a schedule packed with similar events in other—perhaps more distinguished—European capitals, including Venice, London, and Paris.

This proliferation of such large-scale showcases does far more than spotlight the artistic sensibilities of certain regions. The “-ennials,” which aren’t intended as selling platforms, are marketing strategies that increase awareness of art centers, the reputations of local artists, and attract deep-pocketed tourists. The creation of a viable, world-class exhibition comes with a checklist: local support, funds to emcee costly events, and solid infrastructure. According to Tanninen-Mattila, Helsinki is has all of that and more.

Ateneum Art Museum. Photo courtesy of Ateneum Art Museum/Helsinki Marketing.

Not only do city officials support the Helsinki Biennial, nearly 80 museums and galleries are also on board. From HAM to the Espoo Museum of Modern Art to Amos Rex to the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma to the Ateneum Art Museum, these local art leaders are primed to bolster Helsinki’s growing reputation. The creative output is already there—the Finnish capital boasts a strong industrial design legacy, having originated brands like Iittala, Artek, and Marimekko. Its art scene, though budding, still lacks the same cultural cachet as other biennial-hosting cities.

Yet, Helsinki has long strived to be an art hub. Along with increasing the amount of artist grants and residencies, Helsinki is Europe’s first city to mandate that all new buildings allocate one percent of their valuations to public artworks. Still, these centralized initiatives are mostly unknown worldwide—something the Helsinki Biennial aims to change.

From June to September 2021, Tanninen-Mattila and two of HAM’s curators, Taru Tappola and Pirkko Siitari, will take over the archipelago island of Vallisaari, where they plan to populate the former military base with outdoor works from Finnish and international artists. The choice of venue is part of the city’s maritime strategy, which encourages traffic to its plethora of oceanfront locations while promoting Finnish seafaring history. Below, Tanninen-Mattila shares what to expect from the show—and why it will stand out.

Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma/Helsinki Marketing.

How would you describe Helsinki’s art scene?

It’s fantastic. There is such a great cluster of museums in the center of the city: art museums, historical museums, natural history museums, and more. The art museums are really thriving—in 2017 and 2018, they attracted seven million visitors, so we really have an audience. We also do international programming, so it’s easy to see an exhibition of Kusama, Modigliani, Magritte.

We now have Paweł Althamer, whose big retrospective was last seen at the Neue Galerie in New York. It’s easy to walk around and see a lot of art. And then, of course, there is Finnish art, which few people know about. We all have high-level collections. Visitors might see something new, or something that would be much harder to get into in London or New York. We don’t have the queue that you find there.

Why don’t you think Finnish artists have the same pedigree as artists in other countries?

This is a small country, and our infrastructure is not as strong. When you talk about galleries and collectors, we’re not London, Paris, New York, or even Berlin. We have well-trained artists and great universities for artists. Maybe we lack as many job opportunities, but this is one reason why we want to have a biennial. It’s also part of our public art strategy—Helsinki has so much public art because a law mandates that one percent of funds go to art. So there are opportunities, but not that many.

How did the idea for having an art biennial first spring forward?

It was a city initiative that started four years ago, but it was really in 2017 when we decided to host a biennial in the archipelago. It is connected to the city’s maritime strategy—we have 130 kilometers of coastline and more than 300 islands.

It’s a fantastic, beautiful archipelago, but most of [its islands] have been in military use for decades. Now that the army has moved away, the city has a very strong will to make these islands more accessible. The biennial will help generate interest from locals and travelers. When you’re in Helsinki, it’s easy to get in touch with nature. Everything is practically a 15-minute boat ride away.

Marimekko store. Photo courtesy of Helsinki Marketing.

Which Finnish artists are prolific right now?

Eija-Liisa Ahtila is probably the best-known. She’s a video artist who has shown throughout the world. IC-98 is a duo who participated in the Riga Biennial. Erkka Nissinen represented Finland in the last Venice Biennale, and shows work at the Neue Museum in New York. There is a good pool of people. Many aren’t recognized as Finnish artists, but the nationality of an artist doesn’t really matter anymore.

Will there be international artists represented at the biennial? 

It’s split 50-50 between international and Finnish artists. But in a sense, all the Finnish artists are international. They’re showing abroad, working abroad; some in Berlin, some in New York. Artists today need to be international and connected. We’re hoping that works will be seen by collectors and museums internationally. This is why we want visitors from all over the world to see the biennial—so there will be more recognition for Finnish artists.

Amos Rex. Photo courtesy of Amos Rex/Helsinki Marketing.

How are you looking to put the city’s name alongside, say, the biennials in London or Venice, which are far more celebrated?

It’ll be a long haul, but the context in which the biennial is happening is something special, and distinguishes us from other biennials. I’m not really worried about the proliferation of biennials. It’s like Katerina Gregos, the curator of the Riga Biennial, said: if you’re worried about that, it’s like being worried too many football teams or concerts in the world. There is no proliferation of visual art. Everything we do pitches into the bigger picture.

Helsinki’s art scene has so much going on. There are local artists groups,  galleries, artist residencies… We want to offer a bigger platform for them to be noticed. It’s quite boring to think that there needs to be just one big scene. It’s better to have different players and different experiences.

Can you elaborate on the focus on public art?

Some works will be outside, which comes down to a sustainability issue. Helsinki’s public arts program brings art to people’s everyday lives. For example, when you walk along a street, you see a piece of art that looks different in the morning than at night. It becomes a part of who you are, and where you are. and you can experience it as part of your daily routine. We’re focusing on public art to give something to the city. Because when you have a museum, there’s an entrance fee, walls; you have upkeep. It’s not sustainable to have a museum open all the time. Public art, in a sense, is open 24/7 for everyone.

Suomenlinna Sea Fortress. Photo courtesy of Helsinki Marketing.

Will all the work be on Vallisaari?

All the works for the biennial’s core exhibition will be on the island, except one piece that might be shown on the mainland. Later on, works will be moved around Helsinki as public art. We want people to go to Vallisaari and increase its popularity. There was an expectation of 300,000 visitors when the island initially opened in 2016, and only 150,000 have been going. The works will be situated throughout, and there’s a really nice pathway to walk around.

What are your expectations?

I hope Helsinki will always have a biennial because the actual art deserves a visible platform. I hope that it will be an unforgettable experience for visitors—that it will be memorable and special.

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