A Utopian island of beauty and kindness

Helmuts Caune

An interview with Taru Tappola and Pirkko Siitari, curators of the 1st Helsinki Biennial


Vallisaari is an island in the territorial marine waters of Helsinki city. Being a relatively large one among the few hundred that Helsinki has, it has served as an important military basis and defense post of the city throughout its history and ceased to serve this function only a few decades ago. At the same time, Vallisaari has a unique natural ecosystem with species that are endemic to the island, and its history has frequently been one of competition and cohabitation between “untouched” nature and humans. Nowadays most of the island is a protected area, however, Helsinki City Council has chosen it as a venue for the 1st Helsinki Biennial which will take place this summer.

Taru Tappola and Pirkko Siitari are both curators at the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) and have vast experience in various museum scenes in Finland. Assigned by the city to provide the substance and content of the 1st Biennial (12 June - 27 September 2020), they decided to draw attention to the notion of interconnectedness between humanity and nature in the context of the current global environmental crisis.

Taru Tappola and Pirkko Siitari. Photo by Matti Pyykö. Courtesy of Helsinki Biennial. Helsinki Biennial’s inaugural edition runs from 12 June – 27 September 2020,

Arterritory: Perhaps you could explain how you arrived at the subtitle for the biennial: “The Same Sea”.

Taru Tappola: The grand idea around the biennial is that of interconnectedness. And “The Same Sea” is a metaphor for interconnectedness. The sea or the seas are one of the greatest interconnected ecosystems; the physics of the sea is interconnected with itself, but also with the atmosphere, and the idea that everything is connected to everything else is very central to our biennial. And, of course, we are operating by the sea on an island, so it was important to include the idea of the sea – it's quite metaphorical, but also a very physical reality there.

Pirkko Siitari: And also it's very topical, because if we think about the life we are living now and the ecological crisis, this interconnectedness is becoming more and more obvious.

Tappola: We also want to recognize the differences, the individual differences inside the connected whole, and that is also something very evident in the sea. It looks and is very different in its different parts, but still, it's always the same sea.

Siitari: And another reason is that the location of the biennial is the island. An island as a concrete and symbolic starting point to our curatorial work; an island itself connected to the sea.

But Vallissari Island was chosen as the location by the city council?

Siitari: Yes. We were invited by the city, we as the art museum, to realize the biennial on this location. The biennial itself is incorporated in the city strategy, and we as the city art museum are responsible for realizing the biennial. For this first biennial it was quite natural that we as the head curators of the HAM are responsible for realizing the content and production of the artworks, but the biennial itself is, of course, a big event, so there are many other parties involved.

But were you given complete liberty to choose the topic and direction, or was it already the overall objective that it must have something to do with the environment or the ecological crisis?

Siitari: No, we had total freedom regarding the content. No limitations in that sense.

So why then did it seem fit for you to take this approach?

Siitari: During this process we have read a lot of reports on what is the global condition today. It's obvious that given this environmental crisis – the global situation we are living in – art is responding to that kind of context, as it always does. It doesn't matter where it is – art can always respond to a global crisis from any location. But in this sense it was very easy, even obvious to end up with this kind of title. It's a wide framework for more specific questions that actually comes from the artworks which are mostly site-specific.

Tappola: The artworks are not only about the ecological crisis, or even not very direct about it. They are more like acting around this theme of interconnectedness, which then is connected to the ecological crisis. But we felt that it was very important to remember this background in everything that we do.

Siitari: And as we remembered that we invited artists to make new artworks that would have a dialogue with this environment, it's obvious that many of the artworks are related to the notion of interconnectedness.

Vallisaari. Photo: Matti Pyykkö

So all of the artworks will be new commissions?

Siitari: 80% of them will be. We'll have around 40 artists, and 80% are new commissions, new works, and all the works there will be temporary. So we won’t be leaving anything on the island. But some works will continue their lives in the city.

Tappola: Yes, it's kind of natural because we also work with the public art of Helsinki, and so we have commissioned some works that will then continue their life elsewhere in Helsinki as public artworks.

Do you know why the organisers selected Vallissari Island as the venue?

Siitari: It was opened to the public three or four years ago. And they had already built a certain kind of infrastructure – there are some facilities already on site. I think it's the will of the city to open up these islands to the public.

Was it uninhabited up to then?

Siitari: It still is uninhabited.

Tappola: A long time ago, when it was a military island, military families lived there, so residences have been there before now. But not for some three decades now.

Siitari: It's been a long time since anybody lived there. And in a way it's interesting that these islands are not private property – they are public. And we are very proud of that, of course, that we can use those islands. Helsinki has around 300 islands. That's quite a lot. So, some of those are now opening up to public after their former military use.

Tappola: And it's also very convenient that it's not that far – just 15 minutes by ferry.

Siitari: We are using only 20% of the island, the rest is protected area. All the artworks, all the events that will take place will be located in the accessible part. But as soon as we came to the island, we were really inspired by the possibility of the location for the artworks. And the same thing happened with all of the artists. Really! It was no question... I mean, sure, there were many questions, but everybody was “in”, everybody was excited about the possibilities. Of course, it has been challenging to work there. But when it comes to the issues and questions it raises, the island is very inspiring.

Tappola: I think the only prerequisite from the city was that it should be somewhere near the sea. Because Helsinki wanted to promote itself as a city by the sea, a city having lots of seafront and lots of islands. And also for the citizens of Helsinki to use the islands more.

Vallisaari Island. Photo: Helena Muhonen and City of Helsinki Media Bank

Among the various facets of the global environmental crisis, what are the ones you would like to put the most emphasis on?

Siitari: I think humanity is in some sort of crisis most of the time, and in a way that's not a new thing. But what is new is that our ecological crisis is so big that it might be the most urgent. But, as we say, our artists and their artworks at the Biennial are not specifically illustrating certain problems. Maybe some of them. Some of them use materials that refer to connecting back to nature, for instance, using soil, the forest or water. This kind of new materialism in art is, I think, very clear and topical all over the world. Another thing they are dealing with are the issues of how technologies are used to conquer nature. That is one aspect as well. Well, is it good or bad? It's not even the question of that, but it's an interesting issue: how technologies are being used for communication means, and how they're used for transportation. And all of these are related to ecology as well.

Tappola: And I think it's really impossible to separate all these crises – which one is more urgent, which ones are not – because they are all interconnected. And maybe the most urgent thing is for us, for everyone, to understand that we cannot wait any longer. We have to... Well, maybe it's this idea in this biennial about understanding, about being aware of this fact. And also one aspect that we feel is needed is that it's not enough just to understand the situation, but we also need to do something that art is very good at, and that is creating understanding and empathy. Towards other people, towards other beings. Maybe towards the world, the globe.

A central principle that you appear to start from is the first of the four principles of ecology formulated in 1971 by Barry Commoner, namely, that “everything is connected to everything else”. One could say that for a reasonably educated person, that is rather self-evident.

Siitari: It's even too naive to say out loud. But on the other hand, it seems that it's not so obvious judging from what is happening around us.

Tappola: In our individualistic times we somehow forget that we're a part of other things... Everything we do is connected.

Ok, but even if we all were aware of that, that still is an “is”. It describes the way of things, the actual state of affairs. A description. How do you get from “is” to “ought” here? As to – that we all ought to do something, that we have a responsibility, that there is a moral dimension to that. I mean, you could argue, that, well, if that's the fate of humanity, so be it.

Tappola: I think we have to leave it to the artists and the artworks to give answers to that. It's not something that we have the power of suggesting. Different artworks have suggestions that... We don't pretend that we have the solution here, we have maybe only raised the question.

So you would not say that you're instrumentalizing art and artists to channel some kind of ideology?

Siitari: No, we don't give art any task to respond to this crisis; art has a freedom to be art, as it is, and that's why there are different kinds of artworks, different kinds of interpretations... The island can be an island for the freedom of the arts, where art can do whatever it likes. We have invited the artists to freely pick up the issues and things that they want to turn to. The curatorial process has been very dialogical from the beginning with the artists. We have gone together to the island and have discussed the context and what it means. 

Vallisaari. Photo: Matti Pyykkö

Often, when art tries to deal with ecology and related issues, an obvious discrepancy is pointed out – the production process of making exhibitions, the materiality of art, transportation of artworks by air travel, etc. There seems to be a contradiction in that. How much and in what ways do you address these issues?

Siitari: We think about it very much. In the beginning, when we were invited to make the Biennial at this location, we wanted to find out whether it can be done in a sustainable manner – if at all. We have to think about that, and then we discuss it with many people – that's one of the reasons why we invited the BIOS research unit to work with us from the beginning. The environmental program of the city is also something that we have been using here as well. But one thing that we have been doing as curators is that we are choosing to work with site-specific works that are not permanent, which means that we don't have the issue of transportation as much as it could be in some other cases. And the other is that we have many artworks that are going to serve as public art pieces in the city afterwards.

Tappola: They only travel one way!

Siitari: One way traffic, yes.

Tappola: We have only a couple of works that are being transported from another country to Helsinki, but they will stay as public artworks in the city. Some other artworks will just decompose. We try to recycle as much as we can, and some artists use only recyclable materials. Of course, these are small measures and it's not perfect – we are aware of that.

Siitari: Recycling, little use of transporting the artwork, and a long life for some of the artworks afterwards. These are some curatorial trends that could be mentioned. But it's such a huge issue and we are very aware that we have done only a little, but we should learn new ways in which to work so that we can increasingly take this into consideration.

Tappola: And, of course, there are many things that are not controlled by us, like all of the services on the island, the ferry to the island, etc., but we're working with EcoCompass, a set of guidelines given by the city for promoting ecological sustainability. And we’re also asking our partners, the service providers, to follow it as much as they are able to.

Siitari: We were actually benchmarking many biennials and other events before we started working a few years ago, and we were looking whether they have an ecological program. We were looking at documenta, Venice, some other big ones and others... And it was a surprise that we didn't find ecological programs in most of them. When it comes to the production of these biennials, they don't have much regard for that.

Tappola: I think nowadays it's starting to become more common; it's a new thing.

Siitari: Yes. We were discussing that art itself has dealt with these issues for a long time, but the production hasn't been following. Now the time has come. Of course, now it's clear that people have started to think about it.

Do you believe it is possible to change public awareness in the little time we have left?

Tappola: I have to say I'm not very optimistic, but in a way you still have to believe, because the alternative is so horrible. But we also have to ask the question – what is good to save, what should we save. Because it is obvious that we have to change. And change very much. We must change our way of living and consuming. And maybe that's one thing we want to bring to public consciousness – that art is something we can consume instead of things. Instead of buying things, using them and throwing away, maybe we should move towards consuming culture and art.

Siitari: I mean, our understanding of work itself may be different as well. Maybe we won't work as much as we do now; maybe we don't have to. Maybe we'll have more time to spend on art and science, things like that.

Tappola: Meaningful things.

Siitari: This way the island could turn into an utopian way of living and experimenting, experiencing art and nature.

Vallisaari. Photo: Matti Pyykkö

Obviously, that would also need the element of mediation. What are your plans to communicate the fact of the Biennial to the wider public?

Siitari: Many of the artworks themselves have this sort of mediating part. We'll have artworks that include events and lectures, talks, expeditions. But then it also comes to our people who work with mediating, their ways of doing it. We have event plans and guides. Talks, lectures, the BIOS group, who will have a presence on the island during the Biennial.

Tappola: Maybe one aspect is that there are artworks that raise awareness of how things are, but I also believe in more indirect ways of affecting things. The way artworks work. Because these days, many people don't want to hear anything about this: I don't want to hear, I don't want to know. If you can bring awareness of some things in more indirect ways that get over the defenses people have built up against having to change their ways.... This, of course, may be a more utopian vision...

What could be some such ways?

Tappola: I think that beauty and kindness are things that have a deep effect on us if we let the art do that. I would then also return to the idea of empathy.

Siitari: And I would say that in this case, the location is also important. It also gives you some ideas about the environment and nature because it's such a great place and experience.

Tappola: It gives you a historical perspective as well as a new spatial perspective. If you are open, it lets you see yourself in relation to others, to history, to time, to your place in nature.

Siitari: It's the nature and environment together with the artworks that help you articulate certain things. Maybe not verbally, but perhaps emotionally. So, all this together works in that direction.

Tappola: If you go to the island, it's really a place where you can open up – the nature there is so overwhelming.

Siitari: Yes, but on the other hand, you also don't want to romanticize it too much. Because it is a bad example of how people have ruined it in many ways. And in that sense, it is also a reminder of what people can do. It’s not only the beautiful nature there, but also the terrible history of the place and contemporary living.

Tappola: And all that terribleness and beauty is interconnected, present in the same place. It gives a perspective on understanding human nature.

Of the four ecological principles formulated by Commoner, another one was that “nature knows best”. Do you agree with that, and what do you think is meant by that?

Tappola: Maybe it's more connected to different ways of trying to improve on nature during the time when we were not aware of all of the effects of chemical compounds that were being thrown into nature. I don't think all of the four laws of ecology were as important to us as the first one was. But it means also that nature has developed solutions, and it has microorganisms, ecologies and processes that are way beyond what we as humans can understand when we interfere in nature. After everything that we’ve done, we are now living with the consequences that we could not understand at the time that we were doing it. In that way it's, well, essential to the situation we are in now.

Siitari: I would say that nature knows best in the sense that nature has survived. The island is a good example of that – how it will always recover when we leave it alone. It will survive also after people. It's a kind of skill that it has.

Tappola: And it's actually us, humans, and our civilizations that are endangered by our own actions. Nature will find ways of surviving, one way or another.

Vallisaari. Photo: Matti Pyykkö