Art and island-hopping in Finland’s cultural capital

The Helsinki Biennial runs until September, with attractions in both urban and rural settings

Immerse yourself in art on an island-hopping visit to Helsinki. Photo: Visit Finland
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Finland’s capital city may be small, but it punches above its weight when it comes to art and culture. And for a country with a deep love of nature, it is fitting that the Helsinki Biennial – running for the second time since its inception – has one of its two main venues on the biodiversity-rich island of Vallisaari.

A former military island used by Sweden and then Russia during their occupations of Finland, and lived on by a community of military and state employees from independence in 1917 until the mid-1990s, Vallisaari is one of several islands on Helsinki’s expansive and beautiful archipelago that have opened to the public in the past few years.

A 20-minute boat ride from Helsinki’s central Market Square, the isle makes for an evocative art setting with military buildings, tunnels and ammunition stores shrouded in deep vegetation, serving as dark, theatrical backdrops for installations, while nature trails and ponds are fitting settings for outdoor exhibits.

This year’s Helsinki Biennial is curated by Polish-born Joasia Krysa around the open-ended theme New Directions May Emerge. It features site-specific commissions and works that have never been seen in Finland, created by 29 artists and collectives from around the world.

A highlight is artist Sepideh Rahaa’s Songs to Earth, Songs to Seeds installation, featuring a beautifully shot multichannel film dedicated to rice cultivation in the paddy fields of Mazandaran in northern Iran – a task carried out almost year-round by women who sing plaintive songs about their struggles as they work. It is melancholic and poetic, and touches on issues of intangible heritage, food security and the importance of community and geopolitics – these generational rice farmers are forced to use toxic fertilisers due to international sanctions in Iran.

A lot of the art is embedded in nature, such as Adrian Villar Rojas's enigmatic sculptures, which are inspired by the nests of the Argentinian hornero bird, hidden away amid the island’s trees, rocks and buildings.

Another highlight is the island itself, and a tour of the biennial offers the perfect excuse to visit. Stick to the two main trails, however, as erosion is a risk and debris remains from the island’s military history and a tragic explosion in 1937.

For a further art hit, and a Helsinki-flavoured take on island-hopping, buy a ringline ticket that allows travellers to combine a visit to Vallisaari with a stop on the island of Lonna, famed for its sauna and restaurant services. Travellers can also opt to stop off at the fortress island of Suomenlinna and explore its world-heritage site.

Here, be sure to see The Unknown Baltic Sea, an under-the-radar but beautifully produced exhibition, which is set in a former aircraft hangar and runs until September 15. Organised by the Helsinki-based John Nurminen Foundation, which works to protect the Baltic Sea and its heritage, the exhibition explores stories, myths and mysteries about the sea, via films, photos and installations by seven artists.

Back in the city, the biennial has another main base at the Helsinki Art Museum, where films and larger installations that require museum conditions are on display. Tabita Rezaire’s video installation, which delves into internet colonialism and other themes, is a highlight.

But the art and creativity doesn’t end with the Helsinki Biennial. Very much worth a visit is the city’s Ateneum Art Museum, which offers a deep dive into Finnish art and history. The venue reopened in April after a year-long renovation and refurbishment project, and the new collection display – called A Question of Time – includes more than 400 works by 200 artists, some never seen before.

Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma has also recently been refurbished. Set in a dramatic light-filled, angular building designed by US architect Steven Holl, which is worth the visit alone, the museum offers five floors of contemporary exhibitions and an ever-growing permanent collection of works from Finland, Scandinavia, the Baltic region and Russia.

For younger visitors, the city’s Amos Rex is located in a 1930s modernist building and features a new – and quite surreal – underground extension by local architects JKMM. This summer it hosts its third iteration of the Generation Triennial featuring works by Helsinki residents aged between 15 and 23 years. Despite their creators having little or no training, studios, or even the right tools, the pieces show a richness and depth that belies age.

If you still haven’t tired of culture at this point, head to the city’s 150-year-old Design Museum housed in a former school. An exhibit on the oversized textile works by Amsterdam artist and designer Kustaa Saksi is currently wowing audiences.

Or, take the metro to Espoo to enjoy the sprawling, old printworks building that houses EMMA Espoo Museum of Modern Art. The museum recently received a stunning collection of Finnish ceramics and glass pieces by Alvar Aalto, Kaj Franck, Birger Kaipiainen and others from entrepreneur and collector Kyosti Kakkonen, which is wonderfully displayed against concrete, glass and timber backdrops.

Updated: July 26, 2023, 10:52 AM