“The Same Sea”: The First Helsinki Biennial by

by September 29, 2021

The biennial is a “hegemonic machine”1 (Oliver Marchart) intended to “mediate the local, national, and transnational”2 while being linked to a specific territory and its cultural representation. Nora Sternfeld refers to the development of their diverse forms in her podcast3, and notes that in the beginning the biennial was an economic format that played with aspects of spectacular attraction and nationalism. An example would be the infrastructure of the oldest biennial, the Venice Biennale (1895), which was built on the principle of accumulating capital in order to manifest strength by representing the identity of the state through culture surrounded by national pavilions. The Venice Biennale was also intended to increase the city’s tourist appeal. It was in the 1950s that biennials showed a shift toward transnational interest, as seen in the Bienal de São Paulo (1952) or documenta in Kassel (1955). This led to a transnational alliance that existed until 1989 and the emergence of the neoliberal world and approaches like that of Okwui Enwezor at the second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997 — practices that challenged hegemonic constructions. It is interesting to observe the political aspects and mechanisms hidden behind these artistic representations. The current exhibition “documenta. Politik und Kunst” in Berlin (Deutsches Historisches Museum, through January 9, 2022), which presents the political history of documenta during the Cold War, shows the extent of the power of representation and the possibility of getting rid of heavyweight participants with biographies linked to political affiliations — like a spell to cleanse biographies of Nazi relations. Even if it proposed the visibility of an art made invisible by the Nazis — and Jewish artists were almost absent, as were artists from the former Eastern bloc — documenta was and still is a significant place of negotiation and encounter between artists, intellectuals, theoreticians, and the public.
Let’s go back to the economic aspect — mass tourism — of the biennial or other types of art events (as in the case of Documenta). This can lead to cultural gentrification — the construction of new but temporary infrastructures that may leave a city, or parts of it, seeming like a “ghost town” once the event is over, or, on the contrary, result in a trendy new neighborhood.

The recent Helsinki Biennial and its behavior is an interesting example. It should be noted that it is the first edition5 of this biennial, whose future is uncertain. The Helsinki Biennial was supposed to open in 2020 but, because of the pandemic, it was postponed to 2021. However, one has the impression that this biennial was only opened for the purpose of being open — that is to say that the organizers no longer had the option of moving it (for several reasons, notably time-sensitive financial ones), and opening it may have been a strategic, logical gesture: almost no one will be able to visit the event, so the organizers take on little risk. Meanwhile, creating a history of its having existed will help administratively to make it happen the next time. Some local artists and critical thinkers may shrug and say that this manner of “representing” the local scene internationally could be less degrading.

Why was the Biennial opened with this insensitive vision toward the rich reality of the local scene, lacking the development of alternative education platforms, a reflection of situated knowledge, or publicness? How do we explain the absence of critical self-reflection, or reflection on what the “public commons” might be in this context, or, finally, the carelessness about the space in which the Biennial is located? In this context, we can point to the problem of “branding” in relation to the city of Helsinki, which is faced with widespread privatization: a public sector that behaves like the private sector. The organizers of the Biennial, the Helsinki Museum of Art (HAM), seem to have a monopoly on the art scene; the artists represented are artists from the HAM’s collection, artists who have recently had a solo exhibition in Helsinki. Another problem was the specious content. To underscore the real urgency we face, a curatorial choice was made to locate the Biennale on an uninhabitable former military island called Vallisaari, which by its character raises current issues such as, for example, sustainability and ecology (the island is a nature reserve), as well as issues of military force, war, water as a symbol of escape, connections between countries, continents, etc. In fact, these issues seem to serve only as a pretext for the existence of this biennale, in keeping with the need for “themes” to address in order to be able to justify the relevance of an international mega-show, rather than asking more rigorous questions. For example: How is art a part of Helsinki society, and how could one develop the latter themes in all their integrated complexities and within their specific locality? What is also surprising is that Vallisaari has turned into the “island of the biennial,” with new accommodations, spaces, cafes, etc. Paradoxically, the entrance fee is free, but there is no way to get there other than to take a private boat. The island, now gentrified by expensive infrastructure, will have a surprisingly limited lifespan, as the next edition is supposed to take place in another unoccupied part of the city.

How is it possible that the Helsinki Biennale is now reproducing a model that apparently needs to be completely transformed?

On March 28, 2020, during the height of COVID-19, Mediapart published an article called “Biennales, fin de partie?”6 In June 2020 the platform oncurating published its 46th issue, called “Contemporary Art Biennials – Our Hegemonic Machines in Times of Emergency.”7 As typically anti-ecological events symptomatic of an unregulated art market, there has long been an urgent necessity to reinvent globally connected exhibitions. Their organizers should, in particular, think of the causes of problematic labels such as a “capitalist machine considering culture as entertainment” that results “from the neoliberal market logic of ‘spectacular capitalism’” (Okwui Enwezor).8 Is it not more necessary than before that the exhibition becomes a “space of action,” a space of possible social change — as mentioned by Adam Szymczyk during the discussion “Documenta as a Common”9 with ruangrupa and Nora Sternfeld about the upcoming documenta 15? Thinking of the biennial “as a tool and process through which we change the way in which contemporary art institutions are run” toward a kind of “biennale-as-institutional-critique”10 in continuing to consider nomadic art settlements seems to be the most logical response to neoliberal and populist cultural policies.

However, the problem seems to take the position of saying that we are naive to think of more solidary and equitable conditions while being invaded by the capitalist system in which we live. Yet isn’t the acceptance of this contradiction, rather than going against it, exactly the same kind of “comfort” that this capitalist system reproduces?

This text was written after an unofficial discussion between artists, activists, and theorists about the meaning of the Helsinki Biennial, held on August 25, 2021, at a local art school.

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Simona Dvorak