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Alicja Kwade's Big Be-Hide at the inaugural Helsinki Biennial 2021
Photograph: Maija Toivanen

The Helsinki Biennial could be Europe’s coolest new arts festival

More than 40 artists have contributed work for the festival on a former military island in the Helsinki Archipelago

Written by
Rosie Hewitson
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Move over, Venice. There’s a cool new European arts festival on the scene. 

Looking every bit as cool and sophisticated as its Venetian sibling, the inaugural Helsinki Biennial takes place over summer 2021 and is the perfect antidote to the disappointment of Italy’s famous art fair being postponed until next summer.

Directed by Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola, who head up the Helsinki Art Museum, the first edition of the festival is titled ‘The Same Sea’ and includes themes like ‘nature’, ‘borders’, ‘identities’, ‘human traces’ and ‘time and empathy’. Spread across a three-kilometre trail on the uninhabited, former-military-island Vallisaari in the Helsinki Archipelago, the fair features works by 41 international artists and collectives alongside an extensive programme of events and workshops.

Margaret & Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring: Helsinki Satellite Reef, 2021
Photograph: Maija Toivanen

Around three-quarters of the works on display are new commissions, with plenty of site-specific pieces positioned sensitively along the Baltic Sea. 

Several exhibits respond to the island’s natural landscape and military history – look out for those hidden inside former gunpowder cellars and old residential buildings – or take inspiration from the daily lives of Vallisaari’s former residents. 

And in keeping with Helsinki’s leading climate and sustainability goals, the new festival is committed to a ‘future-orientated vision’. What does that mean exactly? Essentially, they’ve promised to act responsibly towards the local environment, promote sustainable tourism and accurately measure the festival’s carbon footprint, with the goal of becoming completely carbon-neutral by 2035 along with the rest of the city. That all sounds pretty fab to us. 

Baran Caginli: Expressions, 2021, neon blue signs reading 'There is no place like home' 'There is no home' 'no place home'
Photograph: Maija Toivanen

Fancy paying a visit to Europe’s coolest new destination now that Finland has made it onto the amber list? The Biennial runs until September 26 and is completely free to visit, save a small fee for the ferry ride to Vallisaari from the mainland. Find out everything you need to know on the festival’s website here

It’s probably worth going just so you can humblebrag about being at the first-ever edition in years to come – when all the other cool kids have finally caught on. 

Love a good contemporary art festival? This one in the UK just opened – and it’s only an hour from London.

And you’re going to want to visit this epic Frank Gehry-designed arts centre in Provence.

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