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Site-specific works appear in unusual locations including a gunpowder cellar and a dilapidated schoolhouse.

Margaret & Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring, Helsinki Satellite Reef (2021). © Maija Toivanen, HAM, Helsinki Biennial 2021.

The first Helsinki Biennial opened today on Vallisaari Island, which lies less than two kilometres from the Finnish capital.

The island was used by Finland's defence force to store weapons and equipment after the country gained independence from Russia in 1917. Equipment including ordnance, torpedoes, mines, and gas masks were stored and maintained on the island until the defence force left in 2008.

The island opened to tourists in 2016.

Jaakko Niemelä, Quay 6 (2021). © Maija Toivanen, HAM, Helsinki Biennial 2021.

'After years in the making, we are thrilled to finally open the biennial to our audiences and reveal this outstanding exhibition,' said Maija Tanninen-Mattila, director of Helsinki Biennial.

Curated by Helsinki Art Museum's Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola, the inaugural edition of the biennial is entitled The Same Sea.

Given the island's history, the title would seem to invoke our shared humanity as an argument against war, but many of the works would instead ally us in a different battle, against the impending climate crisis.

Most explicit in this call to arms is Jaako Niemalä's Quay 6 (2021), a red floor held six metres above the ground by scaffolding. Six metres is the height of projected sea level rise should Greenland's northern ice sheet vanish completely.

Dafna Maimon, Indigestibles (2021). © Maija Toivanen, HAM, Helsinki Biennial 2021.

Margaret Wertheim's Helsinki Satellite Reef (2021), pictured top, addresses the same challenge by taking us in the other direction, simulating the sea floor. Her coral reef was made of recycled plastic with the assistance of more than 3,000 Helsinki residents.

Both works were commissioned especially for the exhibition, as were three quarters of works by the 41 artists and groups participating in the biennial.

Other site-specific installations include Berlin-based artist Dafna Maimon's Indigestibles (2021), which transforms a cellar vault into a digestive system, and Tuomas Aleksander Laitinen's ΨZone (2021), which creates an alien habitat inside a former gunpowder cellar using microbiological elements, alchemical illustrations, glass, video, and audio transmitted via ultrasonic speakers.

Alicja Kwade, Big Be-Hide (2019). © Maija Toivanen, HAM, Helsinki Biennial 2021.

Several works are found along the island's coastline.

Alicja Kwade's Big Be-Hide (2021), for instance, is positioned on a thin strip of land between Vallisaari and neighbouring Kuninkaansaari Island. A stone taken from Vallisaari and a man-made replica sit on either side of a mirror. The work hints at the tipping point, crossed in 2020, where the amount of manmade materials now exceeds the total living biomass on Earth.

Also by the water is Tadashi Kawamata's Vallisaari Lighthouse, a towering structure made from scrap lumber and other waste found on the island that's situated atop a former elevator shaft. The work can be viewed from sea, the neighbouring island of Suomenlinna, and the Helsinki waterfront.

Katharina Grosse, Shutter Splinter (2021). Commissioned by HAM, Helsinki Biennial 2021. © Katharina Grosse and VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2021. Courtesy of KÖNIG Gallery. Photo: Maija Toivanen, HAM, Helsinki Biennial 2021.

Katharina Grosse's Shutter Splinter (2021) is another work that repurposes abandoned manmade materials, splashing colour over the island's old schoolhouse and the surrounding foliage.

Building on the theme of human infrastructure and the way it reshapes the natural environment, Samir Bhowmik will host a series of expeditions taking visitors on a guided tour along the route of an imaginary subterranean and underwater cable.

The Helsinki Biennale extends online with Quest Virtual Helsinki—Vallisaari Island, which comprises two virtual reality experiences that allow people to visit the island virtually. The VR journeys can be download from the Oculus Store.

The Helsinki Biennial continues until 26 September. —[O]

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