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28 July, 2021

Maaria Wirkkala’s Art Looks Beyond Life’s Polished Surface

Helsinki Biennial 2021. “Vallisaari visualises a certain part of our collective memory, which we perhaps can’t even express in words anymore. You feel the island’s temporal layers strongly, even if you don’t know its history.” 

“Vallisaari visualises a certain part of our collective memory, which we perhaps can’t even express in words anymore. You feel the island’s temporal layers strongly, even if you don’t know its history.” 

This is how artist Maaria Wirkkala describes the historic setting of the inaugural Helsinki Biennial contemporary art event. The sense of the old military community and the threat of foreign forces still hang in the air, though nature has taken over the space.

Reactions to the personal and the communal

Wirkkala has received several awards and recognitions in Finland and beyond. She is renowned for her site-specific installations, which have been showcased around the globe from Europe to Japan and China. Her work for Helsinki Biennial, Not so Innocent, is set in a vaulted cellar, an abandoned gun emplacement.

”My art reacts to different sites and situations, to my own state of mind and the state of the world. When I walked into the Alexander Battery, I knew instantly that it was the place for my work. In some inexplicable way, everything I wanted to say was there,” Wirkkala says.

Stairs to nowhere

Not so Innocent describes the hidden side of our world: the violence and the lies, the mental breakdown and the healing. Its intuitively chosen materials include the ever-present anti-riot shields of today’s news imagery, broken glass reminiscent of glaciers, rusty stairs, and gold from the Lappish Samiland.

”There are a few important recurring elements to my art, such as the ladder made of glass. Here, it has been replaced by a rusty winding staircase. It’s unlikely you could climb it. It’s not an escape route, neither from a submarine nor from life”, the artist explains.

Wirkkala’s art deals with issues she’d like to ignore but that she has to live with. The threat of violence and war are always there, yet they’re counterbalanced by shelter, peace, and beauty.

”The railing of the winding staircase is gold-plated. Perhaps that’s a frail hope of something tangible,” Wirkkala ponders.

An important first in the Finnish art world

Wirkkala sees Helsinki Biennial as a landmark event in the Finnish art scene. She looks forward to the upcoming dialogue between the work of different artists.

”An international contemporary art biennial can become as significant as the recurring, thematic ARS exhibitions have been in Finland. I hope that the wide array of art will form a tapestry, in which one work leads to another, creating a powerful overall experience,” she says.

Wirkkala is also fascinated by the theme of the event, The Same Sea, as sea has historically both brought people together and separated them.

”Today the same news reaches us regardless of our geographical location. We are all endlessly multifaceted islands shaped by our own history and external elements, at the mercy of a shared sea,” Wirkkala says.

Not so Innocent by Maaria Wirkkala can be seen at Helsinki Biennial at Vallisaari from 12 June to 26 September 2021.

The artist

Maaria Wirkkala

  • Born 4 January 1954 in Helsinki
  • Known for her large, often temporary installations  
  • Winner of the Finland Prize (2002) and the Pro Finlandia Medal (2008)
  • Participated in the Venice Biennale in 1995, 2001 and 2007

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