Saari 2020 art event to feature the natural environment of Kuninkaansaari island

The COVID-19 pandemic threatened to cancel the Saari 2020 event that was to present the work of the University of the Arts Helsinki’s students. However, the event will fortunately be held on the Kuninkaansaari island in August and September. At the first-ever event, audiences will be able to enjoy not only the island’s nature but also the works of Uniarts students.

People on a rock slope next to a seashore and looking towards the sea.
The Saari 2020 team considering locations on Kuninkaansaari for the works in the Island of Relations exhibition by the Academy of Fine Arts students. On the left, you can see Pukinsaari; on the right, the shores of Vallisaari. Photo: Silja Ylitalo

Waves splash against the windows as the JT-Line vessel sails from the Cholera Basin by the Helsinki Market Square towards the Vallisaari island. First, we stop at the Suomenlinna Fortress, then at the Lonna island, and in 20 minutes, we will reach Vallisaari.

Our destination is Kuninkaansaari, located next to Vallisaari, where a Uniarts team will take a look at the locations for the Saari 2020 (“Island 2020”) art event starting in August. The new event to be launched this year will include art exhibitions and a performance art festival, as well as other performances, lectures, discussions, and sound art by Uniarts Helsinki’s students.

Saari 2020 was originally planned to accompany the Helsinki Biennial, an international fine arts event on Vallisaari, but the biennial was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Saari 2020 was still at risk in the spring – for example, there was no information about the opening of ferry connections.

Now the boats are in traffic again. According to Nina Numminen, director of the producer services at the University of the Arts Helsinki’s Theatre Academy, a multidisciplinary event close to nature is well suited for exceptional circumstances.

“We didn’t plan for a turnout of hundreds of people in the first place. We wanted to organise a site-sensitive event for a limited number of participants. On the island, we can maintain physical distances, and safety instructions are taken into account in ferry traffic, for example. For me, this is a safe way to experience things collectively,” Numminen says.

Instead of attracting large crowds of people, the starting point is learning and research.
“Of course, we also want to present the ideas of Uniarts students to the public and show what they are doing,” Numminen says.

Explosives in the nature reserve

The Vallisaari ferry pier is a few hundred metres walk away from Kuninkaansaari. The islands are connected by a narrow, man-made neck of land. “Originally, there were wire ropes that were designed to prevent vessels from passing between the islands,” says Pekka Koponen, customer service manager for Finland’s Parks & Wildlife Coastal and Metropolitan Area.

Vallisaari and Kuninkaansaari feature old fortifications that have been part of the Gulf of Finland’s defences, first under Swedish rule, then under Russian rule, and later under independent Finland. The islands have hosted, among other things, ammunition and explosive depots and weapons maintenance facilities.

The Finnish Defence Forces left the area in 1996, and the islands were opened to the public 10 years later. In 2017, Metsähallitus, a state-owned enterprise that administers the area, and the University of the Arts Helsinki launched a collaboration to revitalise the islands and develop cultural tourism.

“In addition to basic hiking, it is important for us to combine culture and nature,” Koponen says.

Most of the island’s surface area is a nature reserve, which affects the implementation of the Saari 2020 event. Because of possible explosive remnants from the disastrous explosion of an ammunition depot in 1937, no poles or other support structures may be driven into the ground at a depth of more than 20 cm.

“The starting point for the event is to take account of the ecology of the island: how to act responsibly and in harmony with the environment, not just to bring in ready-made structures from the mainland,” Numminen says. “The event is planned in accordance with the island’s ecological structure.”

The only parts of the programme that are not built directly on site are the Uniarts students and alumni’s performances of The Thing and Pimeässä olemisesta (On being in the dark) which have previously been presented elsewhere. They, too, will be adapted to fit the island’s environment, Numminen says.

Art in barns, yards, and bunkers

A swan and its cygnets are swimming in the water; a family of geese are waddling on the sandy path. Ferns are running wild, and violets, wild strawberries, and meadow flowers are blooming. In the verdancy of the early summer, Kuninkaansaari resembles a jungle with its abundance of lush foliage.

“Here we should probably place a pair of binoculars,” Ulrika Ferm suggests.

Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger, professor of exhibition studies and spatiality, and Ulrika Ferm, a teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts, are considering the locations for the works by Uniarts fine arts students at the Island of Relations exhibition. The works must be easily accessible to the public so that no new paths are created in the nature reserve in addition to the existing routes.

The Island of Relations exhibition will be open to the public throughout the Saari 2020 event, and will include installations, sound and video works, and performances.

In mid-September, the programme will host the Theatre Academy’s Live Art and Performance students’ international Lapsody Festival, which is planned by Professor Tero Nauha.

The main stage for the performances is a large barn-like building at the top of the island, on the edge of a small, grassy square. The building is also the centre of the Saari 2020 event. The square is lined with decayed bunkers partially overrun by vegetation, and their sturdy doors remain open. The bunkers will host art, too.

Human influence on the environment

The setting on Kuninkaansaari is quite harsh – or wonderfully natural – depending on one’s point of view.
Drinking water must be carried from Vallisaari, and the island has no electricity. However, dry toilets will be available. The electricity needed for video works, lighting, and the performance art festival will be produced on site with solar panels built by the inventor Janne Käpylehto.

“Kuninkaansaari is a unique combination of untouched nature and human influence,” says Aune Kallinen, performing arts lecturer at the Theatre Academy. She and her colleague at the Academy of Fine Arts, Jaana Kokko, along with their students, will be encamped on the island as part of their Ruumiit ja muut elävät (Bodies and other living creatures) course.

“We are trying to take seriously the fact that here the different ecosystems and non-human beings have been able to live in peace,” Kallinen says. “At the same time, the place is permeated by traces of human activity: ruins of buildings, the city close by, and the bangs and booms heard from the garrison on the Santahamina island.”

According to Kallinen, the role in and impact of human beings on the environment should be drastically reduced.

“However, this does not mean that we should completely eradicate ourselves from the world or not make art,” Kallinen says. “Artistic activity is an essential part of humanity, but it can be based on reassessed and different values from before.”

Text: Silja Ylitalo

The Saari 2020 programme will open on 20 August and continue until the end of September. The first public event is a performance in August 11.