Disegno #23

Fiskars Village Art and Design Biennale


25 November 2019

It’s a beautiful spring day and the sun is beaming down on a group of international journalists and designers walking along the winding river in Fiskars, a picturesque Finnish village around 100km west of Helsinki. At the head of the group is the British designer Jasper Morrison. Wearing a straw hat and sunglasses, he could easily be mistaken for a tour guide leading the motley crew following behind.

The river, of the same name as the village, is the main reason why the group is here, although this is not immediately obvious. Initially, guests were lured by an invite to the opening of the inaugural Fiskars Village Art and Design Biennale, but upon arrival it became clear that the river is the historical lifeline of the village. It was the river that gave rise to the industrial community established here in the early 1600s as an ironworks, processing iron and later copper from nearby mines. The industry was powered by the river, creating an industrial community of foundries crafting the raw material into products and giving rise to the Fiskars Corporation in 1649, the oldest privately-owned company in Finland. In the 1990s, when the last remnants of industrial manufacture moved from Fiskars to much farther afield, the town tried to make room for a budding creative community. Designers and artists were invited to use the 18th- and 19th-century industrial buildings and workers’ cottages as studios and places to live.

On today’s tour, the river is a benign backdrop for one of the exhibits of the Biennale – Social Seating, curated by Morrison. Dotted along the river, positioned every 50m or so, are a number of benches. Each bench is unlike the next, the result of Morrison commissioning 18 different designers to interpret his brief of creating a piece of communal furniture. “The public bench is rare in the spectrum of furniture types,” writes Morrison of the commission. “It belongs to no one and is available to all; it stands as a symbol of community and enhances the quality of everyday public life.” Some of the benches were made locally by the wood workshop Nikari, such as Wataru Kumano’s portable fold-up version in Finnish pine. Others arrived ready-made, such as Maria Jeglinska’s electric blue take on a traditional cast-iron park bench. As well as providing well-considered seating for visitors to take in the local sights, the benches also mark the route between the two main exhibitions of the biennale: Beings With in the Threshing House and the Old Granary, curated by Jenni Nurmenniemi, and _Factory _in the Copper Smithy, curated by Anniina Koivu. The building names themselves serve as a vivid reminder of Fiskars’ past.

Beings With is the art portion of the biennale and deals with the relationship between human and nature. It attempts to raise questions around our exploitation of natural resources and one another, and also examines how we live together. One of the works that perhaps best sums up the exhibition is Finnish artist Raimo Saarinen’s Skenaario. This series presents multiple “biotopes” – micro-environments of grass, plants, soil and rocks that have been sealed within air-tight jars and left to follow their natural course. Some environments thrive, while others look destitute and close to collapse.

While Beings With loosely engages with the context of Fiskars and its symbiosis with and manipulation of nature, the design exhibition Factory deals more literally with the village’s industrial past. Through the work of more than 40 contemporary designers it asks questions around manufacturing, and its value in contemporary society – a question particularly poignant in Fiskars today. Factory was produced in collaboration with ONOMA, a local cooperative of artisans, designers and artists, set up in 1996 after the Fiskars Corporation moved out. Some of the work on display is by members of the 119-strong cooperative, such as the incredibly lightweight (2kg) Model chair by cabinetmaker Heikki Aska. Other works are by international designers, such as Hella Jongerius’s B-Set of tableware, in which each piece is unique thanks to subversions of the industrial process, or Wieki Somers’s modular chimney stacks, where different design outcomes are made possible based on how the chimney bricks are positioned.

None of the projects are specially commissioned for the biennale, with Koivu having instead drawn on what already exists to inform her thesis. “Despite the ubiquity of factory-made products in our lives, the factory itself is unfamiliar to many. We often know little of what the factory space actually looks like,” says Koivu. “The village’s unique potential lies in the next step: could the village become a new kind of factory? How could a network of different expert workshops function together as a kind of diffused factory?” While the foundries are now closed, Fiskars is still a manufacturing community of around 600 people. Instead of industrial-scale manufacture, however, objects are produced on a small scale by a few skilled makers. The furniture brand Nikari is probably the largest of these, providing work and apprenticeship opportunities in its workshop, which is still powered by the river. However, the skills in Fiskars are highly streamlined and what Koivu is championing demands a diversification of skill. “For example, there is a lack of upholsterers, plywood steamers, and CNC specialists, as well as leather- workers or metalsmiths,” she says. Factory becomes a conversation piece in order for Fiskars to look in on itself.

But why does Fiskars have a biennale? In an era in which design fairs, festivals and biennales are expanding year on year, is another event really needed and what does it bring to the discourse? There are now nearly 250 art, design and architecture biennales operating globally according to the not-for-profit Biennial Foundation. This represents a five-fold increase over the last 10 years. Art biennales are the most established format, while design and architecture biennales have only recently seen a corresponding upswing in numbers. Saint Etienne, Lisbon, Istanbul, Oslo and London now have their own versions of these events, all established in the last 20 years.

“Design biennales offer a chance to consider less commercial aspects of the subject,” writes Morrison in the introductory text to Social Seating, putting forward a valid argument for this biennale’s existence. “You might consider them to be an antidote to the endless design fairs and design weeks which have proliferated in recent years.” But while the biennale can be regarded as a space for critical reflection and much-needed discussion, the upswing in design biennales comes at a time when the more established concept and structure of the art biennale is coming under increasing critique and scrutiny.

Earlier this year, Artnet published an analysis of the financial model behind many biennales. It found that artists are often not paid fair rates for exhibiting, while all-important costs such as shipping and insurance are left as the concern of the artists or their gallery. “What happens behind the scenes – and who pays for it – could very well inform what we end up seeing at these prestigious events, which often help set the agenda for the art world, wrote Kate Brown and Javier Pes. “Some fear that those who can afford to pay – top galleries and private collectors – have the potential to further shift biennials in a commercial direction. At the same time, those who many believe should pay – local governments, arts councils – are contending with smaller and smaller budgets and bigger and bigger ambitions.” Last autumn Apollo magazine asked “Is it time to call an end to biennials?”, with critic Ben Cranfield quoting many recent issues surrounding art biennales such as questionable sponsorship, the environmental impact of global travel and the “inevitable contradictions facing the curator who attempts to act against the status quo while relying on the resources and structures of the system they are seeking to critique.”

So while the curatorial thinking around a biennale might be devoid of commercial concerns, as Morrison argues, it is clear that the framework of the biennale is often not. Take Venice – arguably the proto-biennale as we know it today. When first established in 1895 in the Giardini as the International Art Exhibition, the biennale was intended to reposition Venice in the contemporary cultural landscape following the end of the vogue for the Grand Tour and the weakening influence of the Venetian school of painting. The biennale aimed to make Venice a destination again and to redevelop an area of the city that had long been neglected. Just like the World Fairs, established with the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, the Venice Biennale used national pavilions as its framework for display, with each permanent pavilion built and funded by the exhibiting country. As such, the Venice Biennale was not so much an exercise in critical thinking as it was opportunistic. While many architecture and design biennales now stay clear of the loaded concept of national pavilions (the London Design Biennale excluded) one nevertheless has to consider the strategic element of any new biennale – they are clear income generators for the locations in which they take place.

Herein lies a conundrum for Fiskars. The village’s infrastructure could not deal with a heavy influx of visitors of the scale of, say, the Venice Biennale. The town’s two hotels and handful of restaurants would be seriously challenged in such an event, as would the experience of the village itself. But rather than considering this an impediment, it is an opportunity for Fiskars Village and the biennale organisers Luovi Productions to consider the possibility of a better biennale experience. An experience that isn’t focused on the glamorous opening days, but which instead looks to attract visitors over the course of the whole event; a biennale that engages with local concerns and amplifies them to a global discussion; a biennale that considers the sustainability and environmental impact of hosting such an event.

In his Apollo article, Cranfield writes: “Perhaps it is time to think about what each biennial, triennial, quinquennial does in relation to the local systems of which each is inevitably a part and what the particular affordances are of different formats for different moments and places.” This is where the Fiskars Art and Design Biennale has the opportunity to thrive. The inaugural event is already considering the unique position of Fiskars Village as a creative community for art and design. It gently asks, What’s next?