Stranger Than Fiction

Agnieszka Gratza at LIAF and the 2022 Bergen Assembly

Artists Olof Marsja and Lars Laumann.

LYING JUST NORTH of the Arctic Circle, Bodø is the gateway to the Lofoten peninsula. A regional hub, the town is gearing up for its stint as the European Capital of Culture in 2024. A two-and-a-half-hour layover at Bodø airport en route to Svolvær—the headquarters of the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF)—left me with enough time to take in the opening ofBodø Biennale, coinciding with LIAF’s. The airport is, after all, only a fifteen-minute walk from the city center.

Curated by Elise Cosme Hoedemakers and Hilde Methi, who was the chief curator of LIAF’s last edition, the inaugural Bodø Biennale, which is focused on visual art and dance, was set up with locals in mind, availing itself of public spaces dotted around Stormen Library on the waterfront. On opening night, I managed to catch a spectacular performance, by textile artist Malin Bülow, involving a dancer nestled at the bottom of a piece of taut opaque elastic fabric, drawn up high into the sky by a crane as part of AER—Greek for “wind,” a force to be reckoned with in these parts—commissioned for the biennial.

“Fantasmagoriana,” the Italian curatorial duo Francesco Urbano Ragazzi’s offering this year, was a very different beast than Hilde Methi’s starfish-shaped curatorial concept for LIAF’s previous iteration. Whereas the latter emphasized regional production and created the context for  meaningful, long-term engagement with local communities on four islands previously uninvolved in the festival, the former mainly called upon international artists—most of whom had never set foot in Lofoten prior to the run-up to the opening—and staged the bulk of the biennial in the more accessible village of Kabelvåg, where the biennial has been shown before. “We wanted poor materials, poor curatorship, poor art,” one half of the duo told us the following afternoon as part of a discussion on sustainability. But can one really talk about ecological justice while glazing over the fact that it takes at least three flights to reach Lofoten for visitors traveling in from abroad?

According to its curators, the biennial is not so much concept- as story-driven. And so it is. The story begins with the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 that resulted in “the year without a summer,” during which Byron, the Shelleys, & co. gathered at Villa Diodati near Geneva to read aloud Gothic horror tales (in an anthology titled Fantasmagoriana), which in turn gave birth to such classics as Frankenstein and Dracula. In the biennial’s booklet, the curators gloss various subplots: Kurt Schwitters’s time as a wartime refugee in Nazi-occupied Norway and his subsequent imprisonment in Kabelvåg (among the reasons for staging the biennial there); the three months the merchant and navigator Pietro Querini spent shipwrecked on the Lofoten island of Røst in 1432; and the poem “The Son of the Sun’s Courting in the Land of the Giants,” relating a Sámi origin myth which served as a prompt for artists exhibiting at the Espolin Gallery, for the nonce rechristened the Museum of the Sun, amid works by the blind artist Kaare Espolin Johnson. Did any of this storytelling rub off on the works on view? Not in any obvious way.

The artists did their own thing, and it nonetheless made for a stimulating show. Particularly memorable were Sámi artist Elina Waage Mikalsen’s intricate textile installation, woven out of colored thread using a “fire-braid” technique; Shadi Habib Allah’s video work about the tracking of wolves in Scandinavia; Jennifer West’s Holofan projections, embedded in sculptural installations, documenting the demolition of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and featuring footage of her cat; and Gaia Fugazza’s archipelago of flat clay fragments—their smooth black surface drawn over in places—named after the Old English word for ocean: hranrãd, literally meaning “whale-road.”

Artists Nolan Oswald Dennis, Raffaela Naldi Rossano, and Haroon Mirza.

Is the gulf separating the grand curatorial narrative from what is actually on view inevitable? Saâdane Afif’s conceit for the fourth edition of the Bergen Assembly, which opened in Norway’s second city a few days later, proved that it needn’t be. A reflective approach has guided the Bergen Assembly triennial—an upstart in comparison with LIAF, which is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year—right from the outset. Its very existence was the object of debate at the 2009 Bergen Biennial Conference, titled “To Biennial or Not to Biennial?” The inaugural edition in 2013, devised by Ekaterina Degot and David Riff, came with a whimsical literary framework that Afif has brought back for his edition (along with Degot, who graced the opening of the current triennial with her presence).

A penchant for numerology presides over “Yasmine and the seven faces of the Heptahedron,” reflected in the triennial’s title and in its cast of seven colorful characters—The Coalman, The Professor, The Bonimenteur, The Fortune Teller, An Acrobat, The Tourist, and The Moped Rider—who lend their names to as many venues, hosting three artists or collectives each. One possible reason why Afif’s storyline works, where the more elaborate yarns put out there by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi do not quite resonate with the artists, is that each archetype is sketchy enough to leave room for the participants to flesh it out and bring their individual or collective practice to bear on it. Writer Miriam Stoney’s contribution to “The Fortune Teller,” for example, took the form of her poem Debt Verses, inspired by her considerable student loans, in a book ingeniously designed by Kinakaal Forlag to simultaneously contain its Norwegian and Chinese translation, and presented alongside a small library containing all the books that influenced it. La Cantina de la Touriste, 2022, Sol Calero’s cheerful remake of the interior of a somewhat drab canteen, catering mainly to residents of a neighboring care home and staffed by immigrants preparing food from their respective countries, formed part of “The Tourist.” For their ongoing project Eyeliner, 2017—, included in “The Moped Rider” section, artistic duo Denicolai & Provoost combed the streets of Bergen in search of objects displayed on windowsills by its denizens, who were coaxed into parting with them for the duration of the show.

Artists Haroon Mirza and Jennifer West.

Yasmine d’O’s elusive presence as the show’s curator (Afif himself being cast as its “convener”) hovered over the proceedings at the opening. She performed a self-disappearing act, leaving Afif to deliver an impromptu speech in her place, before a young woman saved the day by producing a letter Yasmine had given to her at the train station.

Having three artists/collectives to a venue shows an unusual awareness of the average biennialgoer’s attention span. The first of the seven venues we visited at a leisurely pace over the next couple of days turned out to be my favorite. “The Coalman,” at the outlying Gyldenpris Kunsthall, pairs works by two composers—one dead (Claude Debussy), one alive (Augustin Maurs)—with mostly anonymous sculptures and low reliefs carved in coal by miners who mostly hail from Silesia, Poland’s coalmining region. Interpreted live at the opening, Debussy’s last composition for piano, Les Soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon (“Evenings Lit by the Burning Coals”), written in exchange for a bag of coal in the winter of 1917, cast a melancholy note over the proceedings. Maurs’s own haunting composition Nothing More, which arose in the context of a residency on Svalbard—Norway’s northernmost archipelago, where coalmining is about to become a thing of the past—premiered the following evening at Bergen Cathedral. Performed by an all-female choir and the composer himself, seated amid the audience, it stole the show.

Artists Augustin Maurs and Saâdane Afif.

Writer Miriam Stoney with editors Jonas von Lenthe and Louisa Elderton.

Artists Gitte Sætre and Rita Marhaug with Kunsthall 3.14 director Malin Barth.

Sol Calero’s La Cantina de la Touriste in “The Tourist” venue of the 2022 Bergen Assembly. Photo: Bjørn Mortensen.

Sol Calero’s La Cantina de la Touriste in “The Tourist” venue of the 2022 Bergen Assembly. Photo: Bjørn Mortensen.

Elina Waage Mikalsen, Áhcagastá - Tales of the ember, 2022. Photo: LIAF.

Visitors to LIAF gather around Haroon Mirza’s Message from a Star (Solar Symphony 12). Photo: LIAF.

Curator Ekaterina Degot and writer Adam Kleinman.

Bergen Kunsthall director Axel Wieder and artist Åse Løvgren.

Bergen Assembly director Ingrid Haug Erstad and artist Sol Calero. All photos by author unless noted.

Architect Alessandra Cianchetta and artist Shadi Habib Allah.

Artists participating in LIAF.

Curator Francesco Urbano Ragazzi and artist AK Dolven.

Collector Venke Hoff.

Artists Tomaso De Luca and Pauline Curnier Jardin with curator Francesco Urbano Ragazzi.

Curator Jacek Sosnowski, VISP director Aslak Høyersten, and curator Nathanja van Dijk.