Ice Age

Left: Artist Olav Christopher Jenssen and Jan Martin Berg, director of Galleri Svalbard. Right: The Svalbard museum and university complex. (Except where noted, all photos: Cathryn Drake)

LONGYEARBYEN IS THE ULTIMATE FRONTIER TOWN, the northernmost settlement in the world and jumping-off point for the North Pole, complete with coal miners, extreme filmmakers, polar scientists, a seed vault for the apocalypse, a newspaper called Ice People, and even former Berlin art dealer Elda Oreto. And now there is a contemporary art museum: Kunsthall Svalbard chose to make its debut in the coldest of winter, just days after Solfestuka, the festival celebrating the return of the sun and the end of the polar night, with “Glacier,” an exhibition of works by Joan Jonas.

“The Arctic is the new thing,” said Leif Magne Tangen, director of the Tromsø Kunstforening. To get to the Norwegian territory you have to pass through the mainland, so I stopped in Tromsø on the way north to check out the newly opened “Traveling Alone,” an emotionally powerful exhibition touching on the lost innocence and alienation of adolescence. Chinese artist Yan Xing’s riveting roster of his early lovers, Daddy Project, starting with his mother’s boyfriends, grabbed me from the get-go. Jennifer Reeder’s film A Million Miles Away suggests that crying is a way to melt the heart of an angry teen. At Small Projects, an exhibition space run by artists Tanya Busse and Jet Pascua at the Sami Reindeer Herding Association, Lawrence and Vincent Malstaf’s installation Event Horizon—a light beam piercing airborne sawdust to create a falling stardust effect viewed in gas masks—would be the closest I would get to seeing an aurora borealis.

Left: Geir Haraldseth, director of Rogaland Art Center, and artists Camille Norment and Knut Åsdam. Right: Leif Magne Tangen, director of Tromsø Kunstforening.

Why open an art museum at the outer limits of civilization? When Queen Sonja and her entourage joined our flight from Tromsø to Svalbard, nobody lifted an eyebrow and the captain announced, “Your Majesty, ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts.” That answered at least the question about opening a museum during the deep freeze of polar winter: “Her Highness is on holiday and free from the strictures of protocol,” explained Knut Ljøgodt, director of the North Norwegian Art Museum (of which the Svalbard Kunsthall is a branch), over a dinner of reindeer and whale that night with mayor Christin Kristoffersen. The Svalbard archipelago is also attracting attention as global warming opens up arctic trade routes, recalling the quest for the Northwest Passage. Ljøgodt, who gained a foothold in this cosmopolitan outpost by quietly marrying curator Joakim Borda-Pedreira at the town hall, quipped: “This is our PS1, to be modest.”

Longyearbyen is a young town—officially no one is allowed to be born or to die here—and everyone is required to have a job. Although there are no taxes, so things like cigarettes and alcohol are very cheap, people are compelled here by the strange silence and light, and by the urge to reach the faraway and inaccessible. “This is the most special time of the year, when the twilight casts an enchanting blue light,” Longyearbyen’s former first lady Ingeborg Stangeland suggested over breakfast at Fruene Café, where you can find just about anybody in town you’re looking for at some point during the day. Polar filmmaker Jason Roberts was telling me about his work with Richard Long in Antarctica and with photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper in the Arctic, and lamenting Haunch of Venison’s demise. Government ministers and world leaders always seem to be stopping by, as Vivienne Westwood did recently.

The blustery meteorological situation was ideal for Jonas’s film Glacier, 2010, which evoked the intoxicating supernatural force of the austere landscape. Shimmering on the wall, as ephemeral and fantastic as the fickle weather just outside the window, it layered various encounters with an Icelandic glacier, its magnetic attraction drawing three explorers into a crevice, where they presumably plunged to the center of the Earth. The artist’s hands crumple crisp paper and draw outlines with chalk, conveying the wailing of the wind as well as magic rituals, and paint a picture with ice and black ink. For all its theatrical artifice, it was a surprisingly effective choreography of a cacophonous rabble of elements. Four related drawings and the 2012 video Reanimation filled out the rest of the space.

Left: Dealer Amanda Wilkinson and Ánde Somby, Sami Jolk artist and associate professor at the University of Tromsø. (Photo: Elda Oreto) Right: H.M. Queen Sonja of Norway and Thorhild Widvey, Minister of Culture. (Photo: Yngve Olsen Sæbbe)

The next day I found myself in the middle of a blizzard ascending a glacier in a sled driven by huskies. We came upon an ice cave, accessed through a very small hole in the ground, and descended by rope into a fantastic tunnel so deep and vast it was as if we were headed into the heart of the planet, like Jonas’s characters. When we emerged, the dogs transformed from snow-covered bumps to howling creatures. “Her Highness insisted on driving her own sled yesterday,” our guide said. It was a heroic effort just to take a leak, my freeze-dried food packet falling out of my snowsuit the way of the yellow trail. Yet at that moment, surrounded by the otherworldly terrain, it was easy to understand the Norwegian belief in trolls and why Princess Martha Louise relinquished her royal status to open a school training people to communicate with angels.

The intimate preview that evening at Kunsthall Svalbard matched the warmth of the wood-paneled space, rented from the Svalbard Museum. It included artist Olav Christopher Jensson, Jan Martin Berg, director of the Galleri Svalbard, Tone Winje, director of the Arts Festival of North Norway, Katya Garcia-Antón, director of Office of Contemporary Art Norway—and a 1,100-pound stuffed polar bear, killed in 2005 out of self-defense. Garcia-Antón defended the choice of artist Camille Norment to represent Norway: “She really connects with this long-standing tradition of experimental music in Norway, which during the last three decades has so fruitfully dialogued with the visual arts.” Speaking of Venice, Jonas’s show in Svalbard is a brilliant preview for the immersive installations she will present at the US pavilion. The talk turned to dog sledding excursions and the dress code for the next day’s official opening, also Sami National Day, calling for a “lounge suit.” Ljøgodt explained, “If you just specify a jacket they will come in snow gear.”

Left: Katya Garcia-Anton, director of OCA, and Tone Winje, director of Arts Festival of North Norway. Right: Mayor Christin Kristoffersen and Knut Ljøgodt, director of the North Norwegian Art Museum.