Palaver North

Claire Bishop on art in outermost Norway


Left: Phil Collins in front of a Dan Graham pavilion. Right: Per Gunnar Tverbakk.

A meal, a workshop, a bonfire, a film screening, an interview, a hike...uh-oh! It’s relational art, rural style. Art in public has changed its flavor in the last ten years, from formal engagements with (preferably dramatic) sites to social collaborations with the locals. Few projects are more emblematic of this shift than “Artistic Interruptions” in Nordland, the outermost neck of Norway. Per Gunnar Tverbakk, the energetic organizer of this long-term program, argues that “interruption” is the operative word: His commissions aim to shake up forlorn, forgotten little towns by importing big name international artists—Elmgreen and Dragset, Simon Starling, Aleksandra Mir—as well as lesser known home-grown talent. I was keen to do a road trip around the fjords to investigate the more relational projects, and set off with a pair of fellow travelers from London: Mark Sladen (co-curator of next year’s “Momentum,” the Scandinavian biennial) and artist Phil Collins.

Day one involved two flights and a ferry to a fisherman’s hut in the Lofoten Islands, a good base from which to see the precursor of Tverbakk’s program: a series of permanent sculptures commissioned in the ‘90s by Mauretta Jaukkuri (now director of Kiasma in Helsinki). We island-hopped the next day, tracking down some of these polite works by ‘80s artists (Endo, Raetz, Sarkis) and getting stuck in a snowdrift. The overall impression was of organic shapes in natural materials, which Phil rightly summed up as “stone doughnuts.” We were thrilled to find an exception in Dan Graham’s famous convex pavilion—referred to by locals as the “shower cabin” because of its appearance from the road—whose distorted reflections manage to out-spectacle the stunning glacial landscape.

Later that day, back on the mainland, we paid a visit to Norwegian artist Maria Bustnes, who is stationed in the small town of Lødingen for a few months. Bustnes, a young relational artist, is clearly finding it hard to penetrate the local community, which has expressed a desire for her to find the “soul” of Lødingen. We visited the most notable features of the town—two bars and the “silver triangle” (a grim junction where the church, the cemetery, and the old people’s home all face each other)—and agreed that Bustnes has a tough job ahead of her. As a veteran of site-specific project work, Phil advised that she might have to reveal Lødingen’s “dark heart” instead.

Left: Sørfinnset school, “Artistic Interruptions” headquarters. Right: Søssa Jørgensen and Geir Tore Holm.

The next day involved a long drive from Innhavet—the Twin Peaks of Norway—to Sørfinnset, where Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kamin Lertchaiprasert (founders of The Land in Chiang Mai) have teamed up with a couple of Norwegian artists (Søssa Jørgensen and Geir Tore Holm) to produce The Nord Land, a spin-off of the former’s Thai project. Headquartered in an old school in a tiny village, the project has a self-consciously educational approach based on—guess what—dialogue and traditional activities like cooking flatbread. Søssa and Geir were preparing a meal when we arrived: The menu included seal (caught on Friday as part of a workshop with some Greenlanders), salmon and roast cormorant. Local hunter Kenneth Norum, who’d shot the seal, joined us for lunch. Getting into the spirit, I “dialogued” with Kenneth, who was still hungover from the previous night’s binge on moonshine, but was coaxed into telling tales of local exotica, such as the killer whale who lived in a nearby fjord.

Although the atmosphere at the old school was relaxed and friendly, I found it hard to work out where the art was amongst all these benign open-air activities. It’s undeniable that this type of project raises more intriguing questions than a bronze Tony Cragg—but for how long? What if The Nord Land is the relational equivalent of the stone doughnut, and looks just as dated and curiously irrelevant in a few years’ time? Fortunately Tverbakk is also commissioning artists who address the local and international more reflexively: Aleksandra Mir has proposed a Hollywood walk of fame for the nowhere town of Narvik, while Carsten Höller is planning a one-room hotel of two-way mirrored glass (Dan Graham’s pavilion meets motel tourism). In projects such as these—and Simon Starling’s plan to set a decrepit house afloat in the sea—the artists import the full force of their own vision rather than getting lost in the locale.