Winter Is Coming

Kate Sutton at the 8th Lofoten International Art Festival

Left: Curator Anne Szefer Karlsen on the ferry to Skrova. Right: Curator Eva González-Sancho and LIAF chair Helga-Marie Nordby. (Except where noted, all photos: Kate Sutton)

A FOUR-HOUR FERRY RIDE up past the Arctic Circle, Norway’s Lofoten Islands are a true anomaly, a polar archipelago with a California climate, an effect of the warm Gulf Stream waters. At 68º North, the landscape is Sublime, from the craggy, cloud-shrouded cliffs of the fjords to the white sandy beaches edging aquamarine bays. Home to Norwegian painter Gunnar Berg and muse to Edgar Allan Poe and William Carlos Williams alike, Lofoten eludes description. Almost. “It’s like my Windows 95 backdrop,” one artist marveled. “Cold Hawaii,” suggested another.

Previously a mostly local affair, the eighth edition of the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) is its most ambitious yet, recruiting curators Anne Szefer Karlsen, Bassam El Baroni, and Eva González-Sancho to the neighboring towns of Svolvær and Kabelvåg. Their collaborative exhibition, “Just what is it that makes today so familiar, so uneasy?,” offers a contemporary update of Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage, Just what is it that makes today’s home so different, so appealing? Hamilton’s work sang the sweet song of capitalism, while remaining skeptical of middle-class desires (e.g., canned ham for the masses). Szefer Karlsen, Baroni, and González-Sancho’s fresh take tracks a moment when crisis has become our permanent condition, and the only certainty is uncertainty. Et in Arcadia

The day before the official opening, thick slices of cake were served up on the tiny island of Skrova, a former whaling boomtown (the bench in the square is designated for “Millionaires” only) that transitioned to salmon farming as the worldwide demand for whale plummeted. Following the short ferry ride, artists and onlookers gathered in the island’s recreation center, which is impressively outfitted considering that Skrova’s current population hovers around 190 total inhabitants. All 190 must have been in attendance for the extravagant all-you-can-eat, fifty-kronen cake buffet. “This is the most delicious cake I have ever had in my whole life,” artist Pedro Gómez-Egaña moaned, after sampling a pecan-crusted variant. “Seriously, if this whole trip had just been for this mouthful, it would have all been worth it.”

Left: Writer Adam Kleinman in Svolvaer. Right: Artist Pedro Gómez-Egaña.

We tore ourselves away from the feast and took our sugar highs to the theater room for a screening of a trailer for Nana Oforiatta-Ayim’s ebullient Jubilee, which explores the budding friendship between Ghana and Norway after the former’s discovery of vast oil reserves off its coast. Oforiatta-Ayim decided to film in Skrova after a chance meeting with a local fisherman who had recently visited the African country. “It’s such a pleasure to be able to screen it here first,” she beamed. “Though please remember, it’s a work in process.” Unfazed, the audience warmly applauded as a slim Ghanaian fishing boat slid superimposed into the waters of the Norwegian sea.

On Friday, the sun peeked out early in the morning, just in time for our tour of the sites. We started on the island of Svinøya, where Gómez-Egaña had transformed a wooden fishing shed into The Maelstrom Observatory, a kind of object theater based on Poe’s Lofoten-themed short story. Up the road, we passed the open garage of local artist Anne Grethe, whose abundant craft supplies (among them several Tupperware bins of yellow Legos, leftovers from Kjersti G. Andvig’s eighteen-foot self-portrait fashioned for a past LIAF) were joined by a hyperrealistic sculpture of artist István Csákány, caught in the instant when his chair collapses beneath him.

Left: Writer Filipa Ramos. Right: Artist HC Gilje. (Photo: Mahmoud Khaled)

Continuing down the pathways strewn with bits of cod, we made our way to the tip of the island, home to a defunct fish factory and the adjoining American Car Club of Norway, a former hangout for US car enthusiasts. In the dark, damp space, HC Gilje had strung a simple lattice of LED tubes, which sent light zipping around the room at uneven intervals. “It looks like Blade Runner in there,” one writer whistled. We stepped back onto a dock, where I had a clear vantage on Lawrence Weiner’s 1998 work WATER MADE IT WET. Or rather, his former work: “His works cease to exist when the show’s over,” a curator informed us. Not so with Elmgreen & Dragset’s contribution to the 2004 LIAF, a bronze replica of a plastic lunch cooler, perched on the dock in Svolvær. The sculpture was bolted to the planks after locals persisted in tossing it into the sea below. “How did they move it?” I asked Ingar Dragset later. He shrugged. “It’s not so hard when you’re determined.”

This year’s LIAF mobilized several of Svolvær’s public spaces, including the library, a discount shopping center, and one of the two new sleek hotels flanking the docks. “I wanted an absolute nowhere, as nondescript and unremarkable as possible,” explained artist Lisa Tan about her choice to show her new film Notes from Underground in a black box parked in the garage of the Thon Hotel. Ann Böttcher opted to grapple directly with the town and its demons—more specifically, the ghosts of its Gestapo past, as preserved in Svolvær’s Lofoten War Museum. The institution is a labor of love by local legend William Hakvaag, who made a name for himself performing in early-1970s bands like the Beat Cods before he turned to collecting. He has since amassed an astounding assortment of Nazi-related propaganda, including what are rumored to be some of Adolf Hitler’s last drawings (faithfully rendered portraits of Disney’s Seven Dwarves, with a Pinocchio thrown in for good measure). Hakvaag approached me as I was taking in the display of Gestapo marionettes. “It’s so important to remember these were people, too. If we just say they were monsters, then we cannot learn from our history.” He paused. “Did you see Eva Braun’s clutch?”

Left: Svolvær’s Lofoten War Museum director William Hakvaag with Adolf Hitler's dwarf drawings. Right: Lawrence Weiner's WATER MADE IT WET.

From there it was on to Kabelvåg, where several of the artists had taken over the private house of Per Pedersen, a town favorite and an ardent supporter of the arts. (During the installation, one of the artists had discovered an old photo depicting the patron au naturel, one hand clasped around the spine of a human skeleton. Apparently the image had been exhibited as an artwork.) Due to space constraints, the opening festivities were planned for the town square, where David Horvitz would be serving up Stone Soup. The performance riffed on the folk tale of two tricksters who con their way into a meal by promising to make the world’s most delicious soup from a stone. As we would find out, the Norwegian version of the tale uses a nail, which resulted in some delightful confusion from Kabelvåg-ers, who wondered how eating stones could be advisable. It turns out the stones weren’t all they had to worry about: “You do realize there’s an entire garlic bulb in here?” curator Filipa Ramos laughed, scooping the offending flavoring out of the pot.

A sudden storm pushed everyone inside, jump-starting the evening’s program of what one organizer sweetly referred to as “melancholy jazz and rock ’n’ roll.” A supremely talented pianist (the son of a Norwegian jazz legend, I was told) entertained the crowd for an hour or so before ceding the stage to a noise band, a howling, clanging, wailing mess fronted by a nymph someone recognized from Vilnius and an art student most of us recognized as the guy who had been walking around Kabelvåg with a giant hunting knife strapped to his belt. At the conclusion of the set, the latter used his best Gwar voice to introduce the band as “the cocoon of nihilism”: “God is not dead, he never existed. We are not dead, we never existed. We did not play for the audience, we played for the universe.” They paused for applause. “Does it smell like waffles?” someone at the next table asked. It did.

By Saturday, the rain had passed, and the skies were a startling blue, the perfect day for surfing, feeding sea eagles, or tracking down the elusive Dan Graham rumored to be refracting in the hills somewhere. And yet, there we were, a feisty crowd filing into the conference room of the Thon Hotel for LIAF’s one-day symposium covering four key themes: Estrangement, Sleep, Stagnation, and Transition. As Aaron Levy embarked on “the long history of people feeling strange,” I flipped absentmindedly through the catalogue. It was decorated with a collection of statements generated by feeding the biennial’s title through Amazon’s crowd-sourced word-substitution program, Mechanical Turk. The last read: “Today will be sunny, even with clouds.” That sounded about right.

Left: David Horvitz's Stone Soup. Right: Artists Nana Oforiatta Ayim and Gert-Jan Zeestraten.

Left: Writer Aaron Schuster. Right: Artist Sinisa Ilic.

Left: EVA International's Woodrow Kernohan and Cristina Ampatzidou. Right: Artist Tiago Bom.