Saami, Part 3 of 3
While in Tromsø I’ve been fortunate enough to meet two artists with Saami roots. Hans Ragnar-Mathisen was born in 1945 and trained at the National College of Art and Design and the National Art Academy , and paints with watercolors that veer from delicate somewhat abstract landscapes to his most famous works, maps that reinforce the identity of his people. His cartography of Sami language, SÁBMI (the territory of the Saami) published in 1975, ignores national boundaries from northwestern Norway to the Kola Peninsula of Russia in order to highlight the nomadic territories over which the reindeer herders have traditionally roamed. It’s a region that coheres through the shared Uralic languages and culture of the Sami as much as geography.
I have the feeling that the Saami are less hindered today in their movements by national borders than by the increasing presence of mines, roads, and tracks for motorized recreation in the winter, all of which hamper or outright break herding patterns. The Sami are among the least legally protected indigenous peoples in the world, according to the Saami human rights attorney Mattias Åhren, who spoke during the Contested Landscapes–Lost Ecologies conference I’ve been attending. Åhren also made the point that the title of the marine ecology conference of which our event is a part, Arctic Frontiers, is a bit ironic. To the Saami, the Arctic is not a frontier to be explored, but a homeland.
The other artist I met with is Aslaug Juliussen, who was born in 1953, educated along more contemporary lines, and is one of Norway’s most honored artists. She spent 25 years herding reindeer with her former husband, and now creates sculptures and installations from the the parts of reindeer not used by the meat industry: hooves, antlers, fur, bones. She laughs when we talk in her studio about how her work is received. “Outsiders think I’m an ambassador for the Saami culture–but the Saami don’t think I am, because I don’t use reindeer in the traditional ways!” Instead, she uses reindeer to tell new stories about contemporary life.
The Saami have occupied about 150,000 square miles in the north for more than 5,000 years, fishing and reindeer herding being their primary resource basis. Today perhaps 2,500 still practice herding, and most Saami are urbanised. Their homelands are threatened by logging, mining, radioactive waste leakage, and simply the expanding population from the south that moves every northward as temperatures rise in the Arctic. Although Ragnar-Mathisen and Juliussen work in very different ways, their concerns are not so very far apart.
Oslo– Part 2 of 3
After working in Tromsø, I’ve flown south to Oslo, which is equidistant between Tromsø and Rome. Norway truly is a long country! Oddly enough, it’s much colder here than up north, where the Gulf Stream moderates the temperatures. The Oslo fjord is frozen over and people are crossing-country skiing on it. The ex-pat British artist Stuart Ian Frost, who lives in the deep forest south of Oslo, has volunteered to show me around a couple of museums. Stuart, a sculptor and environmental artist, installs site-specific pieces around the world and has materials in the CA+E Archive Collections.
We visited two private museums here, each remarkable for their vision. Iceskater Sonia Henie (1912-1969) was a three-time Olympic champion and film star–but also an avid art collector. After she married shipping magnate Niels Onstad, she collected early to mid-20th century modernism. The curved and slightly futuristic Henie-Onstad Art Centre sits atop a low knoll on a headland that projects out into the fjord about six miles south of Oslo. But the most amazing set of objects were by the early 20th-century collage artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), whose work presages installation art.
Schwitters was a German painter who by 1920 was constructing collages and assemblages from found materials; his work was the major influence on Robert Rauschenberg, hence installation art as we know it. Scwhitters came to a small town in Norway for vacation starting in 1930, returned in 1932, and spent every summer there until 1939. During that time he collaged the interior of the structure, creating one of his famous Merzbau works. The hut has decayed badly, but the interiors were salvaged, consolidated, meticulously duplicated and are currently on display at the Henie.
This is an important and state-of-the-art work of conservation that makes available one of the most profound transformations of a built environment in the history of art.
The other museum couldn’t be more different. Built by a group of Norwegian industrialists, and devoted to contemporary art, the new Astrup Fearnley Museet by renowned architect Renzo Piano sit on reclaimed land in the center of downtown Oslo. The roof lines decline toward the water, and although the building only opened a few weeks ago, the natural wood exteriors are already beginning to show traces of the handsome weathering they will undergo over time.
Inside the two main museum buildings 2,000 individually unique panes of glass let in what little exterior light is available during January, which is augmented by massive numbers of lights. The collection is steeped in blue chip contemporary artworks by Matthew Barney, Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer, Cindy Sherman, Odd Nerdrum, Cai Guo-Qiang and many more, as well as by younger artists, such as my friend Nate Lowman.
But my favorite piece is by Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping, a large earthenware recreation of the Colosseum in Rome. The eye-level sculpture is filled with potted plants that range from ferns and palms to cacti that turns the bloody arena into a potted planter. The survival of plants from such widely divergent climate conditions under the artificial lights of winter in Norway is predestined to failure, and provides is a sharp comment on the decline of empire through the lens of crossed environments. I can’t help but think that Schwitters, who worked along the fringes of Dadism almost a hundred years earlier, would have approved.
Tromsø– Part 1 of 3
I’m blogging from Tromsø this week, the largest city in northern Norway, and the second largest city above the Arctic Circle after Murmansk in Russia. Tromsø is mostly dark or in twilight at this time of year–during January it receives only a few minutes of direct sunlight during the entire month–and candles burn all day in the restaurants and hotel lobbies. This is one of the world’s most renowned places from which to see the Northern Lights, but the tourists here have been disappointed, as it’s been snowing all week. Each day I walk by a three-meter Sun of Tromsø installed late last year by artists Lisa Pacini and Christine Istad above the front door of the Tromsø Kunstforening. It’s due to come down as soon as the real sun returns to the city.
Many of the city’s 70,000 residents are students attending the University of Tromsø, where I’ve come at the invitation of Janike Larsen and her colleagues to the newly-formed Tromsø Academy of Landscape Studies. The Academy is designed to train people to understand and influence the future of urban planning, ecosystems, infrastructure and more in what is one of the fastest changing regions in the world. The melting out of the Northeast Passage above Siberia, the discovery of enormous natural gas fields, and China’s endless appetite for iron and other raw materials have every city in the circumpolar north scrambling to become an industrial hub. The intense resource extraction coupled with climate change is erasing old landscapes and memories even as it creates new ones, which is always fertile ground for landscape studies.
Each year Tromsø hosts the Arctic Frontiers Conference. The title is a dead giveaway to the tilt of the conversations, which are both about marine ecology and the geopolitics of the developing north. The Academy puts together a side conference to discuss the “lost ecologies” created by the regional changes. The speakers range from artists and filmmakers, to geographers and historians such as Michael Bravo from the Scott Polar Research Institute, to representatives from the Saami, the native rein-herders of northern Scandinavia and northwestern Russia.
The Academy will move into a newly refurbished brewery built in downtown Tromsø in 1870. It will join interdisiciplinary field programs such as the Land Arts of the American West, John Reid’s Art & Ecology operation at the Australia National University, and Liam Young’s Unknown Fields Division at the Architecture Association School of Architecture in London. Increasingly, the demand for quick and intelligent responses to the challenges of global change require the collaboration of artists, architects, and designers–which, in turn, breaks down traditional barriers between those disciplines. All these organizations are partners of the Center for Art + Environment precisely for that reason.