Lofoten Islands, Norway June 2-7, 2015
Among the truly jaw-dropping landscapes on the planet are the Lofoten Islands, a series of impossibly steep peaks on the northwestern coast of Norway that rise straight out of the ocean in a maze of fjords, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls. Sara has arranged to fly to Tromsø to meet me the day I return to the mainland from Svalbard, and we set off in a rental car to check out the public art and architecture projects in the region. This is yet another foray into the investigation of projects deployed in the Arctic to brand its landscapes for tourism. Unlike Svalbard, where there are virtually no roads to drive, Norway’s eighteen National Tourist Routes not only traverse some of the world’s most scenic landscapes, they’re augmented by a government curated series of public amenities, as well as a private artwork program in the county of Nordland, which includes Lofoten.
The first project we come across is the Kleivodden rest stop on the island of Andoya, a series of five incised, geometric, and highly polished black granite plinths designed by Inge Dahlman from the Oslo firm Landscaps Fabrikken (“Landscape Factory). Four of the rocks rest on a concrete plaza, which is itself shaped to resonate with the plinths. The fifth member of the ensemble resides at the end of a small path thrust through the coastal rocks and overlooking the ocean. It’s a quiet array, one that echoes both minimalist sculptures and the low-lying islands nearby. The objective, as with many of the public architecture projects here, is to provide a place where you can contemplate the form of the landscape.
The next day we cross over the bridge to Langoy and have lunch overlooking the harbor of Sortland, inadvertently stumbling across one of the sculptures in the Artscape Nordland program initiated by the artist Anne Katrine Dolven, who during the 1990s commissioned artists to make thirty-three sculptures around the 15,444 square miles of Nordland. The result is one of the more interesting and at times startling public collections in Europe.
Ocean Eye by the Iceland artist Sigurdur Gudmundsson, who now lives in Amsterdam, is a large diamond-shaped window created by a peaked arrangement of six black granite blocks that evokes the shape of a house. The sculpture stands on a rock jetty and is enclosed by a low circular wall of concrete. I was once told by a Norwegian that, unlike Americans, who like their wilderness views unobstructed by any human structure, his countrymen prefer something built in the foreground to create contrast. Ocean Eye both alludes to the house, but also provides a window through which to focus your attention across the fjord and onto the peaks, a double framing device. It’s a vertical work that’s highly resonant with the horizontal plinths at Kleivodden, both devices that, while focusing our attention on the structure of the land, help us understand how we structure our views.
One of the more famous Artscape Nordland works is the reflecting structure by American Dan Graham that stands on Vestvågøy. Constructed of two-way mirrors set into stainless steel frames, the side facing the road the work presents a right-angle corner, which works as a regular mirror; on the side facing the sea, however, the mirrors are concave and serve to dramatically heighten the mountains across the fjord. The concrete base offers a stage in front of this funhouse, and the result is to find yourself standing in the middle of what looks like a Chinese landscape painter’s version of Lofoten. What at first looks like a steel-and-glass funhouse experiment turns out to be both a sensuous and serious work. Even while this untitled work seduces you by dramatizing an already beautiful view, it that takes you one step further in analyzing your response to both the art and the land. First, it injects you into the view, an allusion to the Romantic painting tradition of David Casper Frederick, and then it encourages you to consider how we hype historical landscape views into clichés as we brand them for sale to tourists.
Although the National Tourist Route projects are fairly well publicized and easy to find, the Artscape Nordland projects are sometimes tucked away in genuinely obscure spots, even at times requiring a boat to reach them. And I think that’s exactly right, a combination that elicits those twin pleasures of the treasure hunt, expectation and frustration. The coastline is so fractal that, even if you knew where all the art stood, it would take weeks to track down both the public and private works just in Nordland. You slowly realize, as a result, that the works are as much for the local people as the tourists. Contemporary art hasn’t been an easy sell to Nordland’s 40,000 or so residents, some of whom have been vocally ambivalent about the works, which is also true in the Swiss Alps, too, as Sara and I discovered last fall. But the placement of provocative art and architecture in the landscape can be done so that it is not bolted on as an intrusive gesture in front of your view. When done right, it is something you seek out, stumble across, or just pass by with a sense of delight, curiosity, and awe—more about which in the next post.
The Art of Svalbard, May 23-June 1, 2015
I was in Svalbard specifically to look at public art deployed around Longyearbyen—the statues of polar bears and miners, and the light works on the Global Seed Vault for example—as part of my examination of how a brandscape was being constructed in the Arctic. But I was also interested in the larger realm of artmaking in the archipelago. One of the first topics to research was 19th century tourism postcards, the earliest of which date from 1896 and tended to feature fjords, polar bears, glaciers, and the midnight sun.
Modern-day glossy color postcards focus mostly on promoting touristic views of polar bears and the auroral borealis, and most Svalbard art during the 20th century remained based on landscape painting traditions. This was in line with what I expected, comparable to the branding of the Swiss Alps, the Norwegian fjords, the Grand Canyon and so forth in the Euro-American tradition of the sublime.
But in 2003 the art of Svalbard went decidedly contemporary when David Buckland began taking major contemporary artists, such as Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread, to the archipelago in an effort to engage the public with climate change. He has since led eight art & science expeditions to the islands. The popular Arctic Circle program soon offered similar opportunities for a price, although now the best option for artists may be simply to book passage on the ship everyone uses, the ice-strengthened two-masted schooner Noorderlicht, which is stationed in Longyearbyen.
I want to focus on just one artwork arising from those voyages, Nowhereisland by British artist Alex Hartley, who sailed with Buckland in 2004. While circumnavigating Spitsbergen, Hartley found an island about the size of a football field that had recently emerged as a glacier was retreating. He was the first human being to set foot on the tiny patch of newly revealed land, which was eventually named Nyskjæret.
Hartley returned to the island in 2011 and moved some of its glacial till onto a barge. Once Nowhereisland was in international waters, Hartley declared it an independent nation. He then proceeded to have it tugged to Weymouth, England and then around the southeast coast to end in Bristol, a 2000-mile-long journey that ended when the island was dismantled and given away in pieces.
The ice goes out, new lands are uncovered, territorial squabbles arise over national maritime boundaries . . . Hartley’s intervention is a self-aware land art performance, and he cites, among other works, the floating island barge envisioned by Robert Smithson, Tania Kovats’ Meadow barge from 2007, and When Faith Moves Mountains, the Francis Alÿs performance piece of 2002. But it is also political theatre that highlights global warming, international competition for natural resources, and the fickle nature of national boundaries.
Svalbard, by virtue of its location at the limits of sustainable habitability, is like the Antarctic, its communities dependent on outside resources for survival. Unlike the Antarctic, however, it’s relatively close to the developed world and thus able to host a range of artists seeking to engage the edge of civilization as an arena for their work. I use the word arena, as any art committed in such difficult locations has an element of performance to it, even just erecting a view camera or a painting easel, much less moving part of an island. Most of the contemporary art made in the archipelago is less about permanent installations, and, very unlike works on the Norwegian mainland that are commissioned in order to attract tourism. is more pointed at issues.
Before Nowhereisland was dispersed, it had attracted 23,003 people from 135 countries to sign up as citizens, who wrote the constitution for Nowhereisland, which in its first iteration consisted of one hundred principles and conditions. It remains online, a provocation about the nature of migration and global change. Nowhere island. Now here is land. No where is land.
Svalbard, The Arctic, May 23-June 1, 2015
It’s not exactly a hop, skip, and a jump from saltwater crocodiles to polar bears, but I left tropical Australia on a Tuesday and by the end of the week I am walking up the main road of Svalbard’s only town, Longyearbyen, toward the glacier at the end of the valley. Svalbard is an archipelago located 500 miles north of Norway and 500 miles south of the North Pole. Svalbard is a protectorate of Norway, Spitsbergen its largest island, and Longyearbyen, which dates back to 1896, the administrative center of the islands.
The town’s population of 2000 is outnumbered by the more than 3000 polar bears wandering the archipelago, and you’re not allowed to wander outside city limits without either carrying a rifle for protection, or being accompanied by an armed lookout. As I wheel my duffel into our hotel, I note that cornices overhang the ridges on both sides of the narrow valley. Last year an avalanche munched its way through town and took out a bridge. The temperature is predicted to range from 30 to 33 degrees each day, and there’s 24 hours of daylight, which is perfect for melting the snows above. In short, my kind of town. Did I mention that Longyearbyen hosts one of the largest wine cellars in Northern Europe?
Svalbard was at first a whaling station in the 1600s, then at the beginning of the 20th century a coal producing center. The coal is mostly played out now, although the Russians still mine some in Barentsburg just down the coast—their way of maintaining a strategic presence on the island—and there’s one other mine nearby that fuels Longyearbyen’s power plant. But now the economy of the archipelago depends increasingly on Svalbard’s growing tourism and scientific research. It’s notable that the researchers are studying everything from polar bears to the aurora borealis, exactly what the tourists come to see. Extreme landscapes present not only our desire for sublime views, but also the edge of knowledge.
I’m here with the Future North project from the Oslo School of Architecture and Design—the same group that brings me to Norway every January to study changes in the circumpolar Arctic as the ice goes out and people move in. It’s more than a little ironic that the Global Seed Vault stands is on the edge of town near an abandoned coal mine. The burning of fossil fuels has ignited global warming, which shows up twice as fast in the Arctic as elsewhere, and is making Spitsbergen each year a less suitable place for a freezer devoted to preserving biodiversity.
The Future North team spends the week of our visit walking transects through the town and interviewing locals, looking for manifestations of how the transition from resource extraction to knowledge creation is proceeding. My job is to research how art has been deployed since the 1800s to create the brandscape of Svalbard, which is related to what I was doing in Switzerland in September of last year, and also in the Australian Arnhembrand project the previous week.
One evolution I document is the progression from statues of miners commemorating industry, to a metal polar bear, to a tower constructed from floating plastic harvested in the harbor. What interesting is that the timeline of the progression is so compressed. Homages to founding figures and totemic workers in other European locations were often erected in earlier centuries, then followed by abstract sculptures, and eventually place-making amenities. The wooden sculpture The Miner created by Norwegian Kristian Kvaklands—a horizontal figure drilling a coal seam between claustrophobic layers of wood—was created in 1993. A less effective, if more traditionally heroic bronze sculpture of the same title by Tore Bjorn Skjølsvik stands just down the street, and was created in 1999.
Representations of polar bears are ubiquitous throughout Longyearbyen, starting upon your arrival at baggage claim where a taxidermic one scowls at your luggage from atop the carousel. A few blocks from the miner stands one of the more recent versions, a life-sized beast executed in stainless steel outside the office of filmmaker Jason Robert, who commissioned the work in 2011. Its overlapping sheaves of metal are vaguely heraldic, and evoke myth as much as reality.
Peter Hammersam spots a colorful two-story tower made of plastic waste harvested from the local shoreline, and when we investigate we find a door into the tiny first-floor where a couple of college students are sharing a beer. The floor of the second story is clear and you can peer upwards to continue your visual inventory of the plastic items. The sculpted found-object architecture was created by Solveig Egelund in 2014, who has done similar projects at other sites.
Peter, in the meantime, has been investigating two buildings in town that display the shift from mining to research. The angular and multi-limbed Ropeway Hub, where several tram lines converged bearing hoppers of coal, sits above the power plant. It was built in 1957 and is a striking piece of vernacular architecture. The Svalbard Science Center, a multi-faceted facility, was erected in 2006 and servers as an international hub for researchers, Both are metal-clad and perched on stilts. While the Science Center was designed to echo the shapes of the mountains across the fjord, it also resonates with the functionalism of the Ropeway building, which residents hope to turn into a cultural center for tourists.
The conjunction of science and tourism in this northernmost town of more than 1,000 people is a unique circumstance. Three years ago there was almost no winter tourism in the archipelago; now the town is packed on New Year’s with people flying here in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights, even as the scientists are monitoring the auroral activity. The artwork by Dyveke Sanne along the roof of the Global Seed Vault and down its front is a fine metaphor for the combination. Consisting of highly reflective triangles of stainless steel that reflect the Arctic light during the day, during the long night it is lit by fibre-optic cables refracting through prisms, which evokes the aurora. The artwork is both a reflector and a beacon—in literature a duality referred to as “the lamp and the mirror.” At times it reflects the world, but at others actively illuminates it, a good enough metaphor for tourism and science.
Kubulwarnamyo, May 15, 2015
My last day in Maningrida is an eventful one: I see green ants for the first time (an important source of vitamin C for hunter-gatherers); I almost step on a small green python; and, at three in the morning, I’m woken by a green tree frog hopping onto my head. This troika of fecundity seems emblematic to me of the rich and evolving nature and culture of Arnhem Land. And that’s why we’re flying this morning from Maningrida to the outstation at Kubulwarnamyo. Roads to the remote community up on the plateau, which rises a thousand feet above the coastal plain, are closed much of the year due to Monsoon-swollen rivers. Even now in what is the late Austral it’s evident from the air how much of the country is still covered with water.
Aboriginal Australians were relocated or moved into towns and cities during the mid-20th century. Hunter-gatherers adapting to colonial settlements is a familiar story around the world, and as with many indigenous cultures elsewhere, there was a counter-movement. In the 1970s an “outstation movement” sought to return Aboriginal people to a sustainable and healthier life on their traditional country. A key player in establishing a half-dozen of these remote communities was the artist Bardayal “Lofty” Nadjamerrek.
Lofty was born in 1926 and spent many of his early years with elders learning how to draw and paint rock art; from the 1970s onward he became one of the most influential bark painters in Australia. In 2002 he founded an outstation on his own clan’s territory, Kubulwarnamyo. This community of a few dozen people, which fostered the return to a more traditional relationship with the land, became a virtual bush university for Aboriginal people and visiting anthropologists, ecologists, linguists, botanists, and art historians.
The hour-long flight to Kubulwarnamyo in an eight-seater plane is bumpy, the sky hazy with smoke from the annual fires set by the rangers to keep the land healthy. Upon landing we’re met by Lofty’s grandson, Keith Nadjamerreck, and head ranger Jake Weigl, who with his wife Georgia Valance administers the outstation. Jake works with the Warddeken Rangers, an Indigenous team that manages more than 5,000 square miles of country with international conservation and cultural importance.
Kubulwarnamyo is built near a robust spring. Butcher birds and parrots converse overhead, and there’s nary a crocodile in sight. Everyone lives in tents standing under wooden A-frame-and tarpaulin structures resting atop a steel deck. The double-layered architecture is flexible, inexpensive, airy, and bug-resistant. Solar panels power small appliances and there’s WiFi. After we’re formally introduced to country by Keith and Mary with a brief head dunking in the spring, Mandy works with some of the rangers and artists, including Lofty’s widow, to paint narratives of contemporary environmental issues, using her traveling palette of non-traditional colors.
In the afternoon, we visit the site of Lofty’s last rock art painting, then head deeper into the plateau to a series of deep sandstone clefts and crevices filled with some of the most intricate and powerful rock art I’ve seen anywhere in the world, including images of animals extinct for thousands of years. Many of the best rock surfaces are a palimpsest, layers of images applied atop one another during different eras, which shows how the rock art styles have evolved. Mandy and David Leece, in bringing “fluoro” paint to Arnhemland, as well as Alexander and Laura Boynes working in experimental video, are just laying down the newest layer in the continually evolving cultural response to changes in the environment.
The Arnhembrand project is an effort by contemporary artists, both Aboriginal and “Balanda” (the local term for non-Aboriginal people), to understand how the identity of a place and its culture is both rooted and changing—and what part art might play in that evolution. To brand something is to sell an identity. In terms of remote or sublime landscapes, such as the Swiss Alps, it is an attempt to establish a “brandscape,” a landscape recognized through iconic images and attractive to tourists seeking new experiences. The communities of Arnhem Land are careful about courting tourism, understanding well the challenges. At the same time, the Traditional Owners are rightfully proud of their country and culture, willing to share the stories that bind the two.
The brandscape of Arnhem Land is mostly formed in Western eyes by two images: the edge of the plateau as it appears in Kakadu National Park—the only part of the region that’s easily accessed by tourists—and by rock art. Using art as a way of understanding the complex and evolving relationships among place, identity, images, and brand is of relevance to how we sustain both place and “our place on Earth.”
Arnhembrand, May 10-16, 2015
After the Climarte event in Melbourne, I fly to Darwin with Australian artist Mandy Martin, conservationist Guy Fitzhardinge, architect and artist David Leece, and a host of related folk who have taken on a new “art, science and story” endeavor. The Paruku Project, which Guy, Mandy, and David ran a couple of years ago, addressed the ecological and economic fragilities around Lake Gregory in Western Australia. That work produced a fine archive and exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art, and now we’re off to work on a similar project in Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory.
Much of the Northern Territory is a tropical savanna very unlike the red deserts of Western Australia. This is where homo sapiens first entered Australia, and the region therefore has very old evidence of Aboriginal culture. Arnhem Land, located in the northeastern corner of the Northern Territory, is known for its avid preservation of that culture. Except for Kakadu National Park, it’s a region few outsiders are able to visit. This new project seeks to “raise awareness, both nationally and internationally, of the work that the Indigenous communities living in the Djelk and Warddeken Indigenous Protected Areas undertake to preserve their unique cultural and ecological environments.”
We spend the night in steamy Darwin, then hop in a chartered twin-engine plane for the 323-mile flight east to Maningrida, a coastal town of around 2000 inhabitants and one of the most important art centers in Australia. When we land we learn that the big story in town is an attempt to capture an eighteen-foot-long saltwater crocodile that’s been snacking on dogs and feral pigs foolish enough to wander the beach.
It’s Mandy contention that, while the people of Arnhem Land are world renowned for their bark paintings and other objects telling traditional stories, there are also new stories needed to deal with climate change and other evolving challenges—and maybe new art techniques are needed to portray those narratives. She’s talked with the local people and determined that they’d like to try out a new palette that includes everything from day-glo paints to three-dimensional video techniques.
While I’m writing for the project, I’m also here to spend time with curator Henry Skerritt—with whom I’ve worked recently on our recent No Boundaries exhibition of Aboriginal art. We plan on interviewing some of the better known masters of bark painting, as well as some of the artists with whom Mandy is working.
While Mandy and her husband, the rancher and conservationist Guy Fitzhardinge, meet with the local rangers to sort out logistics, Henry and I head over to the Maningrida Art Centre to meet with Coordinator Louise McBride, and to arrange the interviews, including a conversation with John Mawurndjul, whose work I’d seen at TarraWarra a few days previously. The Centre is packed with some of the finest bark paintings and ceremonial burial poles I’ve ever seen, as well as textiles, baskets, and other objects. At the end of the day we regroup to drive out to the Djinkarr Lodge, an eco-tourism facility set up eleven miles out of town, and where we’re staying for the week. The cabins, which are mostly unused at the moment, sit on a bluff overlooking a river valley, which offers up one of the best sunsets we’ve had in our travels. When dark falls, the invasive and poisonous giant cane toads flop around the paths, while over my bed green geckos chase down an astonishing variety of insect life.
As the week progresses, it becomes evident that Mandy’s strategy of bringing new tools to new stories is a good one. A prime piece of evidence is Ivan Namarnyilk’s fluorescent feral pig rubbing up against rock art, which is painted as white figures on an ochre ground. The neon colors of the invasive species threatens to erase history. This melding of old and new palettes, of traditional images with that of a new environmental and cultural challenge is exactly what Mandy is seeking.
TarraWarra Museum of Art, May 6, 2015
Australia is home to many fine public art museums, notable among them the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, which opened in 1874, and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, which opened in 1861 and is the oldest public art museum in the country. These are large encyclopedic art museums with collections of international importance, including significant collections of Australian Aboriginal art. Shows of contemporary art at the “NGV” can attract as many as three-quarter of a million people.
But the robust public museum community of Australia has more recently been augmented with private museums. The most well-known, even notorious example is the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania’s capital, Hobart. Dedicated to breaking down curatorial and thematic walls in its collections and exhibitions, visitors to MONA can expect to be confronted with a Egyptian sarcophagus standing opposite an elongated human figure by Alberto Giacometti, all surrounded by sloping walls draped in an astonishing collection of tapa cloth from across the Pacific. MONA has become the leading tourist attraction of Tasmania, and a must-see for any serious international museum-goer.
During my visit to Melbourne in early May, I visited another extraordinary private facility, the TarraWarra Museum of Art. Founded in 2000, its handsome single-story form arcs above the famed vineyards of Yarra Valley. The museum’s core strength is in Australian paintings, and during the Art + Climate = Change festival, it exhibited works by two notable Aboriginal artists from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Titled Earth and Sky, the intricate crosshatched patterns by John Mawurndjul represented landscape, while Gulumbu Yunupingu’s dense fields of small cruciforms revealed the starry night sky of the Southern Hemisphere.
Yunupingu, born in 1945, had a vision that led her to paint stars with crosses as bodies, each with a dot representing an eye in the center, the forms all floating on an even denser field of dots beneath them that represent the stars we cannot see. Mawurndjul’s seemingly infinitely detailed crosshatched painting stems from his adoption of “rarrk,” a shimmering technique of layered crosshatching that alludes to the spirit and power of place. Mawurndjul’s use of rarrk is derived from its original forms reserved for sacred ceremonies.
Both artists ground local pigments and then painted with them on bark peeled from eucalyptus trees, a medium that dates back at least into the 19th century, if not earlier. Bark paintings have been collected for their aesthetic and formal beauty since the early 20th century, although they are less well-known in the U.S. than the work of Australia’s Central Desert painters who use acrylic on canvas. Both Yunupingu and Marundjul created major works in 2006 for the Australian Indigenous Art Commission at the new Musée du quai Branly in Paris, which holds masterpieces of indigenous art from around the world.
The exhibition was a powerful reminder that the concern of contemporary artists for climate and our role in shaping it spring from a species-old relationship to an environment that is larger and richer in both reality and imagination, in science and emotion, than we sometimes remember to credit.