Northern State of Mind

For the 16th Luleå Biennial, the darkness of the polar night is imbued with dreams of new forms of aesthetic and political resistance.

Lap-See Lam, Mother of Lightning, 2018. Installation view from Ájtte, Svenskt Fjäll- och Samemuseum in Jokkmokk.

A quiet Sunday and I’m on a bus to Ájtte – Swedish Mountain and Sami Museum in Jokkmokk, one of the venues of the 16th Luleå biennal. Ground frost and gnarled birch trees testify to the region’s subarctic climate. Jokkmokk is 170 kilometres from Luleå. Kiruna, where another part of the biennial is on display, is a further 200 kilometres from there. Lainio even further north. I don’t know how far you need to go to see the entirety of the biennial, which includes an additional ten venues, but it’s probably in excess of 1000 kilometres. Distances are far up here and it’s difficult to see it all.

The Luleå Biennial is described as Scandinavia’s “oldest biennial”, but for many years it was of a more of a local concern. With this year’s edition, the national member organization Konstfrämjandet (The People’s Movement for Art Promotion) has taken over as organiser, and the regional dispersal is motivated by their commitment to spreading art throughout the country, including outside of the main urban hubs. The biennial is said to have been reinvigorated after “lying dormant” since its last instalment in 2013. This turns out to be quite an apt metaphor, since the relatively untested trio of curators – Emily Fahlén, Asrin Haidiri and Thomas Hämén – has taken «darkness» as a “necessary and generative premise2 for the exhibition. “Generative” in the sense of a poetic or dreaming principle, allowing for “new contours slowly becoming visible”, rather than a theme.

Hanni Kamaly, Ballok, 2017.

“Necessary”, on the other hand, as a reference to the never ending darkness of the polar winter, but also to the ruthless exploitation of natural resources, and a largely forgotten history of fascist violence, endemic to the region’s “political darkness”. Yet, this darkness is both evoked and kept at bay by the curator’s. While visiting the main exhibition at Luleå Konsthall, the idea of a “safe space” comes to mind, a place where people can share their experiences without discomfort or fear of repression. A film by Beirut based Marwa Arsanios (born 1978) shows a meeting between a group of women of different ages in the autonomous Kurdish region of Rojava. The women speak about how humans can relate to nature without exploiting it, but equally important is that we are witnessing a quiet conversation between generations, rather than a debate or a political disagreement. The women are partisans, that is evident from their military greens, but their talk must be seen as political struggle in a different guise. And that is exactly how the biennial wants to function, I think.

This is the set-up: first an exhibition for gathering strength and sharing experiences. Then, towards the end of the exhibition period, an antifascist conference for this accumulated strength to be mobilized in the direction of an outside enemy. It’s a sympathetic model, not only for those who align themselves with the antifascist worldview, but for all who support the idea that art (as well as activism) is best served when allowed to emerge on its own terms. Yet, the biennial’s model is not about the conservative slogan “everything in its place”, as it doesn’t operate according to any predetermined criteria about how the parts should be combined. This is what constitutes the open, poetic element of the biennial – the “darkness” – with its specific “potential for thinking and dreaming”.

Ulla Wiggen, Passage, 2016.

What does this potential look like, more concretely? The Luleå Biennial has a less original selection than the Moderna Exhibition (another take on the status of contemporary art, currently on view in Stockholm), but it is a well-balanced constellation of works. Despite the geographical expanse, it is not a very large exhibition. Thirty-two artists and groups exhibit works with an overall tendency towards fragmented narratives, rudimentary bodies and paintings that don’t only look like what they depict, but something else, more undecided. Several of the artists participate in more than one location, often showing similar works, but each time in a specific hanging prone to new, open-ended meanings.

To identify a specific artist as emblematic for the biennial as a whole can’t really be done, but something of Ulla Wiggen’s (born 1942) placid temperament resonates throughout. Wiggen is known for a short but acclaimed career as a figurative painter in the late sixties, after which she withdrew from the art world until the 2010s when she resurfaced with new work. Instead of her past preoccupation with computer technology as a motif, she now zooms in on the human body in meticulous paintings reminiscent of anatomy posters, shown both at Luleå konsthall and in a small exhibition at the self-organized space Galleri Syster. 

Neda Saaedi, Garden of Eden Moving; A Petrified Tribe, 2018.

Another important artist is Malmö-based Hanni Kamaly (born 1988), whose metal sculptures are on view in several of the venues. The odd thing about them is that they’re really hard to see, even when you’re gazing straight at them. This is because they are made out of thin metal rods loosely assembled with nuts and bolts, but also because they situate themselves in space like people, rather than works of art. They are like ghosts or signs with a transitory way of meaning that seem to carry their own darkness with them into the room. Wiggen’s practice also has a similar strangeness to it. This contributes to a distinct effect when you see her paintings paired with Kamaly’s sculptures, which happens several times throughout the exhibition. Both have a way of making an incision in the room, in which what we call art emerges as a material reality which at the same time opens up for something that isn’t quite there, not entirely. Like a shadow or a half-forgotten memory, perhaps? In Kamaly’s case, this looming presence points towards the constant threat of racism and colonial violence in western society.

It occurs to me that several artists from the same generation share a similar ghostlike appearance. Assemblages by Olof Marsja (born 1986) and two sculptures by Lap-See Lam (born 1990) are shown in a room painted blue from floor to ceiling: a chair covered in a sheet floating in mid-air, and an architectural fragment of a Chinese restaurant about to lift off from the ground. A video showing undulating waves by Louis Henderson (born 1983) contributes to the dreamlike atmosphere in the space. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the works are a kind of anonymised self-portraits. Lam addresses her background as a second generation Chinese immigrant, while Marsja aligns himself with the craft-based artistic expression of the Sami, albeit with his own modifications. Both appear to see identity as inescapable and necessary, which is where they relate to the curator’s idea of “darkness” as a place where you can withdraw and exist on your own terms.

Britta Marakatt-Labba, Rahkkan (detail), 2014.

Why would art ever want to be anything but a way of mapping its own visual, material and poetic realm of existence? This is how I perceive the attitude of these young artists, who seem exempt from overstated and alienating critical claims in ways which allow for an art that can be both playful and truly personal. There is a strain of Éduoard Glissant’s concept of ​”opacity” that refuses to adapt to the majority culture’s demands for transparency. Like Marsja’s little imp leaning against one of the blue-painted walls with a gnomic smile in its ’face’ (which isn’t actually there, the body is just a rolled up reindeer hide). Is this what antifascist resistance looks like in 2018? I can think of worse options.

Resistance can also be found in the past. The exhibition features a historical model of the communist newspaper Norrskensflamman’s office, which, on 3 May 1940, was subject to what has been described as one of the worst terrorist attacks in Swedish history. Five people died in the arson attack. The event is also addressed in the first issue of the biennial publication, the Lulu Journal, which came out earlier this fall. Another issue, edited by Ingela Johansson and Masha Taavoniku, addresses the miners’ strike in the Norrbotten ore fields in 1969–70, which had significant popular support among arts professionals of the time, while a third presents the Luleå publishing company Teg Publishing, with poetry by David Väyrynen and Pernilla Berglund, among others.

Installation view with works by Hanni Kamaly and Isak Hall (in the background).

The Luleå Biennial succeeds in bringing complexity and nuance its questions. It is as though two lines keep running in and out of each other: one that is about remembering and conveying, another that is about bringing a raw materiality to the narrative itself. This creates a “generative” forgetfulness that keeps operating within you, even after leaving the exhibition. At Ajtté, works by Naeda Saaedi (born 1987) and Isak Hall (born 1978) are less critical interventions and more about expanding the existing displays, historically, geographically or poetically. Saeedi’s contribution opens for a comparison between the situation of the Sami and the nomadic Bakhtiari people in Iran, who were forced to settle, while Hall shows paintings which layer paint and varnish in order to achieve a specific effect of contrasted light and shadow. In tandem, a textile work by Britta Marakatt-Labba on Sami history, about forced relocation and flight, is on view at Luleå konsthall.

Leaving Ajtté, I wonder if more politically charged works would have been possible given the institution’s dual function as both museum and tourist centre. Yet, this biennial is not about highlighting conflict, but about letting, for example, Hall’s abstract paintings work, delicately and thoughtfully, together with Arsanio’s film about the anticapitalist resistance of the Kurdish freedom fighters. This makes me realize that the curatorial model might just as well be derived from painting’s often tentative way of thinking in layers, delays and drastic shifts in perspective. A painter always works in the dark, in some sense. If Konstfrämjandets historically sounding motto of an “art for all” might raise concerns about simplistic ideas of popular education, the Luleå biennial is, on the contrary, characterized by a faith in art and poetry which underlines that true resistance demands receptivity, both intellectually and emotionally.

Installation view with works by Hanni Kamaly and Alexandros Tzannis (in the background).