Down North is the first instalment of the North Atlantic Triennial, a project initiated by the Portland Museum of Art (Maine, USA) and developed in collaboration with the Reykjavik Art Museum and Bildmuseet in Umeå. Its stated aim is to challenge existing hierarchies on the global art scene by putting the polar regions at the centre, presenting contributions from thirty-three artists from Canada, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and the USA – the latter mainly from Alaska. Besides the geographical delimitation encompassing only “The High North” – defined broadly on this occasion to include Portland – there is no pronounced thematic link between the presented works. Common threads are nevertheless to be found.
Unsurprisingly, ice is a recurring motif. Viewers will see melting polar ice wherever they turn. One of the first works encountered is Finnish artist Hans Rosenström’s video Folgefonna (2019), which shows a motionless hand holding out a lump of ice against a black background. Over the course of approximately fifty minutes, the ice lump the size of a large fist melts away completely while Rosenström’s hand, which must have suffered frostbite from holding the cold glacial ice for so long, twitches only slightly. Despite its subdued sense of quiet, the video performance is deeply disturbing in the way it makes palpable a phenomenon of sublime dimensions which are difficult to comprehend otherwise. The drops of water running down the hand and out of sight become metaphors for time running out in the fight against global warming and rising sea levels.
In the neighbouring work Arkhticós Doloros (Arctic Pain, 2019), Jessie Kleemann performs at Sermeq Kujalleq glacier in Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat), which is one of the world’s largest and fastest melting ice sheets. A black-clad Kleemann arrives at the blue glacier by helicopter, where she unpacks a large plastic blanket and a rope in which she wraps her body and face so tightly her skin bulges out. She then proceeds to blindly grope her way across the glacier while twisting and turning. All the while her black hair flutters in the icy wind. Kleemann’s heartfelt expression of pain is contagious. Not only does she give voice to the suffering nature; the performance also embodies a deeply felt despair prompted by centuries of pressure on Inuit culture and ways of life. The work is a reminder that the polar ice is not only a natural, but also a cultural landscape.
The frozen landscape is home to wildlife, too. The Edge of the World (2021) by Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson presents an iconic image of a polar bear surrounded by melting ice. Telling the story of a bear that drifted ashore on an ice floe in the far north of Iceland, the artists show fifteen serigraphs depicting a polar bear skeleton arranged according to how the bones are stored in Hraun, the bear’s final resting place. Like dinosaur skeletons in natural history museums, the majestic animal appears here as a powerful symbol of a changing world, while the representation also refers to a scientific view of the world. In that sense, The Edge of the World functions well as a link between Kleemann’s pathos and the many works based on more systematic approaches to this theme, such as Justin Levesque’s multimedia installation Geographical Problems (Your Files Are Too Powerful) (2021), Peter Soriano’s drawings in the series Ilulissat (2021), and Anna Líndal’s What Was Measured When I Was in the Glacier (2021). In video and engravings, Líndal shares with us some of the insights she has gained during several decades of collaboration with glacier researchers in Iceland.
Overall, Down North offers a rich picture of how mapping – both literally and figuratively – reflects the values of those seeking to translate the world into abstract systems. Among the works which shed light on precisely this, a personal favourite is Katarina Pirak Sikku’s series of pictures of ancestral areas in Sápmi, Piraks och Klementssons vandringsleder och fäderneärvda renmärken (Pirak and Klementsson’s hiking trails and ancestral reindeer grounds, 2021). In two simple watercolours in blue and green, the artist has reproduced the town of Jokkmokk in northern Sweden as a landscape of remembrance based on past events and passed-down lore that has shaped her family. She has used a pen to mark and jot down information on where various family members grew up and where they worked, but she has also noted dramatic events connected to the landscape. For example, a handwritten inscription below what to an outsider looks like any other blue line informs us: “Mother’s youngest brother, Karl Gustav, drowned in this stream.”
According to the catalogue text, Pirak Sikku’s records are a way of preserving local narratives and histories that have largely been kept secret for fear that anthropologists will come and dig up the place, destroying its value. Therefore, much intangible Sámi culture has only been preserved as oral accounts, and much has been forgotten. The watercolours testify to a deeply personal approach to the landscape. I particularly appreciate this type of work where the personal experiences of actual human beings take centre stage. Because when the topic is the Arctic, nature and the climate crisis tend to end up in the foreground. Other examples of works that address the plight of Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic are Jordan Bennet’s giclée prints 13 Moons: Full Suite (2021) representing the moons/months of the Mi’kmaq year, and Julie Edel Hardenberg’s Oqaluttuarisaaneq/History #1 (2019), where black (Inuit) hair grows out of the Danish flag, which she has turned sideways to accentuate the symbolic power of the cross.
Even though Down North offers a rich selection of interesting works, it feels rather strange to be told that the exhibition wants to turn familiar hierarchies upside down when the majority of the artists represented here – at least the Nordic ones – are already well-known and have shown at major exhibition venues in recent years. These include the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen (Jessie Kleemann), the National Museum in Oslo (Máret Ánne Sara), the Venice Biennale (Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna), Bergen Kunsthall (Anders Sunna), Henie Onstad Centre (Ann Cathrin November Høibo), Kunstnernes Hus (Frida Orubapo), and, not least, Bildmuseet itself (Katarina Pirak Sikku) – just to name examples that immediately come to mind.
Furthermore, there is something politically naive about the presentation which leaves an unfortunate aftertaste: the wall labels and the catalogue foreword constantly relate how Portland, Maine (which, by the way, is on the same latitude as northern Spain) is increasingly tied to the northern regions through shipping, yet fail to problematise how global capitalism is connected to the melting polar ice that is so ubiquitous in the exhibition. The Arctic is more lucrative than ever, and this initiative from the Portland Art Museum can thus easily be read as part of a wider strategy aimed at forging closer diplomatic ties between the northern regions so that they are better able to protect common economic interests. For the record, not a single Russian artist is included in the exhibition, even though Siberia is home to the majority of the world’s Arctic population. When the curatorial text by Mattias Olofsson (Sweden) emphasises the importance of good neighbourly relations, it approaches pure parody.
This is not to say that the museums are acting cynically. But given that we are talking about three cultural institutions of considerable size, one might reasonably expect a greater degree of self-reflexivity. Furthermore, the exhibition’s political affability takes the sting out of the works that specifically and concretely address how the extraction of natural resources threatens the livelihoods of people in the northern regions. In that sense, this otherwise timely and welcome call for attention to the Arctic comes across as a missed opportunity for political dissent.