A Conflict-free Environment

Earthworks showcases pioneering work on Nordic eco-art, but the exhibition's most pressing questions do not take proper flight.

Jenna Sutela, Vermi Cell, 2024. Compost, soil, worms, seed, pepper plant, aluminium rod, copper rod, Raspberry Pi, Raspberry Pi case, Sirius speaker, filter foil, acrylic cylinder, micro USB power adapter, speaker cables, amplifier, smoke machine. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

It is quite a scandal that no major Norwegian museum has done this exhibition already. With the exhibition Earthworks, Bergen Kunsthall has carried out important pioneering work: according to its own statement, the show “explor[es] the role of art in the history of ecological resistance movements in the Nordic countries.” This is a very interesting topic, both in terms of art’s relationship with its political setting and its history of material development, and one that I hope will inspire several other institutions.

Because even though the list of works features fifty contributions, this exploration is far from exhaustive: it offers what appears to be a somewhat random look at the historical development of eco-art, and it does not embrace the full breadth of the issues tackled by the environmental movement; the climate crisis is not very obviously present here, and Norway’s role as an oil nation is almost absent. Nor can the show be said to activate a particularly analytical gaze on older or newer eco-art, regardless of whether these involve activist, social, or ‘purely’ aesthetic practices.

Let us begin at the beginning with those works that we may, with some confidence, declare no longer contemporary. Curator Silja Leifsdottir and Director Axel Wieder have unearthed some of the fundamental oeuvres in Norway and the Nordics from the late 1960s onwards, which are linked to the emerging environmental movement and its response to modernity, even as the resulting art is clearly born out of that modernity. Specifically, this encompasses Norwegian artists Marius Heyerdahl, Bård Breivik, and Gerhard Stoltz, Danish textile artist Annette Holdensen, and Swedish painter and writer Monica Sjöö.

 Inghild Karlsen, Pustende ballong nr. 2 (Breathing Balloon no. 2), 2024. Acrylic plastic, acrylic paint, air. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

All these oeuvres, and several others, are obviously interesting, but claiming that this compilation provides a historical overview of the role played by art in the environmental movement, let alone of the role played by the environmental movement in art, would be overstating the case. The historical works were created from the 1960s to the 1990s. However, beyond the fact that the concrete interventions from the 1970s give way to more new age-oriented approaches towards the 1990s (which hardly comes as a surprise), it is difficult to trace categories and lines of development within the exhibition’s unevenly composed sweep of different fields of art and environmental struggle.

In some cases, the older works are juxtaposed with younger artists in ways that make immediate sense, such as the link established between Gerhard Stoltz’s “sculpture wanderings,” photographing picket fences in Bergen back in the early 1970s, and Jon Benjamin Tallerås’s exploration of the aesthetics of urban geography. For the most part, however, these venerable figures from art history are left to stand on their own. Yet the scope and scale of the presentations vary greatly – so much so that the difference can, at times, come across as somewhat strange. Perhaps this is a relatively realistic representation of Nordic art history because the ecological awareness of the 1970s did grow less prominently visible as time went on.

Even so, the exhibition seems to miss out on an excellent opportunity to address the concurrent rise of the environmental movement and art’s transition to conceptualism and how these tendencies influenced each other. One contribution, which is not historical but rather historicising in its approach, merits particular mention for its ability to connect art history and the ecological-material perspective: the Swedish journal OEI’s vast documentation project on Swedish earth art/land art projects. The connection between the different strata of the archive and geology really hits the spot.

Johanne Hestvold, Divination (Pasargadae Garden), 2021. Mycelium composite and reinforced concrete, 37 x 124 x 84 cm. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Overall, however, the broader environmental movement is not particularly present in most of the exhibition as anything other than a historical phenomenon whose point of origin is the Mardøla action, the first-ever case in Norway of organised civil disobedience in the service of nature. This becomes particularly clear when you look at the works that are actually associated with a specific contemporary environmental conflict: the Sámi-led fight against the wind farm at Fosen (Sissel Mutuale Bergh, Jannik Abel). Here, the exhibition shows, to great impact, how this campaign has key precursors in initiatives such as the artist group Mazéjoavku (1978) and the fight against the Alta development (concerning the construction of a hydroelectric power plant in the Alta River in Finnmark).

As a spectator, I am struck by how artists from the linguistic-cultural majorities have in no way managed to uphold a similar level of historical continuity. It is difficult not to go down the same path as many old Marxists, finding oneself speculating whether ideological critique and a deconstruction of national identity – applied to art as well as to our connection to our surroundings – has, in fact, dissolved one of our most central tools when faced with capital’s lack of boundaries.

Summing up the exhibition’s newer works is difficult as they point in an awful lot of different directions. Several of them are very good: Johanne Hestvold’s self-destructing park models (Divination [Pasargadae Garden] and Demonstration [Zaryadye Park], both 2021); Silje Figenschou Thoresen’s childishly beautiful imprints of rubber debris from mining operations in the installation Her har døren været, vendende bort fra havet / dette er alt hva man har intet blev glemt, (This was where the door was, facing away from the sea / this is all there is nothing was forgotten, 2008–2023), and the Russian collective Sata Taas’s video game installation Irbet toŋ (Permafrost) (2024) are among my favourites. (I have a garden, so Jenna Sutela’s impish compost pile [Vermi Cell, 2024] is too prosaic for me.)

Sata Taas, Irbet toŋ (Permafrost), 2024. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Two important contributions to the exhibition that demonstrate a central tendency in artistic approaches to nature and environmental issues are those of Tina Buddeberg and Sørfinnset skole (Søssa Jørgensen and Geir Tore Holm). Both take a radical approach to life as art. Buddeberg devoted the last two decades of her life to a farm in Rondane (Norway), where she lived with a herd of horses and tried to appreciate and adopt their worldview as an aesthetic and philosophical practice. At the same time, the farm served as a gathering place for others interested in similar questions and ways of life. Sørfinnset skole, a social and educational project set in a village in northern Norway currently at risk of becoming depopulated, has a more institutional background and puts emphasis – perhaps even more so than Buddeberg – on the social connections and results of artistic practices and their ties to the local community.

The truly striking aspect of the presentation of both projects is how harmonious it all appears. Taking a step out of normality does not mean that all problems disappear; there are plenty of external challenges here, but it would appear that no internal struggles or contradictions exist in these worlds, which greatly resemble Scandinavian-style folk high schools in feel. One might say that, viewed through the lens of this exhibition, the entire environmental struggle looks rather like that.

Coincidentally, on the same day that the exhibition opened, I got to attend the dress rehearsal of the musical version of Billy Elliott, the story of a miner’s son who wants to become a ballet dancer. The story is not particularly concerned with nature, but it does offer an important addendum to our narratives about the relationship between energy and community. Seen from an ecological perspective, the story ends happily: the coal mine is closed down. But during the Elton John-accompanied dance numbers, I thought that the play’s surprisingly subtle dramatisation of conflicts between not only new and old social orders, but also the individual and the community might be just as good an introduction as Earthworks to all the questions about the status of nature that we have to puzzle out together.

Sørfinnset skole / the nord land, Museet, 2014. Lavvo, miscellaneous objects, video. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Translated from Norwegian.

Bergen Kunsthall, Bergen
Participating artists: Jannik Abel, Damien Ajavon, Sissel M. Bergh, Bård Breivik, Tina Buddeberg, Adrian Bugge, Conference of the Birds, Carola Grahn, Johanne Hestvold, Annette Holdensen, Marius Heyerdahl, Lars Holdhus / Matskogen på Landås, Inghild Karlsen, Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology, Mustarinda, Jumana Manna, OEI (Jonas (J) Magnusson and Cecilia Grönberg w / Gert Aspelin, Cilla Ericson, Jan Håfström, Beth Laurin), Ingrid Elsa Maria Ogenstedt, Sata Taas, Anders Sunna, Monica Sjöö, Sørfinnset skole/ the nord land, Egil Storeide, Lada Suomenrinne, Jenna Sutela, Jon Benjamin Tallerås, Silje Figenschou Thoresen, and Wild Seeds: KVAE & BARK and others.


Curators: Axel Wieder and Silja Leifsdottir.