Just Breathe

Joar Nango’s festival exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall is an inspiring invitation to expand our minds and knowledge and to carry out fundamental change.

Joar Nango, Girjegumpi / Sami Architecture Library, 2018. Installation view from Bergen Kunsthall. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

“Leat álo basuhuvvon / gomuvuođas / Vuoiŋŋa / čiekŋalit.” So goes one of three Sámi “blessings for Bergen,” that you can get on a poster at Joar Nango’s festival exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall. The text, which means: “You are always blessed by the universe. Just breathe,” is signed Marry Áilonieida Somby, one of the many collaborators Nango brought on board for this presentation. The festival exhibition in Bergen is considered one of the most prestigious solo shows that can possibly be bestowed on a Norwegian artist. But for Nango, whose artistic practice generally consists of collective projects, “solo shows” in the strict sense do not seem to be something he does. No less than sixteen partners are credited with making contributions to the exhibition. In addition, Bergen Kunsthall is presenting a parallel exhibition consisting of a mini-retrospective featuring FFB – Fellesskapsprosjektet å fortette byen (The Collective Project for a Denser Concentration of the City), an architectural collective of which Nango has been part for the past ten years.

A trained architect working in the intersection of art and architecture, Joar Nango is not only the first Sámi artist to be tasked with the Festival Exhibition in Bergen. He is also an atypical festival exhibitor in the sense that his projects are distinctly process-oriented and social in scope. Although his show will probably remain more or less unchanged during the exhibition period, stepping into Nango’s exhibition is still stepping into a work that is in development and unfinished. As a visitor, I also grow unusually aware of how my own understanding is in process. Not least because the first room you enter is a “Library of Sámi architecture,” featuring books and articles that Nango has collected over the last fifteen years – not only about Sámi architecture, but also about other Indigenous architecture as well as other topics that interest him, such as curation as an anti-racist practice. Visitors are invited to peruse and read the collection, and a potential for expanded perspectives certainly lies hidden among the many pages. During one of my visits to this room, at a time when I was rather physically exhausted from perambulating the galleries, I sat down in a hammock that is part of the installation. On a stool next to me, I discovered two A4 sheets featuring a prose poem by Tone Huse about the demolition of a dilapidated block of flats, Blok P, in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. It was the only thing from the library I got to read while I was there. As Huse writes: “The traces of Block P are frames of concrete, a grid that sits deep in the ground, cut down until the ground slides over it. Here Nuuk breathes in. An empty space in the city centre, a space of opportunities, time that slips and slides, time that flies, floats, time gone by and time that came.”

Joar Nango, Rákkas 1–4, 2020. Installation view from Bergen Kunsthall. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Nango previously built a mobile structure, inspired by Sámi shepherd huts mounted on sleigh runners, to house the library. Now that the library has taken over the art gallery, the Girjegumpi (2018–), as the structure is called, has been taken apart and scattered around the room. Stripped, the bare sleigh stands on the floor, its walls leaning against the gallery walls, its roof hanging from the ceiling. Deprived of its practical function, the building parts now accommodate the Sámi artist Anders Sunna’s paintings and sketches of, among other things, architecture from Sápmi, some historic, others new. One might conclude that upon encountering the art institution, the mobile structure falls apart and turns into immobile art objects, but it is equally likely that the dismantling is temporary and that the library will be rebuilt, possibly in a revised form. Sunna’s fresco-like ceiling mural bears a text written in reverse, as if specifically created for someone to take a selfie under it: “the revolution of everyday life.” Ironically enough, this is the English title of the Belgian Situationist Raoul Vaneigem’s book from 1967, in which he criticises the objectifying relations of consumerism.

Instability, changeability, and improvisation are central to Nango’s work. The exhibition is characterised by a visuality that can seem chaotic and complex, a layer-on-layer aesthetic with elements that appear significant at one moment and arbitrarily thrown together the next. His is a type of non-hierarchical aesthetic based on what happens to be available; there does not seem to be any given distinction between high and low. At the same time, the exhibition has depth, with its many levels and layers of images, materials, stories, and knowledge.

In particular, the use of video documentaries, text, and audio helps to establish a space for in-depth study. The library shows a four-hour recording from a seminar on Sámi architecture alongside a brief text-based video manifesto, The Indiguenity Manifesto (2016) – the term being a combination of the words “indigenous” and “ingenuity.” Among other things, the manifesto states “it’s only through appropriation that autonomy can be claimed.” Indeed, the idea of taking ownership, both of history and the present, seems an important aspect of the exhibition. A separate gallery presents Post-Capitalist Architecture TV (2020), a miniseries Nango made with filmmaker Ken Are Bongo this spring when the festival exhibition, originally scheduled to open in May, was postponed due to coronavirus precautions. Nango turned the rear of his van into a hybrid outdoor and indoor space, using it to conduct interesting conversations with a number of experts and scholars from different disciplines; examples include curator Candice Hopkins, car mechanic Lan Paulsen, and the lawyer, artist, and yoiker Ánde Somby, to name a few. Some of things they discuss also physically appear in the exhibition, including Wilhelm Christie’s Sámi Drum (date unknown), which belongs to the University Museum in Bergen and is named after the museum’s founder. It is accompanied by a text by Mathias Danbolt in which he explains how the drum was long presented – and “restored” – as Sámi, until it turned out that it was actually Greenlandic.

Joar Nango, European Everything, 2017 – . Installation view from Bergen Kunsthall. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Video and audio works are also important in the continuation of the European Everything project, which was Nango’s contribution to Documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens in 2017. Sound flows from two wall-mounted speakers that at first glance look like monochrome white paintings, while the video images that accompany the sound are projected onto a small cut-off piece of wood inside an old horse trailer. This part of the exhibition also includes European Everything Hut (2020), a rather makeshift-looking shed housing a simple copper smithy made in collaboration with the Roma coppersmith Lajos Gabor, who has previously collaborated with FFB on the project Odelsgut og fantefølge (Villagers and Vagabonds), which caused heated debate in the Norwegian village of Kvam in 2017. Some of Gabor’s works, mostly wide bracelets in copper, are also on display. Here, Nango breaks down the distinction between outside and inside in a more symbolic sense – of all the ethnic groups in Europe, the Romani people may be furthest down the social ladder, living in the greatest state of exclusion. The act of incorporating Romani craftsmanship into the festival exhibition is to include a part of European culture that art institutions would ordinarily not even have considered addressing. Nevertheless, it fits in seamlessly as part of the larger installation.

While Nango’s consistent disruption of aesthetic and social hierarchies establishes a form of horizontal order, there is also a vertical and spiritual movement in the exhibition. At the end of the largest exhibition hall, a pillar extends from floor to ceiling. This can be perceived as a kind of world axis that establishes a connection between earth and sky – and between ancient Indigenous technology and modern computer technology. The work Skievvar (2020) consists of a narrow cloth sewn from halibut stomachs stretched up on a wooden frame. On this screen, the artist projects a 3D-animation by Markus Garvin, accompanied by a powerful atmospheric sound work by Alexander Rishaug. Garvin’s video shows a number of swaying structures that appear to be made of thin wooden planks; at one point the words, seemingly carved in stone, “you can’t turn the flow of a river,” appear one by one on-screen and shatter as they reach the bottom. An opposite movement is effected by some vaguely anthropomorphic and weightless shadow-like figures that float upwards like souls or spirits.

Joar Nango, Skievvar, 2020. Installation view from Bergen Kunsthall. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

The pillar is the only light source in the room, which is otherwise left dark. Acting as a centre of gravity, it exercises a strong pull on the spectators. Along the walls are a number of everyday materials and objects, both traditional and modern: birch twigs; sacks of firewood; strips of birch bark; decorated animal skins; the windscreen of a Yamaha snowmobile; rusty sleighs; and a plastic jug. The smell of natural materials permeates Nango’s exhibition, and in this room the smell is particularly intense. In the middle of the room, the floor is covered in birch twigs and reindeer skin, like the interior of a lavvo, a traditional Sámi tent. Four small interior tents, rákkas, bear illustrations that depict scenes from Sámi everyday life, done by an unknown artist in the mid-18th century as preliminary studies for the book Beskrivelse over Finmarkens Lapper (Description of the Lapps of the Finnmark,1767) by the missionary Knud Leem. In the context of this exhibition, the use of these coloured prints appears to be a way of reclaiming or re-appropriating Sámi history. The struggle for Sámi rights is also represented in this room in the form of The Nomadic Library, Nango’s collaborative project with his partner Tanya Busse, which sees them republishing various writings from the Arctic. Here, they present reprints of an edition of Charter 79 – a manifesto (1979), originally published by the Sámi Action Group – a cultural and political resistance movement launched in 1979 to protest against the construction of a hydroelectric plant in the Alta-Kautokeino river area – and an issue of Vannbæreren (The Water Carrier), a “magazine for cultural changes,” from 1975.

At the exhibition’s entrance is the work The Same Rope That Hung [sic] You Will Pull You Up in the End (2020). Reminiscent of a gallows, the rope hanging from the bent birch pole does not end in a noose, but a large polished ring of copper. That shining circle can be seen as a symbol of the Sámi and other Indigenous Peoples’ cyclical understanding of time and circular resource management – ideas we should all embrace if we are to ensure humanity’s survival on this planet. Joar Nango’s festival exhibition is an inspiring invitation to expand our knowledge and prompt fundamental processes of change – within the field of art, in a larger societal perspective, and in everyday life.

Joar Nango, The same rope that hung you will pull you up in the end, 2020. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.