The buzz in Kabelvåg

This year's LIAF (Lofoten International Art Festival) is emphasizing local roots and narrative, but the curatorial elbow room is restricted by overly limited resources.

Kjersti Andvig, De Troende (The Believers), sculpture and sound installation, LIAF 2011. The work is accessible only when ebb tide is at its low point. Photo: Kristine Jærn Pilgaard.

For the first time the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) is confined to Kabelvåg. With the historic city center as an idyllic backdrop the entire event has a more intimate character than previously in Svolvær, while it has also become more strongly relevant to the immediate surroundings. The two curators, the artists Thora Dolven Balke and Linn Pedersen, have set these changes in motion.

Gut feeling

Both the exhibition and the “lavvosymposium” connected with the opening have the stated goal of overcoming some of the distance and remoteness often marking the way art is arranged and shown. The symposium, which took place across two days after the opening, was an important part of this strategy: lectures and performances deliberately glided into each other, and the lavvo as architectonic frame gave an alternative possibility for dialog and participation. The symposium also included a poetry reading by Ellen Einan, music, a bar, seafood, a grill, and a sauna. As for the exhibition, the curators write in the small catalog publication (the cover lists all of Kabelvåg’s 1,700 residents as well as the artists) that the show seeks a “compression, to see if expression and reflection can merge in one utterance without a distancing layer of jargon”. They claim this should not be understood as an “anti-theoretical position”, but more as something conditioned by “weariness with the increasing demand to elucidate and justify artistic expressions”, the demand for what the curators call in the Norwegian version of the catalog “contextualizing articulations”. More directly expressed: “We want to include the gut feeling, the spontaneous and irrational reaction”. The multiple meanings of the exhibition’s title “Something in the way” (taken from Nirvana’s Nevermind) can in this sense move toward the somewhat undefined, what lies there muttering and doesn’t allow for complete expression.

Lavvosymposium. The American poet John Giorno presents “It doesn’t get any better”. Photo: Monica Larsen.

I consider this an interesting signal from two young artist-curators, if one understands it as a transgression of a conventional and simplified opposition between “feeling” and “reason”. Criticism directs itself, as I read it, toward a field of contemporary art which at times is strongly dominated by intellectualizing jargon that functions to legitimize art verbally and produce a symbolic power of definition. I understand this exhibition partly as an attempt to open trains of thought now having less than enough space. The show doesn’t try to illustrate one or another uplifting theme (the 2008 version spoke for example of a “Sustainable future …”) or to launch an explicit artistic position. It communicates more indirectly. It is not based on curating of individual works, but on choosing fourteen artists who, without strong external direction, have still created new works and projects. Simultaneously there are certain characteristics that clearly stand out: the artists are primarily in their thirties, eight of the thirteen contributions are based on video, sound is a central element in many of them, and there is emphasis among other things on narrative.

Two Norwegians

Ann Cathrin November Høibo, My social sculpture Holiday Inn, Performance of objects, 2011. Photo: Jason Havneraas.

I’ll nevertheless begin at a slightly different point, with two of the Norwegian artists who in my view set themselves off especially strongly—Ann Cathrin November Høibo and Simen Dyrhaug. Høibo presents an installation that has a fine excess. In the so-called Fengselsparken (Prison Park) in the center of Kabelvåg she makes use of textile pieces and various materials in several layers forming kinds of “paintings” that lie across the lawn. They resemble abstract, formal compositions, while the disorderly mix of inexpensive materials creates associations with industrial production, interiors, clothes, and something physically tactile. Spread across a beautiful small park, it all seems misplaced and disturbing in an unobvious, out-of-kilter way. It was liberating in this context that some artists chose to engage in dialog with a part of the milieu not included in the typical clichés about Lofoten and North Norway, such as the oft-used drying rack for fish. Some of Høibo’s works were also shown in the Galleri Lille Kabelvåg within a more ordinary framework.

Simen Dyrhaug, drawings and sketches selected by Linn Pedersen, Jan Freuchen, Thora Dolven Balke, and Kristian Skylstad. Table designed by Jan Freuchen. Photo: Jason Havneraas.

In one of the large spaces in the rustic Tønnefabrikk a selection is presented of the drawings of Simen Dyrhaug, who died so tragically young in 2008. The exhibition is designed by Jan Freuchen, who shared the selection process with the curators. The display is shaped like a large table cut out in a single unbroken piece, a large “blob” of biomorphic forms and undulating lines resembling those in Dyrhaug’s drawings and paper cuttings spread across the surface of the table under glass. The many line drawings and handwritten sayings (for example “Don’t flirt with occultism, it will fuck you up” or “Thinking without words” range from the small-scale grotesque to the psychedelic, from the personal to the ironic, all in a single fluent stream of associations, everyday thoughts, and fragments of pop culture.

Mythology and storytelling

Dyrhaug’s excessive overdrive, resembling a comic strip, creates a fine dialog with the Berlin-based Czech Habima Fuchs one story below. Her installation of ink drawings and ceramic sculptures invokes the primitive in its inclusion of mythological supernatural animals, human figures, and landscapes. Their ornamental character invites association with medieval animal ornamentalism or other older cultures. The effect is of an attempt to actualize a mythological world-understanding, while it also can be understood in a more external way as a set of quotations.

Markus Selg, Storrada, HD video 25 min, 2011. Photo: Jason Havneraas.

Something similar can be said about German Markus Selg, who stages a story from the Viking period in his 25-minute video film Storråda, shot at the Viking Museum at Borg and in the surrounding mountains. As historical pastiche it links with Lofoten’s own history. The history of the Swedish queen Sigrid Storråda is disputed; in Selg’s film it receives a timeless, mythic quality. According to some traditions she intervenes violently in Norwegian history: the Norwegian Olav Tryggvason wanted to marry her, but when she refused to convert to Christianity, he is supposed to have struck her in the face and said he did not want to marry a “dog of a heathen”. This created bitter enmity, and when she later married the Danish king Sven Tveskjegg she succeeded in having him and his son Olof Skötkonung, who had become a Swedish king, go to war against Tryggvason. This became the bane of Tryggvason, and he died in the famous battle at Svolder in 1000. Selg uses no dialog, and the dreamlike film begins in the Viking Museum with figures in full Viking uniform and with the famous blow to the face. Then we follow the queen, played by the aforementioned Habima Fuchs, on a journey through a mountain landscape without a real end. Selg’s version of the story is more a lingering fantasy than a historical reconstruction weaves indefinitely between pathos and kitsch. No obvious irony is present even though there is a distance. One is uncertain about whether to take this completely seriously, and the ambiguity creates interest.

Lindsay Seers, Monocular, HD video – 5.1 surround sound. Wood structure, reindeer skin, logs, metal piping 2011. Photo: Jason Havneraas.

In the Tønnefabrikk building one also finds a video installation by the British artist Lindsay Seers that tells a story in which the difference between fact and fiction, personal biography and fabrication, is in flux. The many narrative strands are spun around the medical phenomenon heterochromia—which occurs when a person’s eyes have different colors—and links a series of alleged “chance encounters”. The film deals with many things: similarity and difference; seeing with one eye; a person who lives on with parts of an unborn twin brother in himself in the form of a differently colored eye; a man Seers meets in England who has a Sami father; the Cod Wars in the 1960s and 70s, etc. The showing is in a constructed house-shaped building reminiscent of a lavvo, with reindeer skin and the like. The many elements form a seductive account of which we never completely make sense.

To me these installations in the Tønnefabrikk became the most interesting part of the exhibition, for instance in the way they created points of contact and connection among themselves. The installation there of the German Christoph Keller’s work took a starting point in Wilhelm Reich’s theory of orgone-energy and its fall in Norway, but the work gave me little new information about an already well-known and much-discussed story.

The tourist cliché that always turns up

Michel Auder, Silent Hurdler, installation. Photo: Jason Havneraas.

Michel Auder’s video installation with nine screens at Kolflaathbrygga consisted—to put this as a bit of an irreverent oversimplification—cross-cuttings between street scenes from New York and scenes from the sea around Lofoten where he is out with a fisherman. We see people’s lives in the big city placed against the fresh and natural life in the North. As far as I could see this was rather banal; the only thing that perhaps led to some excitement was sequences in which we look in on half-undressed people who anonymously move around behind the glass facades of tall buildings. The result appears, regardless, as an example of an urban artist who travels to an exotic place and trots out some of the most deeply rooted tourist clichés and forced contrasts.

I experienced this version of LIAF not primarily as a single unified exhibition. Standing out most strongly are instead some individual works and the dialog arising between them. It was positive indeed to receive new information, to be introduced to foreign artists who are not the typical and well-known stars in international circulation. The small format and local rootedness are also engaging vis-à-vis the emptiness one may find in mega-exhibitions such as the Venice Bienniale. If, however, LIAF is to have greater impact as an art festival at the national and Nordic level, it will need greater resources and stronger financial investment in support of production, presentation, and practical management.


Anders Nordby and Arild Tveito, Det uforklarlige gjestgiveri (The inexplicable inn), total installation, 2011. Video: private. Entering the door of the inn one finds the following inscription: “I belong to no one and I belong to all. You have been here before you went in, and you will still be here when you leave”.

Translation from the Norwegian by Richard Simpson.