The Humanity of Jonas Mekas’s Face

This year’s instalment of the Lofoten International Art Festival offers an inspirational meeting between art and a very special place. 

Jonas Mekas, Orquestina de Pigmeos, 2017. Video still.

Writers can always choose from an infinite number of starting points. But in this case, I have to begin at the beginning, with Jonas Mekas’s face, and with how seeing that face projected onto a wall at the North Norway Artist Center (NNAC) in Svolvær felt subversive in itself. The elderly have no space in today’s visual culture, at least not without first undergoing cosmetic surgery or having several layers of make-up applied to them. But here was a 95-year-old Mekas, in a video diary from 2017, two years before his death, with no filters whatsoever: the artist as an ancient man.

The message delivered by the esteemed avant-garde filmmaker also runs counter to prevailing currents. In the recording, he talks about the many big exhibitions he has just seen, in his adoptive hometown of New York, in Berlin, Kassel, and Madrid, and of how he became depressed and angry that everything has to be so big. He pits all these big events against an experience he had in Madrid, where he had the opportunity to attend a rehearsal held by a group of Romanian women who – as if to drive home the point – call themselves Orquestina de Pigmeos, the Pygmy Orchestra. The footage we are shown feels almost as out of date as Mekas himself. The images are dark and grainy; the women smoke while they sing and seem entirely unaffected by the camera, absorbed in the music, which is infused by great intensity and presence. Or, as Mekas puts it: “It was simple, straight, down to earth, personal, unpretentious, real, with no pretension to art. But it was, to me, art.”

The Italian curator duo going by the name Francesco Urbano Ragazzi has previously collaborated with Mekas, and refers to him as an important source of inspiration. Mekas’s criticism, reproduced in the catalogue as a statement for the 2022 edition of the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF), counteracts the dominant gigantomania by setting an alternative benchmark for the biennial, meaning that the question is not whether LIAF is big enough, but whether it is small enough. And I would say it probably is. Small enough, that is, even if relating to – not to mention writing about – group exhibitions is always something of a challenge. Featuring thirty-seven participating artists, this year’s LIAF is well within what is humanly possible to take in.

Tomáš Kajánek, Take a Little Peep, 2020. Video still.

Fantasmagoriana, the title of the biennial’s main exhibition – anticipated by two smaller forerunners in Venice and Oslo – is taken from a German anthology of Gothic short stories which a group of friends and writers sat down to read in 1816 while isolated in a villa in Switzerland due to a cholera pandemic and bad weather. Among them were Lord Byron and his physician, John Polidori, and the married couple Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley. When the group challenged each other to write their own horror stories, the results included Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) – the latter in turn becoming a source of inspiration for Bram Stoker’s more famous Dracula (1897). All of the artists participating in the festival were told this story by the curators at the beginning of their collaboration, and while it does not serve as a thematic superstructure, aspects of something ghostly, dark, and mysterious are recurring traits.

A strangely poignant example is Tomáš Kajánek’s Take a Little Peep (2020), in which the emo rapper Lil Peep, who died of an overdose in 2017, speaks to us in a deep fake video that feels precisely as half-real, half-unreal as it truly is. Lil Peep is saying something, but it’s hard to fully grasp what, and there is something wrong with his mouth; there is also something wrong with his eyes: their irises are so dark, it looks as if they are spilling out. Strictly speaking, people on film are always phantoms, but here these spectral qualities are accentuated, and the young delicate man looping in and out of focus seems like a mixture of a ghost and a contemporary version of Frankenstein’s monster forced into an afterlife beyond his control.

Marianne Berenhaut, Poupées poubelles: Tout laine passoire cintre, 1971–1980. Installation view, LIAF 2022. Photo: Kjell-Ove Storvik.

Marianne Berenhaut’s Poupées Poubelles (Garbage Dolls, 1971–1980), also invoke a kind of human existence in the inanimate. Using found materials, especially textiles such as nylon stockings and shirts filled with rags and straw, she has created fragmented, deformed, and twisted bodies which, in spite of having no heads, come across as individuals. I cannot help thinking of them as ensouled, each carrying their own story of pain, loss, and grief. Berenhaut’s parents and brother were executed in a concentration camp during the Second World War, and the old prison in Kabelvåg that now houses her exhibition emphasises the connection to the war experience: during the war, the site was used as a courtroom by the German occupying forces when five hundred teachers who were part of the resistance movement were interned in a labour camp in the town.

Such dialogue with its distinctive surroundings and local community is among the chief strengths of LIAF, now celebrating its 30th year, and is a central part of the strategy of the artistic council which runs the biennial in collaboration with NNAC. The exhibition is nomadic in the sense that it has no fixed abode, taking place in various locations in Lofoten. The curatorial team’s reason for choosing Kabelvåg as the exhibition’s main site is primarily that the legendary Dadaist Kurt Schwitters had a connection to the city. He too was interned in Kabelvåg at one point during the Second World War, and at the very back of the exhibition catalogue, we find a story, signed by Schwitters, based on that period in his life. The fact that an art scene exists around the Nordland School of Arts and Film also affected the choice of Kabelvåg. Part of the exhibition is presented in the school’s black box, while the rest of Fantasmagoriana takes place in two school buildings scheduled for demolition, as well as in The Espolin Gallery a little outside the town centre – in addition, that is, to the former courtroom, and the art centre in Svolvær.

Olaf Marsja, A lonesome flower’s dream of the past, 2022. Installation view from The Espolin Gallery. Photo: Kjell-Ove Storvik.

The Espolin Gallery, renamed “The Museum of the Sun” for this event, is usually devoted to a collection of works by local artist Kaare Espolin Johnson (1907–1994), and the works displayed there engage in a dialogue with a selection of his pictures. The fact that it works as well as it does, despite the very different aesthetics involved, may have to do with the fact that they all share an interest in mythology and folklore. Some of the contributing artists took part in a “long-distance residency” during the pandemic, which involved responding to the poem ‘The Son of the Sun’s Courting’, a myth about the origins of the Sámi people. Examples include: Olaf Marsja’s A lonesome flower’s dream of the past (2022), consisting of a series of human-like figures with flower heads; Thebe Phetogo’s intensely coloured paintings in the series Batsatsing / How To Move A Mountain (2022), which connects the Sámi myth to stories of sun gods from Botswana; and Christine Rebet’s animated video Otolithe (2021), inspired by the fijiri song tradition associated with pearl diving in the Persian Gulf.

The largest exhibition in the biennial is in the former Kabelvåg primary school, or “The Haunted School,” as it has been renamed for the duration. Several of the works shown here clearly respond to either the school context or to youth culture. This is certainly true of Tomaso De Luca, who exhibits in the former changing rooms. The intense smell of old locker room – decades of condensed children’s sweat, or perhaps it is mould, or both? – becomes an integral part of the experience of Lucas’s trap-like sculptures, which are redolent of cunning, hostility, and revenge. The sculptures are accompanied by the video works Desperate Times (2022), which shows various miniature versions of traps in action, and Hard Buttons (girlfriends’ room) (2022), where the artist has taken cut-out figures formerly used in the school’s English and German classes and repurposed them to enact a range of threatening and bizarre situations.

Tomaso De Luca, Gang, 2022. Installation view from LIAF 2022. Photo: Kjell-Ove Storvik.

Noland Oswald Dennis’s rather more wholesome Black Earth Study Room (2022) offers up an arena for unlearning and alternative learning. The installation was developed during a residency on the research ship Helmer Hanssen in the Barents Sea, where the artist, who hails from South Africa, undertook a voyage of discovery from south to north. On a large mind map, Dennis outlines different ways of seeing the world that address and rebel against colonial history – roaming between “the one thousand ends of the world” and “the one thousand beginnings of the world.” He also shows a number of modified globes. Some have been turned ‘upside down’ so that the Global South becomes the Global North; some have been painted completely or partially black. The space also includes a number of white, globe-like sculptures that appear to have cracked or split and which are filled with stones and straw. The scope of interpretation is wide, but I perceive Dennis’s sculptures as a visualisation of a resistance to the worldview and power structures represented by the conventional globe.

The new installation of Kenneth Goldsmith’s project Retyping a Library (2002–2022), previously shown this summer at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo, uses two fully equipped classrooms with desks for pupils and teachers alike. The conceptual poet is known as the man behind the avant-garde archive Ubuweb and the concept of “uncreative writing,” and for this project he set out to copy the text of a selection of books on a typewriter – a process of reversal, moving from book back to manuscript, so to speak. In order to determine how conscientiously he actually reproduces these texts, one must of course read them and compare them with the originals.

Those with plenty of time on their hands can do exactly that in Kabelvåg: while the ‘original manuscripts’ made by the artist are carefully stored in cardboard boxes alongside original author portraits drawn by Goldsmith, the exhibition also features thirty-two different reading copies laid out on the desks. The texts have been chosen for their relevance to the biennale, and among them one finds Frankenstein and The Vampyre. I only took the time to read the shortest text I could find, Kurt Schwitters’s strange little fairy tale Die Scheuche / The Scarecrow (1925)

Pauline Curnier Jardin, Adoration, 2022. Video still.

Auriea Harvey’s video game The Endless Forest (2005–present) can be said to represent the very opposite of school: leisure time. Here you can nestle deep into a bean bag chair and step into the role of a deer with a glowing aura above your head, running and jumping around in a forest that is supposedly endless. The deer seems to be without limitations – at any rate, it travels under water and through trees entirely unaffected. Nor does it have any task or quest to fulfil; there are no competitions or trials here. Essentially, this avatar behaves like a ghost trapped in a dream world.

Being trapped is a recurring motif in several works. For example, in Lars Laumann’s installation What Would Olof Palme Do? (2017–2022) (a good question these days, given the state of Swedish politics), where E.T., the small extra-terrestrial being stranded on Earth in Stephen Spielberg’s 1982 blockbuster of the same name, appears as a house god, depicted in a large tapestry and in the form of wooden Buddha-like figures of various sizes. Pauline Curnier Jardin’s project, a collaboration with inmates of a Venetian women’s prison housed inside a former sixteenth-century convent, is also about isolation and the sense of exclusion. For the iteration of LIAF in Venice, Jardin held drawing workshops with the women and created a permanent installation there. The video Adoration (2022), shown in an uncensored version in Kabelvåg, visualises a kind of party for the present-day inmates, the nuns of the past, and the prison guards – a carnivalesque rebellion against the roles assigned to the various participants and a suggestion that the world could be different.

Haroon Mirza, Message from a Star (Solar Symphony 12), 2022. Photo: Kjell-Ove Storvik.

A few works are installed out of doors, outside the school. One example is Haroon Mirza’s solar panel-powered sound piece Message from a Star (Solar Symphony 12) (2022), which changes according to the light. The relatively monotonous drone produced consists of harmonies of 111 Hz, referred to as a “sacred” frequency. Mirza’s Light Work xliv (2022), an indoor installation featuring red, green, and blue light, which together produce artificial daylight, supposedly operates on the same frequency, nourishing a small mossy tuft of grass on a rock. Without being unambiguous, Mirza’s experimental works pave the way for musings associated with the climate crisis and our relationship with technology, nature, and spirituality.

Inside the film school, Emma Talbot’s large walls of painted silk dominate, dividing the space in two. Titled Ghost Calls (2020), the work has obvious affinities with her installation at this year’s Venice Biennale, combining paintings with text bubbles conveying clear messages such as: “Do you hear ghost calls? A teary lament for human existence, a shout out to the living to take more care of themselves, the world and each other.” Executed in natural colours, the layered paintings are poised somewhere between the abstract and the figurative, depicting landscapes and ghostly pale human figures inspired by “keeners,” professional mourners of the ancient Celtic tradition. Aage Gaup is also represented in both Venice and at LIAF, but unfortunately did not get to see the results himself, having died in 2021. In Kabelvåg, he contributes four sculptures, among them a large reclining phallus made of Caribbean timber. Its title, Oađđi soahtemášiidna / Sleeping War Machine (2003) makes it hard to see the work as anything other than a critique of patriarchy, but at first glance the sculpture might also be perceived as a humorous celebration of masculinity.

Aage Gaup, Oađđi soahtemášiidna / Sleeping War Machine, 2003. In the background we see the back of Emma Talbot’s Ghost Calls, 2020. Installation view from LIAF 2022. Photo: Kjell-Ove Storvik.

The war machine is also the subject of Bassam Al-Sabah’s video work Dust (2017). It deals with the American war on Iraq, from which he himself fled as a child. Al-Sabah introduces a spin on the documentary genre by mixing television footage, particularly of speeches held by then-President George Bush, with clips from Japanese anime series and his own animations. Instead of images of the suffering of war, we see smooth and inconsequential cartoon violence, the destruction both colourful and beautiful. This, combined with Bush’s factually inaccurate statements, creates an overwhelming feeling of loss of reality.

The contributors to Fantasmagoriana consist of a good mix of international and local artists. They span a wide range of age groups, too. Among the very youngest are students from the local art school, who are represented in the form of a collective video work under the pseudonym Mary Haugen. They also appear as actors in Sille Storihle’s The Group Crit (2022), a filmed role-play scenario where the students present works created in character and give each other feedback, with Storihle herself in the role of teacher. The 72-minute film should ideally be watched from beginning to end, but of course this can be difficult to achieve in an exhibition context. In any case, it is a riveting and interesting study in group dynamics and different ways of relating to art – and quite funny at times, too.

Bassam Al-Sabah, Dust, 2017. Installation view from LIAF 2022. Photo: Kjell-Ove Storvik.

Overall, the production of knowledge is a general undercurrent in Fantasmagoriana. The curators describe their curatorial strategy as one of spreading “tacit knowledge,” that is, the kind of knowledge we carry with us; we may not be able to articulate it, but it nevertheless underpins what we do. During the opening weekend, LIAF, in collaboration with the Maaretta Jaukkuri Foundation, arranged a seminar on the subject of “tacit knowledge,” a term originally launched by the philosopher Michael Polanyi in 1958. The speakers represented various fields and disciplines, and among the most interesting contributions was programme manager for De grønne øyene (The Green Islands, a project to make Lofoten a low emission society), Laura Johanne Olsen’s account of Lofoten fishermen’s experience-based knowledge of nature, landscape, and navigation. Another highlight was artist and architect Joar Nango’s lecture on Sámi traditions for experimental reuse of materials to solve challenges in everyday life.

In a world where the biggest art events are also the ‘most important,’ LIAF cannot compete. But really, that does not matter much. What matters is that it seems to have found a model for its biennial that actually works more or less as intended and in accordance with its ambitions, acting as a place for encounters between art and local society, the exchange of knowledge, and the development of communities. Francesco Urbano Ragazzi has managed to activate this model in an invested and inspiring way. One can only hope that the biennial will not suffer from pressure to grow bigger in the future.

In a foreword to the catalogue for Fantasmagoriana, the head of LIAF’s artistic council, Helga-Marie Nordby, and the director of the NNAC, Marianne Hultman, state that biennials today are “challenged to find new models for international collaboration and broadened public outreach without them coming at the expense of sustainability.” Every cultural actor today lives under the scrutiny of donors and others, facing constant expectations of being able to demonstrate growth and increasing visitor rates. As is said between the lines here, this is in itself something of a problem from a climate perspective. If you are concerned with sustainability, many biennials – albeit perhaps not LIAF, with its relatively modest format – simply ought to listen to Jonas Mekas and set out to become smaller.

Sille Storihle, The Group Crit, 2022. Video still.

Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF), Kabelvåg, Svolvær

Artists: Nora Al-Badri, Bassam Al-Sabah, Marianne Berenhaut, Alessandra Cianchetta, Kirstine Colban Aas, Pauline Curnier Jardin, Tomaso De Luca, Nolan Oswald Dennis, Cheryl Donegan, Kaare Espolin Johnson, Gaia Fugazza, Aage Gaup, Kenneth Goldsmith, Shadi Habib Allah, Auriea Harvey, Susan Te Kahurangi King, Tomáš Kajánek, Lars Laumann, Sonia Leimer, Olof Marsja, Mary Haugen, Jonas Mekas, Haroon Mirza, Raffaela Naldi Rossano, Eivind H. Natvig, New Mineral Collective, Thebe Phetogo, Christine Rebet, Sille Storihle, Tine Surel Lange, Emma Talbot, Tsai Ming-liang, Stan VanDerBeek, Rimaldas Vikšraitis, Elina Waage Mikalsen, Jennifer West


Curated by Franscesco Urbano Ragazzi