The Last Outpost of Postmodernism

Artscape Nordland gets the Arts Council Norway honorary award, but what the project really needs is the critical discussion that has been lacking for the last 25 years.

Luciano Fabro, Reiret, 1994. Røst kommune.
Luciano Fabro, Nest, 1994. Røst kommune. (All photos:

Arts Council Norway (Norsk Kulturråd) celebrates its fiftieth anniversary by awarding its prestigious honorary award (“ærespris”) to what National Geographic has described as one of the ten best sculpture parks in the world, Artscape Nordland. This is the first time the award goes to a project instead of to a leading figure within the arts.

The story of Artscape Nordland will be familiar to many. The artist Anne Katrine Dolven came up with the idea during a discussion about art’s position in the northern region of Norway back in 1988. Later that year the Finnish curator Maaretta Jaukkuri was asked to get involved, and she has been the artistic director of the project ever since. All 44 municipalities in the Nordland region were offered a sculpture, and 36 accepted the offer – including one municipality in the neighbouring county, Troms. Most of the sculptures were put in place during the period 1992 to 1998, and all of them remain intact today – except for a work by Dorothy Cross featuring an iron bathtub that was taken by a storm in the mid-1990s.

Kain Tapper, En ny samtale, 1992. Vega kommune.
Kain Tapper, A New Conversation, 1992. Vega kommune.

Whenever this extensive project has been presented to the public, there seems to have been widespread agreement to keep the tone positive and confirmatory. This is of course quite natural for the presentations offered by the project organisation itself, but the public debate in Norway and the Nordic countries has also kept the project exempt from critical discussion – apart from some local protests during the first years. As far back as 1991, a year before the first sculpture was officially inaugurated, the editor of Billedkunstneren, Lotte Sandberg, firmly stated that this project displayed “art of very high quality”.

We find the same kind of appraisal in the reasons given for awarding the Arts Council Norway special award to this project. It is praised for “incorporating local, regional and international perspectives” and for “simultaneously challenging and merging harmoniously with its natural setting.” Such pairings of disparate concepts is a recurring theme, as if art in general and this project in particular had a special ability to reconcile differences: harmony/challenge, nature/culture, local/global, night/day, hard/soft and so on.

Kari Cavén, I dag, i morgen, alltid, 1992. Beiarn kommune.
Kari Cavén, Today, Tomorrow, Always, 1992. Beiarn kommune.

Maaretta Jaukkuri describes Artscape Nordland as a summary of postwar sculpture: “Here we find an international collection of contemporary sculpture from the 1990s that incorporates the grand tradition of sculpture as well as the many changes this art form has undergone from the early 1960s onwards,” states the curator in the article “Kunst finner sted” (Art Takes Place), which is featured on the project website: “The collection of sculptures in the county of Nordland may not offer a seamless history of sculpture from the 1960s onwards – which was the original intention. Nevertheless, it does offer a complex and varied approach to sculpture as a mode of expression and to the context of sculpture.”

However, these general phrases still obscure the more specific artistic and ideological dimensions of Artscape Nordland. In order to properly understand those aspects we must consider the situation on the Nordic art scene in the late 1980s. In 1988, when Jaukkuri was contacted about the project, she held two jobs: as exhibition secretary at Nordiskt Konstcentrum and as curator of the Nordic pavilion in Venice. In other words she was one of the key players in the Nordic art discourse when the discussion about postmodernism was at its most intense. Maaretta Jaukkuri’s contribution was to formulate an identity for Nordic art in the “age of the sign”, as she put it in an article from 1989. One of the ways she did this was in her work with the Nordic biennial Borealis, which she headed and co-curated in 1985, 1987, 1989 and 1991.

Sissel Tolaas, Vindenes hus, 1994. Alstahaug kommune.
Sissel Tolaas, House of Winds, 1994. Alstahaug kommune.

She presented a specific approach to Nordic postmodern sculpture in 1985 in connection with Borealis II – Posisjon Nord, which she curated together with Per Hovdenakk at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter near Oslo. The exhibition consisted of outdoor sculptures arranged in the landscape around Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, featuring ten Nordic and three non-Nordic artists. In the catalogue Jaukkuri described the exhibition as postmodern due to its “free and unfettered approach to a range of different stylistic and historical elements and local conditions.” Just like Artscape Nordland, then. Per Hovdenakk joined Jaukkuri as a member of the project group behind Artscape Nordland, and eight of the artists from Borealis II project would later be included in the new venture.

The Borealis II exhibition prompted considerable discussion at the time. The artists, especially the Danish ones, were highly critical of the invitation, which encouraged them to work with “Nordic materials”. The critics disagreed on the point of whether there was a difference between the Nordic artists and those from other countries. For the seminar accompanying the exhibition, Jaukkuri and Hovdenakk had invited the American critics Peter Schjeldahl and Steve Madoff, who crossed swords over their views on internationalism and provincialism. It may seem as if Artscape Nordland inherited its artistic concept from Borealis II, but that it forgot the important, conflict-filled aspects along the way.

Olafur Gíslason, Media Thule, 1995. Tjelsund kommune.
Olafur Gíslason, Media Thule, 1995. Tjelsund kommune.

Today we have the opportunity to take a more balanced approach and challenge the general consensus, not just by reviving the discussions from 1985, but also by viewing the project in hindsight, as an historical event. Today it is easy to see that Artscape Nordland is indeed a postmodern project, entirely in keeping with the 1980s and their way of articulating history, place, myth and belonging. This is a project that has completely abandoned the experimentation and political commitment of the 1960s and 1970s, and which has not yet adopted the subversive, social and performative strategies of the 1990s. Olafur Gíslason’s Media Thule, where visitors can draw the landscape themselves, is the one exception that proves the rule.

How is this evident in the thirty-six sculptures scattered across the northern regions of Norway? Well, first of all the project has a strong penchant for local materials. The project set-up encouraged this, but of course it is also an ideological choice.

We also find a wealth of references to art history, archaic symbols and geometric figures: granite churches, temples, pyramids, spheres, columns and obelisks are the most frequently seen. Portals come up especially often: Bjørn Nørgaard, Waltercio Calda, Anish Kapoor, Per Kirkeby, Bård Breivik, Inge Mahn, Kristjan Gudmundsson and Sigurdur Gudmondsson all contributed kind of portal or crevice that spectators can view the landscape through.

Anish Kapoor, Øye i stein, 1998. Lødingen kommune.
Anish Kapoor, Stone Eye, 1998. Lødingen kommune.

A number of artists have created circular shapes, including Cildo Meireles and Oddvar I.N. The latter has carved and polished a ten-metre circle into the mountains. You can also find more humane or mundane primordial shapes among the sculptures: Anthony Gormly and Kjell Erik Killi Olsen both created male figures that gaze out across the sea; one is made out of cast iron, the other of granite. The house shape is important, too: Per Barclay created a sunken timber frame for a house, Bjørn Nørgaard made a church (which also acts as a portal), and Sarkis Zabunyan has created two house-like shapes, one made out of white granite, the other of black. Several artists contributed geometric figures made out of local materials, such as Kain Tapper (stone pyramid), Toshikatsu Endo (stone cylinder), Kari Cavén (several cylinders, made out of wood or stone) and the aforementioned Mahn (spheres, in addition to the portal). Other works with archaic and symbolic leanings include Steinar Christensen’s stars lying on bare rock, Hreinn Fridfinnson’s tetrahedron, Martti Aiha’s sun sculpture and Luciano Fabro’s fragments of columns and eggs (!).

Almost all of these works have mythological undertones, and some of them seem pretentious and dated today. Others have retained something of their intelligence, drama and fascination, or are saved by a dash of humour. My personal favourites include Jan Håfström’s ruined town Den glömda staden and Dan Graham’s glass pavilion, which allows us to perceive the landscape and ourselves as being already mediated. However, the crucial issue here is not the question of which works have qualities that we think reach beyond the postmodern epoch they belong to; the important thing is the fact that they do indeed belong to an epoch.

Kjell Erik Killi Olsen, Mannen fra havet, 1994. Bø kommune. (Alle foto fra
Kjell Erik Killi Olsen, The Man from the Sea, 1994. Bø kommune. (Alle foto fra

This epoch has a range of specific qualities, and a particular and distinctively tension-filled relationship with art history and its own time. The kind of postmodern art we find examples of in Nordland was noticeably distanced from the political events of its day. Yes, it does have a dollop of regionalism, but other than that it remains largely silent on political issues. Who would ever think that these sculptures were conceived while a new Europe was being formed after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the dissolution of the Soviet Union? Who would think that they were made by a culture about to perish from excessive consumerism and pollution? And who would believe that the young artists working in the Nordic capitals at the time were keenly interested in popular culture, identity and feminism when you look upon granite spheres and rusty, melancholy men staring out across the sea? Perhaps Artscape Nordland is also rather more gendered than it has made out to be. Only six out of the 36 artists are women.

The conclusion to be drawn from all this is not that there is something wrong with Artscape Nordland, but rather that this project is not an ideologically neutral, ideal project that stands outside of historical and critical categories. It is true that much of the postmodern sculpture in the Nordic countries sought to distance itself from politics, but this is exactly why a political reading of the project is so interesting. “Who is Speaking Thus?” was the rhetorical question asked by US critic Abigail Solomon-Godeau in the 1980’s as she strove to dismantle the neutral rhetoric of documentary photography. Maybe we ought to ask this difficult question as the Arts Council Norway bestows its award on Artscape Nordland.

Dan Graham, Uten tittel, 1996. Vågan kommune.
Dan Graham, Untitled, 1996. Vågan kommune.