Vågakallen is the ‘old man mountain’ which stretches out across the bay from Storvågan village. He lies on his back, head pointing towards the sea – crossed arms and raised knees rising in undulating peaks and scarps. Like many of the mountains in the region, Vågakallen was once a troll, his backstory involving a failed pursuit of a young virgin, a horseman, seven sisters baking bread, and an arrow shot into a hat of the king. As the saga concludes at dawn, each of the story’s characters is turned irrevocably to stone.
Folklore of this kind is the lifeblood of Lofoten, where centuries of fishermen have journeyed to reach these arctic cod-spawning waters, their navigation way-marked by distinctly sculpted geologies; myth and memory settling onto the land with each century of snow drift.
It’s storytelling which steers the ship of contemporary culture in Lofoten, an archipelago in Norway’s Arctic Circle, host since 1991 to Scandinavia’s longest-running contemporary biennale, the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF). Themed 'Fantasmagoriana', the 2022 edition’s guiding star is the anthology of German supernatural tales chosen as writing inspiration by Byron, Shelley, Polidori and Clairmont during their infamous gathering at Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva in 1816. (‘The year without a summer’). The fact that Shelley went on to set the first chapter of Frankenstein in the arctic midnight, had not escaped LIAF’s Italian curating duo, Francesco Urbano Ragazzi. Through three chapters of their own (Venice, Oslo, then Lofoten), LIAF 2022 remaps a new archipelago of literary, political, and geographical references, with 37 artists in tow.
LIAF being ‘nomadic’, the curators’ ultimate decision to set the festival in and around the town of Kabelvåg was both for its historical potency — as the place where Kurt Schwitters was confined during the Nazi occupation of Norway — and also for its film school, Nordland Kunst, to whom the entire festival is dedicated. Thus moving image and its history become a wellspring for the ‘cinematic’ in various dimensions: from Sille Storihle’s meta-narrative film on the power play of ‘The Group Crit', 2022, as side-splitting as it is unnerving, to an outdoor mural of collaged fax imagery (‘Panels for the Walls of the World’, 1970-2022), in homage to multimedia pioneer Stan VanDerBeek.
Meanwhile in a solo presentation at the 'Museum Under Destruction’ (the elementary school building due to be razed), LA artist Jennifer West turns to another ruin, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, documenting its demolition against a backdrop of social uprising. “The world was on fire”, the artist recalls of that summer of 2020. “Everything was ruptured”.
Her engagement with American cinema surfaces through a catalogue of “broken technologies”, from 16mm film to ‘holofans’, designed as seductive shopping mall devices. Towering cranes sway amongst palm trees. Piles of rubble are plinths to screens, others cascade waterfall-like from wall to floor, flickering with the lesions of damaged photographic negatives. Then in a room of their own, four crystals of chandelier glass (the only vestiges of the museum) are suspended, spinning like psychotic ghosts in the dark. If Ed Ruscha’s painting ‘The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire’ is a premonition, West’s work acts as a death mask for the museum. “You have to allow for the new. But there’s no sense of preservation”, she says.
Fire, as a source of fear but also comfort and healing, haunts the work of Elina Waage Mikalsen, in Áhcagastá - Tales of the Ember, 2022. Reinterpreting a Sámi weaving method for making belts, Mikalsen’s ‘fire-braid’ installation is fueled by a multi-layered understanding of the role of fire in her community and its history: the World World Two destruction of her family’s land, the burning and erasure of Sámi cultural heritage, and the historical ‘vete’ system of coastal bonfires as warnings of a coming threat. Yet Mikalsen’s resolve is more hopeful: how ‘when objects are burnt and disappear, they can start anew or become something else’, she says.
Elsewhere, images emerge from the darkness. 'The Museum of the Sun' is a reincarnation of Galleri Espolin, housing a collection of the 20th-century Lofoten artist Kaare Espolin Johnson, who suffered from cataracts and sight loss. At a scale almost troll-like to Espolin’s intricate works on paper, looming black bas-reliefs by Swedish Olof Marsja flank a doorway. Titled A lonesome flower’s dream of the past, 2022, these lumpy flower-headed figures seem to hail from a palaeolithic era, yet manifest via robotic milling and 3D scans.
Relief from darkness of another kind is found in a triumphant series of black and white photographs by Lithuanian Rimaldas Vikšraitis (At the Edge of the Known World, 1978-2008). Pastoral nostalgia up-turned for the darkly comic, Vikšraitis’s shrewd, often lewd depictions reveal both the clutter of rural life and the gaping societal voids following post-Soviet occupation.
Some staged, others candid, his images dare to expose “the wounds of society that are very painful”, he says, wielding humour with surgeon-like precision. Storytelling is a survival strategy, as it was for the fishermen and islanders of these extreme lands.
Four hours of sunlight will be lost during the duration of the festival. The quest for light, for visibility, for the appearance of an image, even lightness itself, is a constant refrain. Emma Talbot’s 30-metre silk hanging, Ghost Calls pertains to the possibility of monumentality without weight. It is a poetry mirrored by filmmaker icon Jonas Mekas’s video statement (Orquestina de Pigmeos, 2017), protesting the gigantism of art world institutions and events.
Escaping the institutional setting altogether, South African Nolan Oswald Dennis voyages to the Barents Sea, to examine the role of black bodies in past and future arctic exploration. Then in the Adjourned Courtroom (the courtroom of the former Nazi-era prison), we encounter the Poupéees poubelles sculptures of Marianne Berenhaut, whose entire family was murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the Holocaust. Here is the radical potential of the weak body: fragile nylon stocking dolls as figures of resistance.
Finally, it’s the trauma imprinted in the spaces themselves. In the ‘Haunted School’ (Kabelvåg’s primary school), Tomaso de Luca questions the promise of modernity, through his series of mock booby-traps quietly installed in the school’s changing rooms and communal showers.
Ridiculing the structures of minimalist sculpture, de Luca lays his mechanisms bare, such that the traps betray even their own horror. Instead, he suggests, we must be vigilant against the ‘violence embedded in architecture’ – in this case, ‘the experience of a queer kid in school’, the artist exemplifies – and against the ‘traps’ of society more broadly. Lest we forget early depictions of the vampire were not as a literary motif, but as 18th-century political allegory: a critique against the authority, or even the critic themself.
Kindred to Polidori’s The Vampyre, there is shifting, fluid ambiguity in the narrative mode at LIAF. And without conclusion, just as the blood-sucking Lord Ruthven escapes at the end of Polidori’s novel, unfound. But soon, whispers and spectres begin to take shape in the dark – and the longer one spends amongst the spaces of LIAF, the more that emerges both from its archive of mythology and its new cast of characters. Even the mountains cannot conceal their stories for long.
The Lofoten International Art Festival will run until 3 October 2022. liaf.no
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