In the remote Lofoten islands, just north of the Arctic Circle, the 2015 edition of the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) takes place in Jern & Bygg, a disused furniture and interior décor shop in the town of Svolvaer. Easily one of the most intriguing locations of any event on the art calendar, the exhibition constantly negotiates the territory between its setting and the art it seeks to show. The current edition deftly handles this balance: as the curators Matt Packer and Arne Skaug Olsen write, the shop is a central character in the exhibition. Resolutely rationalist, it was expanded piece by piece since its founding in the 1930s, culminating in a warren of box-like rooms and Seventies carpets. Through one of the windows, the spectacular peaks and fjords of the Lofotens can be glimpsed; for the rest, it’s as if the building has shrugged off its setting. Inside, 24 artists share its cellars and oddly-connected floors: staircases wind to strange levels revealing near hidden artworks.
As the curators note, “Disappearing Acts”, LIAF’s tenth edition, is an effort to establish a territory and explore a landscape – that of technology – in relation to the human. Much of the work can be read as a rehearsal for a future play, and how this future is imagined is a common strand in many artworks. Two main aspects are explored in relation to this: one being the rather duplicitous claim that the Anthropocene has demoted the human; the other, more fitting, traces the effects of the human in the “natural” landscape.
The human has been demoted by the philosophies of the Anthropocene, the first claim runs, and the human-centric perspective is under attack. At the simplest level, this is the trails of grease left as fingers slide over touch screens or operator-less cameras that perform facial recognition. This is a difficult claim to make, and indeed, the work by artists Fabien Giraud and Raphael Siboni, “Untitled (La Vallee von Uexküll)”, three films of a sunset made with lens-less cameras, which appear as white variations, fail to convey this paranoia. Giraud and Siboni make a new film in the series each time there is a significant advance in sensor technology, but as the artwork is so heavily mediated through the creative process, it is difficult to see just how this will void the human in the perceptive process. A more interesting twist on the concept is Turner-Prize Winner Elizabeth Price’s video “West Hinder”, based on the true story of a ship with a cargo of luxury cars that sank in international waters. “West Hinder” imagines that these cars evolve their own language, with the hybrid “intelligent control system” narrating the floating, surreal and eerie bleached video.
More interestingly, the exhibition is also about the intervention of the human into the landscape, and the hybrid forms this has created since the Lofotens were settled 11,000 years ago. Of 24 artists, half made new work especially for LIAF, and this is – almost inevitably – translated into works that reflect on the site of the Arctic and the Lofotens, testimony to the obdurate strangeness, for most visitors, of the region. However, the curators avoid staking claims about the relationship between the environment and the artistic contributions, simply stating that the Lofotens are the “landscape of the motivational poster and the screen saver, a holding ground for desires parked on the other side of the screen.” This argument is disingenuous: the ideological claim the exhibition makes is that of the complex relationship between built environment and the subject, yet by using this metaphor, the curators retreat behind popular arguments of image circulation and the contemporary failure of representation. However, the artworks that are united under the broader curatorial premise show just how complex addressing the subject of the sublime is, which here forms a persistent subtext, in addition to their approach to the specific conditions of the Svolvaer and the surrounding countryside.
Jason Dodge’s beautifully whimsical piece “In Norway, Siri Blomstrand Wove Yarn The Color of the Night and the Length Equalling the Distance from the Earth to above the Weather”, a woven, mid-blue length of cloth that reflects the colour of the sky during the period of the midnight sun to Juha Pekka Matias Laakkonen’s basket entwined from seaweed and bowl cast from tree resin – remnants of a trip he made by boat to Lille Molla, a deserted island off the coast of Svolvaer. Katja Novitskova perhaps takes the most experimental take on the project: “Pattern of Activation (Loki’s Castle)” is an assemblage of hydrothermal vents anthropomorphised with lizard eyes and motion-activated baby rockers. The vents are considered “the most alien environment on earth”. They are indicators of the potentiality of life on other planets. The huge commercial interest in these deep-sea environments has resulted in a plethora of images made by robotic missions, which Novitskova mines for this piece.
Dennis McNulty’s site-specific echo recordings of Morten Harket (A-ha’s lead singer), in Svolvaer’s dry-docks and tunnels, reflect the specific sound conditions of locations in the city; while Anna Adahl’s installation and video piece specifically addresses the sublime. Adahl incorporates an old, appropriated landscape painting into a close-up video of the sands taken from a Lofoten beach, a musing on the meaning of the sublime in contemporary art. The exhibition is beset by pessimism: most young artists appear to view the future as “the new that disappears”. The works are in turn pensive and poignant, often a reflection of the general pessimism and pre-emptive nostalgia for a sublime that is no longer a constant, where the promise of the absolute has been irrevocably negated through human intervention.
During the opening symposium panel, Novitskova spoke on the urgency around questions of extinction and survival. In the Anthropocene, it is impossible for art to take an external stance, which allows it to form a space for discussion. “We all build our careers on catastrophe,” Novitskova noted. “We’re semi-parasites on the planet, so why wouldn’t we curate endless exhibitions on the subject?” And certainly this exhibition is a case in point on how to deftly navigate the many registers that form the canon of artistic response.
Text by Jeni Fulton
Disappearing Acts, Lofoten International Art Festival, runs until 27 September 2015, Svolvær, Lofoten, Norway