The landscape might have a fairytale quality, but Ben Eastham's cruise-ship experiences in Norway lead him to some sobering IRL realizations, as told in his column What We Talk About When We Talk About Art.

The flight connecting Tromsø, at the northern tip of Norway, with the island of Austvågøya on the Lofoten Archipelago takes around forty minutes. It is undertaken by a twin prop aeroplane described by an appalled New York-based colleague as “some kind of Wright brothers’ shit”, includes several stops on its bumpy route, and features a great deal of sweaty-palmed musing on the fragility of human life. The burly, blond-bearded flight attendant wears a light smile that speaks of either total confidence in the pilot or a Zen resignation to the inevitability of his own death in a twisted metal fireball on the side of one of the many stately mountains, visible through the flickering propeller, that rise up from the Arctic Sea.

I was taking my life into my own hands—just the latest example of the everyday heroism of the art critic—to visit the Lofoten International Arts Festival (LIAF), a biennial located on a cluster of islands of Norway’s northwestern coast. Curated by Heidi Ballet and Milena Hoegsberg, the 2017 edition took place in the picturesque fishing village of Henningsvær, ringed around by the looming wooden racks on which cod are hung to dry from late winter to spring. Resembling the skeletons of whales or the architectural beams of long, ruined halls, the structures reinforce the sense of a community preserved in aspic, unchanged through the centuries.

The impression is the romantic delusion of a starry-eyed tourist. A walk around the village with Norwegian artist Elin Már Øyen Vister confirmed that this part of the world has been, and continues to be, the site of dramatic change. Looking across pretty outlooks to the sea, she told a small audience about the denial of the indigenous Sami population’s rights, and the suppression of their language: a reminder that the myth of an essential—meaning blond, blue-eyed—Norwegian identity obscures histories of both intermixture and colonial oppression. Nor, our guide made clear, does the general picture of calm and prosperity reflect this community’s present and future concerns. The marine life as well as the livelihoods of local fishermen are increasingly threatened by the pressure to discover and exploit new reserves of oil in this seemingly unspoiled landscape. These islands at the edge of the world are no more insulated from destabilizing geopolitical trends, falling oil prices and the collapse of the international order chief among them, than anywhere else.

“I was taking my life into my own hands—just the latest example of the everyday heroism of the art critic”

To encourage a broader perspective on the movement of history, LIAF’s curators asked the invited artists to imagine a future 150 years from now. There has recently been a glut of exhibitions and texts prefaced (explicitly or implicitly) with words to the effect of “In the age of Trump and/or Brexit…” This apparent disbelief at the disastrous recent turn of events seems to ignore the fact that it has been a long time coming, and so the curatorial focus on long-term shifts in both art and society was welcome.

The responses to the theme were eclectic, ranging from a performance choreographed by Eglė Budvytytė in which three dancers in gold lamé jackets played out a weird retro-futuristic ritual to a science fiction film by Sondra Perry that draws parallels between the possibility of colonizing space and the history of population displacement on earth. As is often the case at a biennial, it was difficult in a single day to properly understand how the diverse works on display might resolve into a coherent whole. Yet there was more than enough to prompt reflection on the injuries—social and ecological—that trouble even the most idyllic settings and, more pertinently, to consider the role of art in alerting its audience to these issues.

There is an element here of preaching to the choir. The biennial format— state-funded and non-commercial—is the platform for those artists who are less intimately tied up with the art market (though this very broad distinction is increasingly blurred). Exhibitions such as LIAF tend to promote artists working in media, and with themes, that are less attractive to the wealthy collectors who drive the extraordinary inflation at the market’s increasingly detached top end: short performances on the subject of species extinction rather than aesthetically pleasing abstract paintings designed for the wall of an apartment in West London or the Upper East Side. For this reason they appeal to those members of the art world more involved in its academic and institutional than its commercial operations—museum directors, art historians, high-minded critics—people who wield more power in the so-called knowledge economy than its monetary equivalent.

This was the motley crew of people who the next day boarded a boat for Coast Contemporary, a new initiative that describes itself as a boating “platform and place of encounter”. Galleries from Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim took over a selection of cabins and transformed them into exhibition spaces in which to show the work of their artists, while films were screened and talks held in a conference room. In breaks and in the evenings, participants gathered on the top deck to drink ruinously expensive beers, quarrel and gossip about the state of contemporary art, and wait in hope for the appearance of the Northern Lights (we were blessed on the second night by a shifting, iridescent green veil above the eastern horizon). The group quickly split into two mutually wary camps, in this case the international and local contingents. But as at a school disco, the groups were gradually reconciled over the course of an evening.

The presence on board a cruise ship of several dozen artists and art professionals seemed at first to inspire mystification, perhaps even concern, among the regular passengers. But the hordes of retirement-age Germans and Scandinavians were at least as responsive to the work shown, when they were able to see it, as the black-clad representatives of contemporary art. This was particularly the case during two performances by the Norwegian artist and vocalist Tori Wrånes. For the rest, she took to the top deck to sing to the elements in a language of her own invention; the second saw her costumed convincingly as a troll who had become stuck in one of the glass-walled escalators that connect the ship’s different floors. This might sound silly, but the anarchic wit and playfulness of Wrånes’s performances elevated them above other works that too often mistook humourlessness for depth. Performances by the musician Nils Bech and the promising writer and artist Nora Joung also suggested, in very different ways, that making art accessible is about the generosity of spirit in which the work is undertaken rather than the complexity of the ideas or emotions it expresses.

“The presence on board a cruise ship of several dozen artists and art professionals seemed at first to inspire mystification, perhaps even concern, among the regular passengers”

The four-day introduction to Norway’s art scene and its western coastline concluded in the historic trading post of Bergen. At the city’s Kunsthall I was struck by an interview with Laurie Anderson included in an engrossing exhibition of sound art and performance curated by Mark Beasley. Filmed speaking to Tony Oursler in 2001, the artist and musician relates her general disdain for the art world and her determination, in the 1980s, to reach an audience that didn’t have its “head up its own ass”. Comparing the New York scene to the royal court at Versailles, a community in which easy charm and an eagerness to please ensure a speedy promotion, she explains why she chose to produce records and tour clubs—to adopt the model of popular music—rather than play the game demanded by the art world.

Anderson’s wry commentary on status-obsessed artists making big shiny objects for rich people prompted reflection on the alternatives. Coast Contemporary and LIAF are made possible by state funding, one of several expressions of Norway’s broader commitment to contemporary art (a largesse made possible by the country’s oil reserves and its remarkably astute investment and distribution of the resulting wealth). It’s easy to admire, indeed to be envious of, a system of state patronage that makes it possible for artists and curators to work with a degree of independence from the immediate financial pressures that either constrain or curtail so many promising careers elsewhere. Yet it also begs the question of whether that relationship is itself problematic, creating a relationship between public funding bodies and its artists that might be stifling. The vibrant gallery scene in Oslo suggests that government support doesn’t necessarily breed dull state-sanctioned art, and that there are many art worlds, not only one.

I travelled to Norway just a few days after returning from the Istanbul Biennial, a contemporary art festival that took place under a state of emergency instituted after an attempted coup in 2016. In Istanbul, the press conference unfurled under armed guard as critics whispered together about the ethics of holding the biennial when opposition activists, academics and artists were being persecuted. The political content of the works exhibited was subtle and largely symbolic, but highly charged by the circumstances, and the impression was of a biennial with “real-world” implications. The contrast with a cruise ship in Norway could hardly have been sharper, and the close proximity of these gatherings served as a reminder that art is conditioned by context: the society in which it is created, the means by which it is funded and the circumstances of its exhibition. Together they explode under another romantic delusion: that the creative individual can ever escape the world in which she lives.

This feature originally appeared in issue 33

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