Agnieszka Gratza at LIAF and the 2022 Bergen Assembly

Visitors to LIAF gather around Haroon Mirza's Message from a Star (Solar Symphony 12).  Photo: LIAF.

LYING NORTH ONLY of the arctic circle, Bodø is the gateway to the Lofoten Peninsula. As a regional center, the city is preparing for its appearance as the European Capital of Culture in 2024. A two and a half hour layover at Bodø Airport en route to Svolvær – the headquarters of the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) – gave me enough time to enjoy the opening of the Bodø Biennial, which coincided with LIAF. After all, the airport is only a 15-minute walk from the city center.

Curated by Elise Cosme Hoedemakers and Hilde Methi, the chief curator of the last edition of the LIAF, the first Bodø Biennale to focus on visual arts and dance was set up with the locals in mind and made use of the public spaces around the Stormen Library at the waterfront. On the opening night, I managed to witness a spectacular performance by textile artist Malin Bülow, in which a dancer was embedded at the bottom of a taut, opaque, elastic fabric, part of which was hoisted up into the sky by a crane AER– Greek for “wind”, a force to be reckoned with in this area – commissioned for the Biennale.

This year’s offering from Italian curatorial duo Francesco Urbano Ragazzi, “Fantasmagoriana” was a very different beast than Hilde Methi’s starfish-shaped curatorial concept for LIAF’s previous iteration. While the latter emphasized regional production and provided the context for meaningful, long-term engagement with local communities across four islands not previously involved with the festival, the former primarily addressed international artists – most of whom had never set foot before the run had bet on Lofoten—up until the opening—and staged most of the Biennial in the more accessible village of Kabelvåg, where the Biennial had previously been shown. “We wanted bad materials, bad curators, bad art,” one half of the duo told us the following afternoon during a discussion on sustainability. But can one really speak of ecological justice and not mention that it takes at least three flights for visitors from abroad to reach Lofoten?

According to its curators, the Biennale is less concept-driven and more narrative-driven. And so it is. The story begins with the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, which led to “the year without a summer,” in which Byron, the Shelleys, and company gathered at the Villa Diodati near Geneva to read Gothic horror stories (in an anthology with the title Fantasmagoriana), which in turn gave rise to such classics as Frankenstein and Dracula. In the Biennale booklet, the curators highlight various subplots: Kurt Schwitters’ time as a war refugee in Nazi-occupied Norway and his subsequent imprisonment in Kabelvåg (among the reasons for hosting the Biennale there); the three months that the merchant and seafarer Pietro Querini spent in 1432 shipwrecked on the Lofoten island of Røst; and the poem “The Son of the Sun’s Courting in the Land of the Giants,” which refers to a Sami origin myth that inspired artists exhibiting at Espolin Gallery, as it was written amid works in the Museum of the Sun renames blind artist Kaare Espolin Johnson. Has any of this storytelling affected the works on display? Not in an obvious way.

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The artists did their own thing and it was still an inspiring show. Particularly memorable were Sami artist Elina Waage Mikalsen’s intricate textile installations, woven from colored threads using a ‘fireweave’ technique; Shadi Habib Allah’s video work on tracking wolves in Scandinavia; Jennifer West’s holofan projections embedded in sculptural installations documenting the demolition of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and featuring footage of her cat; and Gaia Fugazza’s archipelago of flat clay fragments – their smooth black surface painted over in places – named after the Old English word for ocean: hranradwhich literally means “whale road”.

Elina Waage Mikalsen, Áhcagastá – Stories from the Embers, 2022. Photo: LIAF.

Is the gap between the grand curatorial narrative and what is actually seen inevitable? Saâdane Afif’s concept for the fourth edition of the Bergen Assembly, which opened a few days later in Norway’s second largest city, proved that this was not necessary. A reflexive approach has guided the Bergen Assembly Triennial – an upstart compared to the LIAF, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year – from the start. Its very existence was the subject of a debate at the 2009 Bergen Biennial Conference entitled “To Biennial or Not to Biennial?”. Designed by Ekaterina Degot and David Riff, the first edition in 2013 featured a whimsical literary framework that Afif brought to his edition (along with Degot, who graced the opening of the current Triennial with her presence).

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A fondness for numerology informs Yasmine and the Seven Faces of the Heptahedron, reflected in the triennial’s title and its cast of seven colorful characters – The Coalman, The Professor, The Bonimenteur, The Fortune Teller, An Acrobat, The Tourist, and The Moped Rider – which lends its name to as many venues, each hosting three artists or collectives. One possible reason Afif’s storyline works, where the more elaborate yarns posted by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi don’t quite resonate with the artists, is that each archetype is sketchy enough to allow participants room to flesh it out and develop their individual or bring in collective practice to refer to. Writer Miriam Stoney’s contribution to The Fortune Teller, for example, took the form of her poem debt versesinspired by her considerable student loans, in a book ingeniously crafted by Kinakaal Forlag to simultaneously contain its Norwegian and Chinese translations, and presented alongside a small library containing all the books that influenced it. La Cantina de la Touriste, 2022, Sol Calero’s cheerful remake of the interior of a somewhat drab canteen, catering mainly to residents of a neighboring nursing home and staffed by immigrants preparing food from their respective countries, was part of The Tourist. For your ongoing project eyeliner2017—Included in The Moped Rider section, artist duo Denicolai & Provoost scoured the streets of Bergen in search of objects displayed on window sills by its residents, who were persuaded to stay away for the duration of the show from to separate them.

Sol Calero's La Cantina de la Touriste in The Tourist Venue for Bergen Assembly 2022. Photo: Bjørn Mortensen.

Yasmine d’O’s elusive presence as the show’s curator (Afif herself was cast as her “convener”) hovered over the action at the opening. She performed an act of self-disappearance, leaving Afif to give an impromptu speech in her place, before a young woman saved the day by producing a letter Yasmine had given her at the train station.

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Having three artists/collectives in one place shows an unusual awareness of the attention span of the average Biennale-goer. The first of the seven venues we visited at a leisurely pace over the next few days turned out to be my favorite. ‘The Coalman’ in the remote Gyldenpris Kunsthalle combines works by two composers – one dead (Claude Debussy), one alive (Augustin Maurs) – with mostly anonymous sculpture and bas-reliefs made by miners, mostly from Silesia, Poland, in Coal were carved mining area. Performed live at the opening, Debussy’s last composition for piano, Les Soirs illuminated par l’ardeur du carbon (“Evenings Lit by the Burning Coals”), written against a sack of coal in the winter of 1917, cast a melancholy note on what was happening. Maurs’ own haunting composition Nothing more, made as part of a residency on Spitsbergen – Norway’s northernmost archipelago where coal mining will soon be a thing of the past – was premiered the following evening at Bergen Cathedral. Performed by an all-female choir and the composer himself sitting in the middle of the audience, it stole the show.

Bergen Assembly director Ingrid Haug Erstad and artist Sol Calero.  All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Artists Tomaso De Luca and Pauline Curnier Jardin with curator Francesco Urbano Ragazzi.

Architect Alessandra Cianchetta and artist Shadi Habib Allah.

Artists Haroon Mirza and Jennifer West.

Artists Kjetil Berge and Gaia Fugazza.

Artists Nolan Oswald Dennis, Raffaela Naldi Rossano and Haroon Mirza.

Artists Olof Marsja and Lars Laumann.

Curator Francesco Urbano Ragazzi and artist AK Dolven.

Artists participating in LIAF.

Artists Augustin Maurs and Saâdane Afif.

The artists Gitte Sætre and Rita Marhaug with Kunsthall 3.14 director Malin Barth.

Axel Wieder, director of Bergen Kunsthalle, and artist Åse Løvgren.

Curator Ekaterina Degot and writer Adam Kleinman.

Curator Jacek Sosnowski, VISP director Aslak Høyersten and curator Nathanja van Dijk.

Author Miriam Stoney with editors Jonas von Lenthe and Louisa Elderton.

Collector Venke Hoff.

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