Northbound | Nordgående
A touring exhibition of contemporary ceramics, drawing and performance, conceived by An Talla Solais gallery in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland, presents not just an opportunity to see a fascinatingly diverse grouping of work by artists based in Scotland and Norway, but also asks some timely questions about our relationships as 'northern neighbours', whether imagined or real.
Northbound | Nordgående is a touring exhibition of contemporary ceramics, drawing and performance, conceived by An Talla Solais gallery in Ullapool, Scotland, and according to its organisers, it focuses on the themes of process and place as they relate to ideas of narrative, lines and traces. If you think you have heard about this exhibition before – process, narrative, place and trace are all common generic tropes that are frequently deployed from within today’s curatorial armamentarium – then think again, for Northbound | Nordgående is an exhibition that is somewhat different, both in mindset and scope; an ambitious exhibition even, but one that grew somewhat organically out of a productive artists’ residency placement in 2017, during which Norwegian artists Tone Boska and Kjersti Sletteland worked in Ullapool for seven weeks. Over time it will travel from Ullapool to Thurso, then on to Shetland, finally ending up near Bergen, Norway in 2019. Did I say that Northbound | Nordgående is an ambitious project? It is certainly that, and then some.
Of course, I’d expect nothing less from a gallery, the name of which is translated as Hall of Light; a reference that goes back to its previous existence when occupying the former village library, fondly remembered in Ullapool, I'm told, for having more than the average number of windows that could throw good light on a page. Since the gallery took up residence in its current premises on Ullapool's West Argyle Street in 2015, An Talla Solais has been shining a light on the arts of the Northwest Highlands, and far beyond, with a growing list of insightful shows in an incredibly versatile space. Indeed, might I be permitted to force a metaphor here, if only to note that we are a short linguistic hop away from an taigh-solais, which would otherwise translate as 'the lighthouse'?
For some exhibitions that the gallery stages, the lighthouse metaphor that I’m forcing here might already seem somewhat threadbare, but in the case of Northbound | Nordgående it has a particular resonance, I think, not just in terms of the 'cultural beacon' simile that I’m seeking to shoehorn in, here, but also in terms of the thinking that underpins this exhibition in particular. Here is a show that, it is claimed, takes six artists from both Scotland and Norway (some of their work commissioned especially for the exhibition and created as a direct result of international exchanges) and seeks to explore what they may contribute, both collectively and individually, with regard to ‘cross-border cultural connections across northern Europe and the region’s ancient and traditional maritime routes.’ In a period in which ‘cross-border-anything’ can be a topic of heated debate and the cause of division, the stated intentions do not only have relevance, but are timely, indeed.
In terms of the region’s 'ancient and traditional maritime routes' theme, my metaphor is also apt – for a lighthouse is not only a beacon that may warn of danger, it can also represent a navigational point that indicates one’s imminent arrival to safe harbour, as well (perhaps a fitting observation about a touring show that will begin its course along the far north coast of Scotland where many of the fishing villages and communities have erected memorials to loved ones who, while working inshore waters, have lost their lives within sight of their own homes). Whatever you think of these observations, they have meaning here that I will want to return to later. We are, remember, considering an exhibition that follows an approximate northbound trajectory (once it leaves An Talla Solais), and some of the venues it will visit may well be considered 'uncharted waters', too. Enough, though. Let me consider the exhibition.
As one might expect from a group show that brings together the work of six artists working in a diverse array of media, Northbound | Nordgående’s central themes are interpreted and developed in a wide variety of ways via the creative output of two Scots and four Norwegians. Jenny Mackenzie Ross and Rebecca Brown are the two referred to who are based in the Scotland (Mackenzie Ross was originally born in England but gravitated northwards on her own northbound journey some time ago) and they here show ceramics. Mackenzie Ross studied Fine Art, Sculpture, and is well-known for both her thrown-form pottery and her landscape-based sculptures produced at the Caithness-based Northshore Pottery that she established in 1993, in a part of the country where the culture, she says, is ‘uncompromisingly Norse’. Brown studied Textiles & Surface Design at Gray’s School of Art, and Illustration at Edinburgh College of Art, and is what many now rather irritatingly refer to as an ‘emerging artist’; although that 'art-speak' term, usually used to indicate somebody who does not have a CV as long as your arm, does her a great disservice, I believe – there is a quiet and unassuming wisdom that is already there to see in Brown’s work and she should be judged by her output alone, which is thoroughly deserving of inclusion here.
If I refer to the remaining four artists as ‘the Norwegian contingent’, I mean it as no slur, for in the true sense of the word there are common points of connection in their work that, whatever the stylistic differences and their preferred choice of media, nonetheless begs for them to be grouped together as one. Ingeborg Blom Andersskog, for example, was born in Kongsvinger in 1983, and currently divides her time between Bergen, Norway, and Malmö, Sweden. As a visual artist who works with sculpture, drawing, performance, and installation, she states that ‘the time and the action of making plays an important role as a framework for my process driven practice.' There is also a meditative 'still point' at the heart of her work that is hard to pin down at first, but it appears to permeate the thinking of whatever project she embarks upon, regardless of the media in which it is realised.
Siri Brekke’s background lies in folk culture and product design, but her primary area of interest is in ceramics, something she arrived at via study at Bergen’s Academy of Art & Design. As one half of the collaborative duo Barmen & Brekke, her work with Per Tore Barmen is celebrated internationally for their combination of a variety of fine woods with porcelain to craft vases, bowls and tableware that might be seen to epitomise Scandinavian design values that have been highly regarded for decades. The cross-fertilisation of ideas and the combination of wood and ceramics that are present in Barmen & Brekke's output is present too in Brekke's more personal body of work that she exhibits here – a body of work that draws upon her relationship with the tools once handcrafted by her grandfather in his aspiration to become a blacksmith. As the documentation for the exhibition states, her work is inspired by objects and artefacts rooted in a particular place, which often have both personal and historical significance to her, and from which she makes casts and copies that suggest new ways of viewing and interpreting them.
The remaining two artists, Kjersti Sletteland and Tone Boska, collaborate under the name Biosenario, although the show also includes a piece created especially for the exhibition by Sletteland, as well (see below); Sletteland is a multi-media artist who is known in her own right for her investigations into our human relationship with the built environment and what she terms ‘the friction created between the individual and what is around them.’ The interaction between the body, space and architecture are features here, and her chosen materials often reflect this; from ubiquitous branded DIY products such as Polyfilla, to the stark anonymity of ceramic tiles, and materials such as concrete and fibreglass.
Nothing could be more of a departure from her stark explorations of the themes of alienation and disjuncture that the individual may feel in the built environment than her maximalist collaborations with Boska that are created in fine porcelain, however – works that push the constraints of that medium to its very limits of endurance. Indeed, as Biosenario, Sletteland and Boska have developed a near manic approach to decorative porcelain work that, for many visitors, I think, steals the show.
In some ways this is unfortunate, for their work is no harder-won than that of the other artists exhibiting, but in another sense it is perhaps perfectly fitting that their truly bizarre porcelain assemblages act as a ‘centrepiece’, not just because porcelain has enjoyed a long history as a decorative form, often realised as ornamental centrepiece tableware, but also because out of their experience of working for seven weeks in Ullapool during their 2017 residency, came the first germination of the idea for this exhibition, too. If I am correct in my thinking that Biosenario were in some way the catalyst for this show coming into being (in the sense that they provided connections with the other Norwegian artists being included as well), then a certain degree of focus on their collaborative work appears appropriate to some degree.
Seen together, the work of these artists represents a courageous collective statement, and not just by them but the gallery too, which has, when required, offered just the right amount of steer in forming the exhibition (a creative tightrope walk in itself!) in order that the sum of its parts hold together and may be read coherently as one. In terms of thinking, methodology and creative will, this is certainly one of those shows that follows a multiplicity of trajectories, and all of them merit some serious consideration if we are to judge its success. Indeed, my use of the word ‘trajectory’ in its plural form is maybe the best indication that there are levels of complexity to Northbound | Nordgående that at times may have required all the curatorial steer that the gallery could throw at it, but then, that is not the way that An Talla Solais works.
As Exhibitions Coordinator Victoria Caine explains. ‘When the artists first came together as a group, there was a sense of everyone being “new” and embarking on the project together,’ she says:
I think this helped to form solid relationships very quickly. Aside from spending time working out the general shape of the show, there was the opportunity at initial gatherings, and in subsequent email discussions, to chat more generally about what we each do in our individual practices, and what ‘being an artist’ means, and I think that this made for a very different dynamic. I know that some of the work in the show evolved directly from these broader conversations, and I think we have all benefited from working very closely together in developing the outline and then in fine-tuning the details of what to include and how to present it.
Here, then, is not a placement of works that were ‘ready to go’, but an exhibition that came about through a form of curatorial dialogue with several of the artists making work specifically for the venue and the show’s ongoing tour. As Caine continues,
While the time spent with the artists made for a very different type of relationship and a different way of working, I think An Talla Solais’ approach to putting together shows is usually fairly relaxed and we are always open to discussing new ideas and developments on original proposals. Finding ways to make things possible is a very interesting part of the job and it helps if you enjoy a challenge!
Out of this process, and the embracing of the challenge, what was arrived at is clearly an exhibition that carries within it multiple threads that are carefully (perhaps intuitively) interwoven in ways that seem very carefully thought-through. Each thread brings something vital and exciting to the common stock of good here, and each artist appears to have had the opportunity to contribute to the fullest towards its success. Whether read in terms of the complex geographical trajectory that Northbound | Nordgående will take as it tours to venues that themselves are wildly diverse in what they have to offer, as venues, or the many fascinating creative trajectories that each of the artists is following (either as points of correspondence in the work, or conversely as points of divergence) there is much here to be considered.
Let us begin with just one of those threads. A primary example of what I refer to above as the 'still point' of Andersskog’s methodology, is something that elsewhere it might be difficult if not impossible to reconcile in a space that also presents Biosenario's manic assemblages. I have already alluded to the fact that at the heart of whatever she seems to set her mind to, Andersskog appears to approach each project with a sense of stillness, but make no mistake it is a stillness that appears choreographed, and very carefully so.
The kind of stillness that I am alluding to is addressed, I think, in T. S. Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton, at the heart of which we find the following:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
Of course, anyone who views Andersskog’s film The Line, which is given its own viewing space for the exhibition, or has watched her at work with pen to paper, as was the case for her performance at the exhibition’s opening (a performance that continued over the following week, seen above), will immediately want to point out that of course there is a starting point and a point at which the work ‘ends’, but I don’t think that is what Andersskog is really ‘about’. While the sense of an A-to-B narrative process in her work with line is self-evident (a story revealed with a beginning middle and end, if you prefer), there is also another form of cyclic narrative that occurs (and is repeated over, in fact) across many similar works she has made across time, elsewhere.
A good example of this from Andersskog’s past work is her live drawing performance titled The Straight Line is Godless and Immoral, Vol.III – a performance piece enacted at the Galeria El Artsenal, in Màlaga, Spain, which takes its title from the Austrian artist and architect Friedrich Hundertwasser's manifesto On the Paradise Destroyed by the Straight Line (1985), I believe. A record of Andersskog’s Màlaga performance is currently available to view online via her Vimeo page as just thirty-seven seconds of time-lapse footage of the artist drawing expanding lines in white on a black wall. It is the act of drawing that is 'the work' here, though, and not the drawing that is arrived at. When the time is right, her lines are erased again with a paint roller and black paint as if, in the blink of an eye, the performance had never occurred at all. As Andersskog explains of that work in Màlaga, ‘I was drawing every day for two and a half weeks, for four hours a day,’ – and the end result was, a void.
As T. S. Eliot's second epigraph from Heraclitus states at the opening of Burnt Norton: ‘the way upward and the way downward is one and the same’, and I cannot think of a finer description of what lies at the core of Andersskog’s performative work, whether it be the performance with which she opened the Ullapool exhibition some weeks ago now, or her short film The Line (mentioned above). Of the thinking behind her drawings on walls, objects, and floor spaces in ever-expanding ‘circles’, Andersskog has said (and I paraphrase from her lengthy statement on the methodology here):
While I draw, I have some rules that I follow: I draw as close as I can to the previous line without touching, I appreciate every bump, every irregularity that appears, and I focus on going slowly. Irregularities and “mistakes” are impossible to avoid, and these irregularities will be visible in the next line, and the next one. I compare this process of drawing to our lives. The line and the drawing is a result of my body’s behaviour during the time that I draw. It is almost a meditation to let the pen slowly move at the same continuous pace for hours. I am not working towards a finished drawing or artwork. The action of drawing is the art. The process is the final piece, and the work is done as long as I am working on it. When I am not working on it anymore, the process is over and the drawing is erased. Afterwards it only exists as a memory, an experience. There is a value in erasing it, seeing that the knowledge and experiences we have are very important even if they cannot be seen.
One of the most obvious trajectories to be addressed here perhaps relates not to what is exhibited at all, then, but the journey the exhibition will take as it travels northwards. In Andersskog’s performances we have a perfect metaphor for this, I think, for at each point of arrival, there will be an anticipation of departure, until, when it closes at its final destination it will no longer be. Traces will still exist, obviously, but only in so far as there will be a variety of documentations in various formats, and memories certainly; possibly even ongoing collaborations between the artists that the exhibition has served to spawn, too. But it will eventually fade, and in that lies part of the beauty of it, as an exhibition. A perfect metaphor concerning those ancient maritime routes followed by our ancestors, about whom we think we know much, but in reality we probably know very little.
In fact, the meaning of Northbound | Nordgående will change, even as it moves geographically northward to be embraced by its future venues. It is not just in title alone that the exhibition is referred to as ‘Northbound’, because from its point of departure onwards, it moves first to Thurso Art Gallery – a rectilinear space attached to the town’s public library in the most northerly conurbation near to the north-east tip of the Scottish mainland. From there it will move on, taking a near north-easterly course, crossing water for the first time en route to the Bonhoga Gallery on Shetland, an exhibition space near the head of Weisdale Voe on the west of the island that lies just above the 60° parallel at 60° 15' 36.36" North. The Bonhoga Gallery has a curious history too; as a former mill, later a slaughterhouse, and other uses associated with Shetland’s agrarian economy.
Look at a map, however, and one quickly sees that, from Shetland, the exhibition does not continue on its northerly course as the title of the show implies, but instead travels to its final destination in a due-easterly direction (in the mind at least, because transportation routes are rather more circuitous) turning sharply to cross the North Sea/Nordsjøen and arriving at its final destination at Fjell Festning Museum (60° 19'30" N) in 2019 – a converted underground bunker located on the Norwegian island of Sotra, built by the German occupation forces during the Second World War, and from where a massive 28cm gun turret was once installed to intercept Allied aircraft raids on Bergen. From a venue in Ullapool that was once celebrated for its light, therefore, Northbound | Nordgående will eventually be on show underground, in the labyrinthine tunnels built by Soviet prisoners of war to service the enormous gun that sat high above Bergen.
Physical Geography is one thing, but the ‘trajectory’ that Northbound | Nordgående takes as a travelling show is very much about a different kind of mapping too; one that takes in not just our mental mapping of what constitutes ‘North’, but also a gradual burrowing further into the darkness of the ground itself. Metaphors abound here, but I’m not wanting to exploit them too far. There is nonetheless a theme that starts to emerge concerning voices from the past; mythologies associated with ‘foreign soil’, and in the case of the works on show from Biosenario, superstitions and folkloric references that are pertinent here as well. When I asked Sletteland and Boska where the impetus for their complex assemblages comes from, or what they might ‘contain’, the first reference I was offered was that they are to some degree a work of the mind (in a previous century they would probably be described as the result of a neurosis, hysteria even, but that is a different matter).
Sletteland also alludes to Norwegian ‘scare stories’ that are still told today, and one example among many that she has offered serves my purposes here – the story told to children of the Nøkken, she says, features ‘the man with a violin, who, if you enter the forest will come and get you,’ a reference to a terrifying creature, a shapeshifter in some tellings, who resides in rivers and lakes. The Nøkken can appear human to lure the unsuspecting into the water where they will drown, and there are many variants of this ‘scare story’ with most appearing to have their roots in Germanic and Norse folklore – a further trajectory that the exhibition will take therefore, as it enters a world of Norse folklore and is subsumed into the subterranean world of Fjell Festning (in English, Fjell Fortress).
In Ullapool, of course the work of Biosenario seems to have a light touch, with works titled in such a way that they appear to have been informed by village gossip, rumour, and anecdote, rather than threats of danger and death. As Sletteland and Boska tell it in their native Norwegian (and I think the juxtaposition of the native language text and my accompanying translation are important here to illustrate the unexpected correspondences of two very different languages).
Keramikk dekorert med motiv frå naturen har vore vanleg sidan tidlege tider. I motsetning til mykje av den estetiske blomsterdekoren vi kjenner til frå før, er det den ville og ukontrollerte som kjem til uttrykk i Biosenario. Frå ukultiverte landskap får vi overtru, mytar og skrøner. Etterkvart som naturen er blitt dyrka og bebudd av menneske har deira hsitorie forma landskapet.
Ceramics decorated with motifs from nature have been the common in the past. Contrary to the softness of the aesthetic décor of the past, it is wild and uncontrolled nature that is expressed by Biosenario. From uninhabited landscapes we get overridden with myths and ‘scare stories’, yet as with nature that is tamed and cultivated by humans, in our stories we start to shape the landscape.
Even the above images that appear on the Biosenario website, installed in domestic Norwegian interiors, are far darker in mood than Biosenario's creations made in Ullapool. Location and placement is a factor here that should not be overlooked. What will become of those works with titles rooted in a small Scottish fishing village (titles such as Skeletons in Ullapool’s Greenhouses; A developing carpet pattern; A half-baked joke on an incomplete day; or A baffling end to it, she thought?) when they are exhibited elsewhere? In many ways the Biosenario works on show currently are site-specific works, in the sense that they emerged partially in response to Ullapool's village life during 2017. There is an Alice in Wonderland quality to them, but placed in the other venues that I have listed above, it is perhaps only traces of the memories, and of what gave rise to them, that will linger. In the bunker of Fjell Festning will they be lost to the ground and the gravitas of their surroundings? Will their meaning shift?
Perhaps in that setting, it will be the work of Jenny Mackenzie Ross that becomes the show-stealer instead, one might think, but in reality this show is not about show-stealers or star-turns. Neither is it a show that will keep its shape as it travels north, either, as this is a selling show too, and some of the smaller pieces by Biosenario (while it might be satisfying to see how they are transformed by the upcoming Norwegian venue, like a few of the works by other artists exhibiting, as well) are, I am told, already spoken for. Ordinarily, the organisers would perhaps request that a buyer receives the work at the end of a tour, but that's not always possible, and certainly if I was now the proud owner of a delicate porcelain creation such as those discussed here, I'm not sure how I'd feel about wishing it well as it heads off across the North Sea to a World War II bunker!
Just as the works themselves have the ability to 'shape shift' as we come to know them better, then, and also the manner in which the venues may imprint new meanings upon them, too, new works will be added by the time this particular ensemble arrives in Norway, and as Sletteland states,
Tone and I are already planning to produce several new Biosenario pieces specifically for the Fjell Festning venue, while others will make the entire journey. The new work we are developing now will reflect our own background, by that time, and maybe stories from Fjell Festning and the years of German occupation will enter as narrative themes too.
Just as the exhibition might be seen to be part of a gradual process of metamorphosis as it travels, therefore, so too will the work change in small ways over time, also. Indeed I'm reminded of the fact that when ships once arrived in Ullapool to load up with herring, bound for the Canary Islands and other far flung parts of the world, it was obviously not herring that they returned with, but fruit and exotic foodstuffs, instead. Such a development is therefore perfectly fitting and throughly in keeping with the maritime theme that underlies what this exhibition is said to be partially about; though that is not to say that Jenny Mackenzie Ross's pieces will not find a sympathetic home in Norway, either.
As Mackenzie Ross comments about her work, her sculptural ceramics were arrived at via, ‘the concept of weaving a matrix of organic material from Caithness,’ itself the result of her studying ‘sedimentary layers with all their complicated internal structures that are formed by organic matter, in various ways.’ In her ceramic work she uses a type of Coralline algae often referred to as Maerl (a Breton word) or Maërl. As a resource taken from the sea for its agricultural use, there is long history concerning its harvesting from shorelines abutting farm or croft land to lime acid soil and, according to records in Ireland, it is known to have been dredged from West Cork bays from the 1700s onwards. Off the West Coast of Scotland Maerl is present too and in Mackenzie Ross’s installation, Coralline Tide, she finds a use for it by including it in the soda firing of the ceramic forms that she constructs. As the Maerl burns away in the firing it leaves traces of its bony coral structure behind. Traces that represent a form of 'erasure', again.
She also explains something of her creative response to the work of the other artists in the exhibition, perhaps revealing the mutual generosity and a sense of interconnectedness that I've detected in my conversations with them, which is certainly heartening and worthy of mention:
I think I take inspiration from wherever I go, but I certainly responded to the work of the others in my making of the Coralline Tide. I wanted to think about travel and I certainly feel very drawn to the work of Ingeborg [Blom Andersskog] in relation to the Maerl that has come from deep water and has been washed up, effectively becoming part of a different landscape. Also narrative in relation to Biosenario and Becca [Rebecca Brown], and the tiny bits of Maerl that can conjure images, a bit like one might see shapes of figures or animals in a mountain side. I think it is quite a Nordic thing to link these evocative landscapes to myths and legends. I like the idea of the stories travelling but the landscape being still. With the Maerl the images travel, but the images are not attached to legend, which makes them seem strange.
Coralline Tide and other works by Mackenzie Ross are certainly powerful, their intensity lying in the traces of what appear to be fossilised ‘left-overs’ from the firing of the clay (albeit in the form of the resultant negative/void), and I’m left wondering what indeed will be made of this work, too, when it finally arrives at the subterranean venue of the Fjell Festing museum. For the Maerl to have already travelled far in the ocean before Mackenzie Ross got to it, and to still remain as ghost-forms (with)in the work is hugely evocative of Andersskog’s theme of erasure, I can see that, but also in the sense of the work itself returning across the ocean, a long distance again from the shore on which it was harvested.
Mackenzie Ross perhaps inadvertently gives a nod in her comments above to one facet of Northbound | Nordgående that is somewhat understated, I think, though it is naturally implied and one would be a fool not to miss it – all the artists in the exhibition are women, and this is relevant. That their gender is not played up further is important aspect, and it would just be crass to overplay this aspect of the exhibition. Conversely, to overlook it would be to miss one of the show's real strengths, too, however, which is something of a dilemma. If the issue of gender is not stated as a theme, this is partially rectified thanks to the inclusion of Rebecca Brown’s ceramics and fired eggshells.
Brown travelled to Norway to learn of coastal folklore there, and the ‘old wives tales’ that are referenced in her own contributions. No doubt she probably took a few of her own with her, because when I asked her about her experimentation with the firing of eggshells in a kiln, and one particular ceramic piece – a bowl that includes a few lines of text that read: always crack your eggshells or a witch will use them to sail out to sea and brew up storms – I expected her to give me a backstory to this text that refers to distant folkloric storytelling, maybe from the Northern Highlands, or is it a translation of something learned in a Norwegian fishing village, maybe?
No. Instead, Brown spoke of sitting at a table with her mother in Inverness, and seeing her prick a hole in discarded eggshells in her kitchen. The explanation of a ‘superstition’ that I thought must relate back several generations, at least, is here with us still, in family lore! Whether it is true that Witch Finders never ventured up as far as the Northern Highlands of Scotland or not (something I’ve only been told anecdotally) is something that remains obscure to me, but there is clear evidence that such homespun sayings and beliefs hung on much later in the Far North than they did elsewhere, and kitchen/hedge-witchery still plays a role in contemporary life and ‘superstitions’, even today. That this should be passed down from mother to daughter still (Brown is the youngest artist in the show, I think, at 25-years-old), is a facet of the exhibition that, in a way, represents a common thread, albeit again suitably underplayed.
Nonetheless, the seepage of the past that surfaces in new forms (linguistic, folkloric, and via more contemporary obsessions and modes of thought) is close to the ‘scare story’ element that Biosenario refer to. In both the work of Brown and of Biosenario, the ancient and the contemporary seem to be given equal pegging, whether realised in intricate assemblages that draw their audience in, or in the form of everyday discourse that might go unnoticed until, as Brown relates, she one day saw what her mother was doing and simply asked her, Why?
The maritime theme that I began with, seeking to cast some light upon what I feel are some core areas of interest of Northbound | Nordgående (remember my attempt to try and shoehorn a lighthouse metaphor into my opening paragraphs?) is likely the most enduring theme of the exhibition and the one with which I should end here. Although not explicitly referenced in the exhibition literature or commentary, where Northbound | Nordgående is said to loosely trace ancient maritime routes that were once common among northern neighbours, there was a time, of course when those routes were travelled in the opposite direction, too (they still are, of course), and I’m pretty sure folkloric stories were carried with whatever was being traded en route – In fact, do we not know as much? It might be argued, however, that the Viking settlers who first gave Ullapool the name by which it is known today in derivative form, were not the first and certainly not the last to make the journey in what would be seen by them as a south-westerly course?
Location and our sense of place is hugely subjective because, being rooted in our sense of locale, it involves not just where we know we are, but how we speak of our place or locale, too, and invariably there are linguistic anomalies that often rise up to frustrate any commonly understood meaning pertaining to this. A view of who is a neighbour and who is not can often be seen to be in a state of flux, also. While such thoughts might seem extraneous to any discussion of Northbound | Nordgående as I develop it here, in some ways they are central to the exhibition, and I want end by unpicking the detail of what I'm referring to. It will remain for you, the reader, to decide how relevant this is.
As Mary Montgomery has written of the Gaelic word nàibaidh (plural nàbaidhean), the meaning of that word may change based upon our sense of place and how we view those around us, and in precisely the way that I allude to above. The word nàibaidh may well mean neighbour in the Far North of Scotland, but in the West its meaning often shifts, she says, becoming North Highlander instead. Similarly, as three of the Norwegian artists exhibiting in this show comment, there is no single sense of northerlyness that they bring to the exhibition, either, just as much as there can perhaps be no singularly agreed sense of who is a neighbour and who is not. We can agree on generic terms, but get into the specifics and it starts to get complicated.
As Tone Boska comments, ‘I, as a Norwegian, always feel I live in the northern most area in the world. That’s a part of my Norwegian identity, and I have a feeling of England, Scotland, Iceland, The Faroe Islands, and Orkney as the western part of our Northern region.’ For Kjersti Sletteland, however, ‘Ullapool is South and Norway is north, but for me this is due to the climate of Scotland, and also the attitude of the Scottish people to Norway as a place that is far north.’ Add to these comments Ingeborg Blom Andersskog’s thoughts on the matter, and it becomes clear just how subjective an understanding of North may be: ‘I first thought about Ullapool as being south-west of Norway,’ she says, ‘and Shetland as parallel,’ and yet, having spent time in Ullapool her view of where Shetland lay began to subtly change, becoming ‘north’ (or at least a more distant, more northerly place). Participants in the exhibition just as those viewing it, are learning new ways (or, maybe just different ways) of coming to terms with their place, location, immediate vicinity, and what is considered ‘home’.
As Sadie Plant once noted, ‘the Dadaist Francis Picabia once declared, One must be a nomad, pass through ideas as one passes through countries and cities, [...] The nomad bears a disruptive power and raises the spectre of individuals, social groups, and forms of action which derive their strength from their very elusiveness.’ As a social grouping, the artists in this show have been actively encouraged to be nomadic in terms of their passing through ideas, revealing that the curatorial thinking in developing the exhibition was clearly as much about that elusiveness which binds the artists together as it was about assumed (possibly false/possibly subjective) senses of connection. This is, in fact, one of the most fascinating things about the exhibition – I'm sure of it.
Forget lines on the map, and at what latitude the upcoming venues I have mentioned are sited. In Northbound | Nordgående there are lines of enquiry that overlap here, or intersect, in other curious ways, too. The very thought of lineage, in the sense of generational lineages and ancestral experiences, is very much here, not just in the folklore of Rebecca Brown’s enquiries into the ‘old wives tales’, or in Siri Brekke's reimagining of the hand tools that her grandfather once made (by hand).
Superstitions and folklore permeate many of the works on show, as we have seen, but like those who once spoke a language underpinned by folkloric superstition (using the linguistic tools of storytelling for a specific purpose) so too the specific uses for which physical tools were made fade over time as well, to become re-imagined as something beautiful, exquisite even, although wrought in clay and wood rather than iron, and as fragile as the bones of those who have now passed away. Similarly the porcelain creations made collaboratively by Boska and Sletteland give ancient Norwegian folklore a makeover with a contemporary Ullapool twist, as local life and the wider incoming messages of a media-saturated world of random imagery are further absorbed into the work from a Northwest Highlands perspective.
What we can be sure of is that either all of the artists are foreigners here, or none of them. A coming together has taken place and that is to be applauded. Indeed, do we even know what ‘foreigner’ means anymore? While it is a word often used to malign those who are ‘other’, it has a specific linguistic root about which I want to say something by way of postscript to the above.
Opinion among linguists may still differ to a greater or lesser degree concerning the origin of the languages we speak in Northern Europe, today, but it is generally agreed that we speak in languages that have a common Indo-European origin. From the Middle English language it is claimed that the word forein provides the source for our contemporary word ‘foreign’ (and ‘fremmed’ in Norwegian it should be noted, too). The English word is here derived from the earlier Old French forain (the translation of which means ‘alien’, or ‘from abroad’) and before that the spoken Latin foranus (the translation of which means ‘strange’), itself derived from the Latin foras meaning ‘out of doors’). Similarly, the word ‘forest’ may be tracked back through the meanings of Old French to the Late Latin forestis (that is, ‘outside woods’) and to a similar Latin term meaning ‘out of doors’ or ‘abroad’, also.
What all of these words share is the Indo-European (partial root) word dhwer-, from which are additionally derived the words ‘door’ in English, ‘dør’ in Norwegian, as well as ‘doras’ in Gaelic (each of which point to correspondences in the Germanic duranz, and the Old English duru and dor). It takes no great leap of imagination to realise that our words ‘foreign’ and ‘foreigner’ are thus derived from meanings that indicate somebody from outside the doors (of the walled town or city, maybe) and so foreigners are those who therefore lived in the depths of untamed forests that once were places of fear and danger.
To be a foreigner is to be one from outside the doors, for sure, but doors may be opened and those of the forest let in, if we are willing. Isn’t that what cultural exchanges and ‘artists' residencies’ in foreign lands are about? That each of the artists in this exhibition reveals something of our commonality, albeit as seen through a different lens, then that must be something worth noting at a time when certain of our political leaders still consider that ‘If you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere’.
To open our doors to those of the forest is not dissimilar to our overcoming of the ‘scare stories’ that are embodied in the fantastical phantasmagorical maximalism of Biosenario’s assemblages. Or even overcoming the fear of the Nøkken himself! The Nøkken may dwell in the rivers of the forest, the perennial ‘other’ who means us great harm, but the antidote to him drowning you, folklore tells us, it to stand fast and NAME him. To know the name of those we fear most is to no longer fear them in ways they were once feared. This then is the real value of an exhibition about to begin its tour northwards. In the naming of neighbours and the embracing of those points of cultural connection that often remain hidden, we continue to move forward in a spirit of collaboration, understanding, and mutual strength.
Northbound | Nordgående
Biosenario (Kjersti Sletteland and Tone Boska)
Ingeborg Blom Andersskog
Jenny Mackenzie Ross
CONTINUES UNTIL 15 JULY, 2018
Tour venues and dates to be posted here soon.