Artscape Nordland (2004)

R.J. Preece travels 800 km in North Norway to check out the Artscape Nordland public art project, including works by Dan Graham, Bjørn Nørgaard, Martti Aiha, and Bård Breivik.

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 3 January 2010
This article first appeared in Sculpture, 23(5), pp. 22-3 in June 2004.

Artscape Nordland

The northern region of Norway stretching up to the 70th parallel, above the Arctic Circle, is comparable to northern Alaska— a landscape filled with jagged, linear, black-rock, snow-capped mountains interspersed with sometimes dark, sometimes tropical-colored fjords. The residents include migrating sea eagles, moose, whales of the killer and sperm variety, and 240,000 people.

This is the powerful site of the Gulf Stream-heated Artscape Nordland, a public art initiative consisting of 33 site-specific works scattered across Nordland county, which extends from the Lofoten Islands that jut out into the North Atlantic, across the Vesterålen Islands, and onto the Norwegian mainland near Narvik. Thirty-three artists from Europe, the U.S., Brazil, and Japan contributed to the project.

The original concept of Artscape Nordland (“Skulpturlandskap Nordland”) was proposed by Norwegian artist Anne Katrine Dolven during a seminar on the future of art in Nordland in fall 1988. The idea was that each municipality would have its own permanent sculpture responding to art and landscape, and together the works would form a public collection. Interest in the proposal grew quickly. Artists were selected to present proposals for a sculpture in each of Nordland’s 45 municipalities by a committee of four art historians and critics— Per Hovedenakk, Maaretta Jaukkuri, Bojana Pejic, and Angelika Stepken. Organizers hoped that the program would address the fact that the area’s population had little exposure to modern art, having no art museum and few public works of art. The artists selected the sites for installation in consultation and agreement with the municipality and landowners. From 1992 to 1998, 32 Nordland municipalities moved forward and installed sculptures; in addition, one community just north of the county line in neighboring Troms submitted a work. Meanwhile, 13 municipalities did not participate for financial reasons. Project funding totaled near 3.8 million euros from the Norwegian national parliament, Nordland county, sponsors, and other sources, including approximately 600,000 euros from the participating municipalities.

Winding fjord-lined roads and ferry connections link the widely dispersed artworks; to view the entire scheme requires at least a week’s worth of driving. I chose a three-day Bodø-Reine-Narvik-Bodø loop, an 800-kilometer journey. Highlights of this route included works by Dan Graham, Anish Kapoor, Tony Cragg, Toshikatsu Endo, Bjørn Nørgaard from Denmark, Martti Aiha from Finland, Bård Breivik and Per Barclay from Norway, and Sigurdur Gudmundsson from Iceland. For the most part, road signs clearly mark the artworks, which are sometimes located along dramatic one-lane roads with dash-lined shoulders. For this middle-Europe city dweller, the landscape and the driving were incredibly intense, the visual experience of a lifetime.

Dan Graham’s untitled work (1996) was my favorite. Set just off the meandering road along a fjord, it seemed to me that this abstract-naturalistic work spoke to a wide audience. Reflections of the opposing mountain are distorted via the curvature and transformed into something comparable to a Chinese ink drawing— with the viewer captured inside the changing, distorted image.

Installing works along the shoreline was a popular choice for many artists. Martti Aiha placed a flat, circular form cast in untreated steel on a flat waterside rock. Seven magic points (1994) refers to the Midnight Sun. The pieces were made in Finland and transported by sea to the site, lifted ashore, and mounted on the rock. Bjørn Nørgaard’s Stone house (1995) makes reference to Norwegian stave churches from the early Middle Ages using local granite. The form provides a protective and contemplative interior space.

Meanwhile, in two residential neighborhoods in the small city of Narvik, Bård Breivik installed two forms in 1993— a column at the confluence of two streams up on the slopes of a mountain and a gate near where this stream drains into the fjord. At the time of my viewing, the sound of the two streams converging was very loud, and they acted as abstract perspective lines disappearing into the mountain above. According to the artist, the two forms mark the scene of a possible future sculpture park along the stream.

From an administrative point of view, implementing Skulpturlandskap Nordland - Artscape Nordland had its challenges. According to Stig Olsen, Director of the Culture Department of Nordland County and lead spokesperson for the project, these challenges included achieving political acceptance at a local and county level; fundraising issues; and coordinating the organizational aspects necessary to install the 33 works.

Local controversies arose during the proposal and installation phases in several municipalities, as described in Artscape Nordland, a new book edited by Maaretta Jaukkuri. Newspapers printed articles and letters to the editor praising and condemning the works. Dan Graham’s Untitled was dismissed as a “bathroom” and a “shower stall.” A few writers referred to it as “the emperor’s new clothes,” and one stated, “I feel contempt for politicians who give in to these artists and their experimental… constructions considered by most people as pure contamination.” Another writes in quotation marks, “So good, so expensive, so incomprehensible, this is art!!!” Others questioned why only one local artist was approached for the commissions. Stig Olsen estimates that over 4,000 articles and other media coverage— largely local— were generated. In terms of quantity, this may make Artscape Nordland the world leader in art project press results.

Future plans for Skulpturlandskap Nordland - Artscape Nordland? According to Stig Olsen, “The county council has decided that the aim should be to add one new sculpture to the collection every second year. However, the actual dates for the next one are not yet determined.”

A final word to potential visitors: think twice about coming here during the dark-filled winter. But if you are truly committed to art, bring survival gear and a strong snow shovel. And pack a top-of-the-line flashlight.