Hacking Objects of Desire: the work of three Sami artists

Photo courtesy of Torpedo Factory Art Center One of three plexiglass-mounted photographs by Joar Nango and Silje Figenschou Thoresen featured in the exhibit.

Photo courtesy of Torpedo Factory Art Center
One of three plexiglass-mounted photographs by Joar Nango and Silje Figenschou Thoresen featured in the exhibit.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

When I saw an announcement for this exhibit, I immediately decided to go. I am always eager to learn more about the Sami culture in Norway. And I was very curious to discover what the enigmatic title meant. Hacking objects? I assumed that it had nothing to do with computers.

I eagerly went to view the exhibit in the Torpedo Factory Art Center located in Alexandria, just south of Washington, D.C. This building was an old munitions plant that had been transformed in 1974 into an outstanding art center. It currently houses the largest number of publicly accessible working artist studios in the United States.

Photo: courtesy of Torpedo Factory Sami life is dependent on repurposing.

Photo: courtesy of Torpedo Factory
Sami life is dependent on repurposing.

When I entered the Center’s Target Gallery, I was initially disappointed. The room was small and I didn’t see very much—only a machine projecting words onto a wall, three large photographs, and a stack of small pieces of wood.

I asked Kaitlyn Ward, the Gallery’s director, if this was it. It was. But we began to talk, and, as Kaitlyn shared her knowledge with me, I realized that there was more to this exhibit than met the eye. In a short time I had learned a great deal about the Sami culture and I, therefore, found the exhibit very worthwhile.

The theme of this exhibit is hacking objects. It refers to the Sami custom of “making their own patent.” In their world no garbage collectors take away discarded objects; the people, therefore, recycle everything. They take great pride in not buying new things. They destroy the old in order to repurpose it to create the new. They are continually recreating a community based on what they have.

Brief descriptions of the works that were on display follow.

PowerPoint Presentation
The poet Sigbjørn Skåden offers examples of this repurposing philosophy in his poem. I sat in the middle of the gallery and watched an 8 1/2-minute Power Point presentation of the poem projected on the wall in front of me. Each slide showed a verse in the original Sami language followed by the English translation. I could hear the poet reading his poem at the same time. I found this experience of reading and listening to the Sami language simultaneously very effective.

Let me share some examples of repurposing from the poem.

Notáhta 3
He’s got a washing machine
that’s gone to hell.
He takes out the drum,
cuts off the top and puts it on a rack.
Now he’s got a grill.

When he tears down the old shed
He builds a windstopping wall out of the rubble.

Notáhta 12
Recipe for a boat trailer:
Buy a 30- to 40-year-old caravan.
Slash it all to smithereens with a chainsaw.
Strip away the undercarriage behind the barn.

Skåden also retells some traditional stories in his poem. One that particularly touched me is the following:

Notáhta 19 (my paraphrase)
You may hear babies crying in a meadow between two rivers. Unwanted newborns are left by desperate parents to die in this place. These babies remain suspended between existing and not existing until they return after seven years to the place where they were abandoned. Then an ancient baptizing rite is performed and they are finally at peace.

I asked the Sami actress Sara Margrethe Oskal about the baptism. Who baptizes these babies? She explained that the babies can claim baptism anytime. (According to her, they don’t have to wait seven years.) They can haunt anyone they wish in order to get baptized; the baptizer doesn’t have to be anyone special. The chosen individual must then pray a particular prayer backwards, starting with “amen.”

Three Photographs of Sami Life
Joar Nango and Silje Figenschou Thoresen have taken three beautiful photos and transferred them to large pieces of Plexiglas. The subjects are a Sami house, a building for storing food (similar to a Norwegian stabbur), and a grove of birch trees with unidentified objects hanging from the branches. (Are they skins of reindeer?)

Photo: Christine Foster Meloni Wood scuplture by an unnamed artist.

Photo: Christine Foster Meloni
Wood sculpture by an unnamed artist.

Sculpture of Wood
Wood is very plentiful in Norway and one of the materials commonly used in Sami art. Standing unpretentiously in a corner of the gallery is a small wooden tower. It is deceptively simple at first glance, but takes on a more alluring aspect when looked at more intensely. The pieces of different sizes, shapes, and colors fit gently together into a harmonious whole. (The artist is not identified.)

After viewing this exhibit, I feel that I understand the Sami better. They are gradually adapting to the modern world but they still have important lessons to teach us. We would be wise, for instance, to consider their traditional approach to consumerism. This is one of the relevant messages that these artists are conveying in their exhibit.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 31, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.