A modern take on Nordic Impressions
This abbreviated version of the Washington, D.C., exhibit is filled with color and texture
The American Scandinavian Foundation (ASF) in New York was founded by Danish-American philanthropist Niels Poulson in 1910. It has a long history of promoting contemporary Scandinavian art, and in 1912 organized the Exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Art, pre-dating the famous Armory Show of 1913, which is inaccurately credited with being the first exhibit to bring modern art to the United States.
The ASF legacy continues at Scandinavia House, which is hosting the exhibit Nordic Impressions. It is part of an exhibit curated by the Phillips Collection in partnership with the embassies of the five Nordic countries. The original exhibit, in Washington, spanned 200 years and 53 artists. Scandinavia House does not have space for the entire exhibit, but the ASF was able to bring a fair number of works by contemporary Scandinavian artists to New York.
The curatorial focus is concisely stated in the exhibition’s introductory text. The exhibit offers “a distinct artistic experience while sharing themes that have held a special place in Nordic culture, such as light and darkness, the coalescence of nature and folklore, women’s rights and social liberalism, and more current subjects such as climate change, sustainability, and immigration.”
I enjoyed seeing a piece by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, who took New York by storm in 2008 with Take your time, which saw immersive installations housed at MOMA and PS1, along with his public art piece, “Waterfalls,” four gushing water pieces carved along the N.Y. harbor, including one cascading from the lovely stone base of the Brooklyn Bridge. His piece here, “Island Series,” is less monumental, a subtle series of photographs of islands around Iceland.
There are several fun pieces in this exhibit. A humorous photo, “Extension,” by Iceland’s Sigurdur Gudmundsson, is Monty Python-esque. It depicts a tilted man perched on his toes. His head rests inclined against a shelf, precariously holding its books in place.
Whimsical but thoughtful is Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, who lives in Brooklyn by way of Iceland and goes by the moniker Shoplifter. Bright puffs of layered colors are suspended above and around you; like critters, they sway with a cozy comfort. These are made of hanging wigs, part of her Neverlings Series. Arnardóttir explores hair, calling it “the original creative fiber.” I think of plaits intertwined with ribbon in indigenous Mexico, characters from The Vikings sporting all configurations of braids, or the elaborate powdered wigs festooned with birds in cages, ships, and foliage that dominated French courts and beyond in the 18th century.
The exhibit also contains darker pieces. For instance, “Ancient Baby,” created by Norwegian performance and voice artist Tori Wrånes. Here a haunting creature playing an instrument greets you on film, spinning and staring at you. Wrånes “deforms her appearance and creates dreamlike images that are both mesmerizing and disturbing.” Indeed.
There are also pieces, such as Swedish Britta Marakatt-Labba’s “Art Dusk,” that are more reminiscent of traditional Nordic art in theme—snow, forest, icicles—and clean design. Yet it has a twist in its materials and how they are utilized. Embroidery, appliques, and textile print come together like a painting.
I was delighted that the lesser-seen Nordic cultures of Greenland and the Sámi were represented. Greenland-born Pia Arke offers a video, Arctic Hysteria, with a fascinating concept. A naked woman (Arke) is seen crawling and moving in an animalistic manner on a huge photo of Nuugaarsuk, Arke’s childhood home, and ultimately destroying the image. This piece is a response to explorer Admiral Robert Peary’s term pibloktoq or “Arctic Hysteria,” which was used to describe Inuit behavior from a colonial perspective. It will make you question your own assumptions.
Ethereal and seductive, Sámi-Finnish Outi Pieski’s “Crossing Paths” is made of wood and thread but looks like undulating feathers. The backside of the curtain-like installation beckons; an immersion in a comforting womb. Unfortunately, one cannot go through it due to its delicate construction. But its delicate nature is what makes it so appealing, with layers adding interesting depth, color, and movement. It transports you from a New York gallery into nature.
Nordic Impressions is free and runs through June 8.
This article originally appeared in the May 3, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.