Cosmic Perspectives in Contemporary Craft

Curator Randi Grov Berger's essay on the exhibition Earth, Wind, Fire, Water

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This essay is part of the craft anthology Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, edited by Randi Grov Berger and Tonje Kjellevold and produced by Galleri F 15 and NNCA. The publication is available for order at Arnoldsche Art Publishers here

How absorbing it is to contemplate the raw materials of the universe: how they are traceable to stars in our galaxy and have dispersed gradually to form our little planet, and us, and how they are the composites of everything we see around us. We live in a time marked by enormous progress in technology and science; we reach further into our solar system and gradually comprehend the fragility of our brief yet remarkable existence.

Our witnessing of magnificent accomplishments, dazzling discoveries by the Hubble telescope and extraordinary insights from the field of neuroscience are matched by a sustained awareness that such technological breakthroughs would not be possible without large-scale mining, raw material extractions and a fossil-fuelled chemical industry operating in such a way as to precipitate an unprecedented global environmental crisis. We have emerged as a dominant geological force competing with nature in shaping the planet.

The wilderness recedes and our experience of being part of a living environment breaks down. Our situation demands urgent discussions concerning our relationship to the immediate material world. The artists featured in Earth, Wind, Fire, Water are taking an active role in this philosophical discourse, using their craft, tools and deep material knowledge to address pending environmental issues. Their works urge a reconnection with nature and a strengthened sense of co-existence with our home planet.

The 44th edition of Tendenser includes a diverse spectrum of approaches and expressions, with practices encompassing biology, geology and cosmology. From artists transforming matter, animating material and engaging communities in participatory projects, to large-scale contemplative installations in which form and content are rendered inseparable, the exhibition offers different ways to think about, with, and through contemporary crafts.

Work by Britta Marakatt-Labba (Kosmos, 2020)
Detail of work by Britta Marakatt-Labba (Kosmos, 2020)

Earth Matters 

If we can see ourselves in nature, if we can relate to a tree, we will practice empathy, and in the same way that a culture that views trees as meaningful subjects will not engage in clear-cutting, a culture that engages in clear-cutting will never see trees as meaningful subjects.[i]

‘As we are moving away from culture, towards nature, trends don’t go fast at all. They’re very, very slow, and they’re getting slower by the minute’, observes trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort.[ii] She describes a current movement back towards nature and the notion of animism, which postulates that a soul is embedded in everything. In the territory called Sápmi,[iii] which extends across the borders between Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, this worldview is recognised as inherent to indigenous Sámi traditions. Here nature is understood in terms of relatedness; each organism has its place and plays a particular role. Nature’s ideal condition, its balance, should be respected, and any engagement with nature should be as minimal as possible.

We should listen to what the innermost forest tells us, how it talks to us. If we stop listening, then it’s over. I walk into nature and wonder how the trees feel. How are they? Every tree has a soul. Trees can cry. They can shed tears of sadness. When we’re drilling for new minerals – it’s like drilling into the hearts of the underground beings.[iv] - Britta Marakatt-Labba

Fundamental concepts of animism are central to the interdisciplinary, theoretical and politically committed field of New Materialism, which emerged in the second half of the 1990s. With the thinkers Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti, Elizabeth Grosz and Jane Bennett as some of its leading scholars, New Materialism is associated with a range of contemporary perspectives in the arts, humanities and social sciences that share a theoretical and practical ‘turn to matter’, drawing on feminist theory, science studies, environmental studies, queer theory, philosophy, cultural theory, biopolitics and critical race theory.

The New Materialist discourse challenges dualisms such as nature/culture, human/non-human and animate/inanimate, and accounts for ‘intra-actions’ between meaning and matter.[v] Probing fundamental questions regarding nature and humankind’s agency in a post-industrialised material world, the arguably most radical adaptation of New Materialism proposes that non-human beings and certain objects/entities should be acknowledged as possessing personhood and should have the same rights and protection as do human beings.

In 2017, after 140 years of negotiation, the Māori people of New Zealand won recognition of the Whanganui River as an ancestor, meaning the river must now be treated as a living entity. ‘Environmental personhood’ assigns nature (or aspects of it) certain rights while also providing a means for individuals and groups to fulfil these rights. As Gerrard Albert, leading negotiator for the Whanganui tribe, remarks: 

We can trace our genealogy to the origins of the universe, and therefore rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point. And that is not an anti-development, or anti-economic use of the river, but to begin with the view that it is a living being, and then consider its future from that central belief.[vi]

The American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson adds an even broader perspective: ‘The cosmic perspective not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth but also values our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself.’[vii]

Work by Charlotta Östlund
Work by Charlotta Östlund

Transient Nature 

Artists relating to these concepts are wilfully mindful of the material flows within their own lives, on a global scale, and from a cosmic perspective, opening themselves to meaningful collaborations that connect them with their surroundings, with a piece of land, or with material itself. Several artists participating in Earth, Wind, Fire, Water explore the potential of materials and the elements to co-author artistic works, to participate in and at times control the process and outcome. 

For the plant-dyed silk tapestries of Hildur Bjarnadóttir, plants from the artist’s own plot of land in Iceland function as recording devices, absorbing information from their ecological and social environment through soil and air, as well as through their roots, petals, flowers and leaves. Exploring issues of belonging and ecological disruption, Bjarnadóttir’s work combines both flora and fauna. Changing weather, seasonal shifts and industrial impact are all apparent in her extracted colours. 

Acknowledging the powerful interdependence between humankind and often-overlooked materials and organisms, many of the artworks presented in the exhibition evoke the fragility and transiency of our earthly existence by way of components that alter, dry up or decay throughout the exhibition period. Hedvig Winge, for instance, employs clay within an expanded practice of sculpture and painting. Textiles are splattered with porcelain clay and arranged in site-specific installations that unfold and transform during the process. Grounded in her deep knowledge of the materiality of clay, Winge’s work is expansive and unpredictable; motion and vulnerability are expressed at the intersection between the work and the exhibition space.

Philosophical perspectives drawn from New Materialism and Animism – namely that everything, even that which is inanimate, has a soul, and that all matter has value and significance – are articulated in several of the featured practices. Meticulously treated twigs are assembled to form sentence-like compositions in the work of Guðjón Ketilsson. The fallen sticks are given new life through language; as poems, they move past their materiality. Similarly, organic materials have a voice in Charlotta Östlund’s sculptures, which juxtapose nature’s ceaseless cycles with a subtle lyrical sensibility. Her laborious technique of bending dried plant matter offers a gentle metaphor for the transience of all life. Organic, impermanent and never static, her materials exist in perpetual metamorphosis, embracing gradual yet inevitable entropy. 

With the power to alter matter, ideas and society, an artistic practice is transformational in many respects. In one site-responsive project, the artists Brynjar Sigurðarson and Veronika Sedlmair carve into stones in the rocky bays of Jeløy, animating the material by sculpting it on site. In doing so, Sigurðarson and Sedlmair intervene in geological processes, accelerating each stone’s millennia-long transformation into an infinitesimal grain of sand. The artists’ impact may well catalyse the folklore of a distant future.

In depicting the forcefulness of nature and its laws, several of the artworks in Earth, Wind, Fire, Water engage our bodily senses. Alma Heikkilä’s installation invites a heightened sensitivity to microorganisms and bacteria that exist beyond human perception. Through her large-format paintings and sculptures, Heikkilä offers a calm and soothing environment to contemplate the importance of such minuscule species. Kasper Kjeldgaard explores aspects of nature such as friction and gravity, using bronze, beeswax and other materials to create a poetic universe of balance and suspense. The process of creation, organic growth and varying states of permanence are captured in his sculptures, articulating notions of resilience and robustness. As the elements interact with one another and the surrounding space, they affect the pace around them, prompting viewers to slow down and reflect upon Kjeldgaard’s meditative installation. 

Technologies from various stages of human history are evoked throughout the exhibition. Ebba Bohlin visited Jeløy in August of 2019 and discovered a tree trunk caught in a state of decomposition; it has served as the starting point for her work Loss of Information. With faint traces on its surface reminiscent of human hair, the tree triggered the artist to construct a new and complex ‘hybrid being’ using digital software to merge the tree with a living person. Bohlin’s practice asserts a firm belief in the transformative power of materials, whether taken from nature, language or the artist’s own body. The work of Stian Korntved Ruud reflects a fascination for manufacturing techniques, inherent properties of physical materials, human-object interactions and sound. In his new series of sculptural tuning forks, Korntved Ruud explores natural frequencies and sacred geometry. In a second work, he makes use of clock chimes and gravity to add to the soundscape of the gallery.

Direct material explorations repeatedly punctuate Earth, Wind, Fire, Water. Ida Wieth addresses the unusual characteristics of glass through a persistent and experimental exploration of its substance, content, form, force and will. With reference to the metamorphic nature of the human body, her large-scale installation Passage explores the ability of glass to stretch and transform from liquid to solid over short intervals. Earthy and vibrant hues blend with metal oxides to create a coarse and fragmented texture. Louise Sidelmann uses clay to intuitively explore the spatial effects of drawing and lines. Looking to both human infrastructure and organic systems, her delicate compositions intricately combine colours with clay through glazing and sintering processes. Pekka Paikkari embraces the accidents, material memory and unforgiving nature of clay, working with, rather than against, the uncontrollable transformations that take place within the kiln:

I think that the soul and originality of the materials are hidden in the cracks. Flaws, cracks, and breaking – these are things that I play with in my practice. I let a large tile break where it wants to. In this way, I don’t have to cut it myself. This is a physical process and something I have discovered after thirty years of practice. Also, when something cracks and breaks, it is moving. When it is broken, the movement ends, the tension disappears.[viii]

Craft Strategies of the New Decennium

In adopting a biennale format, the exhibition series Tendenser has slowed its pace and widened its horizon, devoting more time to reflect on current directions in the diverse and complex field of craft in the Nordic countries. As this edition unfolds in the early days of a new decennium, we realize we are fast approaching the exhibition’s 50th anniversary. This marks an occasion to reflect on the past and the present and to look towards the future. 

In the course of my research for this project, I encountered several artists whose expanded practices confront challenging issues by engaging directly with social groups and embracing the relational aspects of craft. Giving primacy to the power of meaningful encounters, their process-oriented and at times immaterial methods, often carried out in parallel to more traditional, studio-based activities, mainly take place outside of institutions and are often not announced, promoted or even documented. For Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, several artists have facilitated dynamic conversations within the public realm.

Valentin Manz’s participatory, long-term project In the Pits is presented within the immersive three-screen moving image installation earth:NOW:being. The film, directed by Christine Cynn, documents a site-responsive project for which Manz erected seven large-scale clay sculptures while camping in the British countryside over the course of one summer. Inviting local farmworkers and passers-by to participate, and supervising clay workshops for children, Manz created an open studio in which unpredictable forces, such as the weather, were also central to the project’s outcome. Towards the end of the summer, participants and locals were invited to witness spectacular sparkling lights fly from paper kilns as the soft clay was transformed into robust ceramic sculptures.

With a background spanning visual art, scenography and art psychotherapy, Manz merges craft and conversation to prompt dialogue around pressing themes, such as generational shifts in labour and identity. Throughout the exhibition Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, visitors to Galleri F 15 are invited to visit Manz in an on-site wood workshop. Here they can observe and assist the artist as he carves sculptures from large tree trunks. Relocated to the surrounding landscape as they are produced through the spring and summer, the sculptures are subtly transformed as the weather shifts.

The space between individual expression and a community’s public rights is explored in several projects by Fellesskapsprosjektet å Fortette Byen (FFB),[ix] a group established in 2010 by the artist and architect Joar Nango and the architects Håvard Arnhoff and Eystein Talleraas. In 2012, FFB temporarily established The Norwegian Roma Embassy(Den Norske Rom-ambassade), a cultural centre in Oslo’s Tullinløkka square in collaboration with Oslo’s three major Roma associations. For several weeks, the centre was activated with cultural activities, concerts and exhibitions addressing and problematising the Roma people’s lack of gathering places in the Norwegian capital.

For Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, FFB adds a text work to the gallery’s architecture that is created with found and reclaimed materials. Written in the North-Sámi language, it states: ‘Eai čuovo mearriduvvon luottaid, eai ge vissis njuolggadusaid’ (‘They don’t follow routes and they don’t conform to regulated order’). This reference to the Northern way of life stresses the importance of transcending laws and regulations in order to forge autonomous systems and spaces. 

I’m very, very interested in material flows. That is something that has been extremely important for the development of duodji[x] and Sámi handicraft – material flow and access to material, transformation of material, and the sort of output, you could say, of the craft process. And it’s a flow, you know? I think that it’s very interesting to keep in mind the deep philosophy of duodji which is really a local material flow cycle. I think it’s interesting to maintain that philosophical concept that you find in duodji but rethink it in a more contemporary scale. The world of material that is in my immediate surrounding is very different now than it was two hundred years ago, for example, leftover materials or garbage. That’s what I’ve been working with lately.[xi] - Joar Nango

Ivana Králíková uses ceramics, her material of choice, to engage with her local community in Tensta and Hjulsta, two neighbouring suburbs of Stockholm. Most recently, in February of 2020, she initiated a workshop exploring local clay for members of the Women’s Centre of Tensta-Hjulsta, obtaining materials from a nearby construction site where extensive infrastructure is in the making. Králíková approaches her workshops from several perspectives: as a foreigner in Sweden, as a woman, and as a resident of Hjulsta, a district with many immigrants. Her practice subscribes to the notion of neoenvironment,[xii] a broadened understanding of our total environment as a network of innumerable interrelations. For Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, Králíková’s experiments with the creation of earth batteries, a potential new energy resource, using excavated soil and minerals from Jeløy.

Craft, in its very essence, encourages sociability, connections and dialogue. Since 2011, Riitta Ikonen and Karoline Hjorth have worked with elderly people across many countries, documenting them dressed in elements from their surroundings. Swathed in costume-like sculptures made in collaboration with the artists, these characters literally inhabit their landscape, drawing attention to the intrinsic connections between human beings and their environment. The artists have thus far photographed over one hundred seniors. Some of their latest photo portraits were made last fall when they visited the rural Norwegian landscape in and around Jeløy and Moss. 

Britta Marakatt-Labba addresses questions of ecology, politics and history through embroidery, combining thin wool, linen, paper and silk yarn with screen-printing and collage. Rooted within Sámi culture, her motifs often link everyday life and mythology. They address political issues and document Sámi resistance to injustice, such as the threat to the land posed by mining companies. Marakatt-Labba played an active role in the Mázejoavku group of the 1970s, an important movement within Sámi culture, art and identity. In reaction to the catastrophic nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986, she began exploring environmental issues. In recent years, much of her work has addressed climate change, something she herself experiences first-hand as a resident of Övre Soppero in Northern Sweden, through floods, clear-cut forestry and increasingly warm winters: ‘Those of us who herd reindeer for a living see very clearly how important it is that nature works. These days, we don’t know when it’s going to rain and when the snow will crust over.’[xiii]

Final Note

With the goal of seeking out connections between environmental art, land art and contemporary craft, I began this curatorial endeavour by visiting artists and institutions in each of the Nordic countries. From these studio visits, meetings and conversations, the framework for [the exhibition] Earth, Wind, Fire, Water emerged. I am deeply grateful to the participating artists for opening their studios and sharing their thoughts, and for contributing so immensely in all regards. 

This project [the publication Earth, Wind, Fire, Water] was made possible with backing and deep commitment from co-editor and NNCA project manager Tonje Kjellevold, and through the collaborative, ever-encouraging spirit of Maria Havstam, head of the art department at Galleri F 15. I also thank the head of production Eivind Karlsen and the entire Galleri F 15 team. My research trips to Helsinki, Copenhagen and Aarhus were generously supported by Frame Contemporary Art, Finland and the Danish Arts Foundation.

[Both the publication and the exhibition Earth, Wind, Fire, Water has received generous funding from the Nordic Culture Point and the Nordic Culture Fund.]

End notes

[i] Helena Granström and Marcus Elmerstad, Det som en gang var (Stockholm: Natur & Kultur, 2016), 12. Translated by the author of this essay.

[ii] Lidewij Edelkoort, interviewed by Spencer Bailey, podcast Time Sensitive (2019).

[iii] Sápmi is the Sámi people's own name for their traditional territory. The Sámi people are the indigenous people of the northern part of the Scandinavian peninsula and large parts of the Kola Peninsula. They live in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. www.iwgia.org/en/sapmi

[iv] Britta Marakatt-Labba, ‘Den inre skogen’, K special (Stockholm: Swedish Public Television, 2019). Quote translated by the author of this essay.

[v] ‘Intra-action’ is a term coined by Karen Barad and used to replace ‘interaction’, which necessitates pre-established bodies that then participate in action with each other. Intra-action understands agency not as an inherent property of an individual or human to be exercised, but as a dynamism of forces in which all designated ‘things’ are constantly exchanging and diffracting, influencing, and working inseparably. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007). 

[vi] Gerrard Albert, interview by reporter Eleanor Ainge Roy, The Guardian, 16 March 2017. 

[vii] Neil deGrasse Tyson, ‘The Cosmic Perspective’, the 100th essay in the ‘Universe’ series, Natural History Magazine (2007): 29.

[viii] Pekka Paikkari, interview by Laura Põld, conversation about the exhibition Enchanted by Fire (2015),http://www.kohilasymposium.com... (accessed March 2020). 

[ix] Fellesskapsprosjektet å Fortette Byen translates to ‘The Collective Project: For a Denser Concentration of the City’. 

[x] According to Gry-Kristina Fors Spein, the Sámi concept of duodji ‘encompasses many types of hand-crafted objects, both functional and conceptual, which can be made in homes and workshops or in small-scale industries. Duodji also means “creative activity” in a very wide sense. This is one of those words that is difficult to translate into other languages because it applies to so many techniques, materials, and practices.’ Gry-Kristina Fors Spein, ‘Duodji as the Starting Point for Artistic Practice’, Norwegian Crafts website (2019) https://www.norwegiancrafts.no/articles/duodji-as-a-starting-point-for-artistic-practice (accessed March 2020).

[xi] Joar Nango, interview by Namita Gupta Wiggers. ‘Duodji as Part of Philosophy and Cosmology’, Norwegian Crafts website (2018). https://www.norwegiancrafts.no/articles/duodji-as-part-of-philosophy-and-cosmology (accessed March 2020).

[xii] Neoenvironment, a termed coined by Peter K. Haff, refers to the sum of the natural, human, and technological systems and processes that surround us. It includes forest ecosystems, animals and machines, nanotechnology, the Internet, highways, medical systems, power grids, human populations, political parties, governments and bureaucracies, robots, religions, and their interactions with each other.  

[xiii] Britta Marakatt-Labba, ‘Swedish Sámi Visual Artist Shaping Climate Changes’, Radio Sweden (2010). https://www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic/2010/11/08/swedish-sami-visual-artist-shaping-climate-changes/


Bibliography

Ainge Roy, Eleanor, ‘New Zealand river granted same legal rights as human being’. The Guardian, 16 March 2017. 

Barad, Karen, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

deGrasse Tyson, Neil, ‘The Cosmic Perspective’, Universe: The 100th Essay, Natural History Magazine 2007.

Granström, Helena and Elmerstad, Marcus, Det som engång var. Stockholm: Natur & Kultur, 2016. 

Põld, Laura. Conversation about the exhibition Enchanted by Firehttp://www.kohilasymposium.com/conversation-about-the-exhibition-enchanted-by-fire/ (accessed March 2020).

Fors Spein, Gry-Kristina. ‘Duodji as Starting Point for Artistic Practice’, Norwegian Crafts website (2019) https://www.norwegiancrafts.no/articles/duodji-as-a-starting-point-for-artistic-practice (accessed March 2020).

Gupta Wiggers, Namita. ‘Duodji as Part of Philosophy and Cosmology’. Norwegian Crafts website (2018) https://www.norwegiancrafts.no/articles/duodji-as-part-of-philosophy-and-cosmology (accessed March 2020). 

‘Swedish Sámi visual artist shaping climate changes’, Radio Sweden, 2010. https://www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic/2010/11/08/swedish-sami-visual-artist-shaping-climate-changes/ (accessed March 2020). 

Baily, Spencer, ‘Trend Forecaster Li Edelkoort on Why Doing Less Is More’, Time Sensitive, Slowdown Media, 2019. https://timesensitive.fm/episode/trend-forecaster-li-edelkoort-doing-less-is-more/ (accessed March 2020).

‘Den inre skogen’, K special, Swedish Public Television, 24 November 2019.

This essay is part of the craft anthology Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, edited by Randi Grov Berger and Tonje Kjellevold and produced by Galleri F 15 and NNCA. The publication is available for order at Arnoldsche Art Publishers here