Passages Across Life Worlds: Some Ventures in Duodji, Craft and Art

Outi Pieski: Crossing Paths, detail
Jan-Erik Lundström reflects on the Sámi concept of duodji in connection to the exhibition I Craft, I Travel Light

Editor´s introduction:

This essay was orinigally published in the book I Craft, I Travel Light (eds: Sigrid Høyforsslett Bjørbæk and Charis Gullickson) published by Not Yet Titled Press in 2017 as part of the travelling exhibition with the same name that was on show in Arkhangels Regional Art Museum, Murmansk Regional Art Museum, Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum in Tromsø and Sámi Center for Contemporary Art in Karasjok. I Craft, I Travel Light was The Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts theme exhibition 2016/17 organized by Norske Kunsthåndverkere Northern Norway in cooperation with Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum. Project manager for I Craft, I Travel Light was artist and curator Sigrid Høyforsslett Bjørbæk.

Over the last few years, curators and critics living in Norway have been paying more and more attention to art and craft created by artists belonging to the indigenous Sámi population that lives in the North of Norway, Sweden, Finland and parts of Russia. Especially has Katya García-Antón, director and chief curator at Office of Contemporary Art (OCA), been dedicated to building knowledge and dialogue with the Sámi art scene. Internationally this was manifested during Documenta 14 last year when eight Sámi artists where included in the show.

Last year, when Namita Gupta Wiggers was visiting Norwegian Crafts, we had the pleasure to meet and discuss with one of these artists in Tromsø, Joar Nango. Nango is now one of our important discussion partners for questions concerning Sámi art and crafts. During our trip to Tromsø, we visited I Craft, I Travel Light at Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum and had inspiring discussions with Bodil Kjelstrup, Head of Administration, and curator Charis Gullickson about the exhibition and the museum´s role in showing and discussing Sámi art. You can read about Wiggers´ experiences from visiting this exhibition and institutions in the North in the interview Benjamin Lignel did with Wiggers under the title The question is…which craft?

After this visit it has been increasingly important for Norwegian Craft too to address questions concerning Sámi and indigenous art and to open up for a variety of expressions and perspectives that differs from the strict Western canon of art and craft.

For me as editor of Norwegian Crafts articles, I am particularly interested in shedding light on the Sámi concept of duodji. This term often translates as Sámi craft or traditional applied art and on one level it resonates with what we perceive to be typical Sámi artifacts, like the Sámi knife or the wooden drinking cup known as kuksa, but as Joar Nango and others has pointed out to me, the term has larger and richer connotations than mere handicraft and, as I understand it, may very well involve critical practises as well. Take Iver Jåks (1932-2007) as example - also one of the artists in Documenta, who is consider by many to be a vital modernist, he himself perceived his work to belong to the tradition of duodji. So one of the things that intrigues me is how duodji can broaden our understanding of art and contemporary crafts. 

To get more acquainted with the concept we will publish a series of articles that discuss the concept of duodji from various perspectives. I have chosen to start with Jan-Erik Lundström´s essay from I Craft, I Travel Light because it ties in with certain practices that I find as easy to read within the tradition of the Western concept of art or contemporary crafts. So the question I wanted to pose through publishing this essay is: how do these practices look when they are discussed from this point of view? And what is the relation between the Western concept of art and the Sámi concept of duodji, if any?

Exhibition view from I Craft, I Travel Light in Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum
Exhibition view from I Craft, I Travel Light in Northern Norway Art Museum

«Most commonly translated as craft and referring to a specific Sámi tradition of craft, duodji may in fact suggest and mean both method and object, both process and work (as in a work of art), thus comprising material, mental and spiritual dimensions»

Jan-Erik Lundström

It is quintessential to begin with the verb, the verbs, these words expressing activity, motion, doings, processes, occurrences. The attention and dedication remunerated to doing, making, constructing, asserting, considering, creating, shaping, forming, fashioning, crafting. Not to forget living. As the exhibition title tells us. I craft. I travel. I make and I go. I shape and I move. Each thing, each object, each crafted work, each work of art in the exhibition enters the world, is born, through such transformative activities, through journeying through and to and among altered states and new life forms.                        

The word craft is both a verb and a noun, while its sister concept art has no verb to accompany its activities, its ways of coming to existence. We do not "art" something, but we craft and do and make all the time. Do we need a verb for the activity of making art? Would it be sufficient to say that we craft art, that we craft art objects, that the artwork is crafted? The North Sámi word duodji is here a remarkable facilitator. Most commonly translated as craft and referring to a specific Sámi tradition of craft, duodji may in fact suggest and mean both method and object, both process and work (as in a work of art), thus comprising material, mental and spiritual dimensions. Even more illuminating and elucidatory are the Sámi concepts of dáiddaduodji and duodjidáidda which, in distinct ways, aim at the inseparability of the two, their co-dependency, the constant border crossings they engage in and their ceaseless in-between traffic, thick as thieves as they are: craft and art. Duodjidáidda identifies the crafted work as it eliminates the borders between art and craft. Whereas dáiddaduodji teases out deviant or irregular aesthetic elements in the crafted piece, superimposed upon or amalgamated into an object precisely chiselled out of its duodji roots.

Solveig Ovanger: Hemisphere I, detail

«it is about resettling and restoring a balance between eye and hand, between vision and tactility, renouncing the ocularcentrism of the Western world»

Jan-Erik Lundström
Aslaug Magdalena Juliussen: Multiple Stitches - Sight in Absence III

Aslaug Magdalena Juliussen's uska, the door to the lávvu, the traditional Sámi dwelling, choreographs such a passage between life worlds, between disciplines, between sensory domains, as it blends the immanent, the vernacular with the transcendent, harmony with dissonance, inner world with outer. Or Philipp Spillmann's uncertain miniature pieces that fold back onto themselves, allowing physical matter to decide form, as if reversing the process from mould to final sculpture. Just like Ingrid Becker's fragile miniature sculptures of woven fruit stalks outlining the shape of stones. And just like Gabriel Johann Kvendseth's ambiguous and equivocal, at the same time multifunctional and dysfunctional objects, oscillating between concrete prose and metaphor. In fact, this traffic across disciplinary borders, this undulation across the domains of art, craft and duodji is a leading trope across the exhibition.

Is it that the itinerant craft worker, the wayfaring duojar, maintains access to multiple life worlds, fluent in many languages, undermining the sought for autonomy of its settled urban cousins? Retrieving plural landscapes and cultures during the journey? What is thus the nature of the labour to be considered here? Yes, each and every object at stake here is born out of labour; out of detailed and meticulous, easy-going and playful, endowed and – always – skilled, delicate and subtle labour. Labour that is considerate and smart, conventional and inventive. Here are the joint efforts of the shaman and the brown-collar worker, of the scenographer and the oracle, of carpenter and cartographer, translator and broker, engineer and artisan. For one, it is about resettling and restoring a balance between eye and hand, between vision and tactility, renouncing the ocularcentrism of the Western world. The hand always proclaims the relation to the body, to human proportions and scale, and to more comprehensive sensory spectrum. Likewise, the travelling craft person knows how to weigh verb and noun; how to work and strike a resourceful equilibrium between the road, the journeying, and the final destination, the destiny, the goal. Just as labour or work signifies both activity and object, process and product. Just as, nomadic ideology and aesthetics, as is engaged through the exhibition's inclusion of and inspiration from indigenous artists/craft persons, knows to claim the labour of travelling, sweet and dire, for any arrivals to occur.

«Form, structure, configuration, expression, somehow residing in the material itself, as possible future corporealization of the ideas of this material»

Jan-Erik Lundström
Solveig Ovanger: Hemisphere I
Outi Pieski: Crossing Paths

We must pay equal attention to the pronoun. I craft. I travel. I speak and express. An artist, artisan, craftsperson is at work here. A voice heard, a claim for authorship, a fingerprint and signature marking each work. Yet this assertive self never loses touch with the collective, never steps upon tradition. Sometimes we may imagine something like a singular utensil, a one of its kind where a hitherto unknown form enables a novel function, a both reasonable and captivating association. Perhaps a bit like the quest for the autonomous work of art suggesting a disentanglement and detachment from the social. But once this specific independence, somehow generated by the sheer radiance and power of the objects on view, is mitigated and negotiated, the exquisite dialogue between individual and collective, newness and tradition, is apparent, permeates the works under discussion. Just like human language is a collective product, unattainable by the single individual, so too are the skills, traditions, capacities, knowledge in play here. The subject, the I in I craft, carries and embodies these skills and traditional knowledge. But not as a pre-set kit of tools, along with an instruction manual, handed over from previous generation. For not only is tradition immaterial, but, moreover, it is adamantly in flux, supple and changeable, as it travels to the future. Each successful handing over of skills and knowledge means a thickening, deepening, nuancing, complicating. Not necessarily in the sense of improvement, but in the sense of change. A translation is a transformation, not an imitation. I maintain and I modify. I preserve and I change. I craft and I travel. Simultaneously. Sergey Shemetov and Outi Pieski alike are fully dependent on and versed in traditional crafts, duodji and sharkonuk respectively, which they insistently and skilfully orchestrate into novel experiences. Shemetov in a combinatory play of geometry or mathematics, children's toys and decor; Pieski in making use of elements of traditional Sámi garment, of clothing, the second skin of the human body, to choreograph a journey through a liminal zone, create an experiential space, an abstracted landscape. Or Aleksei Ogorodnik's shkatulka in its mesmerizingly honed rhythm and eloquence, equally excessive and minimal. Or the flawless lasso Martin and Anisiya Taibarey, so composed and poised, so complete in execution and object, carried as it is by centuries of living tradition, as its very synthesis of form and matter self-instructs any potential user.

«Could we speak of knowledge housed in matter, dwelling in matter. Form follows function and form follows matter»

Jan-Erik Lundström
Exhibition view from I Craft, I Travel Light in Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum

There is something like a concrete poetry of matter, of materials, of substances and stuff, at play here. As if each material is its own medium. But also, as if each object, each work, is already inscribed in the material with which it is made. Pine root. Birch bark. Reindeer hide. Wood of pine, spruce, rowan, birch. Phoenix palm fruit stalks. Saithe skin. Fox fur. Reindeer bone. Horse's hair. Silver. Porcelain. Smithed iron. Found, collected, recycled, carefully refined, modified or used as is. Raw material painstakingly produced and processed and raw material applied unchanged. Each material with its own mythology, cosmology, ideology and aesthetics. Form, structure, configuration, expression, somehow residing in the material itself, as possible future corporealization of the ideas of this material. Could we speak of knowledge housed in matter, dwelling in matter. Form follows function and form follows matter. It is a language embodied in the materials, inherent in the stuff, mined and unearthed by the crafter/artist. A grammar and a geometry of matter, as playfully explored in Inger Anne Nyaas's Laatikko. Or Cecilie Haaland's Inner Beauty probing the nature of minerals and substances. Or Solveig Ovanger's Hemisphere I and Hemisphere II, two sculptures which in their graceful effortlessness and painstaking labour realize this latent form, a tacit knowledge it seems of the very material and the living stuff the artist puts to use: the skin of the saithe. As the title suggests, we are in the domain of geometry, mathematics, the music of the spheres as it has been known. The responsibility of forms towards both matter and ideas, nature and use. This is a pivotal junction. Mathematics at the root of aesthetics, as the golden section composition and Fibonacci sequence structuring Ovanger's half-spheres. With immanence on the doorstep of transcendence. Crafting body with mind, spirit with matter, the future with the past. Words applicable to any and all works in I Craft, I Travel Light. Such as Alexander Sverchkov's idiosyncratic but universal instruments, to which you may tune in and find the voice. Or Marianne Broch's Rest where form and matter meet the human body, where a pine tree unfolds its innate hospitable spirit. Please, you may rest here, for a while, you who have travelled so long.

Fedosya Semenovna Kauts: Traditional women´s winther clothing - Panitsa, 1992. Reindeer fur and cloth
Marianne Broch: Hvile (Rest), 2015

Jan-Erik Lundström is a curator, critic and historian of contemporary art and visual culture. He is the director of the Sámi Center of Contemporary Art and former director of Norrbottens Museum. From 1999 to 2010 he was the director of Bildmuseet. He is the former chairman of Centre for Photography, Stockholm and former director of Fotografiska museet. Among his curatorial projects are Show Me Colour, Fall Back Spring Forward, Surviving the Future, The Map: Critical Cartographies.