Frieze New Writers Pick the Best Shows to See in the Nordics

From Lee Bull’s exploration of failed utopias in Gothenburg to a group exhibition on the arctic region in Umeå

BY Amanda Hakoköngäs, Tatuli Japoshvili, Sabine Wedege AND Agnes Ársælsdóttir in Critic's Guides | 30 JUN 23

The second part of our Nordic Critic’s Guide has been written by four of the eight participants who took part in this year's Frieze New Writers programme in Bergen, Norway – a free-to-attend intensive three-day course for aspiring art writers in the Nordic region led by Frieze’s editorial team. This initiative is part of Frieze’s wider commitment to amplifying diverse voices within the art world and was produced in collaboration with Bergen Kunsthall. 

Lee Bul

Gothenburg Museum of Art, Sweden

11 March – 27 August

‘Lee Bull’, 2023, exhibition view, Gothenburg Museum of Art, Sweden. Courtesy: the artist

Lee Bul’s first solo exhibition in the Nordic region features a captivating selection of works spanning the past 15 years. Through sculpture, installation and painting, the South Korean artist constructs a complex and evocative urban landscape wherein gestures of human optimism and failure intertwine and the delicate interplay between these conflicting forces is explored through the notion of utopia. The centrepiece of the exhibition, Willing to Be Vulnerable (2015–19), for instance, alludes to the 1937 Hindenburg disaster – in which a Zeppelin caught fire causing the loss of 35 lives – and exemplifies the transformation of the aircraft from a symbol of innovation and progress to one of collapse and catastrophe. Elsewhere, After Bruno Taut (Beware the Sweetness of Things) (2007) reveals the disparity between imagination and achievable reality by reinterpreting the German architect’s utopian project, Alpine Architektur (1917–18), which envisioned delicate crystalline structures intended to promote peace in a time of war, in sculptural form.

Enhancing her works with humming sounds, shimmering beads, mother-of-pearl, billowing textiles and mirrors, Bul creates an immersive space that hints at how ambitious, idealistic proposals often remain unrealized. In the face of late capitalism, Bul’s oeuvre prompts reflection on the effects of accelerated technological advancements on embodiment, labour and the environment – cautioning against wholeheartedly embracing newly emerging beliefs that may ultimately prove unattainable, even harmful. –Tatuli Japoshvili

Katrín Elvarsdóttir

BERG Contemporary, Reykjavík, Iceland

6 May 8 July

Katrín Elvarsdóttir, Sakura 13, 2020–23, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and BERG Contemporary, Reykjavík

A multi-layered impression of East-Asian plants growing in Iceland, the title of Katrín Elvarsdóttir’s ‘Fifty Plants for Peace’ references the 50 cherry blossom trees that were gifted to the city of Reykjavík in 2011 by the Icelandic-Japanese society. The show opens with the series ‘Sakura 1–3’ (2020–23): three images of a hand delicately reaching for a fresh sakura (cherry blossom) – a symbol of peace in the tree’s native Japan. The first photograph depicts the familiar, soft-pink flower. The second image, however, inverts the colours, turning blue and unearthly both the blossom and the lingering hand. The third photograph is a black and white negative, like a frame on a filmstrip.

A technique frequently used by the artist, this inversion of colour continues throughout the exhibition in works such as Verdure 10 and 11 (both 2023), which portray towering banana plants confined in a greenhouse. By exploring a spectrum only visible via technical manipulation, Elvarsdóttir creates a form of fictional documentation that questions the authority of the human gaze and confronts the limitations of our senses. In turn, the flower as a symbol of peace becomes complicated, the dream-like beauty of a sub-tropical bloom rendered aptly eerie for these cold northern climes. Agnes Ársælsdóttir

‘Down North / Contemporary Art in the Arctic’

Bildmuseet Umeå, Sweden

26 May 14 January 2024

Anders Sunna, TorneSTYX, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

Not far south of the Arctic Circle, Bildmuseet Umeå presents a large group exhibition of contemporary art from the region featuring work by Sápmi and other indigenous artists as well as those from the Nordic countries, Canada and the US. Titled ‘Down North’, the exhibition, which features more than 40 works in a variety of media, underlines the hidden knowledge of an area rich in indigenous history and practices.

In Pirak’s and Klementsson’s hiking trails and ancestral reindeer marks (2021), for instance, Swedish/Sámi artist Katarina Pirak Sikku draws on her family history to make work that serves as a form of activism. By cataloguing her ancestors’ personal reindeer markings (applied to the ears and used to signify ownership) alongside hand-drawn maps of Swedish Sápmi, she seeks to preserve these ancient lores.

The threat of global warming is also a recurrent theme throughout the exhibition. The Arctic is not only depicted as a seemingly infinite landscape that provides a home to people with a long tradition of living in harmony with nature, but also as a highly romanticized place that, in reality, no longer exists. The Arctic is bigger than all of us, the exhibition seems to say. But equally, as Finnish artist Hans Rosenström proposes in his 50-minute video about the titular retreating glacier Folgefonna (2019) – it is as fragile as an ice cube that we hold in our palm, watching as it melts. –Amanda Hakoköngäs

Epheas Maposa & Nanna Starck

Collega, Copenhagen, Denmark

11 May – 23 August

Nanna Starck, Disgust Unthreatening, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photo: Graysc

Epheas Maposa and Nanna Starck’s exhibition at Collega, ‘Ugly Feelings’, co-curated with Harare-based platform Village Unhu, explores the body, privilege and shame. United by Sianne Ngai’s ideology of cultural affect from her landmark book Ugly Feelings (2005), the artists’ practices have a particular focus on complex emotions inflected by gender and race. The artworks face each other in the space. Starck’s triptych of reliefs (Circular Motion out of Me, The Aesthetic of the Unpretentious and Disgust Unthreatening, all 2023), shows twisted and distorted bodies of foam and wax. Fingers and cigarettes penetrate all visible holes and crevices, highlighting the complexities of femininity and gender.

Maposa’s vibrant wall mural depicts morbid, fever dream-like scenarios of horror and destruction (The Rake, 2023). With powerful brushstrokes, the artist claims these ugly, difficult feelings in a scene that shows distorted figures holding hands while collecting roses: it might be a love story, were it not for the fact that the couple occupies an apocalyptic landscape featuring an erupting volcano, a sinkhole and severed limbs. A significant point of reference for the work is Harvest of Thorns (1989) by Shimmer Chinodya, a book exploring conflict during the Zimbabwean War of Independence (1964–79). ‘Ugly Feelings’ reminded me how disgust and cruelty might, at times, overwhelm love – but can never truly defeat it. Sabine Wedege

Main image: ‘Lee Bull’, 2023, exhibition view, Gothenburg Museum of Art, Sweden. Courtesy: the artist

Amanda Hakoköngäs is a writer and curator based in Northern Finland, Lapland.

Tatuli Japoshvili is a Georgian writer, researcher and artist based in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Sabine Wedege is a visual artist and writer based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Agnes Ársælsdóttir is an artist, curator and writer based in Reykjavík, Iceland.