If you’ve heard about the Lofoten Islands at all, it’s likely via a fictionalized version. A spur in the Arctic Circle extending from the northwest coast of Norway, this archipelago exerted an impressive grip on the 19th-century literary imagination. The islands are mentioned by Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick (1851) and feature at the climax of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). They also appear in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story ‘A Descent into the Maelström’, so titled because of their treacherous whirlpools, some more than 50 metres wide, whisked up by offshore currents. An allegedly reliable spot to see the Northern Lights (I missed them) in possession of a ludicrously beautiful sequence of snowy peaks and blue lagoons, it remains a remote place limned by tall tales of nautical disaster.
Since the early 1990s, the islands have hosted the Lofoten International Art Festival, an artist-initiated biennial that expanded into a more international affair at the end of that decade. I visited the eighth edition last autumn and, after three flights from London, I found myself at what could be the smallest airport in Europe. The handful of other passengers swiftly disappeared into the gloom, and I made my way to the nearby town of Kabelvåg, stumbling upon New York artist David Horvitz cooking up a vegetable stew in the square. Later that evening, the opening party saw some impressively deranged performances – knives, Slavic howling, a local virtuoso synth player. The night slipped by.
Not only is LIAF the smallest biennial I have ever visited, it’s also the most sociable. Perched on the outer edge of Europe,it allows time to look and time to talk. Selected by curators Eva González-Sancho, Anne Szefer Karlsen and Bassam El Baroni, and comprising 25 artists, LIAF’s most recent edition, titled ‘Just what is it that makes today so familiar, so uneasy?’, was a compact, sometimes compelling exhibition about crisis. Playing on the title of Richard Hamilton’s collage of 1956, the shift here was from ‘today’s homes’ to our precarious current condition: breezy postwar consumerism replaced by post-crash doubt. In their catalogue essay, the three curators suggested that this was an exhibition about our current ‘global uneasiness’ – crisis as a continual condition rather than anything out of the ordinary. LIAF has a tradition of playing with titles. Its lone permanent sculpture is charmingly anti-iconic: a relic from the 2004 edition, Elmgreen & Dragset’s Nietzsche-nod Human, Fucking Human comprises a painted bronze cast of a cooling box, casually left on the wooden quayside as though forgotten by day-trippers. Heavy and screwed down, this apparently hasn’t prevented it from being wrenched up and thrown into the harbour with some regularity.
Unlike most biennials, LIAF has no permanent space at its disposal, so several of the works were site-specific and many were new commissions. Most were tucked away, often in quirky locations. Over the course of a sunny afternoon, I rambled between a miniscule shopping centre and a creaky wooden house, an old fish factory and a folksy museum of Nazi memorabilia (e.g. cheerily Swastika’d Christmas baubles). Faced with Lofoten’s picture-postcard landscape, the exhibition was doggedly low-key and thoughtful. No bad thing. Throwing this into stark relief were remnants of Artscape Nordland, a 1990s sculpture project including rather more bombastic works – by Tony Cragg, Dan Graham, Luciano Fabro – that are dotted around the islands.
Several of the strongest works in ‘Just what is it …’ could be found in Per Pedersen’s House in Kabelvåg and in an old American car warehouse on the nearby island of Svinøya. Stand-outs included new films by Laida Lertxundi and Mahmoud Khaled, as well as Adelita Husni-Bey’s ‘audio play’ The Living House (2012), based on archival material from the The Modern School, an anarchist free school established in New Jersey in 1915. Installed close by the latter was Shilpa Gupta’s Someone Else (2011), a library of 100 etched-steel book covers, facsimiles of the oldest-known novels written pseudonymously. This felt somehow connected to five barely-there drawings by Ann Böttcher, quietly installed in the public library across a bridge: Transmigration (2013) comprises five drawings, portrait of sorts of the trees outside the neighbouring building, once used by the Gestapo as an HQ during the occupation. The work is inspired by Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power (1960), in which Nazi Germany is described as an army of pine trees marching across the continent. Both Böttcher’s and Gupta’s pieces suggested how, even amidst the crisis-laden 21st century, we can still use stories to understand the past.