North Atlantic Triennial unites a vast region through common culture and climate

For “Down North,” the Portland Museum of Art’s inaugural North Atlantic Triennial (through June 5), the museum collaborated with Reykjavik Art Museum in Iceland and the Bildmuseet in Sweden to turn the world on its head. An area thought of as unspoiled and remote at the top of the world is put front and center, as a locus of contemporary global concerns.

“Currently, this northern geographical area is experiencing an unparalleled rate of change,” reads the curatorial statement, “and its artists continue to be at the forefront of questioning our complicated pasts and proposing new directions for the future.”

The plan is for the exhibit to travel to Iceland in the fall and to Sweden after that. The curators – Jaime DeSimone (PMA), Markús Pór Andrésson (Reykjavik) and Anders Jansson (Bildmuseet) – began by looking at the work of hundreds of artists, finally narrowing the selection to 30 from Maine, the Canadian Maritimes, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Sweden and Denmark, as well as Indigenous Nations throughout the region.

Despite cultural differences, common themes emerged quickly and naturally: environmental issues, legacies of colonialism, racial and economic injustice, the effects of political expediency and urbanization on first peoples, the way our bodies interact with nature, and so on.

But at a more subliminal level, what is most affecting is the way the exhibition repeatedly and poignantly points us toward what unites us – as Northerners as well as human and cosmic beings. These include a love of the Earth, a desire for community, and irrevocable connections to our lineage and the cultural traditions and folklore of our past. The twisted route toward a sense of resolution is by turns elusive, painful, foreboding, mystifying, alarming and, at times, comically naïve.

From left, Markús Þór Andrésson of the Rekyjavik Art Museum in Iceland, Jaime DeSimone, from the Portland Museum of Art, and Anders Jansson, of the Bildmuseet in Sweden, the curators of the first North Atlantic Triennial inside the exhibition at the PMA. Behind them, the work of Maine artist Christopher Carroll.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

There are some logistical things to consider when you visit. Because of the museum’s space constrictions, the exhibit is unfortunately split between the main gallery just inside the Charles Shipman Payson building and the L.D.M. Sweat Memorial Galleries. So, don’t miss the second part of “Down North.” Also, plan enough time to absorb explanatory wall texts that help contextualize the works, which will otherwise be inscrutable if you’re not familiar with the histories of our neighbors further north and across the Atlantic.

The preciousness of nature – and its precarious relation to human presence – looms large throughout. Maine artist Christopher Carroll summons the secret life of plants in his lush compositions of local flora. Beyond the unabashed gorgeousness of these photographs, his thoughtful harvesting, composition and reuse of plants encourages a reverential respect for the animate souls of flowers, moss and grasses, as well as for the complexity and sophistication of living organisms we are too oblivious or self-involved to notice.

Bita Razavi, an Iranian-born artist working in Finland and Estonia, presents a beautifully disturbing counterpoint with a photograph and two videos drawn from the world of computer gaming. The idealized digital landscapes they present here are actually “environmental backdrops upon which violent games of warfare occur,” writes DeSimone in her catalog essay. “However, the act of killing the animals is so rapid that the player navigates through nature without pause or reflection.” We’re initially captivated by the placid views of forests and marshes. But we become increasingly uncomfortable as their context dawns.

Ragnar Axelsson’s camera regards glaciers with the same awed gaze Ansel Adams reserved for Yosemite. Also known as RAX, this award-winning Icelandic photographer has been chronicling the cultures, wildlife and natural phenomena of the Arctic for over 40 years.

“Down North” features aerial glacier images that have a breathtaking formal splendor. Yet, again, once we understand, as Andrésson writes, “It is disappearing before our eyes, deteriorating and defenseless,” they evoke sadness and helplessness.

Two spectacular works are in direct conversation about human powerlessness in the face of nature. Lauren Fensterstock’s “The Order of Things,” writes the Portland artist, “pokes holes in the Western fantasies of mastery.” It is a cabinet in triptych, its compartments – meant for the collection, scientific classification and display of aquatic specimens – overgrown and occluded by encrustations of shells and stalactites.

Markús Þór Andrésson of the Rekyjavik Art Museum in Iceland, left, and Anders Jansson, of the Bildmuseet in Sweden, right, stand in front of a piece titled “Vertical Migration” by the Danish artist collective Superflex Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Superflex, a Danish art collective, brings us “Vertical Migration,” three wood pallets piled high with pink bricks. Each brick is composed of organic ceramic forms that can serve as aquatic habitats for fish and also promote coral polyp growth. They offer a possible solution to the degradation of coral reefs. But both “Vertical” and “Order” implicitly also concede to the reality of rising ocean levels due to global warming.

There are many more works about nature and the consequences of our split from it. Joshua Reiman’s lyrical, mournful film “Time Washes Over Us” elicits contemplations of our mortality through observation of some of the longest living oceanic animals on Earth. Finnish artist Hans Rostenström videos a melting piece of glacial ice in the palm of his hand, shockingly demonstrating how human intervention can make something 400 years in the making evaporate in a mere 50 minutes.

Yet there is also humor and kitsch provocation, albeit with a serious message. Canadian artist D’Arcy Williams appears ridiculous in the video “#1 Fan,” as she runs through the stunning ocean cliffs of Newfoundland shouting “I love you” to the landscape or holding up a banner reading “LUV U 4 EVA.” Wilson writes, “Her amorous advances are unreturned as she considers the terrain through a colonial lens, as a spectacle.”

Magnús Sigurðarson’s, “IN COD-liver WE TRUST inc. I, II, and III”, at the first North Atlantic Triennial at the Portland Museum of Art. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

And Icelandic artist Magnús Sigurðarson creates garish “rain lamps” adorned with plastic flowers and greenery that memorialize bottles of cod-liver oil. Of course, he’s sardonically commenting on the global warming and overfishing that has decimated cod, the ancient staple of native cultures and Vikings alike.

The people who first inhabited arctic lands and fished its oceans did so with a veneration and equipoise for which colonizers, in their pursuit of conquest and personal enrichment, had no attunement. Whether Penosbscot (including Abenaki, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq nations) or Sámi (inhabitants of Sápmi, the native name of the former Lapland), they understood nature as both mystical force and as source and sustenance. Out of these grew rich mythologies and belief systems, artistic expressions and oral traditions that for centuries were disregarded and/or crushed.

Anders Jansson, from the Bildmuseet in Sweden, points out locations on Katarina Pirak Sikku’s map as a part of her installation at the North Atlantic Triennial at the PMA. Sikku created the body of work for the exhibition that traced her family’s history through both maps and reindeer markings. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Swedish Sámi painter and photographer Katarina Pirak Sikku contributes maps of her ancestral lands that mark burial sites and holy places kept secret even among her antecedents to protect them from European ethnologists and plunderers. The act of rediscovering and tracing these personal landmarks becomes in itself a quietly emotional documentation of the exploitation and disrespect visited upon the Sámi. (This and another drawing that illustrates ear markings identifying who owned which reindeer herds are some of several works commissioned for “Down North,” so the words on each are still in the process of being translated into English.)

Markús Þór Andrésson of the Rekyjavik Art Museum in Iceland, right, and Anders Jansson, of the Bildmuseet in Sweden, look at a work by Anders Sunna, a Northern Sámi artist, titled, “ Torne STYX.” On the back wall is Mattias Olofsson’s photo essay of Störbrannan, a Swedish village where his maternal grandparents lived and to which he and his partner eventually moved. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Another work, “Torne STYX” by Sámi artist Anders Sunna, collages images of ancestral lands devastated by lumbering and mining industries with carved and painted symbols and motifs drawn from Sámi lore. At the left of the work, a death figure holds a clock that seems to foreshadow the eventual eradication of Sápmi habitats and culture.

Julie Edel Hardenberg’s father was Danish, her mother Greenlandic Inuit, a contradiction that permeates her work, which portrays, she says, “an ambivalence and a kind of schizophrenic state” she inhabits daily. Here, she references Danish colonization of Greenland with tufts of black hair growing out of the Danish flag’s white cross, “a form of code,” writes Jansson in his catalog essay, “… a symbolic language that investigates not just Greenland’s postcolonial history but one that penetrates it.”

Similarly, Penobscot artist Jason Brown, whose performance and stage name is Firefly, traces his heritage to both Wabanaki and Sámi peoples. He channels this complex identity into personal interpretations of Wabanaki music, which thread through his hallucinogenic video, “Wabanavia.” In this work, Brown wanders through trippy psychedelic landscapes populated by a Wabanaki basket weaver, reindeer and figures from Norse mythology.

Museum-goers watch Jason Brown’s video, “Wabanavia,” at the North Atlantic Triennia. Brown, also known as Firefly, is a Native American artist of the Penobscot Nation, with Swedish roots. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

An observation here about the excellent installation devised by DeSimone: She often juxtaposes high-tech works with those created using traditional media. So “Wabanavia” cohabits with Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq artist Jordan Bennett’s “13 Moons,” a baker’s dozen of prints depicting the moons of the Mi’kmaq calendar. And Razavi’s digital landscapes hang opposite highly tactile weavings of Norwegian artist Ann Catherin November Høibo that suggest aerial views of mountain ridges. This intriguingly tracks the evolution of art-making practices through centuries, creating a testament to artists’ unbounded creativity and imagination.

There are many other themes. But a particularly heartening one attempts to answer some questions Jansson poses in his essay: “What is it that formulates this ‘we’ that we are all a part of? How is community created and how can it be lost?”

He is speaking here specifically of Mattias Olofsson’s photo essay of Störbrannan, a Swedish village where his maternal grandparents lived and to which he and his partner eventually moved. These images are obviously about the effects of modern urbanization, which led to abandonment of homes and farms, the closing of a school and the neglect of an exercise trail.

The subjects – architectural and human – look ravaged and desolate. Yet the good news is that Olofsson formed a new neighborhood association and built a gathering space around a community fireplace, “first steps,” as Jansson writes, “in building a new context … This involves a process of getting closer, of learning the history of the place and of understanding why we are here, where we came from and who we want to be.”

Reggie Burrows Hodges (United States, born 1965), “Bathers and the Cleansed: Pearl,” 2021, acrylic paint and pastel on canvas, 48 1/2 x 57 x 2 1/2 inches. Courtesy of Karma and the artist. © Reggie Burrows Hodges Photo by Luc Demers

Where we came from is a subject handled movingly by other artists, including the Swedish duo Gideonsson/Londré and Maine-based Reggie Burrows Hodges. Gideonsson/Londré reach back to the evolution of Sahelanthropus tchadensis, whose salient characteristic was upright bipedalism. This event, they maintain, changed human attitudes toward creatures with bent postures (inferior), as well as to the eventual movement from harmony with nature to attempted dominance of it.

Their wood “Arch” sculptures have a spine-like structure that appears dense and stable. Yet the slightest shift in their carefully calibrated balance would lead to complete collapse. “At least two people are required to move one of the sculptures … and they have to balance their weight and adapt their movements to each other,” writes Jansson. “Every movement of the works will require new movements and new forms of collaboration.”

Hodges starts each of his exquisite canvasses by painting it black. Yet Jansson cautions us against the facile view that this has primarily to do with the artist’s own African-Americanness: “In Hodges’ paintings it is the blackness that is the foundation of everything; the place where it all began. It is not a matter of the absence of light, but it is in the darkness that light, life, and bodies are born.” It is the Void, the source of us all. Hodges makes clear that our sense of separateness – and all the pain and misguided human behaviors that accompany it – is fundamentally a fiction.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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