Arctic Art Forum in Archangelsk

Where Norwegian Horsehair meets the Spirits of the Tundra Holes

In the end of September 2016, the Arctic Art Forum in Arkhangelsk turned out to be a broad inventory and a meeting place for people, projects and ideas from all around the north. A forum where mythology about the big holes on the Siberian tundra and how to use fibres from extinct northern horses meet cannot be less than mind-expanding.

– It’s all in your mind, people use to say, meaning that thoughts, attitudes, world view et cetera stems from our own imagination, something that we have inherited from other people and learned from own experiences, to be integrated in our minds as truths and opinions.

You could just the same say that our bodies carry the memories and experiences of our lives. The Arctic Art Forum used the term ”Embodied Knowledge” as a theme for a four day meeting for artists, curators, scientists and officials, mostly from Russia and Norway, but also from Finland, Sweden, Alaska and Kyrgyzstan.

The forum’s main curator Ekaterina Sharova has her roots in Arkhangelsk. Returning here after ten years abroad gave her the possibility to bind together local traditions with the international art scene. For her, that was an honour and a great joy, and as she wrote in the forum’s statement:

Curator Ekaterina Sharova guiding a group at the Gostiny Dvor

Curator Ekaterina Sharova guiding a group at the Gostiny Dvor


”The knowledge is in our fingers, our feet, our throat, it is in the language. This knowledge is given to us by our family and the nature. The forum is about rediscovery of the common heritage, it is about the local memory and our own roots which can empower us in the challenging today.”

Folk culture

The folk culture of Northwest Russia has a long and strong tradition and is still vivid, with practitioners in handicraft, folk music and literature. To survive, the skills must be maintained.

In 1968 the handicraft company Belomorskie Uzory (White Sea Patterns) started its production of crafts from wood, textile, birch bark and clay. The aim was to preserve and develop folk art and crafts. Patterns and other knowledge were collected at expeditions to villages around in the region. At most, during the Soviet period, two hundred persons worked in the company, today only about ten.

Damira Rakovskaya, earlier the director of the company summed up: When the interest is declining, like today, only efforts will help. A new generation of craftsmen is needed, and also combinations of new design and old craftsmanship.

The evil spirits iPhone and iPad

A new crafts project “I Craft. I Travel Light” is led by Bodø glass artist Sigrid Høyforsslett Bjørbæk, educated at famous Swedish glassworks Orrefors. The project collects crafts from the Barents Region, with natural materials like feathers, fish skin, leather, wood and stone. Inspiration comes from nomadic peoples in the north. The exhibition opens in Murmansk in October, and will tour Arkhangelsk and Tromsø, to start with.

In the huge old merchants’ yard Gostiny Dvor on the embankment of the Dvina River, the oldest building in Arkhangelsk, small exhibitions were put up especially for the Forum. One of the projects, “Burst”, was made by Danish artist group Synsmaskinen.

Huge crater on the Yamal tundra. From the film Burst.

Group member Frans Jacobi presented the film Burst about the huge holes on the Yamal tundra that were discovered a couple of years ago. Meeting with local Nenets reindeer herders, the artists learned about the spiritual worldview of Nenets and used these insights as explanation for the mysterious craters.

The holes, seen by scientists as craters after methane explosions because of climate change, can also be interpreted as the work of evil spirits, namely I & I, which stands for iPhone and iPad, together with other powers like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. These ”holes of destruction” can, in a scientific, mythological and satiric-political perspective be seen as a metaphor for the way our modern capitalistic societies work.

The Nordland horse

The big art exhibition The Withdrawal of the Soviet Army reached Arkhangelsk in connection with the Art Forum. Initiated by Norwegian-Russian artist/curator Ivan Galuzin, the exhibition has a starting point in the shared war history of northern Norway and Russian, but deals with many other topics, such as ideologies, trauma and camouflage.

Amilcar Packer inside a lorry. From Video#15.

Among the many international works, Brazilian Amilcar Packer’sVideo#15 makes a strong impact. In the film, the artist is sitting naked on a small stool, being tossed around inside a shaking lorry on an unknown road. It is a claustrophobic piece, easily associated with violence, torture and militarism.

Textile artists work with fibres. Norwegian artist Margrethe Kolstad Brekke from Bergen is investigating the Nordland horse, a small pony that lived in the north until the early 20th Century, and was often used for pulling up boats on the shores. Living outdoors around the year, the Nordland horse grew a very thick and long fur, with hair many decimetres long. This horse breed does not exist any more, but the fibres can still be examined from a stuffed horse and different textile products in museums. The Nordland horse has a relative in the Yakut horse, Margrethe Kolstad Brekke informed.

Russian art has a long line of avantgarde and experiments. Art forms like futurism, constructivism and suprematism, linked with names like Mayakovsky, Chlebnikov, Rodchenko, Malevich and Kandinsky, are important parts of our international culture heritage. Today, the line of playful absurdism, dadaism, performance and escapade can still be felt. Local artist Dmitry Nowhiskey from Murmansk arranges public art exhibitions in the streets or in dwelling houses, gives away the paintings and offers passers by the vernissage champagne. Together with some friends he recently arranged the art campaign ”Save the Crab” in Vladivostok, highlighting the huge Kamchatka crab that today has spread all the way to northern Norway, eating everything in its way.

Dmitry Nowhiskey serving vernissage champagne to the public in Murmansk. Private photo.

Old and New Arkhangelsk

A newly composed music work was also presented at the Art Forum. North Norwegian guitarist HallgeirPedersen performed The Pomor Suite together with an octet from the Northern Folk Choir and a comp group. Folk music, jazz and rock was intertwined in a varied piece with northern taste.

Members from the Northern Folk Choir at the opening concert

The broad programme included seminars, excursions and presentations of, to name some – the Sami fashion company Abanti, sound recordings from nature by Nikolay Terentyevand a new webpage dedicated to the productive Soviet artist Ivan Arkhipov (1934–2016) from Arkhangelsk.

The circumpolar dimension had a face in Aaron Leggett, curator at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska. He mentioned the coast town Sitka in Alaska. Under Russian rule, until 1867, it was named New Arkhangelsk. And there and then, in Russian Arkhangelsk, the circle was closed.

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