How green was my valley
Go Tell It On the Mountain
In September 2014, I travelled to the village of Vevring in western Norway. Taking a flight from Dublin to Oslo and from there to Floro, I arrived in the dead of night to the type of pitch-blackness only possible nowadays in deep countryside. My housemates assured me when daylight came I would be astounded by the beauty of the region, and so I should not have been so surprised when I awoke the next morning to a new world outside my window. Picture perfect views over a pure still Fjord, lush greenery leading up to the mountains and a sense of gentle light in the air combined to make breathtaking panoramas.
The annual Vevringutstillinga is now in its 35th edition. This year, a series of new commissions to coincide with the event was curated by artist duo aiPotu, Anders Kjellesvik and Andreas Siqueland. aiPotu have been working together for over a decade and their collaborative practice often explores perspectives of the great outdoors, emphasising nomadism and the highways and byways of our shared terrain. They invited seven artists they had met on their travels in Europe, asking them to explore place, belonging and identity and to, in their own words, ‘create situations in the interaction between the village, the locals and the public where one can see and experience this valley anew.’
In Vevring in 1970, a rutile deposit was discovered inside the nearby mountain of Engebøfjellet. This material is used to produce titanium dioxide, a white powder when combined with iron and aluminium makes strong, lightweight alloys. Its uses range from agri-foods to dental implants, sporting goods and jewellery to mobile phones. Today, the local governments of Naustdal and Askvoll plan to sanction the mining of rutile, a topic dividing many in Vevring. If mining begins Engebøfjellet will slowly disappear. Slag would be discarded in the sea, potentially threatening wildlife and destroying local fish stocks and unbalancing local ecologies. From the outset, this situation weighed heavy on aiPotu’s curatorial agenda. Their exhibition title, How Green Was My Valley, originates from a 1941 film directed by John Ford, telling the story of a mining family in Wales in the nineteenth century. Its plot follows the impact of the coal industry, economically and environmentally and its effects on the family structure. aiPotu state, ‘How Green Was My Valley is not a nostalgic exclamation, but is an implicit question to future. Why is it still so that the extraction of natural resources almost always choose short-term profits rather than long-term protection of environment? Why measure richness still in money and not in the sun, clean water and green valleys?’ With this statement in mind, artists embarked on interventions throughout the village and its hinterland. Encountered in various locations, from the basement of a barn to the top of a hill and in a water pumping station, each artwork existed outside traditional exhibition formats and gallery conventions. In this sense they often emanated a sense of fragility, akin to Engebøfjellet’s now precarious existence.
Swedish artist Liv Strand performed a series of guided walks with the public, collectively entitled Tur tur Vevring. Strand says, ‘The word Tur is Norwegian for walk, or rather a more lengthy walk preferably in nature.’ This sensory expedition began with a warm up of rubbing hands together and performing swimming strokes forwards and backwards. From here, events occurred and more direction followed from the artist. Strand asked the assembled group to eat small scraps of popcorn while touching a birch tree. Then, after walking in the style of the person in front of you, everyone stopped facing a prescribed direction and viewed the scenery, listening to a text read in Swedish from Exile, a book by Peter Weiss. The passage read describes how Weiss’ childhood nanny discovers the world along with him. They speculate together, simultaneously drifting through the city and their thoughts, sharing common space and a language together. The trail continued to a small building used for the villages’ water supply. Here, the participants were offered a pinecone to touch whilst eating popping rock candy, at the same time listening to the sound of a small waterfall that flowed underneath the building. There were moments during the walk when, due to heightened perceptions of immediate environment, both natural and human, an edge of discomfort was palpable - an ontological sense of appreciating what exists in the here and now.
Sean Lynch’s Eselbrett acted as a performative sculpture in front of the local school, where inside exhibitors in the Vevringutstillinga programme presented their work and an active canteen ran for the duration of the weekend. With busy coming and goings in and out of the building, Lynch’s work found a large audience, enticing them to gamble. The yard was gridded with numbered squares and each day a local donkey, Lydia, walked for several hours on them. Individuals could bet money with the artist as to which square the donkey might defecate on. The winner took all in the jackpot. Reactions where varied to the game: kids petted the donkey and conversations were had about what square was most likely to see some action! Some questioned whether the game was rigged by the artist? Others complained about the general stupidity of the competition, voicing concerns as to who would tidy the mess up afterwards. While technically an illegal activity in Norway due to strict gambling laws, Eselbrett (translated literally as donkey board) continued throughout the weekend, with several stories surfacing of similar games played in the country, often with chickens. There was the feeling of Lynch acting as a sort of speculator, a stranger arriving in town with a dodgy idea, gathering money into his pocket and waiting to see which area of the landscape gets to be victorious. Similar comparisons could be drawn with the potential mining of Engebøfjellet.
Laura Solari’s sculptures were gathered nearby at a turn in the road going uphill. Entitled Nevermore, they collectively depicted a murder of twenty ravens, each constructed of wood and painted black. They realistically overlooked the valley in broody silence with an intent in their gaze. Their presence brings to mind some of the stories in Norse mythology, such as Huginn and Muninn, a pair of common ravens that travel through the entire world bringing information and knowledge to the god Odin. Maybe Solari’s staging of an artificial environment in the midst of the valley could be construed as a metaphorical nod towards the immanent future. Ravens are often seen as harbingers of disaster. With their numerical presence and dark outlines against the grassy green slope, it is as if Solari was pre-empting a future valley without nature.
Italian artist Michael Fliri’s performative work Untitled (a physical approach to a psychological challenge) consisted of a freestanding wooden box, filled with modeling clay, situated facing Engebøfjellet. At scheduled times, participants were asked to dig into this structure with their hand and arm, and physically claw the clay out, altogether giving the sensation of your own private mining excavation. Once this indentation was made in the clay, its negative space was cast with plaster and later displayed as a sculpture on the ground nearby. The result captured the force and motion of this primitive excavation, encapsulating its makers’ strength and will. Clay was then returned to the wooden box and the action began again with another person. Performing Fliri’s instructions, participants had little control over how their finished form would appear. Rather the casts exist as an interrogation of material, nature rummaged by the hand of man.
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is an expression for a perceptual phenomenon where the body reacts to visual, auditory, tactile and cognitive stimuli. Belgian artist Freek Wambacq discovered ASMR relaxation videos on the internet, often with a focus on acts such as brushing, kneading, massaging and whispering. Wambacq translated such attributes into 'living' paintings in Vevring. Entitled My recent swirl paintings, a large round metal plate held milk, food coloring and dish soap, mixing and bringing forth psychedelic hues, with Wambacq frequently replenishing material and making the combinations anew. These uncontrolled arrangements slowly continued to change for some time until colours became saturated and extinct, culminating in a monotone bluish grey. Positioned on top of an old tree stump beside a gently running stream, the artwork mimicked the flow of the nearby watercourse and was often altered by the breeze moving through branches overhead. Wambacq states, ‘I’ve tried to out for the visitor a moment of introspection, of imagination and of silence, so as to achieve a greater depth - mental, emotional, visual. The slowness contained in this work indicates a conscious fragility and relativity.’ These concerns echoed throughout the valley in discussions and encounters with his audience and with an element of chance, some saw an image of a magical colour, others saw a dull blandness.
Icelandic artist Egill Sæbjörnsson’s video featured a monochromatic background with tears of water streaming across the picture, leaving damp traces behind. Created with a computer programme, the water droplets are realistic in shape and movement. Crying Rock was first made in 2008 and has since taken on various formats when it is exhibited, as it projects onto various surfaces chosen by Sæbjörnsson and binds together spectres of alternative spaces and times. In Vevring, Crying Rock was projected onto exposed rock foundations in the basement of a barn. Sæbjörnsson considers this an act of retaliation against the mining debate, a personification of the actual strata of rock at the centre of this discussion, endorsing it with human properties of emotive reaction. Its subterranean presentation further delved into ideas of the psychoanalytic and a repression of subjectivity.
Reverberations sounded throughout the village’s valley as Lisa Torell, a Swedish artist, angle-grinder in hand, wearing workers overalls removed rust from local farm machinery. As the sound was carried on the air, people were drawn to the spot where she worked and a dialogue began as to the history of various artefacts. Entitled The Fog between a landscape in rewind and fast-forward, five restorations occurred: a tractor, a plough, a harrow, a buoy and more scrap metal. Each were scrubbed with a wire brush, treated with rust protection and engraved with texts inspired by the life of each object. A Vevring tractor becomes personified, it opens its eyes, its lights become part of its face in this embodiment, as Torell writes onto it, Figure 6990, to worship the earth, with pretty eyes. Massey Ferguson, 1964 Bought for the future generations. Refurbished. Treated. For hay, lifting and wood splitting. The artist then treated the object for rust prevention. These monuments, distilled by Torell’s actions, could now speak for themselves.
In a field on the edge of Vevring, aiPotu strung up a cloth banner, with dark green letters on a pale green background reading How Green Was My Valley. Its appearance announced the presence of the many commissions in the town, at the same time acting as a direct provocation around Engebøfjellet's predicament. Seen from the village's only road by motorists and inhabitants alike, the banner directly questioned the contemporary standoff between industry and nature discussed many times during the days of the exhibition. Sometimes, the role of art might seem superfluous in relationship to such overarching issues. However, aiPotu's approach signals an alternative: an assembled group who travelled from other far flung places, to live and work in the town for the exhibition's duration. This is a commune - an intentional community of people, sharing common interests, resources and work. Each resulting commission did not hold a didactic overture, but rather a multitude of forms playing with symbols, language and vision. One hopes that these viewpoints by their very engagement add to a growing civic impetus that can realise a place, Vevring, where ecological violence is avoided.