The Beautiful Melancholy of Digital Nordic Art
The simple elegance of Nordic design seems linked to its dramatic landscape. It is easy to see how a region of stark climates, which alternate between sunless winters and blinding summer nights, sharp polar cliffs and endless meadows, would influence the designs of say, a sleek Ikea or Eero Saarinen chair, or bold Marimekko pattern. In addition to a deep love of nature, other distinctly Nordic traits that have seeped into its visual culture are an entrenched commitment to social issues, fierce individualism, and yes, even the famous “melancholy” of Scandinavia, which has influenced artists over the years ranging from Edward Munch to Lars Von Trier. Voyage to the Virtual, a new exhibit opening in January at Scandinavia House, the Nordic Center in America, explores these themes as well as the ways local artists have approached digital mediums from a distinctly Scandinavian perspective. While selfies, products of ironic digital collectives, and other ultra-on-trend creations have been the most recognizable faces of the new media genre, these artists have chosen to focus their practice on social issues such as global warming, the isolation of modern man, and the ways humanity deals with inner space, subjectivity, and intimacy.
“Nordic visual art is interesting in particular because we often [seek] slowness and contemplation,” says curator Tanya Toft, “which contrasts a contemporary urban condition of accelerated speed, fast-paced attention and perceptual modes of superfluous scanning. These artworks provide spaces of deep reflection.”
“Nordic art for me is working in relation to nature, and to discussions on climate change,” says Danish artist Jette Gejl Kristensen, whose featured interactive work Hyperkinetic Kayak allows gallery visitors to paddle through a digital fjord.“ I believe the biggest problem is the discrepancy in talking about it in a global context, and the real troubles and changes that are happening locally,” continues Kristensen.”We have a long tradition, since the golden age of Danish painting (1750-1890), for artists to work with nature and it [global warming] has had a big impact on how we cultivate and define ‘unspoiled’ nature.”
“The way we are testing our own limits, we are also testing the limits of the planet,” says Finnish artist Petra Lindholm, who was inspired to create her short film Empty Vessels by both a trip to rural Nepal and the current environmental and social conditions facing Scandinavia. Lindholm hints that the introspective quality of many Nordic artists’ work can be traced to the region’s much-lauded support of the arts. “There are a lot of media artists in Scandinavia, partly because we have a well built grant support [system]…” many of which allow for long periods of artistic experimentation. Several of these grants extend to less popular mediums like avant gard sound—one of the many reasons why countries like Finland have such a rich history of innovative, challenging pop-music. Whether you admire these Nordic artists’ take on digital art or it, err, it leaves you cold, you’ll no doubt be fascinated by the way they’ve bent a supposedly limited medium to fit the many facets of the human experience.
Voyage to the Virtual opens Saturday, January 24 and runs through Saturday, April 4, 2015.
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Dedicated to digital, dynamic image, and light-based Nordic art, Voyage to the Virtual is an homage to the importance of “the journey” to Nordic identity. Using this as a starting point, the exhibit is an also an exploration of shared human identity and sense perception.
“Combining video, animation, sculpture, light, and interactive media, the exhibition invites viewers on expeditions to the far north, travels through time and space, and perceptual journeys into the realm of the virtual,” says the show’s curator Tanya Toft, Curator and Ph.D. Fellow at Copenhagen University.
Finnish artist Elina Brotherus (seen above) creates work centered on the relation between the human figure and landscape, and more recently, on the interplay between artist and model, intimacy and isolation.
On Hyperkinetic Kayak:
Jette: “I was in Greenland for the first time in 2007 and it struck me how little I really knew about it,” the artist tells us. “Being a Danish citizen, a colonial occupier [of Greenland] for many years, I was brought up with a lot of information and stories about the native people, as well as reports of all the misery that Greenlanders suffered daily. But the special nature of Greenland for all who set foot on the island struck me with an overwhelming [creative] force. I also realize that many native Greenlanders have been affected by their past, and must still navigate it daily. Hyperkinetic Kayak is a reflection on the gap between the cultural knowledge [we have of Greenland] and the opposing real, physically experienced knowledge.”
How has Scandinavia embraced digital art?
“Back in the 00's there was a lot going on, starting with artists studying at overseas universities and coming back with brand new ideas and skills for great experiments. This made a big impact on the [cultural] environment. Galleries and contemporary shows popped up all over the Nordic countries. Universities grow great movements in the theoretical and technical, but since the economic crises these engagements have turned into more strategic approaches—for example in design, and especially events design. But now digital investigations in online/virtual/and technological mediums are happening in big institutions, with the power to attract budgets from foundations and national development resources. Right now the scene is progressing in small networks circles with a big focus on low budget projects and low technological investment.”
“It seems like the Nordic Melancholia comes through in many Nordic artists’ work,” says artist Petra Lindholm. “It is a feeling that’s hard to grasp. A writer from Italy once asked me if we attend some Melancholy classes to get it right.”
“I don’t know where it comes from [the bittersweet], but it has always been part of my work. I have also described loneliness from many different angles. Maybe inspired by the fact that we so strongly believe in individuality, a feeling of being stronger alone than as part of a big group or family.”
“According to some surveys Sweden is the most individualistic society in the world.”