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The Artwork Valborg in Nyksund: Reflections in Retrospect

by Aaslaug Vaa, director of the cultural department at Nordland County Council. PhD student in Philosophy at the University in Troms.

He knows what he is doing. At the same time, in this contest of cunning between himself and God, he is outside himself, perhaps outside his soul. Somewhere he stands and watches while he and God circle each other. And time stands still and watches too. Time is suspended, everything is suspended before the fall.I have lost my place in my soul, he thinks.

The narrating subject is Fyodor Dostoevsky, who in 1869 returns to Petersburg on a forged passport from his exile in Dresden. His stepson just died. Mourning his loss, he seeks out his son’s haunts, including Anna Sergejevna Kolekina and her daughter Matriona, in whose home the youngster was renting a room. The pen writing this story – The Master of Petersburg – belongs to the author whose name few people can pronounce; Coetzee. In this novel, the locations, the time period, and the names are taken from real life. Yet, the author’s approach to his subject matter places the work within the genre of fiction.

The Intervention of Art in the Social Realm

What does a South-African’s invented tale about the Russian author have to do with artistic encounters in Nordland in the summer of 2004? In collaboration with the municipalities of Nordland, the County Administration is carrying out a project called Artistic Interruptions – Art in Nordland. In short, the project consists of site-specific artistic events. Simply put, something happens. The art materializes beyond the work itself. The novel, lying in front of us on the table, also has materiality: In its actual manifestation, it has no substituting function. This brings to mind the ongoing literary debate on the relation between the aesthetics of autonomy and a culturally contextualized understanding of art. The first theoretic model opts to see the artwork as part of a distinct field governed by its own rules, while the second model views the artwork as a reflection of something else—as a carrier of something beyond itself—whether an entire universe or the intentions of the artist who created the piece. In discussing contemporary artistic practice, Horace Engdahl and Arne Melberg are two of many theorists concerned with the dividing lines between factual and fiction texts. They claim that the so-called “testimonial literature” transcends borders, as it challenges the aesthetics of autonomy. Coetzee is one among several authors doing the same in some of their writings. Among the novels I have read recently, Fateless by Kertèsz appears to me as a poignant example of such “testimonial literature.” Valborg in Nyksund falls into the same trend within the field of the visual arts.

What is at work when something is referred to as "testimonial art”? The verb “testify” is synonymous with ”bearing witness,” which again is derived from the Old Norse vitni, meaning “to know”. From my perception, to bear witness means to stand up in the courtroom or in the congregational meeting house to testify, i.e. to make a statement or declaration based on something that has actually taken place. Hence, a term stemming from at least two other areas seems to have migrated into the field of art. Rather than examining the genealogy of this term, it seems more interesting to call into question what makes this form of expression—which is very close to the activities taking place in the courtroom, in journalism, in medicine, etc.—art? This is a practice based on the observed, seen and experienced facts.

What happens when art, a field of so-called free expression, takes the position of the witness? Realism in artistic expression is nothing new, and the paradigm of representation is stone-dead. Magritte’s painted pipe has become the very symbol of our awareness that the painted pipe and the one you put in your mouth are two different things. The painted pipe is a thing in itself, and hence my claim—supported by Foucault—that art is neither pure nor innocent. Painting—like other kinds of artwork—is a staged expression, given that a number of factors to which the work refers are being called into play.

Artistic Interruptions – Art in Nordland is an art project exploring this interplay, and it is based on the experience thereof brought about by the implementation and presence of its predecessor, the project Artscape Nordland. In my view, experience indicates that these artworks primarily emerge as visible when activated in the surrounding social space. This entails moving the focus away from the work as an object making a statement—as a reflection of reality—or from an understanding of the work as an expression of something beyond itself. Rather, it entails reading the work as an addition to the already existing discourses, practices, and institutions. An artwork’s condition of possibility precedes the work itself and is intermingled with other discourses. This means that the individual work must be seen in relation to something other than itself. As an extension thereof, the artwork thus becomes an event, actively affecting the existing circumstances. Mr. Horace Engdahl, Secretary of the Swedish Academy, stated the following in an interview: ” But literature is moving towards the same function as it had when the bourgeois society was coming into being - when it described a life that had yet to be described.” (Morgenbladet, No. 20, 2004) Does not this statement imply an awareness of art as an event and of its materiality as a stage director? Whether this is a new phenomenon is an open question; history provides many examples of staging in the field of power and politics in the name of art. The rebellious profile of the avant-garde in the early 1900s and the calling into question and incorporation of the everyday into art in the 1960s are examples of paths already taken. The new element may be a form of general renunciation of art’s – historically constructed – autonomous position, as well as the emergence of a universal insight that neither truth nor pure or innocent positions exist.

Discourses of Place

Part of the backdrop for the event Valborg in Nyksund, Artistic Interruptions, Extra, held in Galleri 8439 on June 5, 2004, is the discourse of place.

The venue is Nyksund. The light is on 24 hours a day parts of the year. Nyksund is an abandoned fishing village in the north-western part of the Vesterålen archipelago facing the Arctic Ocean. Not too long ago, the harbor became too shallow for the local fishing fleet. The then Prime Minister, Gerhardsen, offered moving subsidies, so during the 1960s, the inhabitants left their chamber pots, family pictures and bed sheets behind. Those who have never visited Nyksund have missed out on something. A categorization of Nyksund within a certain discourse of place allows for its labeling as a Podunk community. The term "Podunk" is understood as an facetious sobriquet for small communities about which the urban Norwegians have many fanciful preconceived notions, expressed with epithets such as transparency, intolerance, undeveloped, uninformed, exotic, and plenty more. These are places that Ms. Erna Solberg, Minister of Local Government and Regional Development, wants to close down as soon as possible. Knowing that the farmer used to serve as the emblem of the national state, one could essentially claim that this type of communities constituted the very spine of that very same state that is now so much out of favor. Yet, it must be pointed out that the coast, the fishing communities and the fishermen were non-existent back when the symbols of Norway were created.

There is, at least, one distinction here. It would be difficult to categorize the "holiest" of such symbolic places as "Podunk." Vinje is one such example. So is Voss, and particularly Eidsvoll. Hence, it is more to the purpose to distinguish between two types of Podunk places, i.e. the ones that are visible--because they hold cultural qualities that are considered valuable--and the invisible Podunk communities.

Valborg in Nyksund's hometown is an invisible Podunk place. Putting this concept category into perspective, the same differentiation holds true for cities: There are the visible and the invisible ones. (Italo Calvino draws on this distinction). It must be noted that extraordinarily many Norwegian communities have city status. Brønnøysund, for example; is that an invisible city? I would say no, because of the Brønnøysund Register Centre, a government body, which has granted the city an identity and presence in everyone’s awareness. Fauske and Førde, on the other hand, are two good examples of invisible cities in Norway. Elverum recently became invisible due to singer-songwriter Ole Paus's slandering of the place as insignificant. Levanger, Steinkjer—in fact, virtually all these cities in the county of Nord–Trøndelag—are simple categorizations. Rendering invisible Norwegian cities visible is not difficult. But what about Moss? Moss now has its Momentum Art Festival. Maybe this event will rescue the city from the terrible invisibility. It was this during the Momentum 2004 festival my interest in the concept of invisible cities or places was sparked. That does not mean that the notion of a place's visibility or invisibility is an unknown category. A place’s visibility is one of the trump cards of successful arts and culture policies in our part of the world, and as such a familiar factor.

At Momentum 2004, the Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg presented his work Invisible Cities, whose catalog entry contained the following quote by Italo Calvino: “There are cities which are not spoken of by people from outside. Cities which neither grow, nor get smaller. Cities which are so big that it is possible to spend your entire lifetime in them without ever moving, but so small that most of the people could be known to one another (...) cities that most people are not even aware of.” (Momentum 2004 catalog, p. 84.) Transparency and invisibility.

Approximately four and a half million people live in Norway, and we have only one city that counts, at least in terms of presence in the public media. In an international context, we hardly have any. Slightly above 10% of the population lives in Oslo, and the three to four other larger cities have approximately as many inhabitants shared among them. Now, where does the remaining 70-80% live? They cannot possibly live in the Podunk places, as these communities have a population of 2-3000 each; many even less. To be sure, the Podunk places are still legion, for now.

It is these very issues surrounding the invisibility of such places that Dahlberg makes manifest in his black and white photographs and videos. Stagnant streets lined with anonymous and characterless buildings without windows and signs of life. It is as though the buildings have closed around themselves and the streets have been vacuumed clean of all living organisms. One might think an epidemic is loose. I immediately had associations to The Plagueby Camus and Saramago’s Blindness, i.e. fiction literature whose topic is epidemic plague.

To what do these invisible cities stand in opposition? Is it all the cities we all know because we associate them with something—a "genius loci"—that we seek out in our hunger for experiences? Are they interesting because they possess “universal” qualities or based on acquired cultural codes? My suspicion is that the visible cities possess qualities granting access to cultural and financial capital. Molde, for one, can claim visibility due to distinctive cultural qualities, and as a consequence of the visibility accorded by the city’s jazz festival, the local architecture, for one, becomes interesting.

The consequences of today’s globalized public arena of communication are at least two-sided: The possibility of being seen and desired and the necessity of being seen. Not being seen is like being contaminated, which may be the message which Dahlberg intends to communicate. What makes Røros a more interesting place than Rjukan? A study excursion with the objective of researching the history of the inns in this country would demonstrate that, say, Østerdalen once was a much more attractive destination than it is today. The opposite holds true for Lofoten. What governs the communities' status; what shapes our attitudes? And what exactly is wrong with the invisible cities and the Podunk places? Is it all that important to be among those that count? Isn't it just as important to have an analytic view of who is giving the applause, and why? The distinction between visibility and invisibility fits nicely into the string of oppositions such as sense and insanity, pure and impure.

When somebody, within the context of art, wants to present a testimony about a place—Nyksund, in this case—it may not be asking too much of the artists in requesting them to have a certain analytical handle on our national discourse of place.

Place and Artist

Finally, the road to Nyksund will reach its end. We are almost there. Since chances are the reader has never been there, you should know that the drive from Myre to Nyksund is beyond beautiful. A number of other adjectives may be used to describe it: We are traveling on a narrow, winding dirt road prone to landslides along the fjord and the sea. It — the place — is located at the outermost tip. Next stop is the North Pole – in-between nothing but the vast and threatening ocean. At this point in time, 13 people live there year round. In the fall of 2003, the NRK TV-channel covered an artist's visit by Simon Starling from England. An artist who is supposed to be part of the previously mentioned Artistic Interruptions project. The same NRK-journalist also made a TV-portrait of the artist Sigrid Szetu, who has set up her own art studio and gallery in the community. She was born and raised in close by Strengelvåg. She knows very well what she is doing. At 17 years of age, she left one of Norway’s many invisible Podunk places to go to London to study at the Camberwell School of Art. Subsequently, what we call love made her adopt Malaysia as her new homeland. She knows what she is doing when making a new home for herself at the very northernmost point of the Vesterålen archipelago. She is familiar with both the visible and the invisible cities of the world, and her experience with Norwegian Podunk places is multifarious.

When I moved to the county of Nordland in 1986, Nyksund was still considered a cultural policies challenge. Could it be preserved as an intact cultural heirloom? The reports were on the table; possible usages were considered, and financing options were tried out. There was not sufficient will; in the end, nobody wanted to create a monument to Gerhardsen’s centralization policies. I will never forget my first encounter with what was often called the ghost town. We—the regional cultural authorities—were on an inspection trip to Nyksund, and the self-evident tour guide was Valborg. The authorities gave up on Nyksund, but Valborg never did. I saw her again that June evening earlier this year, both in the flesh and on the screen. The previously mentioned NRK-journalist, Charlotte Thiis-Evensen, was also back, this time as an artist. Together with Lisa Karlsson, she had created the documentary Valborg in Nyksund in the context of the Artistic Interruptions, Extra program. The invitation offered promises: “Valborg in Nyksund is a short movie about a woman who grew up in Nyksund and now lives outside Myre. She talks about her experience living there. Her encounter with the artists turns into a mutual exchange challenging prejudices and both parties’ ideas of otherness. This becomes an exploration of how identity is formed, as evidenced through the conversation between the local resident and the filmmakers from elsewhere. The movie presents the experience of one individual. Her personal narration mirrors the development of a region that has become a symbol of the structural changes in the coastal fishing communities in Northern Norway.” (The presentation brochure) I thought this introduction sounded so interesting that I decided to go to Nyksund. In addition, I would finally get a chance to see the results of Sigrid’s (like the filmmakers, I take the liberty of using the central characters' first names once they have been introduced) diligent construction efforts. Sigrid is one of the many artists I have collaborated with over the years. We know of each other. But there is more to the story: Valborg, the ambassador of Nyksund, is Sigrid's mother.

The Screening of the Artwork Valborg in Nyksund Takes Place

We were some 60 people gathered in Sigrid’s gallery; sitting and standing quite close to one another. Charlotte was present. In her introduction, she talked about her work as an artist. She made it clear that the notion of shame is her chosen subject. Prior to Valborg in Nyksund, she chose to screen three other shorts. The movies were all filmed portraits of individuals. They can hence also be categorized as documentary movies, but created with an artistic visual approach and within the context of the art institution. These movies are based on the same methodic principles as Knut Erik Jensen’s Cool and Crazy and Karoline Frogner’s Tradra – i går ble jeg tater [Tradra: Yesterday, I became a gypsy]. The difference is that the two latter films are shown within the context of the movie theater, while this one is explicitly presented as a work of art within the corresponding institutional framework. The two different institutional settings cast the works as being of different natures. In Tromsø, anthropologists are producing the same type of movies, which are defined through scientific discourse and given the status of dissertations, but which in many ways branch out into the fields of art films as well as cinema movies. Who is making the film and where it is shown can be seen as complicit factors determining the movies’ effect. What all the mentioned films have in common, is that they appear as testimonials: They are examples of the claim to border-transcending art practice, but also of scientific practice. The documentary - like science - is associated with objectivity and truth. Art, on the other hand, is still, to a large extent, linked to the creative genius who, just because he or she is a genius, is in a much freer position. But this brings us back to the aforementioned conditions of possibility: Because even when possessing the artist’s position, not everything can be expressed wherever and at all times if the work is to have validity in the eyes of those defining what is to be understood as art.

Let’s return to the screening venue in Nyksund. Charlotte has told the audience that she and Lisa work with the notion of shame as their subject. The movies she has chosen to present are screened uninterruptedly. In the first film, we encounter a young man with a highly complicated self-perception due to his appearance, which he feels undermines his worth as a human being. The second one introduces us to a person who is suddenly paralyzed due to a bike accident. The third short is a portrait of Charlotte’s elderly aunt who, loyal to her mother’s ideals or tyranny, never had her hair cut. Finally, it is Valborg's turn.

The majority of the people present were relatives and close or peripheral acquaintances of Valborg. People with their own notions of Nyksund and Valborg. During the screening, Valborg chose to seat herself in the most inconspicuous way possible without access to the screen. Then and there, I read her behavior as a form of nervous or demonstrative distance. She was the only one who had already seen the movie -- the night before. Valborg is 79 years old. We are watching Valborg. We hear her talk about the social conditions in Nyksund when she was a little girl. People lived in close quarters, and the issues surrounding transparency are thoroughly discussed. Valborg talks about a sense of solidarity as opposed to slander, distance and respect as opposed to the lack of privacy. The focus is on issues characteristic of small communities seen from an urban perspective. No delivery on the invitation’s promise that prejudices would be challenged could be identified. The position of the person selecting the point of view was dominant, while mutual exchanges between the protagonist and the director were non-existent. Simply put, the promises were not fulfilled. But there was another factor of greater weight that I didn't understand until the movie ended. The narrative and the images often referred to something that was never mentioned. Not until the movie was over was I able to identify what that was. One of the main scenes of the movie depicts Valborg gutting fish: A masculine task where hands are the central body part; close-ups of hands handling the sharp gutting knife.

And then I understood the connection. The gutting scene showed capable and practiced hands. But it also showed something more: One of the hands was deformed. That which was never mentioned, which was never taken into consideration throughout Valborg’s childhood, and that which this woman had learned to live with and compensate for during the course of a long life, was this hand of hers. The filmmakers had declared their subject to be shame. Through their movie, they hence thoroughly managed to identify and define this hand as a stigma of shame.

The first comment I heard after the screening, was a colleague of Valborg’s saying: “I never noticed that Valborg had that hand before.”

Ethical Dilemmas

A mutual exchange of different positions will hardly happen as long as one party retains the power to let the other be seen. During the few minutes the movie lasted, the focus was turned to something unexpected. After the film, that which had never been mentioned, and which Valborg had mastered throughout her long life, was suddenly designated as the most important thing about her. What is shame? Shame is tied to something one does or doesn’t do which is not in conformity with the prevailing cultural norms. The notion of ideal appearance is culturally constructed. The commercial plastic surgeon attracts his or her clients by appealing to their sense of shame. Increasing health problems due to people’s dissatisfaction with their looks and bodies can be explained by a culturally constructed sense of shame. Filmmaker Margreth Olin made the following statement about her documentary, My Body: “I just want to say that I made this movie because I want to be myself. Without feeling ashamed.”

When the filmmaker defines a deformed hand as something shameful, the underlying premise is that this is a bodily flaw of which one ought to be ashamed. Or did Valborg tell Charlotte and Lisa that she feels ashamed because of her hand, and that this context would offer her an opportunity to talk about that which had never been said before? Only Valborg can answer to that. But in any case, that which had been said was that Charlotte and Lisa’s artistic project is to explore shame; they virtually had their story all figured out in advance. A story that may indicate that the filmmakers are suffering from today’s constructed ideals of beauty. The individuals and the reality they are using are then fitted into this concept. Hence, the filmmakers may turn the "informant" into a mouthpiece for the artists' own suffering rather than open-mindedly basing their work on the people they are facing, who generously give them their time. This is not an uncommon pitfall; journalists are continuously facing this issue. The possibilities for manipulation are great, particularly in the medium of film. A relevant question is therefore why the creators—Thiis-Evensen and Karlsson, in this case—are working with the notion of shame. Only Charlotte and Lisa can answer to that.

Valborg and Nyksund have been portrayed. My impression of Valborg is that of an involved and resourceful person actively participating in numerous fields. She is unusually well educated for somebody her age: A final university degree is not commonplace—even in this well-educated country—for somebody of her generation. Despite being a woman, she is a public person, and she has been a central player in the public realm: A character, an expressionist who is a gifted storyteller. Valborg has been the goodwill body for everyone who came up with ideas and attempted to get something going in Nyksund. That is quite a few people. She is the very embodiment of the limitless hospitality that is often attributed to people in this part of the country. How come nothing is said about Valborg's ties to all those Germans who have come to visit Nyksund, settle down for a while and take off again over the past twenty years? How come we don't get to see her freely telling her tales about Nyksund? What about her lifelong work as a teacher and her travels abroad?

But perhaps this material isn't interesting enough to base a movie on? I would have loved to see the anthropologist and filmmaker, Rosella Ragazzi, portray the very same Valborg. Not because Charlotte and Lisa’s movie is uninteresting, on the contrary. The movie inspired me to write this. But the characteristic trait of Rosella’s work is that while the person being portrayed is the one who determines the direction of the narrative and the movie, the filmmaker is also present.

Why did the filmmakers choose to let a deformed hand they explicitly categorize as shameful become the story about the individual Valborg and the Nyksund community? Charlotte explains to me that despite her hand, Valborg has created the most beautiful English embroideries. And the fish-gutting scene does show exactly how capable Valborg is even with her deformed hand, she adds. And Valborg explains, with all her typical generosity, that Charlotte loves pollack. How is one to understand how this all relates? I don't know what kind of contract existed between Valborg and Charlotte/Lisa. From an ethical perspective, they should have made it clear to Valborg in advance that their artistic subject is shame. In that case, Valborg consciously and willingly allowed them to interpret her story on this premise. But what I am starting to wonder about is whether the artists actually meant the opposite of what they are capable of presenting. The deformed hand is an embodiment of something being amiss when measured against the prevailing criteria of normalcy, just like Nyksund is off when compared to the notions of a vibrant community. If so, the question is whether their intention is to call into question these notions, which are, in fact, prejudices. Is that the reason why they chose Valborg, a person living her life fully without being inhibited by her handicap? But that reading presupposes that the viewer is familiar with all the other aspects of Valborg's person. That held true for most people that particular June evening, but cannot be assumed when screening the movie elsewhere. The Nyksund community can offer colorful tales of lived life—I have myself been spellbound by them many times—and emerges as a unique place today, but these aspects are not present in the movie. Nyksund and Valborg share the quality of not being a dime a dozen, but this is an insight that cannot possibly be gained by watching the documentary.

Many artworks challenge the pain threshold regarding issues with which people are deeply involved, and in so doing they are actively affecting discourses, practices and institutional activities. The Israeli ambassador to Stockholm was recently called home and forced into premature retirement due to his escapades involving an artwork. But this is not the set of issues brought up by Valborg in Nyksund. This is about the filmmakers’ choices in a testimonial position to which the other party grants them open access. Receiving entails obligations. I was taught to do onto others what you want to be done onto you. I venture to say that this golden rule has not been outdated. Since no pure and innocent documentary filmmaker exists, whether she operates within the media, art, science or what have you, it is important to have ethical ground rules, which is the case for journalism. There is something called the right to defend oneself. This privilege was used following the screening in Nyksund on June 5, 2004. The intention was to screen Valborg in Nyksund in Sigrid’s gallery throughout the summer. This plan was cancelled by Sigrid, as she perceived the movie to be an abuse of her trust. Sigrid was responsible for granting Charlotte access to Valborg; she placed her mother in the vulnerable position of being the subject of a documentary. Sigrid would not have done that if Charlotte had presented the premises to her in advance. The documentary genre is complicated. The filmmaker has a position and is subjective. The documentary can never present the actual reality; on the contrary, it is made up of fragments, extracts and subjective juxtapositions. This complexity demands caution, wisdom and time on the filmmaker’s part. Its subject matter is real people placing their lives in the hands of someone in the privileged position of making choices.

It is the artist’s choices with regard to interpreting others that causes Dostoevsky scruples in the introductory quote by Coetzee. To process his own sorrow, he oversteps the limits for how much of another person’s pain a young girl, Matriona, is able to bear. Moreover, he interprets her reactions in his literary work. The agony of the choice results in a decision ending with him losing his place in his soul. It is a difficult task to determine where the boundaries are when construing the Other, whether a place or a human being. Who are we primarily interpreting though our statements? And last, but not least, what is the effect of what we are saying in the contexts where it occurs; how does it skew or contort that which has already been said and that which follows?

Hal Foster: The Return of the Real (1996) The Artist as Ethnographer, p. 171 - 205 Ibid. p.180

In Lucy Lippard: The Lure of the Local - senses of place in a multi centered society (New Press: New York, 1997), p. 286: "The ideal should be an accessible core of meaning to which participants are attracted from all sides of art and life...(...)... we've barely begun to touch the depth of complexity with which art could interact with society". Lippard (1997), p. 286-287.

Publisert av: Asgeir Kvitvik

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