Arctic Conditions for the Arts: Landscape of Non-Orientable Surfaces – Ecology and Gender


University of Bergen

In my contribution I want to point out some views on arctic conditions for the arts, a perspective which I later have expanded on by using the term of non-orientable surface, a term or philosophical concept coined by the Polish architect and philosopher Lech Tomaszweski, that can be used to describe the arctic as an ice desert with non orientable surface, as can be compared to the sea understood as seascapes. Arctic expeditions as well as discovery travels at sea have to my mind been stirred by fascination for non-orientable surfaces. This fascination can be considered as an attraction of a vitalist kind, that has influenced arctic flaneurs or ”dandy vagabonds” among the polar heroes like August André and John Franklin. Likewisely it has inspired visual artists and writers from Caspar David Friedrich to Knut Hamsun and dramaturg Ulla Ryum has developed the idea of a spiral dramaturgy, which can be conceived of as a wide-screen landscape dramaturgy. It is a landscape not captured by logics or symmetric understanding, at close resemblance to Gertrude Stein´s idea of a landscape drama, which also can be described in terms of non-orientable surfaces. Ecology and gender as well as the mythical is reflected in this approach and is expressed by visual art, theatre and drama or time-based art in general, reflecting the non-orientability of ice deserts or seascape. I will exemplify by works of Carole Nadeau, Québec, and her Chaos K.O. Chaos, Beaivvás Sámi Teáhterand theirproduction of Swedish play Kayak Woman, Norwegian Verdenstearet´s installation art performance Konsert for Grønland (Concert for Greenland) and Swiss director Christopher Marthalers Geenland-production +-0.

The Landscape approach and non-orientable surfaces

If man is a force in and a part of nature it is possible to make an analogy between nature as a thriving force on one hand, and on the other human psychology as force inside man balancing nature. Nature and man are parts of nature´s theatrical machine, like historically in the the pastroal performances and intermezzis of the Renaissance and Baroque times as well as in Romanticim and symbolistic metaphorical imagination. Nature can thus bee understood as representing a nomadic machine in non-orientable surfaces driven by human activities in dialogic interaction with landscapes. Arctic, as well as archipelagic nature has fascinated modernist avantgarde movements, like the Situationist movement, including the writings of the Polish architect and artist Lech Tomaszewski (1926-1982). He was invited by Jacqueline de Jong, editor of The Situationist Times to contribute with an arcticle on non-orientable surfaces in the no 5 issue in 1963, published in Copenhagen and Paris. He launched the theory of labyrinths as topographic symbols in landscapes (Tomaszewski 1963).

The non-orientable surface in matemathics is a surface which can not be measured, like The Mobius strip, and thus is non-orientable. The Situationist movement was fascinated by the idea of the non-symmetric and how Nordic folk art would reflect this by labyrinths and knots, like in Viking ages and the concept of Valknútr, symbol of three dimensional or non-symmetric figures (Hellers 2012). This was to be conceived of as in oppostion to classisist conceptions of art and art history by Asger Jorn and Jacqueline de Jong,

A landscape-oriented perspective of the arts may find its basis in the symbolism of the preceding turn of the century, as well as in the 1800s and its fascination by untamed nature. This is expressed most clearly in the dramatic and artistic practice of symbolism, such as we know it from August Strindberg, and Edvard Munch or Jean Sibelius. In Arnold Weinstein’s book Northern Arts we find an attempt at describing modernism as a process. The breakthrough of Scandinavian Literature and Art, From Ibsen to Bergman (Weinstein 2008), is discussed, as well as the artistic development in Scandinavia from Henrik Ibsen to Ingmar Bergman with special emphasis on literature and painting. But why is it that the Nordic, and later the Arctic, became so closely related to the break-through of modernism with thought of symbolism and impressionism? One explanation is found in the fact that the relation between nature elements and landscapes were strongly developed in theatre, paining and literature, in direction of a comprehension of art that broke with the logics and hierarchies of the classicistic norms. Nordic landscapes and the Nordic light has, of course, had some importance in earlier periods, but a renewed interest for the Arctic in art came with symbolism and the spiritual break-through, and then Situatonism.

Art, science and life went hand in hand in some of these questions, such as in connection with the literary Greenland expedition 1902-1904 that was lead by the Danish-Greenlandic polar scientist Knud Rasmussen and the author Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen. Mylius- Erichsen got equipped for a research expedition to North East Greenland in 1907 where he himself tragically died (Wiwel 2004, 250). In 1905 Johannes V. Jenssen himself travelled back to Jylland after some years in Copenhagen, and thus he abandoned the decadence of cabaret culture in Copenhagen, but only after having himself wandered around by the boulevards at night seeking explanations of the mysteries of life. In this ambiguity we find a paradox that is characteristic even to Knut Hamsun, who after having lived an urban life in Chicago, Christiania, Copenhagen and Paris, withdrew from the country and fulfilled his abandoning of cabaret culture and his turn towards the agricultural and the rural life in Nordland.

Naturalism and symbolism presented the landscape both as a concrete and as a symbolic dimension (Gerould in Fuchs and Chauduri 2005, p. 301).How is the landscape expressed in a more original and paradigmatic way in modernistic theatre and drama? The answer lies in theatre’s detangling from the representational drama of the thematic tradition and the turn towards the symbolic atmospheric theatre. In symbolist theatre drama was oriented more towards a landscape, like in Maeterlinck’s drame statique or the static and atmospheric drama of Gertrude Stein’s landscape plays and the non-linear drama, which we shall see also can be applied to indigenous theatre.

The peripheries that were looked at to find this asymmetric approaches to the arts were the Northern Scandinavia and the arctic, like when Danish Situationist artitsts started to research the arctic stone age labyrinths and remnants of the Sami culture´s sites of sacrilege. There was an urge for an amorphic artistic understanding related to a Northern and Arctic landscape and the conception of the Arctic dimension as an expression of something present in a widescreen way, expressing an ultimate now – a situation without endings. The Situationist Movement found it important to be able to explore the amorphic by non-orientable surfaces like for instance stone labyrinths from pre-historic times that could be found many places in arctic Scandinavia, as well as in patterns from Scandinavian folk art from the Viking period.

Landscapes in the arts may be perceived as what happens when the stage image, in a frontal or spatial sense, reflects the landscape of nature equally to the landscape of the human psyche. When we gaze into this landscape it is like looking into a box in which this landscape is projected, almost like inside a cave or grotto. Plato’s cave metaphor is focused on in Daniel Gerould’s article “Landscape of the Unseen” where, with reference to Plato’s cave parable, he writes of the eldest description of a landscape of memory (a landscape of the mind), where shadow figures are projected onto the wall inside a cave, a projection of by passers who get their shadows viewed as projections when a strong light source shines on them from behind to create this transferring effect. It is a projection pointing forward to both symbolism and film (Gerould in Fuchs and Chauduri 2005, 318) through Camera Obscura, the first technique for transferring or projecting images from the outside into a closed space.

The aesthetics of symbolism adopted in itself a lot of mystical trends, of which some were directed towards a philosophy that has been named vitalism, and is defined as a philosophical theory maintaining that organic life does not only have physical and chemical origin and that believes in the faith in life, or cultivation of life. Vitalism was understood as something deriving form an unknown life force, and it cultivated the expression of life forces through the masculine and athletic. Many of the polar heroes were a kind of vitalist flaneurs which, surely can be said about the gentleman expedtions of like Andrée or Franklin who set off with the idea of carrying their civilization into the wilderness of hardship, and who even managed – like Andrée to document themselves before thy died, as documented in the Arctic exhibition at Lousiana Art Museum, Copenhagen in 2013.

Landscape reflecting the human psyche and mythical structures

The peripheries that were looked at to find this asymmetric approaches to the arts were the Northern Scandinavia and the arctic, like when Danish situationist artitst started to research the arctic stone age labyrinths and remnants of the Sami culture´s sites of sacrilege. There was an urge for an amorphic artistic understanding related to a Northern and Arctic landscape and the conception of the Arctic dimension as an expression of something present in a widescreen way, expressing an ultimate now – a situation without endings. The Situationist Movement found it important to be able to explore the amorphic by non-orientable surfaces like for instance stone labyrinths from pre-historic times that could be found many places in arctic Scandinavia, as well as in patterns from Scandinavian folk art from the Viking period.

Other perspectives in understanding landscapes are also treated in the book Landscape, Politics and Perspectives (Bendler 1995). B. Bendler editorially discusses these perspectives, such as in Susanne Küchler’s “Landscape as Memory: The Mapping of Process and its Representation in a Melanesian Society” (Küchler in Bendler 1995) and Dennis Cosgrove’s “Landscapes and Myths, Gods and Humans” (Cosgrove in Bendler). In the latter article Cosgrove speaks of how landscape may also be seen as a collection of material facts, like in a physical environment impregnated by the daily needs of every day. The cultural geographers, says Cosgrove, recognise the importance of space and place in development of social life:

So landscape and myth become subjects of common theoretical interest, distinct but articulated signifying systems through which social relations among individuals and groups and human relations with the physical world are reproduced and represented” (Cosgrove in Bendler 1995, 281).

Cosgrove is then treating different landscapes’ mythical structures, such as the English, the Welsh and the Scottish with thought of how remains of the Celtic cultural heritage are protruding. I will draw a line from such a culturally conditioned understanding of landscape to the understanding of physical body that is expressed in the article “Performing the Body, Performing the Text” in the same book.

A new comprehension has emerged of the relation between classical mimesis, depiction of reality and the culture of representation, something that applies to both painting and theatre. Tableaux and allegorical poses are central to the artistic practice at the same time as in art- and culture studies it has become common with context oriented perspectives. I will maintain that this effect is a dynamic alternation between understanding of landscape and the body as a dimension in landscapes – both in the concrete and in the metaphoric sense.

If we imagine theatre history as a landscape, we may say that landscape and cultural spaces are interacting. And if human creative forces are part of nature, it is possible to create an analogy between nature as creative force and human psychology as a human force. Then we may imagine that this is the creative force behind human development in dialogue with the forces of nature, and in this way concretise and picture theatre history.

Nordic to Arctic views on landscape and spatial dialogue in visual art

Nature and culture is often interacting in artistic interpretations, just like we know it from landscape- and sea-paintings from the Romantic period, something we find especially represented by Caspar David Friederich who had studied painting at the Copenhagen Art Academy and knew Danish and Norwegian landscape painters like Christian Købke and Johan Christian Dahl. In the 1700s Copenhagen represented the introduction of the Nordic and the Nordic landscape, and later it was also in Copenhagen symbolism and its exploration of the mental landscape began at the end of the 1800s (Wivel, ed. 2004).

Danish painters from this “golden age” were inspired by the Nordic light, Norwegian landscape, and the Arctic dimension was discovered by the great scientific expeditions. Together all this contributed to mould the representation of the Northern areas in visual art and drama, a representation characterized by a landscape consisting of tundra, taiga and naked coastal landscapes.

Landscapes were also in prints by artists taking part in the French La recherché-expedition to Finnmark and Svalbard in the 1830s (Voyage Pittoresque 2005). Norwegian painters, too, contributed to creating a fascination for the Polar Area, such as Peder Balke and Gunnar Berg. Balke again became important to the Danish research and artist Per Kirkeby. Non-orientable surfaces can be described as bio-topical processes in the work of contemporary artists like Kirsten Justesen and her melting ice projects, or Dan Mihaltianu´s liquid projects in different parts of the world or Zuzanna Skiba´s drawings of non-orientable topographic surfaces at the river Oder, or not to mention the Norwegian painter Patrick Huse and his complex visual artistic documentation of Arctic areas and dimensions by photography.

If we see Norway and the Northern areas in relation to landscape and drama in light of visual art, it becomes obvious how the landscape is being expressed and applied as a material that can be worked upon in visual art, theatre, performance art and film. Landscapes contributed to zip the view to structures and meaning which had to be metaphorically defined. Through the landscape dimension of non-orientable surfaces, a new consciousness of context, identity and diversity has entered into understanding artistic work and its´ relationship to life in different art forms. The gazing subject has had to redefine itself in the light of different ways to approach materiality as the goal of human existence in an on going art-life interplay.

One may talk of the transference from a mythic space to an artistic or aesthetic space or landscape. It is a space or landscape without a firm structure and that is only obtaining meaning when these events and images are seen in relation to each other or enter into dialogue, with each other as well as with the spectator or co-player. The artist is, metaphorically spoken, on a journey in space and landscape where the mythic ant the aesthetic merge like when two encountering circles touch and create interference or analogies. Thus regarded I see a connection between the symbolic dream world and post-modern simultaneous search in spatial dialogues.

Lansdcapes at the sea and the archipelagic situation

We find these in the static drama, in landscape plays and in most postmodern forms of dramaturgy of visual and post-dramatic character. This is the basis for understanding landscape and spatial actions in dialogue. We may also shed light on this process by looking at the dialectics between interior and exterior landscape, and then use as starting point the cave or grotto both as a concrete and as a metaphoric landscape dimension.

In “The ‘Two Landscapes’ of North Norway and the ‘Cultural Landscape’ of the South”, Michael Jones writes about how landscape may be understood in different ways. It is expressed in one way by the cultural landscape and in another way in the natural landscape. Jones thinks that the cultural landscape is strongly characterised by people’s attempts on creating culture, while the natural landscape is more untouched although it may be reflecting human activities. An example is sub-arctic and arctic North Norway, where the natural landscape is attached to identity creating features that are differing between different habitants of the region. Sami people’s use of nomadic landscapes, for instance, differs from other inhabitant’s use of the agricultural landscape. Through the remnants of Sami religion and cult places characterizing large parts of it the Sami people’s landscape is a magical landscape reflected in stone settings and nature created sites of worship-traditions in coastal landscapes or on the tundra.

The paradigm of landscape is gaining importance to the understanding of the interaction between nature, culture and life – as well as betweenthe marginal and the peripheral. In the article ‘Perceiving Landscapes in Greenland” Wagner Sørensen is preoccupied with how the landscape is creating identity in the anthropological sense (Sørensen in Jones and Olwig 2008, 106-138).

It is possible to refer to many reproductions of landscape in theatre and performance art, and these often have their metaphoric roots in symbolism and the following avant-garde movements that contributed to the creation of a new, more conceptual landscape comprehension. The dream landscape and the natural landscape converge in a magical, seductive universe that combines nature and the shamanistic with the industrial and technological. Drama and theatre became carriers of this landscape, on a level equal to that of painting and music.

Landscapes and seascapes in theatre and performance art reflect individual views and perspectives. They may be metaphoric expressions and depictions of transfers in an abstract and visual sense. Metaphoric views may be used in art and science to experience the cultural and personal identities as expressions of personal context and interpretation. The theatrical view is the outside view seeing and conceptualising what is perceived out of a personal focus. Normative construction of meaning has become insufficient for our understanding in the artistic as well as in the scientific sense.

Spiral dramataurgy to project theatre and arctic images

There was was no established tradition for running professional theatre in the Sámi languages, but a certain performativity was to be found in the tradition of the story telling and the joik, and even in a Sámi acrobat (Oskal 2009). An important source of dramaturgical inspiration to Beaivvás Sámi Teáhter was the Danish philosopher and dramaturg Ulla Ryum, who, as Siri Hansen has put it, has promoted the term “spiral dramaturgy”, also known by the name of “female dramaturgy” and which could be defined as a dramaturgy of non-orientable surfaces connecting art and life.

/…/In stead of the linear causal logics of the rational world, Ryum means that the cause-effect-relationship is not moving only form left to right, but has an interactive effect in which the “inner” associative processes run the cause of action in stead of the linearity of “outer” actions that are characteristic of the Aristotelian drama” (Hansen, 2006).

Kajakkkvinnen (The Kayak Woman) was staged in 2003 as a co-production between Sampo and Beaivvàs based on a play by the Swedish playwright Per Verner-Carlsson. Artistic director and dramaturg Harriet Nordlund reworked Verner-Carlsson’s play about communication across cultural and linguistic barriers. Kajakkkvinnen (The Kayak Woman), which was first premiered at Dramaten (The Royal Dramatic Theatre) in Stockholm 1982, is about a woman who is separating from her husband. Verner-Carlsson shows how language and the understanding of non-orientable linguistics is a crucial part of her personal situation. As the action moves from ice flake to ice flake we experience the mythological level of the play, almost as a metaphor of a non-logical or non-orientable search for identity (1982). The play is focused on language-philosophical perceptions of how a kayak may visually be described in relation to how it as symbol creates different viewpoints, in relation to a male or a female perception. This is crucial in how the female main character understands her self, and the kayak becomes an icon picked up from the Arctic area. It may by her perception be seen in relation to a nomadic life of natural environments. The woman is the one, who intuitively knows how a kayak looks like, which is different to how the man perceives of the kayak, and there is a terrible split in their respective perceptions, in a great arguing of whether they see a kayak or a canoe. The man applies his masculine language saying that it of course is a canoe, while the woman tries insisting that this is a kayak. Thus it goes back and forth in a “spiral-dramaturgical dance” of non-orientable surfaces.

In later works of Norwegian Project Theatre Verdensteatret, a series of expeditions were at the basis, building on a specific dramaturgical research requiring the trip to see the life of the site. The director Lisbeth Bodd alongside with Asle Nilsen and other artistic partners work and re-work different ways of perceiving art and life. It happens in a conceptual way based in cultural identies and geography, and the research takes place in dialogic space established by the act of travelling, be it to the Ukraine, Turkey, Vietnam or Greenland. Meditative considerations are essential to their production, and the spectators are invited into the atmosphere of the performances – and they are free to define what they see, while simultaneously a series of visual metaphors and allegories are presented. In an sub-arctic an arctic context the installation art performance Konsert for Grønland (Concert for Greenland)is a production which premiered at Black Box Teater in Oslo (2004) and was awarded the Bessie-price in New York in 2006 after a show there. The level of sophistication in the use of effects was one of the reasons why they got this high-ranking award from American theatre. The productionis based on materials gained in an art-life experience through travelling there on a kind of expedition.

Verdensteatret collected sound- and video recordings, myths, stories and conversations, which they used as a basis for the production. This project is characterized by globalisation and mobility through nomadic approaches. Konsert for Greenland (Concert for Greenland) was like a machine driving about for one and a half hour, a veritable theatre machine in an inter-artistic space as a documentation of art and life as non-orientable surfaces. The audience was situated in close proximity to the installation, like being a part of it and watching shadow-like playser, projections and surrealist images, like if they were in Plato´s grotto or sitting in a veritable camera obscura.

Their work has been characterized as “installation art between image and stage” (Petersen 2009), and their productions all show sophisticated and metaphoric, allegoric images of stage landscapes and dialogic spaces.

In her analysis of Konsert for Grønland (Concert for Greenland), Elisabeth Leinslie is analysing the production in relation to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theory of the rhizomatic as something taking place in-between spaces of non-hierarchical, fragmentary structures, so that paradoxical effects are emerging, which shed light on the duality of the unsaid (Leinslie 2004, 104-116). This is access demand concentration and attention from the spectators as they sit gazing at the ice in the film projection, at the same time as they are actually hearing the sound of it. Verdensteatret gives us visual portraits of wreckage floating about in an ocean of natural ice-sculptures afloat, sculptures, which are thus transformed into topographic symbols of an amorphic kind, expressing the feeling of non-orientabale surfaces as opposed to the symmetric and logo-centric in mainstream culture.

Swiss theatre director Christopher Marthaler went with his crew to Greenland in 2010 to produce +-0, the subpolar camp base, showing a huge space for gymnastics in Nuuk, Greenland, as another example of Plato´s cave metaphor, with the scenic and fictional space of the gymnastic training hall as a place to which many people come in from some kind of an arctic storm outside. Inside there is a musical atmosphere, we see Greenlandic people dressing and undressing their polar costumes. There is no plot and no story as she puts it, Norwegian theatre critic Therese Bjørneboe, commenting on it as a bio-political situation or research space (Bjørneboe 2011).

If we want to contextualise time-based art, we will have to view it in an interdisciplinary and time-based perspective and look at how landscape and art has functioned in relation to each other, and in relation the art-life constellations. This helps us understand art as contextual and related to landscapes, and even to ecology and gender. All together this understanding creates a kind of perspective, which may be further developed in relation to cultural identities, and of dramaturgy, which is non-logic or non-orientable and reflecting landscapes and seascapes like of the arctic and archipelagic.


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