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Strategies for The Nordic Queer

author Linn Cecilie Ulvin

The title Å paradis contains everything I want to achieve with this exhibition. The word paradis/paradise suggests direction: we stretch towards it, yearn for it, but this Garden of Eden or Heaven will always lie beyond our reach. The original meaning of the word paradise as found in Old Persian was “walled garden” or “royal enclosure”. The word “Å” means two things: frequently translated into English as “Oh” or “Ah”, it indicates an exclamation, a sigh, or even a breath. But it is also the prefix of an infinitive verb, functioning as the English “to” does before a verb, for example “to be” or “to walk”, thus making the word paradise active, giving it a sense of movement, reflecting the notion that paradise can “be” or “move” or “shift”.Words move, they travel. Long after it had lost its original Persian meaning, the Ancient Greeks used parádeisos to translate the Hebrew for garden in the bible, which in turn reached Latin, until eventually travelling into Norwegian and English via the French paradis. And sound-wise “Å” correlates with the French word “au”, which also means “to” but this time the movement is towards an object or place.

Apart from it’s meaning, “Å” itself is so specific to the Norwegian alphabet that it’s presence immediately situates the title in our own Nordic geographical, cultural and linguistic position. For many people this privileged part of the world, here in the Nordic areas or Norway, might be thought to resemble such a paradise. But the notion of paradise can be both positively and negatively charged, since we can be excluded as well as allowed entrance into this heaven – this walled garden. Here our geographical Nordic paradise reflects traditional religious notions of this word: an exclusive place, only accessible to the selected few.

The North is an outpost of the world geographically. We are economically privileged, and have stable democracies – this year Norway celebrates 200 years of independence. Scandinavian countries share many social, cultural, linguistic similarities and a historical past. But against the backdrop of today’s celebrations of the Norwegian constitution, along with the political shift to the right in the whole of the Nordic region, how does queer locate itself in Norway and what form does it take? I am interested to investigate what queer can be for us, and how we can use it. My aim here is to generate discussion about gender and desire, body and text, focussing specifically on Nordic Queer as a way of thinking about, experiencing and seeing the world.

The exhibition amalgamates fine art, with a wide range of literature and political, philosophic and historical writings and will offer a space for visitors to contribute to the documentation of what queer means to them; it should be regarded as much a moving, living process as a static exhibition. Contributors to Å paradis include: six Nordic visual artists, including Vanna Bowles, Ester Fleckner, Frode & Marcus, Grete Johanne Neseblod, and Tilda Lovell; gender researchers Sara & Malou, who have curated a collection of texts; Skeivt Arkiv (The Queer Archive) a ground breaking project at the University of Bergen, recording queer history in Norway; and novel writer and poet Mona Høvring who will give a reading. Not only does each contributor give us a very different take on the theme – some subtle, others more explicit and directly political – but each uses very different materials, media, disciplines, and strategies.

Ester Fleckner is a Danish artist who has recently completed her training in Copenhagen. Combining woodcuts with lines of text, she constructs, deconstructs and reconstructs language. Fleckner’s work often explores the body in a state of flux. In this show Fleckner is exhibiting her Click-Dick Register. We see here the emergence of a poetic and searching voice. Interweaving her texts with repetitive, hypnotic patterns, we see the body and queer explored both thematically and formally, in a way that serves to illuminate the exhibition’s central themes. The repetition and scrutinising discourse that arises between text and form, and the simplicity in the way she hangs her work without any frame, reflects a relationship to status, a refusal to put any barriers between the viewer and the work.

Grete Johanne Neseblod is a feminist artist, but also a devoted member of the Black Metal scene in Norway; a music genre and lifestyle not only rooted in rebellion and anger, but notorious for its exploitation of gender stereotypes and prejudiced attitudes towards sexual orientation. Neseblod explores the inner clash in her identities as a woman: a feminist, a working artist, a pregnant woman, a nursing mother, inhabiting the Black Metal scene. Her videos challenges our contemporary expectations about gendered identity, revealing to us that we continue to be locked in our preconceptions. In her search for her gendered identity, she shows that even as a straight woman can be a challenge to the norm. By choosing to inhabit and celebrate a sexist genre, she draws parallels with a homosexual who chooses to live in a homophobic culture. Grete Johanne Neseblod is queerer than queer.

The Swedish-Norwegian film-duo Frode & Marcus are relatively unknown in Norway. The pair make films which revolve around ritual and utopia. Their work challenges notions of the ideal society; for example, in Forortskillen (The Suburban Kid) we see a character wearing a long blonde wig, roving about without direction, committing minor acts of vandalism in a social-democratic-style housing estate.  The lyrical images created by these filmmakers, and their eye for “cool” aesthetics and the decorative, also make their work attractive to the fashion and music industries, both of which they are involved in. Among other things, they created a music video for the Swedish songwriter Lykke Li, and collaborated with the Swedish recording artist Fever Ray. Music and the genre of the music video are central to the aesthetic of this duo’s art films. Each film gives the impression of a playful relationship to film and to the themes they explore, and each is like a short story that has been allowed to unfold through improvisation during the filming process. Their films are infused with humour and irony, and inhabited by characters constructed by the use of fetishistic costume and props with homo-aesthetic resonances – such as the blond wig, masks and uniforms – which serve simultaneously to reveal, confuse and conceal the characters and their gender. There is a seriousness below the surface.

This seriousness comes through here too in Vanna Bowles’s and Tilda Lovell’s contribution to this exhibition; two artists whose work is individual and distinctive; while they rely on strong visual impact, their work defies categorisation; standing independently of any time-specific trends in art or any explicit agenda.

Otherness, the outsider and difference are themes that run through many of the pieces in this exhibition; through a constructed world the viewer experiences in various ways, what it is to step over a boundary. In Vanna Bowle’s large pencil drawing Morning Glory there is, as the title suggests, a touch of hope, despite the fact that it is impossible to tell whether the central figure is alive or dead. This figure is seen lying collapsed in the arms of two men who are carrying him. They have covered faces, bare torsos and are only partly visible. Their taut arm muscles and their genitals, clearly delineated under tight trousers, give an erotic charge to the image and its story. The focus is on the central figure being carried, but it is impossible to tell whether he has abandoned himself to these arms of his own freewill, or whether these arms are forcing him down. A flowering branch flows out of the lining of the central figure’s trousers. It grows and stretches out of the drawing and into three-dimensional space.

Tilda Lovell’s sculpture Fetish Remains, depicts a body or figure which is poetic and beautiful, but also brutal. The body, or what remains of it, is made from plaster, jesmonite and pieces of bone, strapped together and hung by a rope from the ceiling. It has the appearance of a foetus or a pupa. It’s feet and hands, recognisably human, hang freely but passively from the body, the cranium also hangs limply and seems more animal-like than human, and the visible spinal cord continues into a tail. This sculpture is displayed alongside some of Lovell’s smaller two-dimensional works in an intentionally cave-like black room.

Sara & Malou’s collection of texts work in dialogue with the other works in the show. Sara Eriksson and Malou Zilliacus are Finno-Swedish feminists and gender academics. Until recently Sara was the editor of the journal Astra. Malou is an active public commentator, writer and actor. The Finno-Swedes are a Swedish speaking minority group in Finnland, and Sara & Malou explore issues that surround being part of a minority group, which is simultaneously so advantaged. In TEXTUAL ORIENTATION: YES Sara & Malou present a queer femme-inist collection of texts, subjectively chosen, a mixture of dissimilar texts and genres, both fiction and non-fiction; books, extracts, poems, lyrical prose, quotes, blog entries and articles, ranging from the writings of Clarice Lispector to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, from extracts taken from Queering Sápmi about the Sami-queer experience to The Golden Notebook, from various feminist manifestos and magazine articles including texts by Ulrika Dahl, Wendy Brown and Sara & Malou themselves, to Peggy McIntosh’s list of white privileges.  This collection of texts will be available to the public in the exhibition, and is also presented in PARADIS OG TEKST – SARA & MALOU OG MONA HØVRING (PARADISE AND TEXT – SARA & MALOU AND MONA HØVRING). There will also be a reading by the Norwegian experimental author, Mona Høvring, who has published many novels and poetry collections, including her 2008 collection from which this exhibition gets its title: Å paradis. Hovring’s texts have a generosity about them, but are always direct and precise.

Skeivt Arkiv (Queer Archive) is a pioneering archive project by the University of Bergen looking at queer histories in Norway and in a Norwegian context. My intention in bringing the work of artists, writers and archivists together in this exhibition-process, is to highlight the relationship between art, text and written history. In the platform discussion Å PARADIS, SKEIVT ARKIV OG KUNST (QUEER ARCHIVE AND ART), Skeivt Arkiv will be looking at archives from various perspectives and their possibilities in a fine art context, and asking what is “queer” in relation to a queer archive or queer art? Exhibitors and members of Skeivt Arkiv will come together to discuss this and other questions. Participation in this exhibition also marks the start of Skeivt Arkiv’s public awareness campaign; visitors will be encouraged to participate in the making of queer history by donating material, which will initially be integrated in the exhibition, and then become a part of the archive when it finishes.

Last year Norway celebrated women’s suffrage, this year it is the celebration of the founding of the constitution that brings us together, and causes us to turn the search light on ourselves. As Å PARADIS another celebration comes to Oslo; Europride. There is always a need for celebration, but we must be careful not to loose sight of what gives such a celebration meaning. Such celebrations can discourage us from asking important questions or looking at anything with the potential to disturb. Europride is a wonderful, big party and an annual landmark event. However, it is also a commercial machine, and as such not well placed to safeguard art’s potential to reveal that which goes unseen or not immediately accessible. From this perspective the production of art and critical reflection is essential. Contemporary art is a place for criticism and nuanced ideas, whereas an event like Europride is designed not only to create a sense of fellowship and pride but to win the crowd. These are admirable goals, but it may be that in pursuing them Europride is in danger of becoming tame, of loosing its political bite. Art must refuse to be mere tinsel for this party. There are too many stories that do not fit the mould; only through art’s capacity to represent the unique individual experience can we give these alternative stories a voice. We must celebrate, but we must not loose our awareness that democracy and freedom of speech are always under threat, even in our paradise. Mathias Danbolt is an active writer and theoretician, whose contribution to the exhibition will be to address these and similar questions in his text Killjoys in Paradise.

Sexism, homophobia and racism are deeply connected; if you are prejudiced against one group of people, the chances are that you will have prejudices about another. In Norway’s present political climate the need to highlight and discuss this becomes increasingly urgent. With the present government in Norway we cannot assume that asylum seekers will be justly treated, any more than we can be sure the equality minister is truly interested in equality. There are many examples where the positive things that we boast of in our country cannot be taken for granted, and we are naïve if we think that what as been achieved cannot be reversed. Just think about the abortion campaign Norway has seen recently. I believe many people are willing to see that while we might profit from various forms of discrimination, it limits us as a society. And many people are prepared to do something about it in theory. But in reality it takes hard work and pain to change existing structures, and it does not happen on its own. We have to be prepared to move outside our own comfort zones, and be less comfortable. If we are to do something about gender discrimination we cannot merely continue to discuss the differences between two genders, but have to think about gender in multiple ways. We have to break up the existing gender norms, and open up to diverse bodies, taking proper account of the reality we live in. Gender and gender identity is intrinsic to almost everything that surrounds us; it influences the language we use, the ideals we have, the texts we write. True inclusivity will lead to greater variation, richer nuance, and more tools with which to meet one another’s differences.
Which story/history can tell us most about our realities? Who is permitted to tell their story? How should it be told? Using what kind of language? What shall we say about that which has yet to exist. No…it is never just about being gay.

In this exhibition I have brought together dissimilar parts, which I use in my own work as an artist. The goal is to be in a constant process, to look at bodies differently, and create initiatives. I believe in the contribution poetry’s slow, critical approach can offer us in the development of art, in which perception, thought and theory meet to form new orders and combinations. I shall finish with a passage from the collection Å Paradis by Mona Høvring.

This translation was the result of a collaborative process between the author and the translator Deborah Dawkin. Prose-poem translated by.....


This is the street I lived in, this is the way home, this is a lonely and bewildered beetle, this is my mother when she has reflected upon it, this is a chilly night, these are waves, this is my handwriting, this is research, this is a threat, this rain is still untouched by repetition, this is a man photographing a crane, this is nature localised as the natural focus point, this is the blouse I unbutton, this is the girl I am going to marry, these words build the world, this is the faith I cling to, this is the child I’m carrying, this is Paradise, this is the first thing I say when I invite somebody to make love.

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Utstillingen er støttet av: Kulturetaten i Oslo, Kulturrådet, Fritt Ord og LLH.
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