Co-organized by the Bildmuseet in Umeå, Sweden; the Portland Museum of Art in Maine; and the Reykjavík Art Museum, the inaugural North Atlantic Triennial was billed as “the first exhibition devoted entirely to contemporary art of the North Atlantic region.” It featured thirty artists and collectives from Maine, Canada’s maritime provinces, Greenland, Scandinavia, and the indigenous nations throughout. The show’s title, “Down North,” linguistically reoriented the Arctic Circle, usually thought of as being geographically “up” on the map, reflecting a curatorial conceit more commonly applied to the Southern Hemisphere in recent years.
A preponderance of the artists here addressed the climate crisis and the relationship between humans and nature, often with overlapping concerns regarding the colonization of indigenous peoples and their land. Many of these documentary-style offerings were both aesthetically and conceptually appealing, including Mattias Olofsson’s sparklingly detailed photographs of Swedes in front of their rural village homes, and Katarina Pirak Sikku’s delicate watercolor cartographies—drawings that record the histories of her tribe, the Finno-Ugric-speaking Sámi. Other works were more straightforwardly didactic. For example, Finnish artist Hans Rosenström’s 2019 video titled Folgefonna, after the rapidly melting Norwegian glacier, showed a glacial fragment dissolving in his hand.
Yet a handful of artists—particularly those working in video and performance—pushed the exhibition’s thematics into stranger and more compelling territory. In Greenlander Jessie Kleemann’s performance Arkhticós Doloros (The Arctic in Pain), 2019, re-presented via single-channel video, the artist staged a series of actions—wrapping herself with a tarp, binding her face with a rope, rubbing her hair in meltwater—on the remote Sermeq Kujalleq glacier. A powerful wind whips through the scene, overwhelming the mics and shaking the cameras; the work also captures the massive crew the artist needed to reach the glacier. At the end of the piece, we see the artist packing up her props and boarding a helicopter to return home. Kleemann’s performance, simultaneously ritualistic, improvisational, doleful, and absurdist, is a sharp contrast to the brutal conditions of the location, and offers little in the way of solace or catharsis.
Markedly different in tone was D’Arcy Wilson’s very funny video #1 Fan (Long Run), 2018–19. Recorded with a drone, the work shows Wilson struggling to run along a picturesque oceanside cliff in western Newfoundland, dressed in pastel athleisure and waving, at different moments, a white flag, a pair of yellow cheerleader pom-poms, and a banner that reads LUV U 4 EVR, possibly addressing the viewer, the landscape, or simply no one at all.
Elsewhere were modest selections of contemplative, materials-focused artworks, which offered moments of respite in this dense exhibition. Two large-scale wall hangings by weaver Ann Cathrin November Høibo conveyed a sense of place and cultural history through the artist’s evocative use of color, traditional craftwork, and abstraction. The pieces are also an homage to the Norwegian sheep whose wool the artist used to create the works. Nearby, two somber paintings by Lewiston, Maine–based Reggie Burrows Hodges, Bathers and the Cleansed and Bathers and the Cleansed: Pearl, both 2021, depicted solitary Black women bathers, the figures and backgrounds rendered in the same matte, velvety black.
Selections from Joan Jonas’s ongoing multimedia project Moving Off the Land, 2019–, were installed in a different part of the museum. A video documented a series of live performances by Jonas and her collaborators, which took place in front of projections of underwater footage (some of which featured the artist swimming) while they read excerpts from Moby-Dick and other maritime-themed texts. At one point we saw Jonas making ink drawings on a beach. The images echoed drawings of fish both overlaid onto the projected imagery within the video and displayed nearby in the gallery. Yet the physical distance between Jonas’s playfully Conceptualist installation and the rest of the exhibition felt like a missed curatorial opportunity. A more thorough integration of this well-known figure’s piece with the contributions of other artists here—who might not be all that well-known to American audiences—could have spurred a richer dialogue regarding shared histories, approaches, and lexicons. Nevertheless, the exhibition provided a valuable snapshot of artistic production in a region more frequently discussed in abstract terms.