‘I am the owner of this mountain,’ says a man at the entrance to a network of underground tunnels in Norrbotten, the northernmost county of Sweden. The tunnels were built during the Cold War to protect the region’s natural riches from Soviet forces – iron ore chief among them. The attack never came, the site was decommissioned and the current owner uses the dank, freezing tunnels to farm mushrooms, mine bitcoin and provide a temporary environment for art. Presently, they house Raqs Media Collective’s installation The Blood of Stars (2017), part of the Luleå Biennial, ‘Tidal Ground’. Wandering the subterranean passages with a flashlight, I find a vitrine containing a meteor that a guide tells me is older than Earth. Like the resources that the tunnels were built to defend, it is also made of iron.
The Luleå Biennial began in 1991 as a festival for snow and ice sculpture. After lying dormant for five years, it has been rebooted under the curatorship of Emily Fahlén, Asrin Haidari and Thomas Hämén, and framed around the theme of darkness. During the winter months, when the biennial takes place, the sun in Norbbotten never climbs far above the horizon, but the curators have more in mind than long nights. With works by 37 artists spread across the county’s tunnels, forts, galleries and museums, ‘Tidal Ground’ illuminates a remote, strategically integral region that has often been Sweden’s blindspot.
During World War II, in order to enforce the country’s policy of political neutrality, communists were imprisoned in the region’s internment camps. (Scratch the surface, and neutrality soon reveals its biases.) Iron from local mines was also sold to the Germans to build weapons, and monetizing bloodshed is still big business. At the Konsthall in the port city of Luleå, where polar icebreakers are docked, Henrik Andersson’s slideshow Snow, Darkness and Cold (2018), documents a stretch of Norrbotten land currently leased out to foreign militaries for weapons testing. Bombs trialled here, Andersson tells me, have since been dropped on Palestine.
There is profit to be made from Norrbotten’s vast expanse of unsettled territory, but the landscape is far from empty. The indigenous Sami, traditionally a semi-nomadic people who inhabit the Sápmi region covering the north of Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia, use the land to herd reindeer. The imposition of militarized zones echoes across generations. When Norway was under Nazi-occupation, the artist Britta Marakatt-Labba’s father was issued a special Sami passport permitting him to enter Sweden with his herd – a crossing laced with landmines – and a letter forbidding him from aiding the Norwegian resistance. These documents are presented in Rahkkan (Crackled) (2014), along with a sack left behind by German soldiers that Marakatt-Labba has embroidered with guns and reindeer.
The curators’ close attention to the region’s specificities has enabled them to connect Norrbotten’s history of industrialization and militarization to other places and times. In Memory of a River (2018), Anja Örn’s video tracing Swedish waterways lost to dams and reservoirs in the 19th century, is paired with Nikos Markou’s Kifissos River (2018), a photograph of an ancient river that now runs beneath Athenian motorways. For Neda Saeedi’s Garden of Eden Moving; A Petrified Tribe (2018), a concrete wall is installed inside Luleå Konsthall. On one side of the wall, archival footage of the Iranian Bakhtiari tribe herding sheep is projected; on the other are upturned carcasses and a sheep cast from sugar. Like the Sami, the Bakhtiari were nomadic, until they were forced into settling by the Iranian government in the 1960s in order to staff a newly established sugar industry.
A twilit trip through frozen lakes and forests transports visitors from Luleå to the Ájtte Swedish Mountain and Sami Museum in the arctic town of Jokkmokk, where artworks are nestled among museological displays. Another of Saeedi’s sheep is here, this time made from cracked clay. In a room charting Sami migration routes is Hiwa K’s video, Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) (2017), in which the Iraqi-Kurdish artist re-traces his own route across Europe as a refugee. He navigates using mirrors attached to a pole that is balanced on his upturned face: the strange and precarious appendage a manifestation, perhaps, of looking backwards through life to a time of upheaval.
Among the most compelling of the biennial’s exhibits is a model of a building, on show at Luleå Konsthall, that once housed the city’s communist newspaper, Norrskensflamman. One night in 1940, the building was torched by the local chief of police, members of the military and an employee of a rival newspaper, killing five people. The perpetrators were convicted of damage to property. None were tried for murder. On loan from Stockholm’s Police Museum, the model attests to a shady episode in Swedish history and operates as a microcosm for ‘Tidal Ground’ as a whole. Paying attention to what goes on in the darkness, in those places considered out of sight and mind, can tell us about the priorities at the heart of national politics and the unseen violence with which they are upheld.
The Luleå Biennial 2018 runs until 17 February 2019.
Main image: Marwa Arsanios, Who is Afraid of Ideology, 2018. Courtesy: Luleå Biennial, Sweden