The talk in art circles may be about China these days, but the northern European scene isn’t doing too bad for itself either. Just this summer in New York, there’s “From Another Shore: Recent Icelandic Art” at Scandinavia House, “Arctic Hysteria: New Art from Finland” at P.S.1, and of course Denmark’s Olafur Eliasson is staging the huge New York City Waterfalls. Sweden and Norway don’t seem to be as strongly represented in visual arts, at least here, at least right this minute, but of course they boast remarkably inventive avant, jazz and pop music scenes that constantly send up a stream of high-quality sounds our way. If you bring up the relatively low population of Scandinavian countries (including, for the purpose of this discussion, Finland and Iceland), you realize that they wield a completely disproportionate influence in artistic matters.The Scandinavians’ most efficient weapon seems to be their uncommon aesthetic finesse and the way they effortlessly bridge so-called high and low cultures, as well as disciplines. Björk’s 80s output would be the best-known aboveground example of this approach, and in the same domain she’s been equaled if not topped by Sweden’s duo the Knife, which combines minimalist electronics with stunning videos that could easily fit into contemporary-art surveys, such as “Silent Shout” and “Like a Pen,” both directed by Andreas Nilsson, and “Heartbeats,” directed by Nilsson, Johannes Nyholm and Bo Melin. The video for “Heartbeats” is embedded below.
More than just being the land of Nokia, Finland keeps sending forth top-level classical musicians like conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and composer Kaija Saariaho, and it’s also ground zero for both woolly, underground freak folk and a wildly popular mix of hard rock, opera and pop (check out such OTT bands as HIM, Nightwish and Apocalyptica).
It’s telling that northern European countries are incredibly ahead of America in terms of design and its incorporation in daily life. Whereas for decades if not centuries American “masses” weren’t supposed to care about the look of objects, and efficiency trumped other attributes—Target’s hiring of name designers like Michael Graves to create kitchen utensils felt seismic not that long ago, and it took forever for Apple’s superbly designed computers to become more than a niche—the idea that everyday objects can mix form and function has long been part of European culture. This attitude is reflected in the European countries’ approach to music, theater, the visual arts or dance: They are part of everyday life more than they are here. Significantly, these artistic disciplines also tend to regularly address man’s relationship with nature and the environment—reflecting the countries’ own progressive position in terms of conservation and energy policies. This is particularly obvious in “Arctic Hysteria.”
If you happen to visit that exhibit, make sure to watch Mika Ronkainen’s Huutajat—Screaming Men, a documentary about Mieskuoro Huutajat, a men’s choir that shouts instead of singing. Here they are performing the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Can someone get them to open a game at Yankee Stadium?
Image: Huutajat – The Screaming Men. The Screaming Men, 2003. Still image from video, 76 min. Directed by Mika Ronkainen. Courtesy the artist. Photo by Matthew Septimus.