COPENHAGEN — Hundreds of shirts stretched across the exterior entrance of Copenhagen’s Charlottenborg Palace in late August 2022, the soft fabric contrasting with the hard brick building that houses the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Up close, each button-down on the artwork’s 10 tethers waved in and out of focus, revealing idiosyncrasies like wrinkles or tears; farther away, the distinct parts became indistinguishable within the whole. This was Kaarina Kaikkonen’s “We Need Some Hope” (2022), a sprawling iteration of her site-specific assemblages of found clothing commissioned for CHART, the Nordic art fair. 

That there is a “we” was “We Need Some Hope”’s subtle message, a notion that reverberated throughout the art fair (which included artist-run spaces, publishers, and student presentations in addition to commercial galleries from Nordic countries) last August 25–28. And it resonates with Down Иorth, the inaugural North Atlantic Triennial on view at the Reykjavík Art Museum through February 5, between stints at the Portland Museum of Art, Maine, last spring and Bildmuseet in Umeå, Sweden, later this year. Down Иorth examines artistic affinities from Maine to Finland; its curators Jaime DeSimone, Anders Jansson, and Markús Þór Andrésson suggest that artists working in these geographies connect through their shared contention with rapid climate change. The curators argue that the 30 artists presented in Down Иorth make work at the periphery — the very edge of environmental adaptation — away from the conventions of urban centers. Like CHART, the “we” in Down Иorth is expansive to artists and traditions beyond the Northern paradigm. 

Since their proliferation in the 1990s, regional -iennials (biennials and triennials, commercial or otherwise) tend to exoticize regionality, seeking to confirm the assumptions of cultural capitals. As tandem events, Down Иorth and CHART suggest a model of regional exhibition-making that, instead of commodifying difference, teases out threads of particularity to refute essentialism common in contemporary art.

Installation view of Kaarina Kaikkonen, “We Need Some Hope” (2022) at CHART (photo by Niklas Adrian Vindelev, image courtesy CHART)

CHART’s focus is artist communities, the fair’s former executive director, Nanna Hjortenberg, emphasized at its opening. Now in its tenth year, the annual transnational event insists it’s more a “platform” than a fair with its year-round programming, demonstrating that artists don’t work in a vacuum and need support and community to create. “If you want a sustainable ecosystem within the arts sector, you need a home base,” Hjortenberg told Hyperallergic.

Copenhagen has been something of Nina Nowak’s home base after studying for a year at the Royal Academy while completing her MFA at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Ten years later at CHART, Nowak showed “Untitled” (2022), in Galleri Susanne Ottesen’s booth. Created from linden wood, carved delicately into a crescent, and creased as if it were cloth, “Untitled” exemplifies Nowak’s deep sensitivity to material, physically and conceptually. The wood’s deep folds texturally recall the sandstone that Nowak used in her 2021 solo show at the gallery, A Timeline Starting on the Surface, and the outdoor installation “Material World Pt. I, Equilibrium Tide” (2021–22), on view during the summer of 2022 at Denmark’s ARKEN.

Like Nowak, many of CHART’s artists contended with the natural or artificial stuff that comprises their specific environments. Kaikkonen complemented her exterior commission with several smaller-scale textile assemblages at Finland’s Galerie Forsblom. Portraiture and landscape painting were similarly reinvigorated, most notably with the solo presentation of Maria Nordin’s dry brush watercolor portraits, all of which present a body but obscure its face, at Sweden’s Galleri Magnus Karlsson. CHART’s only other solo presentation was Argentina-born, Berlin-based Tomás Saraceno, who showed animated cloud-like sculptures, each elegantly fashioned from industrial materials. Showing a well-known non-Nordic artist’s new work alongside established regional artists like Kaikkonen and emerging ones like Nordin successfully destabilizes border-driven curation by contextualizing through artist affinity instead of geography. 

Installation view of Down Иorth: North Atlantic Triennial at the Portland Museum of Art (2022) (image courtesy the museum)

Down Иorth likewise takes this tack, asking how to revisit and expand our notions of place. “What is it that formulates this “we” that we are all part of? How is community created and how can it be lost?” Jansson, Bildmuseet’s curator, questions in Down Иorth‘s catalogue. This is the exhibition’s perennial query, though Jansson asks explicitly of Mattias Olofsson’s installation “Everywhere but nowhere” (2022), in which the artist photographs residents of the tiny Swedish village, Burträsk, as a collective portrait. Representation and documentation (of colonized and endangered people and places) punctuate Down Иorth, which is careful to present Indigenous voices throughout, reinforcing that “we” are porous and polylithic.

Julie Edel Hardenberg’s “Oqaluttuarisaaneq/History” (2019), a Danish flag with strands of dark hair sewn at the seam of white and red, greeted viewers at the Portland Museum of Art’s installation. An undisguised contention with Denmark’s exploitative colonization of Greenland, “Oqaluttuarisaaneq/History” is not the sole contribution by Greenlandic artists. Jessie Kleemann’s “Arkhticós Doloros” (2019), in which she performs at the isolated Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, poetically wrestles with colonization and establishes the range of ways to do so. The colonization of Sámi people is as much confronted. Katarina Pirak Sikku, who researched race-biological studies on Sámi women in the 20th century, contributes determined drawings of ancestral reindeer marks and hiking trails. Máret Ánne Sara, one of the exhibiting artists for this year’s watershed Venice Biennial Samí Pavilion, shows “Wear your down as your ups, couse this dance will twist you inside out” (2021), reindeer skulls embellished with fabric and pattern. In contrast to her graceful installation in Venice — which also used reindeer parts — these are statuesque as if to insist on their presence and place. Like Hardenberg, Sara’s amalgamated strategies speak to the possibility of additive, instead of reductive, art histories.

Such work eschews staid geographical curating. “We soon discovered that what could be believed to be local histories or politics was being mirrored over the borders, latching on to a bigger narrative of the north,” Jansson says about Down Иorth’s expansive curatorial approach just before it opened in Reykjavík. Like Down Иorth, CHART assumes a supplementary strategy, effectively examining singular artistic practices as parts of regional knots that become a chain of global praxis. Such community-focused, “we”-driven strategies push beyond our borders, giving us hope indeed for new art historical terrain.

Katarina Pirak Sikku (Sápmi), “Katarina Pirak Sikkuvuorkkás:Birága ja Klementssone johtolagat ja máddariidboazomearkkat / From Katarina Pirak Sikku’s archive: Pirak’s and Klementsson’s hiking trails and ancestral reindeer marks” (2021), ink and watercolor on paper, 57 inches x 76 inches (© Katarina Pirak Sikku; photo by Piera Niilá Stålka, image courtesy the artist)
Lauren Fensterstock, “The Order of Things” (2016), mixed media with shells, overall: 78 inches x 240 inches x 26 inches (© Lauren Fensterstock; image courtesy the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, NY)
Nina Nowak, “Untitled” (2022), linden wood, beech wood, 22.83 inches x 39.37 inches x 6.69 inches (photo by Stine Heger, image courtesy the artist and Galleri Susanne Ottesen)
Ann Cathrin November Høibo, “I know you less every day” (2018), handwoven wool, silk, cotton, jersey, plastic, nylon, and wood, 86 1/4 inches x 66 1/4 inches x 1 1/34 inches (©Ann Cathrin November Høibo; photo by Thomas Tveter, image courtesy the Portland Art Museum)

Down Иorth: North Atlantic Triennial continues at Reykjavík Art Museum, Hafnarhús (Tryggvagata 17, 101, Reykjavík, Iceland) through February 5. The exhibition was curated by Jaime DeSimone, Anders Jansson, and Markús Þór Andrésson.

Leah Triplett Harrington a curator, writer, and editor. She has organized projects for Boston University Art Galleries, Abigail Ogilvy Gallery,Trestle Gallery, Herter Gallery, and others, and her writing...