Luleå Biennial 2018
Northern Sweden’s wealth of moving water is what has made the country one of the world’s foremost when it comes to using clean and renewable energy. But this has a price. During the 19th century, the rivers were expanded to an industrial scale. The natural waterfalls were manipulated with dams and enormous concrete reservoirs. The lives and habitats of animals as well as humans were changed, disturbed or even eradicated. Sacred ground was cleared with modern machines. Who remembers the waterfall that was closed off, or the stream that was silenced? In Memory of a River shows Örn turning to art history to find documentation of the lost waterways – only there have images of them been preserved. But who was it that portrayed the rivers; whose gaze is the source of our collective memory?
How did you start working on In Memory of a River?
The project begins with the fact that I live next to the Lule River, and have lived there for many years; that I ended up next to such a large and powerful river, and that such an incredibly amount of water flows past. Then I started to travel around in Norrbotten to look at the other rivers. I often found myself at Råne River, and thought it was so cozy and nice. But I never dwelled on the Lule River, and then I began to understand why: the whole river is extremely industrially developed. And later, a few years ago, my husband Tomas Örn and I began to travel around and look at the hydropower, with no aim in particular. And we began reading. I was fascinated by the fact that there was only a small trickle of a waterfall left, that nature had been rebuilt so tremendously, and it no longer seemed so strange that I had not thought it was so nice. I think that it is difficult to understand the landscape because it is so new and redesigned - there are no old structures left.
And how did this work lead to your engagement with the National Romanticism of Swedish art history?
I began to fantasise about the lost waterfalls, which the height they must have had since it is possible to extract so much electricity from them. And then I started looking for them on old maps, but they don’t really seem to be there. Instead, I found the waterfalls in the paintings that artists made up here at the turn of the last century, the time of Swedish romanticism. So the history of art became a starting point in the process, but also the fact that the artists were exclusively men; it was the men's gaze and the men's memories and the paintings remain at a men's museum in Stockholm. But finally I found a woman - Lotten von Düben - who had photographed the waterfalls during the late 19th century. Then it became exciting because it was a female point of view. At the same time, her work was also in the vein of national romanticism. Along with her husband, she travelled north to photograph the Sami, and these studies are unpleasant. But she also started to turn the camera towards nature. In my imagination, I think she understood that it was wrong, and was going in a different direction, mentally.
In parallel with this research, I came in contact with the researcher Berta Morata, who is a doctoral student at LTU (Luleå University of Technology). She also makes pictures of the river that I think are very beautiful, even though she does not see them as such: “I’m just making maps, what’s pretty about that?”. She collects information. For me, it is about visualising what is happening throughout the river valley; it is about electricity, transport and flows, and it becomes highly complex, it also includes a temporal aspect. She has also become aware of this colonial critique, but that is not what her research is about.
One of the biennial’s central themes is the concept of darkness. How would you think about that in relation to the story that is told in your work?
The river water is dark, it is so filled with soil. And then there is the whole dark story, when we turn and twist the material, Berta and I. She explains how we get out a lot of energy from the river, but also how a terrible amount of energy goes into exploiting it, all that concrete, all the power lines. She says that keeping the power lines clean produces carbon dioxide. Although it is environmentally friendly electricity, it is also brutal in several ways that are not immediately apparent. It is also dark in the way that an artist I met who lived by the river described it. During her childhood the rapids outside her house were shut off. She experienced it as "a silent darkness”.
Your project takes the form of an essay film, but you’ve also made sculptures of rippled rapids in aluminium. Can you tell us about the sculptures?
They were on my mind for a long time. When I started thinking about the waterfalls, very early on they turned intoa metaphor – I think art can be like that, sometimes. I had the idea to portray the waterfalls that no longer exist. So in that sense they are free: they do not represent any particular waterfalls. I think of the falls and the rapids as personal, they sounded different and looked different. One can probably see the sculptures as a kind of tribute to nature – that nature can be worthy of that. There is something loving about it, too, to also let yourself pursue what’s beautiful.