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My life at the Luleå biennial

I spent around six weeks in the North of Sweden, Norrbotten county, between 20 of October until the 24 of November 2020. 13-hour drive from Stockholm and the farthest I've been away while still in Sweden. I came there to work as a project assistant on a large-scale exhibition and was excited to go and spend some time in the high north.

I decided to write in detail about arriving and leaving Luleå. I could never sum up the experience better than with this Spotify playlist, which contains the Karaoke hits we sang at our Airbnb. It was the soundtrack of my life at the Luleå biennial.

As I approached the gate at Arlanda Airport, many started putting on their surgical masks as they boarded the plane. I spotted Vera, my (then future) colleague and flatmate, who arrived from Helsinki. I sat next to her as we started chatting as if we are old friends going on holiday. She had one of those black reusable masks on, and I think I told her she looks like a ninja.

Vera pre-booked her seat before me so- we didn't sit together- I was one row behind her. She pointed out the plane does not have row 13. It goes from 12 to 14!

I never noticed that! I guess it is because of bad luck? Triskaidekaphobia!

The flight was full, and although only a one-hour domestic flight, it was my first time flying in Corona times. The air vent was not working. I almost had a panic attack during the first 30 minutes, thinking I could not breathe with the mask (I got from Lidl). I calmed myself down by watching an episode of Netflix Unsolved Mysteries titled A death in Oslo.

After we landed, we took the red LLT bus to the center to get the key from Axel (a friend of our host, Rickard). The station we were supposed to get off at was called shopping. I thought it was strange the spelling in English and not köping.

(I later found out it was the first indoor shopping mall in the world.)

Axel looked like a typical Metalhead Swede, probably used to play bass in a local band.

He lives above a candy store across the street from Coop. He handed me a single ASSA key with a coin-shaped silver key chain. It said Suomi on top and below Finland on it and has this lion-like creature on it, probably memorabilia that looks the same as the symbol I got on my Tunturi bicycle. We were very close to the land border with Finland- which means very up north. I remembered a friend told me there is a conspiracy theory that Finland does not exist. (It seems like a conspiracy theory that mocks the idea of conspiracy theories)

I don't know if I expected otherwise but it was freezing and full of snow-piles everywhere when we arrived. It was the strangest thing to see Autumn in such temperatures.

The trees were still full of yellowish leaves and branches decorated in the white, heavy foam.

I wanted to explore the area the next day, but I couldn't because of the blizzard that went on for two days straight. I was looking outside the window, watching the nonstop showers coming fast from the sides. Slowly covering the view of the little town outside in a thick, fluffy, bright blanket, we were snowed-in.

In the weeks after, it all was all slowly melting. The harsh cold, replaced with a much more mild cold. It was wet, cloudy with fog, mist, and rain but no snow. The days were short and the light disappeared around 2 PM but there was no complete winter darkness yet.

All the days I spent with the promise of seeing the northern lights in all their glory.

A wish that never came true.

This wish took us to midnight walkabouts, circling our neighborhood looking at the empty skies in vain. In retrospect, it was fun chasing them.

It became a myth, like walking in the forest to find a real live Yeti and ending up discovering a Facebook data center instead.

On the opening weekend, I had a day off. I could go to see the exhibition of the main venue as a viewer. I went on the slippery ice with my fob (or is it blip?) to open the Konsthall in Kulturens Hus and took my time to see each work.

Arne Stenman was an illusionist. No one remembers him anymore.

These words burned into my memory from all the texts written about the works in the biennial. It has been a cause to reflect on the title Time on Earth as a notion regarding what kind of life we lead. This pandemic made me think of Mankind, the planet, and time in a much broader and bigger context. The crisis allowed us to see how things are connected globally in a much more direct way as we were all affected by it. In times of crisis, the question of urgency rises -is art a necessity?

I always thought of art as being the direct opposite of entertainment. Not to say we can not get amused by art, we can. It is just an indicator that there should be something more.

The experience is more complex and tangled with unease. Art viewing requires one to be extra vigilant, open, and mindful. It should never be an easy task or an escape.

Under the broader umbrella of Arts and Culture, I never enjoyed the circus,

but I always liked Magic.

Maybe it is because I belong to those who see art as a game played over many centuries (with full denial of the pedagogical turn).

In Memory of an Illusionist (detail) by Isak Sundströms
Photo Credit: Vera Kavaleuskaya

Isak Sundströms work, In Memory of an Illusionist (2020), was perhaps the most direct interpretation of the 2020/2021 biennial unofficial theme, contemporary Magic realism.

The exhibit in Luleå Konsthall consisted of the fragments of Arne Stenman's life remaining.

His decaying props- a blue fabric, a red cape, a dark magician coat, and a magic wand- hung on a wall and beautifully framed. Aside are two yellow posters, one with an image of the barn- near the illusionist demolished place of residence, where the artist found the objects. Printed on the other is a short text that sums up his activity in the 1950s-1960s. He was running the Nordic Factory of Wizardry Appliances of the region from inside the forest.

Installation view of In Memory of an Illusionist by Isak Sundströms, Luleå Konsthall, 21.11.2020~14.2.2020.

This gesture by Sundströms might have been framed as appropriation a decade ago.

Display of the fabrics as if they contain the essence, testimony of the labor of this illusionist. The psychological effect we get when things are up on display as they appear essential to be kept, looked at but not to use, is the power of an exhibition.

For me, there is always this one work that opens me up to get engaged with the concept. It is an illusion that a show has one clear theme. It often has several, approached by attitudes and paths of the multitude and always hard to word.

On the last day, we were busy packing... I arrived with small luggage so, I did a lot of laundry loads. The whole place vibrated when it was on spin cycle. It felt like an earthquake.

We spend the day slowly tidying up, folding, taking out the trash, removing glögg stains from the couch cushion, wiping the sticky beer puddle off the side of the room, vacuuming the cow carpet with the hoover with an awful coconut-scented filter.

Removing all the colored plastic bags from the lights fixtures, Vera placed them on to make the place party-like for the karaoke nights. I kept the one I had in the bedroom from the first party because it felt cozy to have that warm light at night from that orange Stadium shopping bag. I emptied the water from the smiling Omnipollo stout bottles we kept as vases for the pine branches I found fallen a day after a storm. Our staircase always smelled piney. The structure was all newly varnished wood, and as we used to say while we climbed up home after a long day, it smelled just like a sauna. I carefully placed the pine branches in the compost bin along with eggs that expired a week after Vera bought them and stayed archived in the fridge.

Little by little, I successfully packed all my things in my suitcase. I had to fit two more t-shirts I got as gifts, my new luxury towel Hemtex I bought myself, a couple more jackets, a bathing suit, and an extra pair of shoes that were sent to me by post from home. It was a miracle everything fitted snugly.

I reattached the flashy motorcycle race suit to stand in the corner of the hall like a Knight armor. Then rearranged that silly saying on the hanging board as it was in the living room, placing back the world's most generic record collection on the display shelf. Hanging the acrylic-painted modular canvases on the bedroom to fit like a puzzle, I saw Vera is also packed and ready.

Photo Credit: Vera Kavaleuskaya

I turned on the MusicMan Karaoke Microphone BT-X31 and began singing the Bradley Cooper part (mine) of Shallow, the best (worst) karaoke song ever. This was about 23:00.

I think we finished at 3:45. Like most Karaoke nights, we were loud, but I think we provided some epic cover versions. Otherwise, I will never know how the police never came and took us away every single time, Putina pragani!

The Luleå Biennial 2020:

Time on Earth


*The Luleå Biennial takes place in the Norrbotten country of Sweden-at the arctic circle at the border with Finland. The region – with its heavy industries, mining landscapes, high-tech research centers, unique nature, and the historical homeland of the Sami people, Sapmi – plays host to one of the world’s northernmost art events. Time on Earth took place in Luleå, Boden, Malmberget, Storforsen, Arjeplog, and Korpilombolo – in an evacuated school, in a church, at a silver museum, at art centers, in a former prison, and at Norrbottens Regional Museum. (from the website)

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