(In)Corporeality – Reflections on Materiality and the North
Ingeborg Annie Lindahl’s work is the juxtaposition of her fascination with destruction and the preservation of the Earth and its natural resources. Nature in transformation, owing to natural causes and human impact, is an underlying theme throughout Lindahl’s work. Drawn from Nature, is an on-going series that Lindahl began in 2013. This body of work consists of large-scale chalk drawings in the form of site-specific installation and performance. The landscape imagery is inspired by specific regions of Northern Norway along with other places in the world. The artist displays sprawling mountain ranges sketched in white chalk on a black background. This particular series peaked my interest in her work and thus the starting point for this essay. Focusing primarily on materiality and the North I’ll explore to what extent Lindahl cultivates these concepts together with her viewpoints regarding nature and place.
What is chalk?
Lindahl works with chalk in various forms including pigment, plaster and marble. For Lindahl chalk is not simply a drawing instrument. For starters chalk is a natural material originating from sedimentary rock, a white form of limestone. Most of the chalk found today is anywhere from 60 to 100 million years old. Chalk forms underwater by the slow accumulation and compression of the calcite shells of single-celled plant-like organisms. Chalk’s chemical composition is calcium carbonate. When subjected to heat and pressure chalk turns to marble. Today most sidewalk and blackboard chalk is crafted from gypsum, calcium sulfate.
Chalk conjures of memories of my childhood days especially during outdoor playtime and classroom learning. Observing teachers write on the blackboard with chalk was for me a pleasant experience. Another fond recollection was eagerly awaiting the melting snow to dry on patches of the asphalt driveway creating the perfect palette for colored chalk doodles. I distinctly remember that summer feeling of gritty chalk on hands and fingers, and the frustration of not being able to draw a precise line. A brand new stick of chalk would quickly dull, making it more difficult to control for drawing pictures and the like. Remember chalkboard erasers? Brick-sized chunks of felt strips were used to clear unwanted chalk markings off chalkboards. Chalk erasers often had a long life because they were easily freed of excess chalk dust by clapping two together or striking against a hard surface. Teachers sometimes used “clapping the erasers” as soft punishment for classroom shenanigans. Many students however saw this as a reward. Clapping the chalkboard erasers was great fun!
Chalk also draws reference to popular culture. Anyone who has watched the American animated sit-com The Simpsons will recall Bart during the opening credits writing the same sentence repeatedly on the chalkboard as a form of punishment. And who can forget the old Hollywood movies in which chalk outlined bodies of unfortunate victims of the crime scenes?
Rock climbers typically use white performance chalk for a better grip. Chalk eliminates sweat and increases friction. However prolonged long-term use of white chalk damages rock surfaces on cliffs and boulders. National parks in the US enforce a “leave no trace” policy in order to protect the environment. For example the use of white chalk is banned in popular climbing areas such as the Garden of the Gods in Colorado and Arches National Park in Utah.
Chalk may leave detrimental traces, but contradictorily it is also associated with temporariness, that which can be erased and washed away. In tune with this unique characteristic Lindahl uses chalk to call attention to the ephemeral nature of life. Her approach involves a self-assigned rule to never concede and never turn back. Once chalk is applied to the surface, it is there to stay. Lindahl then reworks and modifies her work, but never completely removes the previously applied pigment. This can be interpreted as a reminder of the human impact on the natural environment and the traces that we leave behind.
Drawn from Nature comprises drawings that fill entire walls from floor to ceiling in the exhibition space. Just to give a sense of scale, her largest drawing measures three by forty-two meters. The sheer size of the work invites viewers to engage in a corporeal experience. The movement of the visitor’s body along the entire length of the landscape is an important aspect of the perceptual process. In the piece Skewed Nature (2014) visitors were invited to tread across artwork leaving their footprints on the black surface. When visitors become active participants in Lindahl’s work they quickly realize that they have been drawn into an inescapable role of reshaping the artwork.
At the close of the exhibition the drawings are wiped, washed away and eventually painted over. Lindahl shared that she has witnessed visitors in tears as they watch the dismantling of her installations. As a viewer we detect a dry sense of humor and almost playfulness in her work. In the face of tragedy we can cry but we can also laugh. Scientifically we know that laughter is a powerful force. There’s a thin line between misfortune and comedy. Perhaps it’s a natural response considering the themes she explores. Life is fleeting and nature is brutal. We are gently reminded of our own mortality. In reality our very own bones are made up of chalk. Lindahl reminds us of the fact that all of mankind is in the early stages of degenerating.
What is the definition of Arctic art? Recently an art critic asked me if art from Northern Norway is different. Were there specific characteristics that sets it apart from art from other places in Norway? Taking into consideration the increasingly alarming climate issues of the circumpolar north I would argue that artists with insider perspectives who work and operate in places close to nature hold stake in their surroundings. The impact from climate change and industry is undeniably visible in the Arctic region. Artists like Lindahl focus on these environmental challenges. We can’t really fully understand preservation and conservation of the environment if we don’t experience nature. For people living here, the North is not just a place. It’s home. It’s livelihood.
Lindahl lives and works in Harstad where she was born and raised. Harstad is located north of the Arctic Circle (latitude 68° north) just south of Tromsø. Lindahl was an art student in the first graduating class of The Tromsø Academy of Contemporary Art in 2010. She follows a long line of artists who also depicted the landscape of Northern Norway. By and large the artists who came to Northern Norway in the nineteenth were accompanying research expeditions. Today artists are still drawn to the region to experience the dramatic landscape, unique light and ways of life. Historically the fishing industry in Lofoten and whaling industry in Tromsø have also inspired many artists.
In her portrayals of mountainous landscapes, Lindahl embraces modern technology, personal experience and knowledge of place. Subsistence 1 was one of three works from Drawn from Nature commissioned for The Festival Exhibition at The Arctic Arts Festival in Harstad in 2017. Lindahl donated the piece to Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum’s collection at the close of the show. A satellite photo of Grytøya, an island located just outside Harstad, inspired the work. This island was a strategic hub at the beginning of the Christian era in Norway. Thorir (Tore) Hund (born ca. 990), one of the great Viking chieftains, lived on this island and operated a bustling trade center with the Sámi. Thorir Hund was one of the leaders of the Stiklestad peasant factory who opposed Norwegian King Olaf II and was reported to have been among the chieftains who killed the King in the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030.
Lindahl’s fieldwork and thorough research provides another layer of meaning to her work. The imagery is not just random mountainscapes of Northern Norway. Each landscape holds embedded history and meaning. The chalk pigment in Subsistence 1 is “fixed” that is, the pigment is “glued down” and won’t rub off, setting it apart from the other works from this series. Additionally the drawing is framed by a 2.5 meter gold gilded frame. The frame is an integral part of the piece and connects the drawing with the past. If we think in terms of materiality and the sheets of gold leaf used to guild the frame it draws an interesting parallel to minerals and extraction of natural resources. It is also a cry to mankind’s destruction of one place and protection of another. As a frame it serves to protect the artwork and in turn the landscape. Chalk, the island’s history, and the gilded frame all serve to draw attention to history in human culture.
Lindahl’s research on satellite images and aerial perspectives of the North inspire expanded thinking of the landscape. The images and aerial views retrieve traces on the landscape and in turn allude to the embedded history of place. Tracks are witnessed from above, those of animals, moose trails in marshy wetlands, and also of humans. We might think about even further remaining traces, such as the remnants of rock art found scattered throughout Northern Norway that also draw us back in time. What other traces of impact can we identify?
In 2018 Lindahl was commissioned to do a site-specific piece at the new art museum, Konstmuseet i Norr, in Kiruna, northern Sweden. First some helpful background information. Human impact on the environment has forced Sweden to relocate the town of Kiruna. The state-owned mining company, Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara, extracted iron ore from under Kiruna for nearly 70 years. As a result the ground above the mine is sinking and will eventually swallow the land upon which the town is built. Although the Swedish government was aware of the problem years earlier, the decision to move the town wasn’t until 2004. As the first real-world example of a town of its size to be relocated, Kiruna could serve as a model for other cities under threat. Landscape of Change was the theme for the opening exhibition in the new art museum in the new town. Lindahl’s installation, Iron Ore Line, a continuation of the Drawn from Nature series, stretched over two entire walls in the museum. She was one of several artists featured in the exhibition who are based in the Arctic. What could be a more fitting arena for Lindahl’s work providing with new perspectives on landscape and transformation!
We’ve looked at Lindahl’s performance drawing from Drawn from Nature. Now let’s return to where the series began in 2013 with another performance in the public space in Karelia in Northwest Russia. Imaging the well-known scene of Christ carrying the cross, Lindahl carried a green chalkboard on her back barefoot in a public square in downtown Petrozavodsk. Her feet left footprints in the frost on the asphalt as she made her way to a public monument. Here she set up the chalkboard and started to draw a crater – a symbol of creation and destruction. Shortly thereafter, Russian soldiers armed with machine-guns gathered to closely observe the situation. In Russia public demonstrations are allowed as long as only one individual is involved. Lindahl grew concerned about the people in her film crew worried that they might be counted as well thereby staging an illegal demonstration. Lindahl offered sticks of chalk to the soldiers inviting them to take part in her drawing but they were not impressed. Shortly thereafter she was forced to end the performance at risk to being arrested.
Tension of the opposites
Lindahl’s work creates a link between corporeality i.e. having, consisting of, or relating to a physical material body and incorporeality, no material body or form. We can also think of these two terms as objects and ideas, as materiality and immateriality. What are some of the material aspects? Let’s start with the landscape and the mountains themselves, massive landforms materialized through tectonic forces or volcanism. Then there arecraters, formed by impact or volcanic activity. Lindahl uses chalk as a raw material to draw the landscape. Chalk can also be seen as an extension of the human body. It is the makeup of our bones and part of our lifelong journey to eventually reunite with the earth as minerals. On the incorporeal side Lindahl draws upon history of place and knowledge. She also harnesses the potential between opposing forces, employing themes such as create-destroy and temporary-permanent. Tension can be uncomfortable, but can also expand our thinking of nature and place. It is this aspect of her work that widens the viewer’s perspectives about their own place in nature. Despite the advances of modern day technology and knowledge, humanity is destroying the planet. Perhaps it’s time to wipe the slate clean and start anew? Without a doubt Lindahl’s work inspires us to rethink our relationship to the natural environment.