A Northern Gateway to the Charm and Gravity of Life

Forsidebilde til utstillinga Det gode liv
The group exhibition The Sweetness of Living during the Arctic Arts Festival in Northern Norway explores the good life in the north – with current societal issues as a backdrop. (Photo: Michael Miller)

For this year's Arctic Arts Festival exhibition, the curatorial collective Pikene på Broen and various artists offer interesting perspectives on the good life in the north. Shoulders are lowered, senses are engaged – and Finnish gallows humor incites smiles all around.

Norwegian version.

A look back on the True Northern Arts Festival in Harstad, Northern Norway, earlier this summer:

What is 'the sweet life' – la dolce vita – in a northern context? And how can it be examined in light of gloomy societal developments?

Developments such as climate change and loss of biological diversity; the green shift; food and energy crises; the decay of minorities' traditional knowledge and out-migration from northern communities – as well as geopolitical conflict and war.

These questions are at the base of The Sweetness of Living exhibition, presented during the True Northern Arts Festival.

It includes works created by artists from different places in the Nordic region – and is curated by Pikene på Broen (the Girls on the Bridge), a collective of curators and producers in Kirkenes, Northern Norway. 

Among these are KVAE & BARK, an artist duo consisting of Karoline Sætre and Øyvind Novak Jenssen.

They present the installation Joint soil, shared table [ed. translation]: An inviting interaction between wood in natural and refined forms, seaweed and kelp, sea urchins and shells, textiles and flowers.

Øyvind Novak Jenssen and Karoline Sætre of KVAE & BARK work on projects in the range between contemporary art and culinary experience. They operate in various landscapes both in the north and the south of Norway – where they gather from local flora and fauna. (Photo: Astri Edvardsen)


The shapes, the colors, and the smells offer a lively resonance to the current summer. The composition can also, for the lucky ones, offer a wonderful echo of summers growing up along the northern Norwegian coast.

"This installation is based on three structures made through gathering from different biotopes: the city, the low tide shore, and the forest," says Sætre and continues:

"We also have a fourth structure in the form of a long table. This works as an arena to showcase our meeting with Harstad's raw materials. We have gotten to know these in the past two weeks. The audience is invited into a sensory installation in which both smell and taste are important supporting players of art.

She and co-artist Jenssen are dressed in kitchen aprons – in full swing preparing a performative dinner with locally harvested ingredients and lyrical stories. 

The black table is set and lit up by bouquets of cornflower, caraway, buttercup, red clover, and nettle.

Soon, they offer a wealth of spicy herbs, sweet sea urchins, and refreshing rhubarb sorbet for happy, buzzing guests.

La dolce vita à la l'Artico.

Generational gap

In interaction with the installation mentioned above, a long rust-brown woolen cloth hangs from the ceiling. It is dyed with stone lichen, gathered in traditional Kven areas in Troms and Finnmark in Northern Norway. The Kvens are a national ethnic minority in Norway of Finnish descent.

The artwork is created by Åsne Kummeneje Mellem – and carries the name I Never Learnt My Mother Tounge.

Through experimentation with Kven crafts, käsityö, she aims to create dialogue about the traditional knowledge which is not passed on to new generations.

Åsne Kummeneje Mellem: I Never Learnt My Mother Tounge (2021). (Photo: Oleg Khadartsev/Pikene på Broen)

Tragedy and comedy


That is declared by the Puolanka Pessimism Association with big, black block letters on a white wall.

The side wall, with the photo series Puolanka exists, shows the small Finnish town in 'all its glory' during the spring thaw – with dirty piles of snow and thin, brown grass.

In the captions, the pessimist community is at play with gallows humor. Partly at the expense of the condition of the hometown – and partly with a loving longing for what has been and may be resurrected.

Here, one lingers. Because the photos and the writing on the wall (with a double meaning) illustrate the phenomenon relevant for many small towns in Arctic countries: the youth relocates, and the local community crumbles. At the same time, the black humorous twist triggers both laughter and progress.

The EU Commission actually points to the pessimistic project in Puolanka as an example of successful territorial marketing. The pessimists can boast increased visibility, life and activity; new work opportunities for young people – and improved welfare services.

Things are never so bad that they are not good for anything.

We're walking like in a Dolce Vita. This time we got it right. We're living like in a Dolce Vita. Gonna dream tonight.
Quote from Ryan Paris’ song Dolce Vita


In more detail, the exhibition is part of an ongoing artistic research project also titled The Sweetness of Living.

The project started in the fall of 2020 and has been a common thread throughout several of Pikene på Broen's curatorial activities since then.

For example, two art laboratories were organized in Sør-Varanger, Northern Norway, and in Murmansk, Russia. At these, artists, researchers and local bearers of knowledge immersed themselves in complex issues and philosophical activities.

The collection of artwork and archives presented during the Arctic Arts Festival are connected to these processes. The exhibition also forms a stage for performative lectures and concerts.

"We have chosen the theme in connection with our northern regions and how artists react in this context. In short, the project is about shedding light on relations in the north and the significance of living outside of work and productivity," says curator Neal Cahoon.

Pikene på Broen about the exhibition's ideational backdrop:

«The ideas connected to 'la dolce vita' – or the sweetness of living – describes a normal attitude in southern Europe and is claimed to be qualitatively different from the protestant work ethic in northern European countries. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben believes that this attitude describes a completely different relationship to the future, a restoration of time, a resistance against capitalism, and the preservation of a meaningful way to live. In short: the ability to define life as something outside work."

Espen Sommer Eide: Arkadia 02-22 (2022-). This audio-visual work is based on travels, experiments, and performances north in Norway, Finland, and Russia over 20 years. The film and sound material are composed and presented anew with the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning models. The work forms a hypnotic loop in which repetition and rituals weave together several audio-visual performances based on everyday experiences. (Video: Astri Edvardsen)
A selection of photos from the work processes that began in the fall of 2020 and led to the exhibition The Sweetness of Living this summer. (Screenshot fra Pikene på Broen's brochure)

Also read

This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.