10 Contemporary Nordic Artists You Should Know
Shoplifter, Nervescape VII, 2017. Photo by Frosti Gnarr. Courtesy of the artist.
Think “Nordic art,” and Norwegian painter Edvard Munch probably comes to mind. His beautiful-yet-lonely landscapes and iconic portrayals of alienation (wrought most famously in The Scream, 1893) have become synonymous with the region. Munch’s legacy and influence remain strong: Many Nordic artists working today are also concerned with the landscape, as well as more psychological terrain.
Yet that’s hardly the full story. A new show at Washington D.C.’s Phillips Collection, “Nordic Impressions,” links generations of Nordic artists past with major living talents from the region, while also focusing on influential social components. Notably, the Nordic countries (which encompass Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the islands of Åland, Faroe, and Greenland) have long enjoyed significant gender parity and government support for creative endeavors.
Women artists are well-represented in the exhibition—a feat of both thoughtful curation and long support for Nordic women’s emancipation and art education. That’s not to say that the region doesn’t face challenges, though. The countries have a reputation for being ethnically homogenous, but “that’s vastly changing” with recent influxes of refugees, says Klaus Ottmann, chief curator of the Phillips Collection. The region isn’t always handling this with aplomb: Racism is on the rise.
Still, says Ottmann, “the Nordic countries in many ways have become models as far as social welfare and climate change goes.” Though the following artists don’t all explicitly reference politics in their work, they’ve benefited from a culture that esteems and bolsters their art. Alternately strange, humorous, and solemn, their practices represent the diversity of creative interests and methodologies throughout the region today.
Shoplifter (b. 1969, Icelandic)
Shoplifter, Nervescape IV, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.
As artist Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, better known as Shoplifter, tells it, she first became obsessed with hair when she saw her grandmother’s braid lopped off and stored in a drawer. “It was a part of her, but it was the ghost of her youth,” she said. “It was kind of creepy but mesmerizing at the same time.” The artist now creates colorful, hirsute sculptures and large-scale installations (the hair is sometimes real, sometimes synthetic). For a 2017 show at the National Gallery of Iceland, for example, Shoplifter created hanging banners of brightly colored fiber. An earlier photo-collage series featured patterns of interwoven braids.
Perhaps most famously, Shoplifter has worked as a kind of stylist and creative director for Björk, helping to produce her fellow countrywoman’s outrageous updos and various looks. Shoplifter herself will be in the international spotlight in 2019, when she represents Iceland at the Venice Biennale.
Tori Wrånes (b. 1978, Norwegian)
Tori Wrånes is one of the few contemporary artists who has made a career out of troll-related artwork and performances (though she’s certainly not the only one: Icelandic artist Egill Sæbjörnsson birthed two trolls who had their star turn at the 2017 Venice Biennale; according to an extensive background narrative, they made art and perfume and drank a lot of espresso).
For a 2017 solo presentation at Oslo’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Wrånes created films, photographs, and sculptures depicting the mythical creatures in diverse settings. In one photograph, a fringe-clad troll reclined across the hood of a car in the middle of a desert. Elsewhere, a sculpture featured a two-headed troll in white Nikes, holding her tail between her legs (at its end was a microphone). Lights flickered on and off throughout Wrånes’s immersive installation, turning the exhibition into a dramatic adventure for viewers: Wandering room to room, they found surprising new objects in each gallery (a pair of legs protruding from a purse, a wheelchair with a sombrero on top). “I think about the troll as a way to free identity, to play with characters. I think we’re all trolls,” Wrånes once said.
Ragnar Kjartansson (b. 1976, Icelandic)
A lively humor infuses Ragnar Kjartansson’s oeuvre: The artist never seems to take himself too seriously, and his pieces are often widely accessible. You need no art education, for instance, to enjoy his multi-channel film The Visitors (2012). The work features nine separate projections playing at the same time, in a single gallery: Each depicts a separate musician (including the artist himself) playing the same song, in the same upstate New York mansion. Moving and visually evocative, the ensemble scene evokes an intimate listening session rather than the typical museum-going experience.
Less lyrical, but just as arresting, is Me and My Mother (2000), in which the artist’s mother literally spits on him. Every five years, the pair repeats the action for the camera. Kjartansson is particularly known for his endurance-based performances: Participants in his films and installations often sing the same lyrics, or repeat the same scene, for hours on end.
Tal R (b. 1967, Danish-Israeli)
Tal R, The Drawing Class, 2014. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection.
Filled with carnival hues and blocky compositional elements, Tal R’s paintings merge decorative elements à la Henri Matisse with more contemporary, urban subject matter. For a 2017 show at New York’s Cheim & Read entitled “Keyhole,” the artist painted and drew the façades of sex clubs and other X-rated establishments. Some works were more abstract than others: One featured the establishment’s name, “Pussy’s,” in cursive scrawl across the front, yet horizontal pink and yellow lines took up a majority of another, more ambiguous canvas. Each composition became a suggestive portal, a celebration of exteriors and surfaces.
More recently, Tal R rendered the city of Detroit using only his imagination to capture the essence of its neighborhoods; the paintings were on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit this past summer. In shades of blue, he painted stripes, signs (Xs, Os, arrows, curlicues), and buildings with an energy reminiscent of Stuart Davis’s jazz-inflected portraits of New York.
Jesper Just (b. 1974, Danish)
Jesper Just makes short, sleek films with suspenseful soundtracks and ambiguous narratives. In Something to Love (2005), one man drives another through an empty parking garage, the camera capturing the passenger’s blank expression through the window. A locked door, a chase scene, and a makeout session with a mysterious blonde all seem plucked from a Hollywood blockbuster—yet no clear narrative emerges.
In A Question of Silence (2008), a woman nervously rubs her fingers together in her lap. The man sitting next to her slowly extends his arm around her shoulder. Just depicts ponderous relationships that consist of long glimpses, subtle movements, and silence. His cinematic worlds are dreamlike and fantastical, his characters opaque.
Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967, Icelandic-Danish)
A sense of play and wonder characterizes Olafur Eliasson’s oeuvre: mirrors, brightly colored glass, and optical tricks abound. A 2017 work, Rainbow Bridge, comprises 12 spheres of different hues, arranged in the order they’d appear in the visible spectrum. Walking past the orbs, some appear to be filled, instead with a glossy black: From different angles and perspectives, the pieces seem to shift before the viewers’ eyes, according to her movements. Eliasson has also created waterfalls at Versailles and in New York’s waterways. He believes that such works offer opportunities for shared, inclusive experiences.Viewers, he hoped, had the opportunity to think more deeply about public spaces and their resources. “Waterfalls are space producers, or space machines,” he said. “Obviously they are full of poetry and dreams.”
Eliasson’s practice isn’t totally earthbound, either: He once launched an LED light in a helium balloon over Stockholm, to resemble a new star. In 2017, he attempted to address recent global upheavals, hosting a workshop at the 2017 Venice Biennale where refugees could create lamps. Yet Eliasson’s multi-faceted practice has earned him acclaim for more than just visual art. Veering into architecture, he created a netted, crystalline façade for Iceland’s Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre. This past summer, Eliasson also ventured into hospitality, establishing a restaurant in Iceland (he’s long maintained a special kitchen in his Berlin studio).
Johannes Heldén (b. 1978, Swedish)
Johannes Heldén, VHS tape containing the feature film Gremlins (1984). Courtesy of the artist.
Writer, musician, and visual artist Johannes Heldén incorporates his many talents into fantastical multimedia presentations. For the 2017 Momentum 9, the Nordic Biennial of Contemporary Art in Moss, Norway, he wrote a book entitled New New Hampshire (2017), which tells the story of a New Hampshire town through details of various artifacts (a film, a hoodie, a cassette, a leaf with handwriting scrawled across it) found after a devastating, undiscussed incident. The show included some of these artifacts, displayed in vitrines or documented in films and audio samples. By exploring this material, the viewer gradually reconstructed a picture of the town, its inhabitants, and what was lost.
Heldén has long combined literature and artmaking: His 2016 book of poetry, Astroecology, featured photographs of forests, footnotes, and pawprints treading across the pages. Indeed, the natural world—and a desire for its preservation—are integral to Heldén’s oeuvre.
Eija-Liisa Ahtila (b. 1959, Finnish)
Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s projections cover expansive psychic territory—she’s depicted Christian iconography, the southern Finnish landscape, acrobats, and a chimpanzee throughout her cinematic installations. Ahtila leaves viewers to piece together their own narratives as they wander from gallery to gallery, where different films (and sometimes smaller photographs) play across the walls. With disjointed, immersive storytelling, Ahtila offers portraits of a fractured world.
From 2006–07, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited her three-channel film The Wind (2002), which depicts a young woman’s breakdown. The environment—a blue-walled home—tells as much of the story as close-up shots of the character’s distraught face. And for the work Potentiality for Love (2018), Ahtila created a sculptural scenario with an interactive component. Viewers were asked to sit at two tables with LED monitors running a program meant to help sufferers of phantom limb syndrome (the phenomena experienced by amputees that they still suffer pain or other sensations in limbs that they no longer have).
Mamma Andersson (b. 1962, Swedish)
In muted tones, Mamma Andersson creates woodblock prints that depict fields, cats, elaborate women’s gloves, and hares. Her works evoke a romanticized—perhaps haunted—past. Even when Andersson renders human figures, her compositions maintain a ghostly sense of emptiness (she’s also made pictures of headless gentlemen).
Her investment in the woodblock as a medium recalls the printing practice of Munch: Her Nordic predecessor created woodblock prints that similarly exude alienation with a similar palette. “My style follows a very Nordic painting tradition: landscapes, interiors, relationships, and dramas. I am very much inspired by theater and film,” she once said.
Katrin Sigurdardóttir (b. 1967, Icelandic)
Katrin Sigurdardóttir represented Iceland in the 2013 Venice Biennale with a work, Foundation (2013), made for both viewers’ eyes and feet. She constructed a floor elevated on wooden supports, which wove in and out of the old laundry where it was situated. Viewers could walk across the handmade, ornamental tiles.
Shirking art world norms, Sigurdardóttir created a work at the intersection of construction, design, and architecture. Uneven around the edges, the piece didn’t precisely fit its space. Instead, it appeared like a jagged ruin that had been transported somewhere it didn’t quite belong. Indeed, Sigurdardóttir has built her career on sculptures that remind us of familiar structures—a home, an interior room—that are uncanny, disproportionate, and pleasantly unsettling.