Pilgrimage is defined as a journey, or search, of spiritual or moral significance: and as my adventure to the far flung island of Veno, north of Selje, on the Norwegian coast above Bergen unfolded, I’m left in no doubt that this is exactly what my journey has been.
The Performance Art festival of Veno Gard KUNST is the brainchild of Julia Kroener and Bjorn Veno, with ‘KUNST’ standing for Kindle, Unite, Nurture, & Stimulate, Thought. Part of the ethos of the festival is that the getting there is a performance in itself, and be in no doubt the island is far, far, away but the journey is worth it for the scenery alone: the type of which inspired the Romantics and left them aghast. There is also no doubt that the festival, in it’s maiden year, has been thought provoking. Julia and Bjorn gathered an assortment of performance artists from Finland, Norway, Ireland, England and France, who performed their their works within the spectacular backdrops, beautiful and wild, that the island provided. The festival staged over two days, from 11th-12th of July 2015, combined solo, duo, and group performances from the artists, which culminated each day in Q&A evening discussions between the performers, and the public that had come to see them: with the last debate becoming piquant in particular.
On the first day we have been lucky, the weather is great, and it seems I’ve been able to drag some good weather up with me from London during my five hour boat ride through the Fjords, from Bergen, on my way to Veno. I emerged from my little tent, pitched in haste with friends as the evening gnats swarmed around us, into a buoyant mood, smiles, and crisp sunshine. We are informed by Julia that a storm ripped through the mountains a day earlier, but Jessica, Bjorn’s sister, declared her optimism that the weather would be fine come the day, and she proved correct. At the information centre, an improvised space next to the barn, we were given maps of the island with scheduled performances by the artists at different locations on the rugged landscape. Guests were encouraged, after a deep breath, to take faith and follow the magenta ribbons dotted about which lead to the areas where the artists were to perform: I have an issue with heights, but the Norwegian guests that had come to visit the festival, and commune of 40, seemed unfazed by some of the perilously placed ribbons, and took to the landscape much like the long haired sheep that bleated out, in ragged voices, at what they saw.
First up on day one was veteran performance artist, and head tutor of Performance Art the RCA, Nigel Rolfe. Rolfe: a statuesque man of sloping grandeur, and august knowledge, set out for the hills with white painted chairs, implacable expression, and relentless strides to leave younger guests that followed struggling to keep up. He would take his chairs, from the barn, at interval for what would be a four hour performance, and deposit them with solemn focus, as if in deep reflection, at far flung rocky outcrops or where the sea met the craggy shore, and set fire to them. People, with cameras poised, would gather around, at a safe distance, and make sofas of the lichen covered boulders to watch Rolfe drench the spindle-like chairs with kerosene, and watch the flames rise as the white chairs blistered into black. The work, so simple, in the sublime landscape shouted out in silence, as the ripple of the waves and the calls of distant marine birds were all that punctuated the deafening quiet. One of Rolfe’s pieces, the last burning, took on great significance when he positioned a chair right at the water’s edge, set fire to it, and in a stroke managed to combine seven conceptual elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, Wood, and when the white chair stopped burning, only half consumed by jet black, the symbol of Yin and Yang became obvious. It could be argued that there was an element of chance with the burning, but the elemental nature of the work became immediately understood by all those that watched, and as the rock beneath the chair continued to burn many still looked on, long after Rolfe had moved off, as if it were the remains of a domestic meteorite that had crashed to earth. Not every work performed was as successful as Rolfe’s on day one, but there were stand out performances to come.
Between chair burnings, I was able to take a ride in a small boat and be rowed along by Karianne Stensland. We had a pleasant conversation on the pristine inland lake, and she encouraged me to draw what I saw as she rowed toward a crack in the land that lead out to the wide Norwegian sea. I did as bidden, and produced a very quick sketch of the landscape. She complemented my work, and rowed me back to the pontoon where I was then told I had been part of her piece, and that my drawing had become part of an exhibition: an unusual but pleasant surprise.
The next performance to be seen was the work of the Norwegian artist Kurt Johannessen. Guests consulted their maps, and were ushered with the sweep of an arm in the direction of where the artist dwelled. Across a field, next to an out house, and among a cluster of thin silver birch Johannessen tied delicate white thread to moss covered branches. Moving as if in meditative prayer Johannessen would reach up, like a mother to a new bride, and tie a thread, here and there, to then roll the string back to the center of his plot. One by one the balls of thread lead to the middle like a spider’s web spotted with eggs. I wished the string were thicker and of brighter colour so that it could easily be seen, but as Johannessen’s later work would suggest: he is fond of the ephemeral and delicate. The audience watched spell bound as the man went about his work, and few moved when it began to rain. There is pause for a bite to eat before the first day closes with a group performance: Malaysian food has been cooked by a relative by marriage and I buy some spring rolls, before I nip into the ‘artist’s house’, donated for a few days by Anita (a cousin to Bjorn), for tasty coconut fish soup.
The evening performance has an unusual start. Vincent Campos, a Parisian performance artist, stands in the steep incline that over hangs a shallow grassy gully, poised with surgical gloves next to a small red table strewn with the island’s cotton flowers. A scene from Alice: Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 cult classic springs to mind, and Vincent, distracted, looks over his shoulder toward the sea as Johannessen’s wife rings a bell. The audience, with surprising agility, had stationed themselves either side of the gully on the protruding rocks and watched Vincent next to his table when the ringing stops: the bell had fallen apart, but is reassembled in haste and almost convinces as performance, when Vincent encourages nervous spectators to take part in an ‘operation’. The volunteers are informed that they are to perform cosmetic surgery on a stone: at that point only the wind can be heard, but from the distance the Finnish performance artists Katri Kainulainen and Maximilian Latva carry a large stone between them and make their way up an incline to the table. The rock is laid down like a new born and the ‘cosmetic surgery’ begins. Vincent shares a white pencil and encourages four volunteers to draw lines of incision at sections across the stone. Then a sticky gel is applied by him, and the volunteers instructed to use a Brillo pad and rub at the gel with vigor; this work done the cotton flowers are then applied to ‘transform’ the stone into a sheep. The magic almost works, and would have done if enough cotton flowers had been collected: a shaved sheep at best.
The crowd looked else where. Kurt Johannessen emerges, as if from no where, with white ribbons streaming from his hands like a black scare-crow version of Edward Scissor hands: we sways as if in a strong wind. The Finnish artists then take center stage with the most compelling performance I had seen thus far: Katri had stripped to black lingerie, and held her bra straps aloft far above her head, and walked as if in a trance, slow and steady, as Maximilian followed with a macabre ‘baby’ made of a sun bleached lamb’s skull, and a body of woven wicker. The audience watched engrossed, and followed after the couple as they moved through the gully: transfixed and oblivious. The audience paused at the top of the next drop below to watch the couple disappear among the trees into a cleft that lead to the sea. I felt compelled to see the end of the performance, and split the skin on my left hand when I fell on the steep rocks: I licked my wound and carried on. I traversed the treacherous ground to catch up with the pair and congratulate them on an uncomplicated, but gripping, performance. The artistic day ends with a mild debate about performance, but then burns with life as almost thirty people gather for dinner in the petite artist’s house.
Vincent Campos stands wearing a disposable plastic cagoule, as my friends attach white paper ‘boats’ to it with thin red string. The paper boats scatter the ground. It’s unexpected but the image is beautiful: a man stands still among paper boats that look, from the steps, like sea gulls flying in a stormy sky. His performance begins at 12 pm: he and the crowd process, the boats drag behind, a religious mood takes hold, my friend pretends to flay herself, Vincent reaches the pontoon, the crowd hang back to watch, he walks downward across the lake, and tortured gestures are made, he reaches the end, he stares at the water, the anticipation rises, we want to scream ‘jump!’ But he doesn’t move, the moment is lost, the piece is not ended as it demands, and the audience loose interest. Performance art is tough.
Claire Blundell Jones, from England, attempts a piece that involves ‘distance’ from the audience as she eloquently discussed at the debate the previous evening. But the concept of distance is taken too far, and binoculars are required to see her performance on a neighbouring island. Her clothes blend in with the environment, as she holds a long horned rams head aloft. I squint to see her unaided, but she is lost and devoured by the landscape: thoroughly overwhelmed by tree, hill, and mountain. Performance art is tough.
Johannessen pulls a master stroke to show the younger ones how it’s done: at first he cannot be found, the audience searches, heads are scratched, and then we hear sounds of effort come from a huge boulder, upon a hillock, the size of three cars. We all rush to see the artist’s desperate fight while he is under the rock, struggling in a narrow gap, and trying to lift it with his back; cameras flash, the work is understood, and a visitor declares: ‘we all have huge burdens to bare’. The crowd dissipates, and he finishes the piece by trying to lift the 30 tonne boulder with two straws of dry grass: the quickest and most successful piece of the day.
The Finnish couple dazzle and transfix again: when Katri emerges from a white perspex box as a chain smoking nurse, six ciggies at a time, and crawls through a brook up-hill on all fours, after Maximilian wielded an axe above her, striped naked, and ran down-hill to transforms into an absurd Jester-King, who flays at the air with a silver 7 ft inflatable sword. It was an excellent piece of theatre of dream-like quality, and unforgettable.
The great culmination of the day is the group performance around a spectacular pond: everyone is there, except Blundell Jones whom we are left to presume is still on her island, and the artists together pull out the stops. The shallow pond, an enclave, is sandwiched between a green cliff and the stepped shore with views out to sea, and a narrow path that leads to a wider meadow: a better spot could not have been chosen. The performance begins with Karianne hacking into lumps of wood with a short axe, before she clambers amongst the trees and thrashes at the branches with intensity. In slow motion the other artists join the pool: Kurt emerges out of a thicket and carries a blue bowl, his wife emerges later and holds a white vial in her hands as she moves with delicacy from one rock to another. Nigel emerges from another point near the field, as he clutched a sapling pine to his head with his shoulders doused in blue powder. The soft physique of Vincent can be seen, sitting on a rock, as he seems to take on a Gallic role of voyeur, as the others move like planets orbiting a star.
John Court, an Englishman living with his wife in Lapland, who performs work of remarkable endurance and intensity, comes into his own and adds frenetic splashing to the silence, as he stomps from one side of the pool to the other. He snatches up large slithers of rock from the water, to hold aloft for thirty seconds, before he lets it drop back into the pool with a mighty clash. The expansive pool is a departure from his claustrophobic piece in the morning: when he walked for hours in a tight circle within a narrow grain turret, and drew marks on his shaved head with a coloured pen. Bjorn, takes an interlude form the festival, and strips to the waist to join the action, and stands on a rocky outcrop. Katri, with cat-like deliberation, crawls through the pool in her nurses outfit, to effortlessly convey a woman journeying through life as she pauses and moves through the piece as if oblivious to the others. The work is simple and poignant, but she does not linger too long before she exits the group work, and leaves the spell intact. Kurt has lowered himself into the water, and we see the bowl is blue because is filled with coloured powder: he eases the bowl into the water, the colour spreads, and he wears the naughty expressing of a boy who has just peed in the swimming pool. His wife then arrived next to him, and anoints him with her vial of white powder. It’s a genuine moment of quiet affection as husband and wife make art together. Slow and gradual the artists abandon the scene to allow Bjorn to make a, rather extended, exit from the performance as he tracks around the pool’s edge, whist crashing a heavy stick into the ground. When he is out of sight my friend and I applaud, and the other guests follow: the applause is generous, and the festival ends.
The artists are clearly on a high after what had turned out to be a successful festival: and well attended considering how far away it is. After a break the evening debate ensues, and the temperature rises when I suggest that some of the performances had a theatrical flair: Nigel, the sage, did not like the comparison, although innocent, and launched into a monologue about the hard won principles of Performance Art, and how, intellectually, it can never be compared to theatre: I begged to differ, and for a moment the rest of panel made of Karianne, Katri, and the host were in disagreement. Karianne sided with my comparison, but had her views shot down by the veteran that insisted that she was wrong. Katri could see my stance, but was shy to take the argument further in case she be burned like one of Rolfe’s chairs. The debate moves, with intelligent questions from the guests, onto what Performance Art is, and the nature of unexpected failure and how it can affect a piece. Karianne, with bravery, said that she sought failure in her work: it’s not quite what she meant, but it didn’t stop Kurt’s wife, Pavana, from launching a verbal attack on what Karianne said: ‘it’s not good to look for failure’ she scolded, ‘we must always strive to do our best, but if failure comes we must accept it and move on. It’s all about the quality of the work, the demands of the space, what the curator may want. If I have to take a shit on stage then I will, but I don’t ever think of failure!’ She had a point, but the air prickled.
The debate was successful in that it really got to the nitty gritty of what performance art is really about, and exposed, if not admitted in public by the artists themselves, that the second one ‘performs’ your environment becomes a stage if you like it or not.
The next I leave the island of Veno, for Bergen, having had a surreal experience that I’ll never forget, with moments of true theatre, and Shamanistic transitions in state of mind ushered in by the artists at their best: long live Veno Gard KUNST.
For more information about the festival please click on the link below.