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Audible Attentions of the Luleå Biennial: Time on Earth

Susanna Jablonski & Cara Tolmie, Listening Curtain, 2019, velvet, wool, nylon

To see a biennial in the pandemic, to wander to closed venues, unlocked for you, distanced and empty of others, to sit with a work but know you are one of the few to see it, to walk into rooms more haunted than usual, with a compass that ticks around to empty. I realize quite quickly what I have in fact been missing and still miss this, art together, art in commune. It’s a lament and it pulls at you, like wearing an itchy jumper, or wondering if you did close the door to the studio. To see a biennial without the vitality of visitors led me towards the inner experience, rather than a flurry of popping champagne. The biennial without its visitors seemed to become more misty; it became more airborne, and perhaps with all the talk of viruses and circulating airflows, it felt like a biennial of the air.

Floating, slowly flocking, settling in, waiting on a tight note, finger on the edge. In this atmosphere, along with the local snow flakes and packed ice, this edition of the Luleå Biennial became aural. Listening became my tool and while the many works seemed to sit suspended in time - waiting for the first guests to arrive to the party you are hosting alone - the sound pieces of Time on Earth seemed to quiver, unconfined by the walls that held them, vibrating between venues.

Danae Valenza, The Windows Became A Glass Drum, 2020

Through misty window pains, across two video projections, the sounds of jazz pianist Mal Waldron’s All Alone sings out, looking for a friend, in the structured wooden pillars of Havremagasinet in Boden. Artist Danae Valenza’s work, The Windows Became A Glass Drum, seems to strum across the quiet ex-factory art space. There is a longing to remember, that the musician himself composed. After suffering a mental breakdown the prolific Waldron lost his memory and he couldn’t play. His fingers ceased to know the palace of his memory. Teaching himself to play again by listening to his own records, he was an artist reborn to their own practice. From this metaphorically strong saga, Valenza builds a room where time seems to be passing between knowing and unknowing. Two contemporary pianists, Felicia Neilsen and Sue Tenander play the piece from memory, living in the liminal as the piano notes of All Alone flitter around the konsthall. Reverberating the living histories, the piece reminding us of the windows upon windows we look out from.

Danae Valenza, The Windows Became A Glass Drum, 2020

Downstairs from Valenza, is the substantial and confident sculptural installation from artist Susanna Jablonski, whose works also discuss hauntings – both personal and historical. For the biennale commission Jablonski presented Long Time Listener, First Time Caller which acts as a set of twins, multiples of sculptural pieces that reinforce the link between Havremagasinet and the nearby Tyskmagasinen. These two former arms warehouses were used by the German army in WW2. For Jablonski, Tyskmagasinen – which burnt down in 2016 in mysterious circumstances – became a site of reckoning. Sweden’s supposed neutrality in WW2 is questioned in the burnt factory site, and Jablonski’s sculptural pieces, some collected from there, deliver us fragments. These half-light remembrances from actions that are often collectively forgotten. From a sound perspective, Jablonski, brought a subtle composition to the space, which lingered in the room. Chorusing around, the sound included ticking, flicking, clinical clicks from small handmade musical instruments (made with William Rickman) and also atmospheric recorded sounds from the site itself, such as the trains passing, distant yet present echoes of the walls and their ghosts.

Back in Lulea, the large Culture House that houses Lulea Konsthall, sat glittery and empty. Cafes and library closed. Culture keeping distance. Fortunately, the Konsthall had another entrance and I was guided in. In here again, Time on Earth, was holding its breath. A video work, Disturbed Earth, by Didem Pekün anchored the exhibition. The scene is set, a meeting, men around a table, rubbing their heads, drinking coffee, waiting to act. It is revealed that these men are also in some kind of haunting. Another decision towards neutrality leading them towards destruction. The video work takes a real-life case as its starting point. It is the 1995 Srebrenica genocide and this UN council decide not to take action to stop it. The lack of will to act when faced with a crisis, this seems to reverberate, another haunting. The table of men speak in the banal language of bureaucracy, the camera pans around and around, circulating and yet they do not act.

To return to vibrations, and sound waves, I am pulled back to the body as an archive in the work of Cara Tolmie, with Crooning Inwardly, Gyrating Discreetly. The nine-minute sound piece plays quietly alongside the velvety listening curtain, designed by Tolmie and Jablonski. The curtain offers a little protection in the listening, and immediately I am struck by the acute bodily sounds of Tolmie’s ‘internal singing’, a vocal practice developed by the artist in response to post-concussion syndrome. Taking our listening inside the body, referencing somatic practices, the sounds perform intimately, vibrating, lingering, layering across the listener, from one inside to another. This crooning as the artist names, it leads to the voice as portal, a tense in-between, and the sounds seem to shuffle the feathers of the konsthall, making it vibrate, slightly, in its held breath.

Maria W Horn, The White Dove’s Lament, 2020

Holding your breath, and difficult breathing, seems to be architecturally imbued in the ex-prison, the White Dove (Vita Duvan). The building is a short walk from Lulea Konsthall, and sits on the more industrial looking side of the town. In the snow there is a small orange biennale flag, determining that this is the place. The building is a panopticon, a polygonal structure based around the idea of ‘all seeing’ power structures. The guards are able to stand in the center and see into each cell, while the prisoners never know when exactly they are being monitored. This panopticon prison, the only one built in Sweden, is overtaken by the sound piece of composer Maria W. Horn. Entitled The White Dove’s Lament, Horn devotes to each cell a new voice, and associated colored lamp. The cells seem to call out to each other, rising in palpable distress and fading away again. The warm yellows and reds of the lamps give the building a feeling of eternal twilight. I am told by the kind attendant that the prison was an experiment in isolation and silence as punishment.

Maria W Horn, The White Dove’s Lament, 2020

While the archives of the prison are all photographs of men (who look young and almost like friends of mine), I am also told women were held here, including Sami and Finnish women, who were often imprisoned for not upholding the social contract. With these lingering presences, the sound waves of Horn’s lament are almost perceptible in the panopticon. I sense them hitting the central viewing platform, then returning, returning, as waves do.

Bronwyn Bailey-Charteris is a Swedish/Australian curator, writer and lecturer based in Stockholm. Bronwyn is a current PhD candidate at the department at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) researching water and art in her thesis entitled ‘Ingesting the Hydrocene: Watery thinking for response-ability to the climate crisis’. Working with practical learning platforms, publications, and exhibitions, she currently works with curatorial matters of art and research at Accelerator and as a guest lecturer at Stockholm University, Royal Institute of Art and Stockholm University of the Arts.

Photo: Thomas Hämén

Images courtesy of Luleå Biennial 2020.


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