Little big man

Martijn van Berkum, Svolvaer — From my fifth until my 16th I set out every year with my parents on a holiday trip to France. We had huge a orange tent and a station car with a metal construction on top that my father filled with a one meter pile of plastic chairs, a table and loads of toys and other junk. Then a bright blue plastic cover went over it and the whole thing was fastened with a couple of meters of neon orange rope. Squeaking under the tremendous weight it was carrying, the car would sink around twenty centimeters and it’s a miracle the axes never broke on the way.

Inside the car every cubic centimeter was filled, minus a small space exactly matching the dimensions of my body. There I would sit for twelve long agonizing hours while temperatures were slowly crawling over thirty degrees the further we approached our destination. To add insult to injury, I had to sit with my feet up all the way, because the space in between the front and back chair was exactly large enough to fit in a cooling box. A light brown cooling box, with a dark brown lid on top and round corners, the loyal travel companion of every average Western family in the eighties.

Now, if you were to travel today to Lofoten, in the far north of Norway, and visit a tiny town called Svolvaer (a trip I can highly recommend), you will find at the sailboat harbor in the center a cooling box exactly similar to the one my parents owned. The colors are different, a soft pale orange box and a bright orange frame, but the design is just the same. It was put there in 2004 by the artists Elmgreen & Dragset for the LIAF 04 (Lofoten International Art Festival) exhibition.

Elmgreen & Dragset
Tiergarten, Berlin, May 21th, 1991
2004

LIAF is a biennale and therefore the 2004 edition collected the “best of” biennale material: Henrik Håkansson, Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset and Pipilotti Rist, among others, all Nordic or international art heroes. Being the biggest exhibition in Norway, together with Momentum in Moss, it is rather strange to be located in Svolvaer, which accounts for only 4000 inhabitants. Why organize such a huge event in such a remote area? I’m not sure whether the 2004 edition managed to answer that question and hitherto, every second year discussions about the legitimacy of LIAF’s being at Lofoten surfaces again. The Elmgreen & Dragset piece always plays a central role in that discussion and given the number of occasions it has been vandalized one can argue whether it is a successful public art work.

On the other hand, I could also argue that the merits of the work are super interesting. It takes up the ready-mades by Duchamp and puts it into the context of a growing local tourist industry and the romantics of outdoor camping. Being casted in bronze and over painted to look exactly like a plastic box, it issues questions around mass production, uniqueness and prize vs value. But these are very much ‘white cube issues’ and don’t speak very much on a site-specific level, let alone that they’ll mange to answers questions around the legitimacy of LIAF at Lofoten. Why should inhabitants be so interested in such boring questions about what art is? And why should they care about international artists making statements about their tourist industry? in a way they don’t care about and financed with a chunk load of public money that could also be put in maintaining local fisher industries or other public matters. Could that be too big a discussion for such a small art work?

Despite the arguments that surround the work, the fierce debates and misunderstandings, the cooling box has a quality, or rather, it has developed a certain quality. Each and every year the box gets kicked into the water; it’s been mocked, debated, covered by snow, attacked by storms, loved and hated. Nonetheless, it survived and I admire the little fellah for its resilience. It’s small size, apparent vulnerability and triviality turn it into a perfect actor in the debates surrounding public art and LIAF’s legitimacy. It’s a chameleon that can shift from representing two internationally acclaimed artists, to being a controversial public art work, to an expensive solid bronze object, and to being an innocent, beaten little child, abandoned by its spiritual parents and left at its own devices. In other words: it’s a little big man.

I love these schizophrenic characteristics the work embodies. But what fascinates me even more is the fact that all the violence and critique the work has endured over the past years yields one crucial result: the much sought-after legitimacy. The box is battered and bruised, but still stands proudly on the jetty by the water. It has earned its place there and has become a proper citizen of Svolvaer.

A report about LIAF 08, which ended a little while ago will follow shortly.

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