Waking up Vardø

E.B. Itso. Click to view large.

Note from RJ: We at Vandalog are excited to publish Tristan Manco‘s first post on the site, hopefully the first of many. Tristan is one of contemporary street art’s greatest champions and most-distinguished writers. Tristan curated by iterations of Cans Festival, worked at Pictures on Walls for half a decade, has written or in some way contributed to 8 art books since 2002 as well as numerous magazine articles in publications such as Juxtapoz. I’ve known Tristan for a couple of years, and he is one of the people whom I really trust when it comes to art.

Taking place in the 24-hour daylight of a Northern Norway summer on a small island town called Vardø north of the Arctic Circle – Komafest was always going to be a unique event…

Vardø is the oldest settlement in Northern Norway and in recent years has become depopulated with many buildings left empty, partly as a result of the collapsing fishing industry. The curator and organizer of the festival, the Norwegian artist Pøbel saw the potential of a street art festival to make a visual transformation of the town and to show the local people it was possible to make changes. While developing the idea Pøbel spent time getting to know the locals and with his unassuming nature and enthusiasm he began to gain their trust. Soon the public began to get behind the idea and offer up buildings for artists to paint on and volunteering to help in the organization. It became a truly grassroots movement rather than something imposed on the community.

Click to view large

The island, shaped like a butterfly, has an otherworldly atmosphere and is only accessible overland by a winding 3km undersea tunnel, which appears out of the ground like something out of a science fiction movie, but the real stars of the show are its traditional wooden buildings. Many of the wooden jetties, warehouses and buildings are abandoned, weather-beaten and in a state of beautiful decay. Although standing empty these heritage buildings all have owners who are often unable to afford their proper restoration. The idea of project is that the art that is created on them can awaken these buildings out from a coma, giving the festival it’s name – Komafest.

Steve Powers. Click to view large.

What I found inspiring about this project was the way the invited artists responded to the place. Each artist had some idea of what they might experience but in most cases their preconceptions soon changed once they began to speak to the locals and learn more about their environment. According to local fisherman Aksel Robertsen, Philadelphian artist Steve Powers had many ideas planned but scrapped them as soon as he began to meet the people and experienced the place for himself – all those encounters shaped his final murals; such as “Cod is Great” and “Eternal Light – Eternal Night”. The French artist Remed painted a mural on an old seafront warehouse, which took some of its imagery from the seascape but included the text Hellige Heks Fortuna, (Hellige Heks means Holy Witch in Norwegian). This references to witches dates back to the Vardø witch trials that were held there in 17th century resulting in many of the accused being burned alive at the stake.

Remed. Click to view large.

More after the jump…Portuguese artist Vhils and his crew (locally known as The Dalton Brothers) also responded to the rich history of the town by featuring well-known figures from the town’s past in their wall engraving and woodcarvings. For example one of the buildings they worked on was a 100-year-old bakery, legend has it that the original baker used to let the local homeless sleep next to his ovens and Vhils’ portrait is an ethereal celebration of this historical character. Similarly, Danish artist E.B.Itso and Norwegian artist Atle Østrem responded to the town with many pictorial and poetic works on buildings and old boats. One stand out piece by E.B.Itso was a building due to be restored on which he painted “Everything is a Story” – a reference to the Norwegian writer Agnar Mykle who supposedly got the inspiration to write the novel “Lasso rundt fru Luna”, after a romantic meeting with one of the women in the house.

Vhils. Click to view large.

True to form the Belgian artist and animal advocate ROA responded to the local fauna by painting a wonderful anatomical tribute to the dwarf minke whale, a species that is still commercially hunted by Norway, on a beautifully weather worn pier. The visiting artists all went nuts for local wildlife such as the herds of reindeer, foxes and birds of prey, which were spotted on field trips – bird watching is one of Vardø’s biggest tourist attractions…

Roa. Click to view large.
Claudio Ethos. Click to view large.

Each artist had their own fascinations and equally interesting was the way the public began to interpret the works the artist’s were painting. A big hit was the large waterside mural painted by the Brazilian artist Claudio Ethos. In his typically surrealist style Ethos’s work featured a fishing boat hooked-up to a machine, which in turn was linked to a shrouded figure. Although the narrative is mysterious the locals saw in the piece some of their own struggles as a community. In the same way the murals of Irish artist, Conor Harrington; such as the dueling swordsman, which explore ideas of geo-politics through constructed scenes using figures in colonial dress, were interpreted in terms of local rivalries and the fighting spirit of the town.

Conor Harrington. Click to view large.

Three artists who made the most of the 24hr light were Horfe (France), Ken Sortais (France) and Hust Mit Navn (Denmark) – they painted like men possessed and were cheered on by the locals who admired their work ethic and sense of humour. Horfe and Ken were often found working well into the middle of the night at the top scissor lifts, free-styling hundreds of meters of wild sketchy characters across the most enormous factory units available. Random locals would come by and keep them supplied with food, cigarettes and even pocket money. Hust Mit Navn should perhaps be given the prize for the most pieces painted across the town, zipping around the place on his bike he left no stone unturned and some fabulously fun works everywhere.

Ken Sortais, Horfe and Husk Mit Navn. Click to view large.

It was an inspired gathering of eclectic and exuberant artists, but for the curator Pøbel perhaps more important than the art are the stated aims of the project to draw attention to the buildings and enliven a community. The ideal outcome would be that the buildings that have been painted are eventually restored until there are no signs of festival at all. Already the effects of the initiative are tangible, wasteland has been cleared of rubbish, some of the building owners are now making restoration plans with the help of local experts and a 100 year old municipal cinema which has been full of rubbish for 20 years was cleared and put back to its original use. Alongside the immediate results it is hoped that the energy of the art and the snowball effect it has had on the community will hopefully have a longer legacy. The purposeful combination of creativity and community is what makes this particular street art festival resonate as a great example to others.

Further reading at Wikipedia.

Husk Mit Navn. Click to view large.
Vhils. Click to view large.
Horfe and Ken Sortais. Click to view large.
Conor Harrington. Click to view large.
Husk Mit Navn. Click to view large.
Ken Sortais. Click to view large.

Photos by Ian Cox