The following text is a revised version from the original catalogue essay ‘At the Farthest Edge: Rebuilding Photography’ by Alexander Mourant, published by NŌUA, 2023, on the occasion of the eponymously titled exhibition.
According to the dictionary, the word ‘edge’ first appears in approximately 1000 AD. It derives from the Old English ecg, meaning ‘sharpened side of a blade’, which is related to the German ecke ‘corner’, and the Greek akís ‘point’. In common use, the word edge denotes an ending point, the outside limit of an object, area or surface. It can also be used as a verb: to advance gradually or cautiously, or to move sideways. When mixed in everyday phrases, ‘edge’ gains significance both literally and figuratively: you may, for example, draw a line with a pencil, to the edge of the page; someone who lives life on the edge, or lives, close to the edge, deals with dangerous situations and takes risks; in fact, to be on the edge is to be riddled with anxiety; you can even set someone’s teeth on edge, conjuring trepidation and fear. At this point, you may take the edge off, reducing tension with a calming walk or sedative.
To work at the edge is to engage with a psychogeography of ideas, like plotting lines and land masses on maps.
But what if edges are not always something to fear? What does it mean to volunteer, and to meet, at the farthest edge? Other than physical things in the world, edges can apply to ideas and concepts too. When we speak of art and artists, there is a long history of ‘breaking ground’, when someone accidentally, inadvertently or intentionally, achieves something new, shedding light on murky, shadowy places and impossibility. To work at the edge is to engage with a psychogeography of ideas, like plotting lines and land masses on maps. In this context, the edge of ‘what is known’ might not be seen as the end, but as a departure point. If we’ve reached the edge, can we go any further? And what might that look like?
The exhibition At the Farthest Edge: Rebuilding Photography draws on the history of Bodø, Norway, as a city of continuous architectural change and renewal since it was almost entirely destroyed by bombing in World War II. Featuring artists Jan McCullough, Bart Lunenburg and Alexander Mourant, the exhibition brings together photography, sculpture and installation to explore themes of architecture, shelter, construction, environment, labour and reinvention. Responding to artist-run photography space NŌUA’s 2023 programme Construct/Reconstruct – a year-long exhibition series informed by the renovation of their gallery space – the artists employ sculptural elements, collage and installation, pushing the boundaries of how photography is understood and engaged, questioning the ‘edges’ and beginnings of new ideas.
Historically, photography has been viewed as a ‘lesser’ medium, one that simply ‘documents’ the world from a singular point of view. Additionally, there is a tendency to fall back on photography as ‘visual storytelling’, which is slightly reductive and overlooks the potential the medium holds. In At the Farthest Edge, the artists embrace photography within interdisciplinary practice to demonstrate its expansive capacity to construct both literal (buildings, rooms, facades) and metaphysical (images, stories, words) architectures. As artists they are interested in the potential of ‘rebuilding’ or repositioning photography, much like architects reconfiguring buildings. Alongside NŌUA’s recent renovation (the gallery is housed in a rare post war building, once used as a dance hall) and Bodø being named European Capital of Culture in 2024, the town itself continues to undergo regeneration and grows like an organism (a new city will be built from 2027).
At the Farthest Edge: Rebuilding Photography can be seen as a microcosm or metaphoric container, mimicking the fluctuating nature of architecture in Bodø through the rethinking and reconstruction of photography. Each artist presents a selection of artworks from their existing oeuvres, rooted in shared beliefs, values and interests in architectural thinking with and through photography. Moreover, each artist has dug deeper, exploring the past, present and future of Bodø, through the creation of new artworks made specifically for the exhibition.
At the Farthest Edge: Rebuilding Photography can be seen as a microcosm or metaphoric container, mimicking the fluctuating nature of architecture in Bodø through the rethinking and reconstruction of photography.
Jan McCullough is drawn to industrial spaces – workshops, garages, factories, building sites – where she finds inspiration and questions our use, habitation and interpretation of such environments. Her ongoing Sketchbooks (2013–2023), presented in a series of vitrines, act as sites of research and reconfiguration. She works with her own reference photographs, alongside archival and found photographs, often from DIY instruction manuals, as materials. Some of the photographs in a recent sketchbook originate from the archive of Bodø-based photographers Johnson & Sotberg, courtesy of Arkiv i Nordland. McCullough playfully positions, probes and occasionally cuts the photographs, in turn questioning the boundaries and dimensions of images, and the places they reference. Elsewhere, her framed and large-scale photographs, Constructions (2019), document the artist’s playful use of found paper (she has cut the paper, redefining its edges) in the creation of quasi-sculptures – the two-dimensional plane, sliced and curled, suspends itself in air, becoming sculptural. These are then ‘activated’ by means of photography, adding momentum or sealing the ephemeral in time. Similarly, if we dissect established ideas or concepts, does this in turn give them weight and revitalised presence in the world?
Alexander Mourant’s The Night and the First Sculpture (2021) is a series of constructions created from farmyard materials on his family farm in Jersey. Positioned and balanced into installations, they are photographed and reassembled. The work proposes how images, narratives and stories may form, erode or reshape themselves over time. For the exhibition, Mourant has also created a series of three new sculptures, An Image That Holds Its Heat I, II & III (2023), made with agricultural photographs from the Bodø-based archive of Nordland Landbruksselskap and Nordland Landbruksskole (courtesy of Arkiv i Nordland) – the municipality is named after the old Bodøgård farm, since the city was built on its ground. These ghostly structures, taking the form of barn cloches used for growing vegetables, reference the history of photography in the 19th century when collodion photographs were made on glass negatives. Built on some of the most fertile land in Norway, Bodø’s rebuilding has been the subject of debate at a local level. Fascinated by the crossover between agricultural practice and image cultivation, Mourant questions the role of images as ‘incubators for ideas and topics’ that may recur, build and gain significance across time periods.
Bart Lunenburg’s series of framed photographic works, The Healer (2021–2023), began as a study of the relationship between architecture and epidemic diseases; examining architecture as a vessel for warmth, shelter, convalescence and cure. Lunenburg is a prolific researcher, accumulating a wide knowledge of building practices from across cultures, continents and centuries. For the exhibition, Lunenburg has delved into Viking and Scandinavian woodwork techniques, textiles, Norwegian architectural history and Norse mythology to create a myriad of works. Passage (2023) is one such example, a sculpture derived from the remnants of the Oseberg Tapestry (834 AD). In the tapestry there is a scene wherein a battalion of soldiers has used a battle technique to create a protective roof above their heads by crossing spears diagonally, resembling a house or a form of semi-architecture. Passage (2023) brings us back to the akís, the pointed edge mentioned above. The work references Odin’s Hall in Valhalla (the roof of which was made of crossed spears), and the practice of Viking ship burials, where the tapestry itself was found and unearthed. Constructed from Scandinavian indigenous wood – pine, spruce, ash, oak, walnut, linden – with subtle variations of tone and grain, it has an illusionistic force, and hints at the infinite cycles of architecture and the transition from the living to the afterlife.
The fabric and threads that tie these works together interweave in such curious ways that their patterns produce more questions than they do answers. Walking around the exhibition, affinities bleed out and mix potently together – among them, the habit each artist has of ‘returning’. They return to points, chasms and indeed, to the edges of abandoned spaces, overlooked places, neglected thoughts – sites that can often teeter on the edge precariously and risk falling out of this world. For McCullough, Mourant and Lunenburg, the past contains a plethora of materials and methodologies for building in both a practical and metaphorical sense. Their approach of excavating or mining the past – recovering fragments of ideas and concepts related to building – is used to reincarnate these resources, to contemporise and thus, immortalise them in the present. What we’re left with then, is a careful balancing act – quite literally: McCullough’s Constructions (2019) sit elegantly poised across a table, the fibres of the paper holding on and supporting its distorted form; Lunenburg’s Passage (2023) stands upright thanks to a carefully designed equilibrium between the diagonal repeating rafters; Mourant’s heavy and potentially lethal farmyard installations, carefully positioned by the artist, circumvent gravity for a moment – between the then and the now. They balance not only the material properties of things, but the nature of place through time and space.
The ‘edge’ of photography seems to have found solace in Bodø, a city located just north of the Arctic Circle, with its nightless summers and dayless winters. In this terrain of seasonal and ecological extremes, growth and change is at its very heart.
At the Farthest Edge: Rebuilding Photography runs until the 30th July 2023 at NŌUA, Bodø, Norway. Curated by Alexander Mourant.
Special thanks to Espen Kjelling and Arkiv i Nordland for your assistance with research and access to the archive. Included in the exhibition are photographs from the archives of Nordland Landbruksselskap, Nordland Landbruksskole and Johnson & Sotberg, courtesy of Arkiv i Nordland.
The exhibition is supported by:
Bodø European Capital of Culture
Arts Council Norway, Kulturrådet
Culture Moves Europe / Goethe Institut