Art Escapes at Oak – The Nordic Journal


The art offerings of the Nordics are well established: from the capitals’ gleaming national galleries to the scrappier artist-run spaces in their less-polished neighborhoods. But travel away from the established centres and you may stumble upon some of the region’s most visually arresting art sites. In each of the following three art escapes, in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, a unique alchemy fuses the site with the place in which it sits, and together they yield something almost magical.

For volume nine of Oak – The Nordic Journal, I wrote about the Steilneset Memorial (above) in Norway, Artipelag in Sweden, and Cisternerne in Denmark.

Photo: Karen Gardiner

Sami Stories at Scandinavia House


Scandinavia House, on Park Avenue near Grand Central, is one of my favorite under-the-radar places in New York City. It’s almost always quiet, never busy, has a great (but pricey) Nordic café named Smörgås Chef; and shows excellent films and free art exhibitions. Continue reading “Sami Stories at Scandinavia House”

Nordic Noir

This month’s Travel and Leisure caught on to the Nordic Noir trend with a piece that offers a guide to the sites associated with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Rather than the usual ponderings over why such as nice, clean, picturesque country like Sweden produces works of grisly crime fiction, the piece, written by Reggie Nadelson (who impressively manages to plug his own most recent book mid-way) digs into the geographical isolation of Stockholm’s new immigrants, as well as the geographical division of the classes and corresponding smouldering suspicion and resentment. One peeve, though: describing Sweden as a country of “frozen emotions” is just annoying.

I have always favored Henning Mankell over Stieg Larsson. With all his talk of “men who hate women,” Larsson tries just a little too hard to be a “good guy” for my tastes, and his hero Mikael Blomkvist’s irresistibility to women is frankly tiresome.

I never bothered with any of the Millennium related sites in Stockholm, but when I went to Ystad you bet I tracked down Mankell’s fictional inspector, Kurt Wallander.

Wallander cake. Photo: Karen Dion

— Special Wallander Cake (decorated in the colors of the Swedish police force) at Fridolfs Konditorei in Ystad. The cafe freqently appears in Mankell’s books as the place where Wallander get his usual herring sandwich.

Ystad street. Photo: Karen Dion

Ystad’s typical pleasant, colorful facade. Don’t be fooled, evil lurks below.

Ystad Bok kaffe. Photo: author

Cafes are ubiquitous in Ystad, as are various media detailing where you can retrace Wallander’s footsteps.

Light and Dark in the Øresund


This piece I had published at Matador got me thinking again about Sweden. My last visit there was last summer, and it was the first time I had seen my friend–a Tokyo mizu-shobai compatriot–in her home country. I arrived in the bright Sweden of Midsummer and the difference was tangible: back in Tokyo we lived under the darkness of night.

We had been like vampires in Japan; by night we transformed into our invented characters. We’d had fake names, fake backgrounds and spent most of our time under fake lighting in a dingy club in Roppongi. Here I was in Sweden visiting the real girl beneath the fake Tokyo lifestyle; the Swedish sun couldn’t have contrasted more with the life we had known each other in there.

And neither could the lifestyle. Days were filled with good, wholesome activities like strolling through the leafy Slottsträdgården or along the boardwalk at the Western Harbour. We packed picnics and drove out to secluded lakes in the countryside. Our activities never got any more risqué than a nude dip at Ribbersborgs kallbadhus open-air bath. It was a postcard picture Sweden; we gulped the fresh air like we did champagne in our past Tokyo’s lives.

And the sun just kept on shining. At this time of year it sits boldly in the sky until late, too late. After a few days the constant sunlight was beginning to give me a headache; the sugary sweetness of the strawberries sold on every street corner from kitschy-looking, brightly-painted kiosks were giving me nausea.

“Let’s go out.” I suggested. Julia agreed and I saw a flash of Nina, her Tokyo-at-night character.

“But in Copenhagen, not here,” was her sole concession. I had the feeling that nighttime was incompatible with her Swedish life.

Though the days stretched unnaturally into night, service hours remained as rigid as any other time of year. Drinking in bars was expensive and if you wanted to cushion the blow by drinking a little at home first, you would need to have stocked up before 6pm, the time that Sweden’s state-run alcohol store—the only place you could legally purchase booze in the country—closed.

Systembologet: State-run liquor store

We had planned ahead and filled our baskets late in the afternoon with beers and various cans that displayed pictures of strawberries, rhubarb and “forest fruits” on their labels. Even drinking was infused with this syrupy, summery sweetness.

The cans we didn’t finish at the apartment, we packed into a plastic bag and headed for the Oresundtrain that would take us across the Sound and straight into Copenhagen. This trip across international waters took all of twenty minutes and we managed to sink another couple of cans along the way. They may make it difficult to acquire the booze, selling it from only one store, but you can pretty much drink it wherever you want without raising any eyebrows.

The sun had finally gone down by the time we arrived in Copenhagen and stepped out of the station and into the neon glow of a Carlsberg sign. We paused for a drink at Kung Fu Izakaya on Sundevedsgade, where cocktails called “Hello Kitty” and “Hentai” made us briefly question exactly how far out of Sweden (and into our pasts) we had traveled. We drank up, turned our thoughts back to Denmark and made our way to one of the city’s most popular clubs, Vega—housed in a ‘50s trade union building in Vesterbro, a former worker’s quarter.

Standing at the coat check I felt exposed without the jacket I had just handed over. I shriveled in my jeans and shirt as I looked around at a group of girls done all up in what must have been their best, most expensive dresses.

At the bottom of the staircase up to the club I pointed to a fallen punnet of strawberries, their flesh already squashed into the floor, and tried to remember the Swedish word for the fruit. “Jordgubb…jordgubbar” I pronounced, tripping over the letters as a group of girls turned to me with eyes slit and whispered something indiscernible. No one smiled.

Everyone looked too neat and shiny and the wide-open space of the club gave me a feeling of uneasiness. Vega was a place to be seen and neither of us particularly felt like being noticed.

Vega felt cold so we headed for the second club, someplace more underground that had been recommended by a Danish friend. Dunkel—which roughly translates to dark and obscure—fit us perfectly. A tiny space with the barest of lighting and a sweaty, noticeably unpretentious crowd that just wanted to dance. Dunkel was what I had been looking for; I could blend into the corner shadows, closing my eyes to feel the bass, so close it was almost touching.

Hours and hours in the dark of Dunkel and daylight was visibly ready to interrupt. Over the heads of a crowd that was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, I could see the glow forcing itself in through windows. We checked our watches: six a.m. We fought it for another hour or so before giving in.

Out onto the streets and once again under the glare of the midsummer sun I felt greasy, in need of shower, a meal and bed. I realized that I could only flirt with the nighttime nowadays.

It was a Saturday morning and we hustled onto the train platform between families weighed-down with picnic gear and camping equipment. It was a feeling that everyone who is familiar with slinking back home in the early morning could recognize.

On the train back across the Øresund I drifted in and out of sleep, comfortable under the warming sun that streamed through the carriage windows. My vampire’s thirst for the dark quenched.

Walking into Ladonia

I was quite willing to go along with my friend’s idea to visit some sculptures buried in the depths of a forest in southern Sweden, but as I stubbed my toe against the thick root of a tree and fell head first into the damp earth, I had to question what kind of artist would decide that this was a good place for a project. But then again, other people’s opinions don’t seem to be of much concern to the artist Lars Vilks.

Lars Vilks is better known for his ability to produce art offensive enough that it earns him death threats and a bounty of $100,000 on his head, than for creating sculptures from salvaged materials in a Swedish nature reserve.

Mr. Vilks—a former art professor—submitted three drawings to a 2007 exhibition on the theme “The Dog in Art.” Vilks’ pieces depicted the prophet Muhammed as a roundabout dog—a form of street installation popular in Sweden at the time. The drawings provoked accusations of blasphemy, debates about free speech, a burning of the Swedish flag in Lahore and threats of murder.

Before he became embroiled in international controversy, Lars Vilks was just an eccentric artist who, in 1996, had declared the founding of a micro-nation in Sweden’s Kullaberg Nature Reserve.

In 1980 Vilks built two art pieces in the reserve in Skåne. He made Nimis from 75 tons of driftwood and Arx from stone. The local council discovered them two years later and, saying that building within a nature reserve was illegal, demanded their removal.

After losing appeals against the council’s decision, Vilks retaliated by declaring the square kilometer of land where the sculptures were located to be the newly founded independent nation of Ladonia.

While no one actually lives in Ladonia, there are 14,000 Ladonian citizens. You can become one too just by filing out an application—nobility costs extra. Ladonia has its own ministry, royal family, flag, currency, postal service and two national anthems. It’s all done a little tongue-in-cheek, but, when in 2002, 3000 Pakistanis applied for immigrant status, asking Vilks for the address of Ladonia’s embassy and how to get there, it became apparent that not everyone was in on the joke.

Our own journey to Ladonia takes us through the seaside resort of Mölle and little town of Arild, whose residents’ almost foreign sounding Swedish dialect seems like preparation for our departure from the nation. We pull up by a lonely maypole in the Kullaberg Nature Reserve and begin our trek.

Since Ladonia is not officially recognized, it does not appear on maps. The only way to find your way through the woods is by following yellow arrows painted on the trees.

True to form, these haphazard signs are misleading—perhaps intentionally. The first one we see has 1.2 km painted underneath, so we are frustrated when, after walking for at least 15 minutes, we come across the next arrow and it says 1.1 km.

It carries on like this and we try to suppress thoughts of giving up by saying that we should have expected this; this place doesn’t really exist anyway. We carry on, and it begins to feel like a hike. The arrows point us up hills, over rocks and through clusters of thick, inflexible branches. The climb is becoming slippery in my flip-flops—I hadn’t dressed for a hike. The sun is still strong, even in the early evening, and I feel my shirt start to dampen with sweat. We keep climbing.

And then there it is. Stretched out in front of us is a tunnel made out of wooden pieces. It dips down and stretches as far as the seafront where the centerpiece stands at the shore: the great sculptures of Nimis.

We walk through the piece, tottering unsteadily over thick sticks nailed together to form an almost labyrinthine walkway. Rogue nails that have worked their way out of the wood point at my feet—bare now to make walking easier—so I try to keep my eyes turned down. But I can’t help but look around at this place: Ladonia, this empty, fantastical nation.

The tunnel spits us out by the shore, and it is just the two of us—just two inhabitants of an entire nation. We each choose a rock to sit quietly on; the only sound is the waves lapping the rocky beach. My breath settles and I feel the peace that comes with the absence of anything anchoring me to a tangible place. There is something impossible about sitting here in a conceptual nation, under a sun that still burns late in the evening, having walked through a nation that is an art piece, that is not even supposed to exist. I am neither here nor there. Nimis.

I don’t know how much time has passed, but in the distance I can hear voices. Sweden is encroaching on Ladonia. Taking this as our cue, we start the walk back. We pass the new arrivals on our way. For now this nation belongs to them.

If you go

Mölle is off the coastal highway 111. The nearest airport is Ängelholm, approximately 19 kilometers (12 miles) away. Mölle is 35 kilometers (22 miles) northwest of Helsingborg and around a two-hour journey from either Copenhagen or Malmö.

Kullaberg Nature Reserve is 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Mölle.

You can only reach Nimis by foot. The path begins at Himmelstorp—a preserved farmhouse—and walkers are guided by a series of yellow ‘N’s painted on tree trunks and fences.

Official Ladonia Website: