"Lots of boats, lots of sagas, more boats," program manager Jon-athan Sajda says as we walk through the second floor of the new Nordic Museum.
This is the part of the museum that traces the Nordic cultures of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, the autonomous regions of Greenland, Aland, and the Faroe Islands, and the indigenous peoples of Norway, Sweden, and Finland (the Sami). With more than 77,000 items in the collection, most of what you'll see here is what you'd expect from the world's only pan-Nordic museum: wall texts, educational videos, and ephemera.
Not so on the first floor, though. In a space off the gigantic central hallway—local architects Mithun were inspired by fjords in designing the 57,000-square-foot building—Northern Exposure: Contemporary Nordic Arts Revealed brings together nearly 40 contemporary Nordic artists. The show is curated by Dr. Klaus Ottmann, the deputy director for curatorial and academic affairs of the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, and rounded out with works chosen by Sajda and exhibitions coordinator Robin Kaufman. There's something of everything—from sculpture to oil painting to video to site-specific installation.
Danish textile artist Grethe Wittrock's breathtaking Nordic Birds is one of the first works you'll see upon entering. Long strips of white sailcloth tipped with indigo form a wall necklace that flutters when a slight breeze hits.
Norwegian street artist Martin Whatson's Instagram-friendly Paint Love depicts a black-and-white figure painting a colorful graffiti-filled heart. Created for the show, it serves as a sort of valentine from across the Atlantic to America.
Tucked in the far back corner and behind a wall, Swedish artist Cajsa Von Zeipel's BDSM-ish eight-foot-high sculptures Passing Through Kicking Legs and Blind-Man's Bluff are neutered of being overtly sexual by being cast in all white. The figures' nearly emaciated bodies are heavily influenced by the artist engaging in forced starvation prior to starting this body of work.
In stark contrast is Finnish artist Kim Simonsson's nuclear-green knee-high ceramic sculpture Shaman Moss Girl with Birdhouse. Simonsson's woodland children are the ones you hope to find to lead you out of the apocalyptic wasteland.
Other notable inclusions: Israeli-born and Danish-raised Tal R's pigment and rabbit skin glue painting Drawing Class from a larger series of works aimed at dismantling the typical painter-and-model dynamic, Norwegian actor and artist Tori Wrånes's video projection of her performance of Ældgammel Baby (Ancient Baby), and Icelandic artist Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir (who unsurprisingly collaborated with Björk on her Medúlla album cover) has a ceiling hanging made of synthetic hair.
The museum's regular patrons have been brought along to embrace a more forward-thinking vision for the museum, Sajda assures me. Admittedly, I'm fighting my skepticism that aging Ballard fishermen will be down with some of the works in the show and not file a klagomål (grievance) on their way out. Hopefully not. It's a much needed new contemporary art venue for Seattle. As your friendly neighborhood Norwegian might say, gå snart! (Go soon!)