Labors of the Eye, the Hand and the Heart: The Art of Inger Blix Kvammen

The potent interlacing of tradition and modernity, experiences of loss and enablement, the telling concurrence of adornment and bare necessities, blended narratives exploring individual destinies and collective histories, glimpses of empowerment and community, moments of silence and of intimate dialogue, memory and oblivion, self-­sufficiency and dependency, sustainability and crisis, the comfort of home and the challenges of displacement, the struggle for survival and the know-­how and powers of local culture; to name only a few of the elements, properties, and themes manifested in the two distinct but meticulously interwoven practices that constitute the art of Inger Blix Kvammen. Pursed in single installations and in larger solo exhibitions, including also the participation in thematic exhibitions, the artist consistently choreographs the encounter of two discourses: a plentiful, intense and engaged documentary photography and a performative, transgressive and emblematic craft practice. While each practice clearly is self-­sufficient, resourceful and powerful on its own, it is their elaborate interaction that generates many particular currents and intricacies of Kvammen’s art. For it is in the combined discourses of the still photograph and the objects of jewelry, in for example the meeting between the precision of color and light and the rich details of human countenance of the photographs and the material textures, the evocative patterns, the associative fragments and the keen traces of manual labor of the objects, that the eye and the hand wed, that fact and metaphor, document and symbol, verity and dream converse and cartwheel together.
The photographic work of Kvammen is a sustained involvement with several cultures and ethnic groups explored during extended travels in primarily the Eurasian arctic and the South-­Caucasian region. Featuring prominently in her work are the nomadic indigenous Nenets of the forest-­tundra region of the Russian Arctic, inhabiting the Kanin peninsula between the White Sea and the Barents Sea and the also in part nomadic Terekemet people of South Caucasus, now primarily living in the Northeastern corner of Turkey and parts of Azerbaijan. Kvammen’s equally passionate and inconspicuous photography is imbued with social narrative, lending visibility and sharing knowledge and awareness of the life-worlds of her subjects. Her photographs tell of vernacular events, trivial and crucial, everyday social situations, with a particular commitment to the living conditions of women and children. Moreover, these are photographs of the home, of the familial, even of private space, of family relations and everyday tasks, and, consequently, less a photography of public events, official space or institutions. Also the landscapes and the surrounding scenery, often spectacular, are engaged in the social narrative and context, nature is a part of and seamlessly involved with the social, the landscape is seen and imaged as a cultural site and living space. The sensuous, bountiful and eloquent photos of Kvammen, paying fine attention to material culture, to the objects dear and important to the protagonists of her photographs, purport as well a solid sense of mutual trust and the keen hospitality with which the photographer is met. These are, precisely, images of solidarity, respect and reciprocal recognition, with which the viewer is treasured to cross into the lives and familial spaces of the persons photographed. Indeed, here one is offered that particular power of narrative photography to mediate and communicate the lives of other persons, their culture and life-­world; the world thus turned somewhat more comprehensible, recognizable, somewhat less alien.
Tropes of the familiar and the foreign are at play, in a variety of ways, in the objects of adornment and embellishment that comprise the other component of Inger Blix Kvammen’s art. Ostensibly shaped as necklaces, collars, or bracelets, these are finely woven, plaited and/or crocheted objects using thin metal wire, mostly of sterling silver, steel and gold. Wearable and functional jewelry of a stunning delicate beauty in its material density and formal skilfulness, in particular of metal treated with textile techniques, these are as well aesthetic objects of conceptual complexity and sophistication. Form mediates function and idea. Or rather: Literal and symbolic meaning are effortlessly entangled in these mesmerizing objects. Metal textiles of beautification, they are also amulets, talismans, charms, performing metonymically as wreaths of memorabilia, pledging empathy, expressing loss, asserting identity, underscored further by other materials or objects such as animal hairs, stones, photographs, barbed wire and pearls being interlaced with or inserted into the metal wire form. Also here are processes of exchange and dialogue. Miniature portrait photos of a young Nennet girl intervene in one collar, underlining her vulnerability and exposedness, in relation to present-­day transformations. Photos of women in families encountered in Kars in former Armenia embellish another collar, commending collective togetherness and strength. Colored paper strips fortified with metal wire simulate the color and shapes of the eriste pasta tradition of eastern Turkey. Barbed wire intervening in a plaited metal wire necklace address the artist’s own cultural context in the former Cold War border lands of northeastern Norway. As such, the textiled metal objects of adornment interplay ritual and sacramental levels of meaning with orders of the archive, the document and cultural or individual exchanges.
However, given the powers and layered meanings of each photograph and each jewelry or metal fabric piece, the unabridged potential of Inger Blix Kvammen’s art only becomes available in their joint presence, juxtaposed with each other, each individual piece considered in the light of other pieces. It is in their combinatory play one encounters fully the layered and intriguing combinations of the visual and the tactile: how the materiality of the photographs is buttressed in dialogue with the metal objects, how the discursive and narrative qualities of the metal textiles is highlighted in presence of image, each image as metaphor and tactility, each object as document, each photograph as performance, as labor, each object as image. The art of Inger Blix Kvammen brings us to this intersection, this junction of materiality and immateriality, the factual and the symbolic, where, ultimately and most crucially, the subject matter of her work emerges as subjects of fullest integrity.

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