AK Dolven’s solo exhibition at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham takes the form of a dialogue of sorts with fellow Norwegian Peder Balke (1804-1887). The two artists share a common interest in the dramatic landscapes of the Arctic north, but while Balke had recourse to a Kantian understanding of the sublime that ultimately reaffirms and grounds the viewing subject, Dolven operates in a context in which such notions no longer ring quite so true — a context of which she is keenly aware. Her contemplation of the figure in a frozen landscape is therefore marked by uncertainty, instability, and disorientation: a ‘becoming-grey’ of everything, all distinctions erased.
The first thing that struck me as I walked into the first-floor gallery holding the exhibition was the sound: a low-level white noise, like waves breaking on ice or wind billowing. No, actually looking back I think the first thing that struck me, albeit subliminally, was the lighting: dull and grey. There are two paintings on the walls of that first room: a tiny one by Balke showing an Arctic shoreline, and a much larger one by Dolven, its abstract swirls clearly referencing the waves and clouds of its companion. Moving on, there are some films, some text, and some more paintings, all virtually monochromatic or two-tone in whites, greys, blacks, and frozen blues. Prose handwritten on the wall recounts discovering the Statue of Liberty half-buried in a snowy wasteland. Images tilt and spin without coming into focus or revealing their objects.
As an attempt to convey an affective geography of Norway’s far north, of the Arctic landscape’s ability to undo the sense sought by the senses, please return is very successful. But my feeling is that there’s more to it than that. Although the dialogue with Balke and the use of 16mm film would seem to point back to the heroic age of Arctic exploration, the disorientation that permeates the exhibition belongs to a present moment that looks out onto the future; the show’s ‘undoing’ wrought by the disappearance, as-yet incomplete though already begun, of its landscape before our very eyes. The collapse of glaciers and ice sheets goes unmentioned, but is somehow palpable.
Many layers of desire are folded into one another by the stair-assisted ascent to the Ikon’s Tower Room to hear Dolven’s mountain-top exhortation, an echoing, out-of-breath “Come!”, in the work that gives the exhibition its title. Yet in trying to discern what (or whom) it is that this voice would like to return, my thoughts turn back to Balke, and to the sublime wilderness that to his eyes must have appeared as a given, as stable and eternal as the soul.
please return is showing at Ikon Gallery until 19 April.