A woman wearing a neo-Elizabethan ruff collar carries a pair of skinned birds across a jagged fjord. Curled in a fetal position, a teen wearing a black netlike garment covers her mouth with a soot-covered hand. A girl in a beaded collar is encircled by a skirt of wriggling, shiny fish.
These striking images are part of “The Weather Diaries,” an exhibition that explores the impact of weather on cultural identity while examining the roots of West Nordic fashion. Opening Saturday at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, the show features a series of photographic works by Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer. These images showcase contemporary fashions by a dozen designers from Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.
Cooper and Gorfer were students at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden when they received an unusual commission from the Nordic House museum in Reykjavik, Iceland.
The assignment? To document contemporary fashions from the West Nordic islands, often overlooked in favor of mainland Nordic countries such as Norway and Sweden. The project eventually evolved to become “The Weather Diaries,” a series of photographic artworks and clothing installations that premiered at the 2014 Nordic Fashion Biennale in Frankfurt, Germany.
Initially, the two were unsure how to translate their art — made using densely collaged layers of photographs for a sumptuous, painterly effect — to the fashion realm.
“In the beginning it seemed a strange commission,” said Cooper, who was born in the United States. “We’re not experienced at curating fashion in the traditional sense.
“But that’s why they chose us,” she continued. “To look at it from a different angle. They asked us to take it more into an art context, and to treat it more as a study of cultural heritage.”
Working alongside the Nordic House, Cooper and Gorfer drew up a list of fashion designers and traveled among the West Nordic islands to interview them about their practices, philosophies and inspirations.
Along the way, the artistic pair quickly hit upon their theme: weather. Specifically, the constant fluctuations between severe and mild weather in that part of the world.
“Weather is such an intrinsic part of their personalities and their cultural identity,” observed Gorfer, a native of Austria. “You can’t draw a line from where one ends and the other starts.”
Added Cooper, “The extreme changes in weather completely dictate your life. The torment or the beauty of Mother Nature can shape a place and its people.”
Nature provides the moody, atmospheric backdrop for the exhibition’s imagery. In “The Herder,” a blond model in a pinstripe suit by Icelandic designer Guðmundur Jörundsson leads a small white horse across a bleak moor. In “The Warm River,” a woman floats, Ophelia-like, in a steaming Icelandic river, her tentacle-like dress by the designer Mundi streaming behind her.
“I am, of course, really inspired by nature,” Mundi said in an interview for the exhibition’s catalog. “Iceland has a quietness and loneliness to it. We also have a very starlit sky in winter. As soon as you are outside of Reykjavík, you can easily be inspired by space itself, because you have it in your arms.”
Knitting for survival
Due to their geographic isolation, the West Nordic islands’ traditional handicraft techniques have survived into the modern era. Designers featured in the exhibit use time-honored skills such as beading and embroidering.
Due to the cold weather in Iceland and the Faroe Islands, knitwear has been a central wardrobe piece since the 16th century. And men did the knitting as well as women.
“Knitting wasn’t always associated with fashion,” said Cooper. “It was associated with survival.”
“And now the younger generation is using these techniques to create a new look,” added Gorfer. “It’s not only preservation, it’s taking it to the next level and making it work in today’s fashion.”
This old-meets-new concept is seen throughout the garments on display for “The Weather Diaries.” The Faroe Islands’ Barbara í Gongini produces intricate, edgy designs incorporating ancient crocheting and knitting techniques. Nikolaj Kristensen uses the traditional Greenlandic craft of glass pearl beading to create colorful woven dresses. And Bibi Chemnitz offers a distinctly modern take on the Greenlandic national costume. At first her costumes appear to be intricately knit. Upon closer inspection, the viewer discovers they are digital pixel patterns on polyester.
A number of pieces seen in Cooper and Gorfer’s photographs are featured in the show, including a 55-pound beaded collar, knitted garments, tulle and feathers, bone fragments and full-sized mannequins in tailored suits.
A short “behind the scenes” documentary, filmed on location in the West Nordic islands, gives voice to the featured designers and captures the dense landscapes of these remote communities.
The exhibition fits in nicely with the American Swedish Institute’s 2017 “Migration, Identity and Belonging” theme. Furthermore, the museum’s director of exhibitions, collections and programs, Scott Pollock, sees a strong thematic thread connecting the show to Minnesota.
“Like the West Nordic islands, we identify with having a northern climate,” he said.
Besides, he added, “Who here doesn’t talk about the weather?”
Jahna Peloquin is style editor of Minnesota Monthly magazine and a fashion, design and arts writer in Minneapolis.