Just add SALT: Norways new Arctic arts and music festival - Halong Junk Cruises

Just add SALT: Norways new Arctic arts and music festival

It has been some hours since sunset on the island of Sandhornøya, just inside the Arctic Circle, and I’m standing on the beach with a near-naked Norwegian, debating the temperature of the water I’ve just jumped into. “I was told it was 14C,” I say. “Well, a friend told me it was just nine,” he replies, adjusting his underwear. Shivering, we settle for 11 – about average for an icy plunge pool – before sprinting back to the sauna as my feet go numb in the sand.

It’s the opening weekend of SALT, a year-long arts festival in remote northern Norway. Consisting of a series of striking architectural structures (including the world’s largest sauna, naturally), a site-specific art installation and a programme of contemporary music, the project is almost as dramatic as the landscape that surrounds it.

“We travelled for almost two years around the north of Norway looking for the right place for the festival,” co-founder Helga-Marie Nordby tells me. “But it wasn’t until we came here …” She pauses. “Well … it’s special.”

Although the island can be reached by a long drive over bridges, pine forests and fjords, you get a better sense of its remoteness and ruggedness if you arrive by boat from Bodø, capital of Nordland county. As you turn into the bay, the festival site comes into view: three giant triangular prisms made of wood stand on the clean, white sand beneath a looming cliff.

“You see contemporary art all over the world, but this kind of scenery, not so often,” says Nordby, who wants the festival to create an awareness of the region’s history, present and future. “If you bring something humanmade into that scenery, it’s not just about nature, but about our role in that landscape.”

Nordby conceived the idea for SALT, which she founded along with cultural entrepreneur Erlend Mogård-Larsen, in 2010 while the pair were curating the Lofoten International Art Festival. In many ways SALT functions more as a venue than a festival. On weekends throughout the year, monthly and bi-monthly events will take place, ranging from classical concerts and lectures to club nights and theatre performances. The sauna, bar and restaurant will be open throughout, and visitors can come for the day from the mainland, rent a cabin on the beach, or camp for free.

After its stint in Norway, SALT will move on to Greenland, Iceland, Scotland and Alaska, where location-specific installations will be commissioned.

Sandhornøya, the stunning setting of the SALT festival, Norway
Sandhornøya, the stunning setting of the SALT festival
Photograph: PR

The “pyramids” on Sandhornøya are designed by Finnish architect Sami Rintala, based on the traditional fish-drying racks of the region. The largest is currently home to an installation by Chinese artist Yang Fudong, who has produced a series of haunting films that show local dancers drifting like spirits around the island. Yang’s work – if it survives the winter storms – will stay on the site for six months, and after that will be replaced by a new commission.

Sitting cross-legged, drawing spirals in the sand with his finger, Yang, who has spent a month living and working on the island, explains through an interpreter that the instant he landed there all his plans for the installation changed. “I had imagined true peace in the past,” he says. “But when I moved on to the island, it was the first time I had experienced it in reality.”

Yang’s sentiments seem to be unanimously shared by all the visitors I speak to, who are scattered around the beach, investigating the structures, watching Yang’s films, or lying in the sand. Children are climbing up the wooden frames to get a better view of the performances, and smoke drifts out of the top of the sauna, which is warming up for the evening.

Behind the stage two young girls in Scandi jumpers are selling torrfisk – dried cod – from a stand made from old wood with a hand-drawn sign. The wizened fish is hammered with a mallet to soften it so you can pull it off in strips to eat. I buy some (it tastes like fishy polystyrene, but is pretty satisfying to gnaw on) and walk over to the concert venue, where a violist and cellist from the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra are creating conceptual classical sound waves with their bows.

The northern lights at the SALT festival.
The northern lights at the SALT festival.
Photograph: Kristian Sivertsen/PR

Other acts in the largely alternative line up that weekend included Lonnie Holley, an African-American artist who grew up in poverty in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s – his found-object sculptures and warbling atmospheric blues have won him worldwide acclaim – and Biosphere, a Norwegian electronic musician known for his Arctic-inspired ambient techno.

While admiring the concert venue, I bump into one of its builders, Tomas. “We built that in 19 hours,” he says proudly, clenching his biceps through his thermal jacket. “Now feel this.”

When night falls, the festival takes on even more Norwegian earthiness. There’s a bonfire, but, having come slightly underprepared for the cold that evening, I head to the “amphisauna” to warm up properly. I sip on a warm beer (with a polar bear on the can) in the prism-like oven, which can fit up to 120 people and has a huge triangular window at the front so you can look out over the beach. With a bar at the back and deep house music pumping, it feels more like a club than a sauna, the only difference being that rather than cooling off in the smoking area, people dash into the sea instead.

As the weekend draws to a close those still on the island are treated to a sight that outdoes both the art and the landscape. In the early hours, during the short period when the horizon is in total darkness, an unusually strong display of northern lights – surprising even the locals – dances in the sky.

Eventually I retire for the night. I’m staying in a mobile home called a njalla, designed by artist and architect Joar Nango, which sits on wooden skis that allow you to drag it to a spot of your choosing. Inside is a woodburning stove and a bed consisting of reindeer pelt on a surprisingly comfortable layer of dry branches. I look up through its glass ceiling, drifting off as the northern lights fade into darkness. Barely two hours later, the sun rises.

The trip was provided by SALT, which is at Sandhornøya until 6 September 2015. Njalla cabins sleep up to four and cost £125 a night for one person, plus £20 for each extra person. Event tickets from £15. A day package with transfers from Bodø, guided tour, dinner and sauna costs £126pp. Book at salted.no. Norwegian Airlines (norwegian.com) flies to Oslo from Gatwick and Manchester from £70 return, and from Oslo to Bodø from £145 return. Singles Bodø to Sandhornøya costs £19.50 ferry, £13 bus

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