An internationally acclaimed contemporary-art gallery is not what I was expecting to find on Norway’s remote and rugged Lofoten Islands, where for the tiny population of fishermen—albeit millionaire fishermen—cod is God.
We have been hugging the base of granite mountains—accessible by road from the mainland only since 2007—driving through sheets of rain and hail, trying to navigate and, when we can, admire one of Norway’s more otherworldly designated scenic routes.
Crossing the narrow causeway connecting to the island of Henningsvaer brings a lifting of the weather, and a gearshift of mind-set and mood. As if on cue, the sun, like a stage light, switches on, and illuminates, 100 degrees north of the Arctic Circle, the unlikely Caribbean white of the beaches and a gleaming architectural cube squatting on the waterfront at the mouth of the fishing village. A 1950s former fish-paste-processing plant, it is now a light-filled shop and gallery with poured-concrete stairs and a glass floor looking onto industrial features below. Here, amid the ubiquitous whiff of ling and drying cod, of brine, of fisherman’s wool, and wood, the gallery—called Kaviar Factory—offers annual exhibitions of works by the Norwegian bad boy Bjarne Melgaard, Roni Horn, and Elmgreen & Dragset. It is as incongruous as finding an Apple Store in the Serengeti.
It’s the tail end of the spawning season, when the cod migrate from the icy Arctic waters of the Barents Sea to the relatively warm Gulf Stream here, and the coastline comes alive, twitching with the wandering skrei (the name given to these adult Norwegian Atlantic cod, from the Norse word for “migrate”) and the sea turning a cloudy blue with eggs. Once caught, the fish are hung to wind-dry on racks, or stokks, used since Viking times, giving the name to the “stockfish” prized in the restaurants of Venice and Milan and to a specialty, served with baked Serrano ham and creamed carrots, in the community of Svolvaer’s oldest fish restaurant, Børsen Spiseri, which dates to 1828.
I attempt to order in Norwegian and am told by my guide to dispense with politeness. There are no words in Norwegian for “please” or “excuse me,” but you can certainly conjure more than a dozen words for, and different ways to skin and use, a cod. Cod semen is exported to Japan as a fertility aid. Cod liver is pressed into oil for light-deprived Northern Europeans. Cod heads go to Nigeria as the main ingredient for a spicy stew, and salted cod becomes salt fish and klipfish bound for the taverns of the Roman ghetto and Lisbon’s signature bacalao. The neck and tongue, fried or boiled, as per the Børsen menu, is served as a local delicacy.
There are no words in Norwegian for “please” or “excuse me,” but you can certainly conjure more than a dozen words for, and different ways to skin and use, a cod.
“Cutting the tongues out of the fish is a rite of passage, once a neat vacation earner for me and for generations of island teenagers,” enthuses our captain, Bärd Hanssen, the next day on a boat trip over the corrugated-iron seas of the inner fjords. “It is where I got my first taste of the trade and of the money that can be made from cod. Today I also woo any prospective bride with my mother’s special recipe of cod tongue, boiled and served as a triangular desert.”
The sons and grandsons of whale hunters, Hanssen and his brothers are typical of the region’s hardy, self-reliant, nationalistic fishermen who have built fortunes from the cod stocks and are proud that they have no need of the tourist dollar or E.U. subsidies to thrive. For Norway, 2019 was a record year for cod exports (nearly $45 million worth, a 25 percent increase over previous years thanks to larger catches).
As we skim the waves in his Zodiac past his favorite surf sites (the left-hand break at Unstad is said to be one of the best surf spots in Europe, with waves that start in Greenland and gather force, unimpeded, over 1,600-foot-deep underwater trenches, cresting here), he gestures at the sea eagles soaring over the slopes where he likes to skin up and ski off-piste, at the rivers he fords, at the mountains he hikes in the summer. Hanssen talks as though he were king of this domain. And effectively he is: allemannsretten—the freedom to trawl, fish, hike, and camp wherever you like—is a statutory and basic Norwegian right.
But art brings an alternative dimension and new dynamic to the great outdoors. The narrow road to Norway’s deep north is punctuated by installations from the Artscape Nordland project, with international artists as diverse as Antony Gormley, Cildo Meireles, and Dan Graham, whose mirrored cube in Lofoten’s Vågan reflects back the ethereal light of the landscape around.
The freedom to trawl, fish, hike, and camp wherever you like is a statutory and basic Norwegian right.
The Kaviar Factory building had been in danger of crumbling into the sea when it was rescued by Venke and Rolf Hoff, Norway’s most prodigious contemporary-art collectors. The open-plan space of their top-floor apartment creates a spectacle, with the northwesterly wind howling and waves crashing against the rocks below. One glass wall frames a view of blue, broad-beamed Nordland boats chugging in and out of the harbor; ocher-tinted fishermen’s huts; and stark Viking fire-signaling towers standing in high relief against serrated snowcapped mountains that gleam like shark teeth across the shiny pewter seas.
Venke hopes the gallery and the scenery will attract artists to come and stay in her adjacent lighthouse, on a rugged promontory down the coast. With a thrilling eeriness that taps into the raw elemental beauty of the seascape, it consists of a series of small interconnecting rooms filled with Danish 18th-century furniture and china and animated by the mercurial Nordic light. But the writing retreat of my dreams is the boathouse (available for rent, like the lighthouse, through pelorusx.com), a weather-beaten wooden hut with a sauna next door. Soaring racks of pungent drying cod frame the approach, the fish slowly withering and blackening in the wind, like bats hanging from cathedral rafters.
I think about this later, as I wriggle into my single mattress and rustic (if expensive) truckle bed. While the unearthly ghouls that are the northern lights unleash green wisps across the inky Arctic sky, I ponder that, sometimes, the freedom of nature is all the luxury we crave.
Catherine Fairweather is a travel editor and writer based in Somerset, England