The relaxed attitude to the destruction of the remote Arctic festival's main event space reflects the ethos of the year-long event
Stages don't get much more dramatic than this: a lonely 2km stretch of beach overlooked by a vertiginous black-rock cliff and surrounded by a raw, expansive landscape of ocean and snow-capped mountains. Sandhornøya, a Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle with a population of just 350, is the unlikely stage for one of the world's most ambitious festivals.
Founded by Erlend Mogård-Larsen and Helga-Marie Nordby, Salt is a year-long music and arts extravaganza that launched in August with performances under the Northern Lights by the Arctic Symphony Orchestra and Alabama-born outsider artist Lonnie Holley, and a film installation by Chinese artist Yang Fudong.
More than 1,000 visitors from as far afield as Australia and the US attended the opening, taking a half-hour boat from Bodø – the last stop on Norway's rail network, the closest urban centre to Sandhornøya and a two-hour flight from capital Oslo.
As city festivals around the world fold for lack of ticket sales, getting this many people to a remote Arctic island is no small feat. But then, city festivals generally don't offer the surreal experience that a visit to Sandhornøya does, nor the primitive, elemental architecture that has taken centre stage on the beach.
Designed by Finnish architects Sami Rintala, the structures were inspired by the traditional Arctic fiskehjell (fish drying rack) and include the world's largest sauna (which also serves as a performance space and bar) and a sculptural series of accommodation pods – some designed by architecture students during a workshop earlier in the year and others inspired by traditional Sami njalla tents.
The visual signature of the festival, however, is a 140m-long, 12m-high A-frame structure that served as the main event space – and was recently destroyed by a late-September storm.
For most other event organisers, the destruction of the main event space a mere month into a 12-month programme would be catastrophic. For Salt, however, it's nothing more than a misadventure caused by nature and taken in stride. The festival remained closed for several weeks, but rather than the vitriol you might expect from ticket-holders in such a situation, there has been nothing but support, says Andreas Førde, Salt's managing director.
This kind of relaxed attitude – which perhaps comes from Salt's founding ethos of embracing the natural rhythms of the Arctic – seemingly underpins the entire festival, including the programming. There are plans, say organisers, for avant-garde electronica and heavy metal nights, orchestral performances, a climate change convention and a host of epic art installations.
As yet, however, very little has actually been confirmed. And, this doesn't seem to be much of an issue at all. While the programme is certainly part of the attraction of Salt, it easily takes second place to the opportunity to spend time in this remote corner of the world, and the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime experience – with or without a main event space.
And, Sandhornøya is just the beginning. Over the next eight years, Salt will travel to destinations around the Arctic, from Nuuk in Greenland to the Faroe Islands, spending a year in each and leaving no traces in its wake.
As the saying goes, "If you build it, they will come". It worked in Bilbao, where Gehry's Guggenheim transformed a previously derelict industrial port city; at the Museum of Old and New Art on the far-flung Berriedale Peninsula in Hobart, which hosts the annual Dark Mofo winter feast; and Træna Festival, founded by Mogård-Larsen a decade ago and regularly touted as the world's most remote music festival, which brings thousands of revellers each year to a volcanic archipelago five hours by boat from mainland Norway.
While cities might offer endless, easily accessible entertainment, there's something appealing about remote events that offer less planning and more spontaneity, where a damaged main event space and a surprising programme are just a part of the experience.
Images: Gunnar Holmstad and Marte Antonsen