It was a long, winding path of coincidences that led me to Naboland. As it should be.
In the spring I had some time to kill in the West End, so I headed to Charing Cross Road to browse the book shops. I hoped to find something interesting for my research into the Pole Star. I remembered at one point that some good stuff had come up when I looked at material surrounding the terrestrial as well as the celestial north pole. So, in the shop where I found myself, I headed to a section I usually pass by: Travel Writing.
There, laid horizontally on top of the books on the very top shelf, only reachable by ladder—appropriately enough—was a book called The Idea of North by Peter Davidson. I knew the phrase from Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights—though, as Davidson is at pains to point out, it originates with Canadian pianist Glenn Gould‘s experimental radio collage from the late ’60s. In any case, Davidson’s book turned out to be a wonderful, evocative study of the allure of northern climes in literature, legend and art.
Cut to the weekend just gone, and I’m in Dundee visiting my friend Caroline. On Saturday, we’re driving through Fife with a rough remit to visit a souterrain and explore, and Caroline notices road signs advertising an arts festival that’s just kicked off in the coastal fishing village of Pittenweem. I’d never heard of it, but Caroline’s enthused, pointing out as we look for parking the large signs bearing numbers outside selected houses.
Pittenweem, it turns out, is a veritable hive of artists, and the festival is basically a chance to wander around the village, in and out of their houses, where living rooms, conservatories, sheds and bedrooms have been temporarily converted into little gallery spaces.
I was only lightly charmed at first—naturally, much of the art is of the rather twee landscapes-for-tourists variety. Coffee and cake segued into a visit to the village’s old hermit’s cave, and then we started hitting some interesting art. Often the impact of the art was secondary to the unique experience of walking through a kitchen, where the artist is messing with some materials and listening to the radio. You exchange some greetings, and wander into their normally private spaces to view their work.
Going in someone’s front door and our their back door, into a series of interconnected back gardens, some bedecked with sculpture, some just ordinary private gardens… It’s a totally unique experience of art that becomes hypnotically greater than the sum of its parts. Especially when you get to the houses on the steep hills, where you end up feeling like you’re wandering through the creatively labyrinthine communal nesting structures of a crossbreed between genteel artists and some bizarre cliff-dwelling creature.
We’d seen a bare fraction of the houses that had been opened up for the day—maybe a dozen, and we’d seen numbers outside houses go up past seventy. We decided to just pass through a couple more on our way back to the car and call it a day.
As I started browsing the art in the next house we went into, I was gripped by a strong sense of familiarity. I quickly realized I was looking at pieces by the artist whose work graces the cover of Peter Davidson’s The Idea of North. I turned to see where Caroline had gone and tell her this, and, following her into a small, cramped room, I got one of the most potent rushes of artistic wonder I’ve had in years…
The artist was German-born Reinhard Behrens, who, it turns out, has lived in Pittenweem for the past thirty years or so. (It turned out that Caroline knew him as a colleague at the University of Dundee’s School of Media Arts & Imaging, where she’s a forensic artist.) While working as an archaeological draughtsman in Turkey in the ’70s, Behrens was stricken with sunstroke. During recovery, he happened across a newspaper article about a collision between a cargo ship and a submarine in the Bosphorus. Reminded of a toy submarine he’d found on the German North Sea coast a year earlier, and beguiled by the name of the cargo ship (“NABOLAND”), the course of his imagination was set.
Since then, he has produced a range of paintings and installations that seek to document Naboland, a fantastical continent apparently lost between Arctic legend and Himalayan fancy. But, thanks to Behrens’ meticulous archaeological illustrations and imaginative coherence, Naboland has grown more and more elusively tangible, through images of ancient rusty cutlery and decaying hunting tools (as seen on the cover of The Idea of North), and reconstructions of the research dwellings of the explorers who had set out to discover more—chiefly the diminutive occupant of the submarine Behrens had found. This little adventurer pops up in otherwise realistic depictions of realms associated with Naboland—Tibetan monasteries, Arctic wastelands, even the canals of Ghent found in Flemish art of the Northern renaissance.
The room I stepped into in Behrens’ house was a staggeringly detailed installation crammed with the tools, finds, and paraphernalia of this explorer. A half-caged bit in the centre contained a desk, with scientific instruments, tiny whisky bottles, endless little trinkets, even a half-size bunk bed slotted in just above and to the side of the study area—everything faded, aged, battered by long use and harsh Arctic conditions.
At one end of the room was shrine-like tall, shallow decorated Buddhist cabinet, opened to display a brown fur coat with a golden lining. This was from Behrens’ installation ‘The Great Yeti Hall’, and the coat purported to be the coat of the last Yeti, the triumphal treasure from an expedition to the Himalayas in search of remnants of Naboland…
Behrens is currently raising funds for an animated short which will “prove the existence of Naboland”.
For more information, visit www.naboland.co.uk.