Perched on a mountain far above the village of Dale, in a remote northern part of Norway, four artists and myself are gathered to work here through the increasingly darkening days. The few hours of daylight that dwindle are diffused by drifts of cloud and through this light, the woods that form a ring around our cabins and studios, are the colour of a silhouette. The outline of pine trees against the declining twilight is a menacing saw-tooth edge that warns of unimagined terrors. These are the thickets from whence grim tales were born, where innocence is stolen, quests fail, good ideas are slain and unforeseen obstacles arise. Legend says that when the branches and undergrowth become impenetrable, and day cannot be distinguished from night and a river has erased the path you followed into the woods, you will find a hidden thing. This thing is called Panic. You are to pick this thing up and put it in your pocket, it will be your constants companion if you dare to go deeper into the Forest of the Unknown.
Others have been here before us but their presence is only known as a myth. Each gigantic studio was scrubbed, patched and bleached white before the five of us arrived. The violent action - black ink on white paper, the moment of risk and reward and the splatter of thinking splashed against the walls have all been expunged. Who these artists were and what they crusaded for, cannot be drawn out from any mark or fragment or trace. Now they have gone and we, orphaned from our lives, begin our efforts to magic things into existence, to spin dust into golden threads and to employ the fanciful muse that is alchemy.
Inside the studio is a wall of glass two stories high that reveals the drowning of the landscape in thick fog, and rain that washes light from the sky and clouds that muffle the world and my ideas. There is awe in this view and it calls to mind the Romantics but they can’t help me now. Mesmerised by the cloudscapes outside and intimidate by the grandness of the interior that demands only greatness, a day can pass without my moving from the window. Later the night turns the glass to mirror. It reflects my smallness in the space. I can see now that I’m standing on a stage under the harsh interrogation of florescent lights, the sharp spruce trees are my audience on the other side of the fourth wall. They are waiting in the dark, expecting something to happen, anticipating magic from me, but I am standing on the stage without a script. How do I begin?
The studios are just far enough apart so that sound cannot travel, and they’re angled at degrees so you are out of each other’s sightlines, but I know that the other artists are nearby. I’ve seen 3 of them; a Londoner, a Canadian and a Norwegian. We all note the strangeness of the second Norwegian, Nauma. Personal items in the cabin and studio show signs that she’s here but only the Londoner claims to have seen her. These three arrived before me and they all practice the sacred art of painting. Their studios are filling up with purpose, preparation and paintings. The smell of turps wards off the evil spirits and their bright colours and archives of endless images are propelling them towards new possibilities. They appear fearless, that is… until they leave the protection of the studio and venture out in the night where the moon has already set behind the peaks. The Londoner has a deep and rational scepticism of nature. “You just don’t know what’s out there”. She practices self-defence on city streets fighting legless drunks and pathetic flashers but she fears what is waiting in the woods, fears what she can’t see. Repeatedly her voice rises to remind us that anything could be lurking in the woods.
The Canadian’s a landscape painter and a lover of the wilderness. I often think I see him, a distant hooded figure hiking the mountain trails and disappearing over the ridge. But at 2am when he locks the studio door to head back to the cabin, a cold chill crawls over his body. As he turns to leave something brushes and lightly snags at his jacket hood. He freezes. It is so completely dark that he can’t truly know if someone is behind him or not. It happens every single night, even when he takes care to turn more cautiously. He has come to except it and reasons that it is the ghosts of past artists trying to cling to this place. But still his haste to get over the mountain to the safety of the cabin is endured with creepy bone-chilling goose bumps and fueled by the adrenaline rush of primordial flight.
The Norwegian hasn’t slept since she arrived. The bedroom feels too large, too open. There is a valley of space on both sides and a wide passage at the foot of the bed. The mattress is low to the floor and the ceiling is an untouchable distance above. The curved window that arch’s over the bed-head and stretches form wall to wall, also unsettles her. Someone could look in. She moved the bed around but it makes the space grow and grow and now she can see the window from bed. She tries to sleep thinking of all the tools in her studio - the chain saw, the nail gun, the hammer, all could be used in her defense but they are locked away and she is alone. She lies tensely on her side staring through closed lids at the window, waiting every night for the face to appear.
I have too much space also. Not in my cabin but in my day. What do you do when there is nothing to do? Time reproduces itself and I fill the seeming infinity with desperation and anxiety. I want to make something new. How? How? How? What? What? What what whatwhathowwhathowhowhow. I run down unlit corridors, trying to locate those lost ideas, those nameless works, that unexplored thingness and I turn a corner to find 17 doors. Behind one is a brick wall. Behind another it is snowing fluffy drifts of ideas. I hold out my hand to catch them and they melt on impact, my skin is hot with the energy of criticism. The third reveals swimmable blackness and steps leading down to a damp basement. I walk bare footed down the stairs and into icy ankle deep water, moving further into the pool I stretch my hands feebly in front of me. I feel my way around awkward objects that obscure my path – a chapter of my thesis, a red bucket, clumps of moss, a new notebook, blunt blades. I don’t know what they are for. I don’t know what each minute is for.
In a state of restlessness I try another door, one with muted voices behind it. It’s lit softly and there’s an armchair in front of a large window that beckons me to rest. The chair is cosy and the view stunning. I contemplate the weather and all the promises of colour within grey and I almost relax into its misty lull. But the muted voices are sharper and chaotic now and they aggravate me. Is this work? Will this be work? How could this be work? Do something with rain or snow or the way the clouds keep erasing the peeks or something about change and passing do something you should do something what are you going to make something new … ANYTHING.
I retreat from the sublime view and the nasty judging voices and turn my attention towards a plastic bag full of dust. It has never held sacred art powers which could protect me from the dread of idealessness and non-production. And yet I open a small cupboard in the hallway and place the bag inside. I crawl in after it, retreating to the quiet warmth of a limited space with a bag of know quantity. At the very least it began as a plan but the cupboards protection wanes and its walls expand to transform it into a windy white cube. All I could do for days was run around trying to catch individual dust particles with my swollen hands.
Tonight I am in bed, crossing out potential ideas before I have a chance to write them down, when I hear a car pull up near the cabin to the right of mine. I have never heard a car on this road before, but consumed by my futile pursuit, I quickly dismissed its presence as the arrival, return or disappearance of Nauma the Norwegian. A few minutes later I hear a car again, this time it stops outside my cabin. The door opens. Closes. I look out the bedroom window but can’t quite see around the corner. Footsteps cross the gravel. Then silence. I stand in my bedroom like I stand in the studio, not knowing what to do. Is something about to happen? Should I act now or wait to react?
Next door, the Norwegian hears footsteps circling her cabin. She slips silently out of bed and soundlessly touches her way to check and recheck that the door and windows are locked. She returns to the too large bedroom, eyes wide open, terror heightened and fixes her gaze on the arch window and waits.
The Canadian, working late in the studio, experiences in an unexplainable moment of unease, when he remembers that he did not lock the door to his cabin early today. His imagination is fueled with paint fumes and it prompts a string of gruesome scenarios as a consequences. Anything could be lurking in wait. He flees home.
A man knocks on the door of cabin five. It’s 11:30pm. Startled and unnerved the Londoner approach’s the door with trepidation. Through the porthole window she could see the figure shifting around in the shadow. She unlocks the door and opens it, just a fraction to see him better. The unknown man steps forward into partial light “I’m here to fix your fireplace, can I come in”.
And that’s where this gothic tale of suspense ends:
One artist is missing.
One artist faces a legitimate threat.
Two artists are petrified by their own imaginations.
One artist chooses to enter the Forest of the Unknown.