Norwegian Black Metalby Sonya Shrier
A photograph of blood splattered in a sink greets you upon entering the Riviera gallery. A tube of white makeup rests on the side of the sink along with a dirty bottle of red liquid. Is this sink filled with real blood or fake blood? Is this photograph a parody or am I really scared? Peter Beste’s photographs from his three-year documentary project on Black Metal subculture in Norway explore a unique moral universe where the lines separating fantasy from reality and horror from terror are blurred.
Viking bloodlust, hatred for Christianity, and general misanthropy characterize the Norwegian Black Metal scene. Text and audio accounts from Black Metalers accompany the photographs and force you to take their almost laughable dungeons and dragons exterior of spikes, corpse paint, and Viking garb seriously. When you learn about the "real-life" church burning, murders of rival band members, and other bizarre and violent behavior that goes on within the circle, the photographs take on an unsure space between theatricality and reality that asks the viewer to contemplate the relationship between these two concepts.
The portrait "Gaahl of Gorgoroth" (2003) exemplifies the way in which the Norwegian Black Metal lifestyle goes into and beyond the horror exterior. The information accompanying his image tells us that Gaahl lives alone in a cabin in a remote valley in Norway, that he was recently released from prison on a "torture-like violence conviction," and is currently awaiting trial for a similar and unrelated charge. This haunting close-up shows his face completely covered in black, white, and red makeup smeared together as if he never takes it off. His piercing eyes look straight into the camera in a sincere and slightly crazy way, as if he were looking out from another plane of reality.
So how exactly did this other plane of reality arise? The roots of this scene can be traced back to the 1980s where, for the most part, purely theatrical horror film aesthetics of earlier Black Metal music groups were imitated by youths who took their horror seriously. A snowball effect of bands trying to out evil one another brought a new generation of Black Metal in the nineties. The most ferocious of these bands arose in Norway. Out of this youthful rebellion morphed an ideology which included a strong identification with a Viking past as part of a quest to reclaim the elements of Norwegian culture that the Christian missionaries took centuries ago.
This sentiment is most evident in the photographs that feature the Black Metalers in their Norwegian landscape. "Valfar of Windir" (2002) shows a man in the center of the frame with a magnificent sky behind him. He stands with a confident posture, arms crossed, framed by two spectacular mountains in the distance. Speaking about his band he says, "We come from a rural area that has a rich history…so we use only local historical aspects in the lyrics: battles and persons who we tell stories through and supernatural beliefs from our small village." Just last month Valfar was found frozen to death in the mountains of his hometown.
The subjects of these photographs are trying to reclaim the Norwegian land from what they see as the "fantasy" that Christianity imposed on it. They are trying to get back to something more material. Documenting this subculture, unique to a country that has one of the darkest winters, and one of the highest suicide and depression rates in the world, Peter Beste shows us how becoming part of a horrifying fantasy may be a necessary tool to actually get closer to real life.