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The world's largest sauna, built by renowned architect Sami RintalaPhotography by John Leo Gillen

Flirting with the edge of the earth

Norway's off the grid SALT festival gets heavy with a black metal band, a nu-age performer and a viking sucking one back from a runic horn

As my lungs fill with probably the cleanest air that has or will ever grace my nasal passage, I think that the only way docking on Sandhornøya could improve would be if a local were necking beer out of a runic viking horn. Needless to say, it improves. Against the towering cliffs, an even taller Norwegian thrusts his horn to the sky in some sort of surreal deleted scene from Game of Thrones. Festival goers carve a triangle through the ivory sand between the bar, the world's largest sauna, and the icy clear waters for a hypothermic cooling off. The air has a piercing crispness this side of the Arctic Circle. The sun takes its time to set, a sharp orange before finally giving up near midnight. The striking Jurassic Park-like cliffs burn in the basking light. With a usual stronghold of 400, the Nordic island ready to fall off the earth's most northern edge has swelled to 3000 for the opening of SALT

The year-long arts festival is a marriage of art and music beautifully framed by a stunning Norwegian landscape, the first leg in a series of pan-Arctic art projects. The beach is peppered with a site-specific film installation and a series of architectural structures that are meant to reflect Norwegian fish drying racks (fiskehjelle).

As twilight nears and the northern lights threaten to appear, nu-age musician and artist Lonnie Holley ushers in the festival with his signature mix of songs and spoken word. Holley claims to have been traded for a bottle of whisky when he was four, is one of 27 children and was formerly homeless. When we bump into him, Holley's fingers are adorned with a Portobello Road's worth of trinkets; one of the rings, when turned full circle, shows his face. "See my ring? I've carved this ring of myself," Holley explains in his gruff croak. "That's my profile. The only way that I can get to be angelic, is that I got to believe in the bird. Now, watch the bird," he gestures at his ring. "See the bird? But it's gonna become me. You see? You see?"

It's a bit of a squint job, but he isn't lying. The bird slowly transforms into his profile. "Our brains can pick up on anything that we want to, but how do we use this energy or how do we appreciate it? I'm just going to sing appreciation," he segues, talking about how he will woo the crowd of around 3000 on the fest's opening night. "And y'all just walked into it, because we're gonna do the same thing. We're gonna serve the same purpose."

The focus of the festival is just as much about the local traditions, the elemental ends of Norwegian culture, and global land artists who share an affinity with this extraordinary place. The looming rock face is only trumped in immensity by a thunderous black metal performance by a three-piece act of majesty called Wardruna. Majesty may just be an understatement. Wikipedia throws up that the three band members have based their project on "Nordic spiritualism and the runes of the Elder Futhark". This is perhaps best demonstrated when they reach for the sky in worship mid-performance, donning black smocks and belts inscribed with ancient markings. One of our group is a bit smitten with Gaahl (on vocals). The drummer's hi-hat is a heap of mussel shells. The mic stand – an antler (reindeer?). A woman in the front row is dressed in a burlap sack, writhing with her eyes closed.

Viking anthems aside, the big draw of SALT is prolific Chinese artist Yang Fudong. His especially-commissioned film "The Light That I Feel" plays on a series of raised boxes designed by renowned architect Sami Rintala. The structures are visible from the water, and give the otherwise empty beach a focal point. "The part of design of the installation shows that you are a star, part of the constellation," explains Fudong of the eight different installations, speaking through a translator. The films can be viewed from both sides of the screen. "They can either sit in or outside a box," muses Fudong, whose talent is just as much the art as giving meaning to something trivial behind it. Walking through the installation, the short films escalate from mere pouting portraits of nearly-nude girls and boys in the Norwegian landscape to a full on romp in the buff on a trampoline.

"We found a trampoline, a public one," says Helga-Marie Nordby. "It's made for kids and we had 7 or 8 grown ups on it. We didn’t want to break it, we could only jump one at a time, but of course they all got naked on the trampoline, so all the neighbours outside were shocked."

This is the first stop on its world tour. SALT will pick up sticks and migrate to Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Ireland, Scotland, Spitsbergen, Alaska and Russia. The point? To draw attention to the Arctic as an entity beyond mere resources worth ploughing. Instead of drills, install some art. Make people look. "It's not just about fantastic nature – it's about our role in the landscape," says cofounder and curator of SALT, Helga-Marie Nordby. "For me, that's what I want people to feel. You see contemporary art around the world but the scenery is more interesting than the art," says Nordby. "I needed to create expressions and bring in something new to this old and very grand scenery."