Lofoten Islands, Norway June 2-7, 2015
Among the truly jaw-dropping landscapes on the planet are the Lofoten Islands, a series of impossibly steep peaks on the northwestern coast of Norway that rise straight out of the ocean in a maze of fjords, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls. Sara has arranged to fly to Tromsø to meet me the day I return to the mainland from Svalbard, and we set off in a rental car to check out the public art and architecture projects in the region. This is yet another foray into the investigation of projects deployed in the Arctic to brand its landscapes for tourism. Unlike Svalbard, where there are virtually no roads to drive, Norway’s eighteen National Tourist Routes not only traverse some of the world’s most scenic landscapes, they’re augmented by a government curated series of public amenities, as well as a private artwork program in the county of Nordland, which includes Lofoten.
The first project we come across is the Kleivodden rest stop on the island of Andoya, a series of five incised, geometric, and highly polished black granite plinths designed by Inge Dahlman from the Oslo firm Landscaps Fabrikken (“Landscape Factory). Four of the rocks rest on a concrete plaza, which is itself shaped to resonate with the plinths. The fifth member of the ensemble resides at the end of a small path thrust through the coastal rocks and overlooking the ocean. It’s a quiet array, one that echoes both minimalist sculptures and the low-lying islands nearby. The objective, as with many of the public architecture projects here, is to provide a place where you can contemplate the form of the landscape.
The next day we cross over the bridge to Langoy and have lunch overlooking the harbor of Sortland, inadvertently stumbling across one of the sculptures in the Artscape Nordland program initiated by the artist Anne Katrine Dolven, who during the 1990s commissioned artists to make thirty-three sculptures around the 15,444 square miles of Nordland. The result is one of the more interesting and at times startling public collections in Europe.
Ocean Eye by the Iceland artist Sigurdur Gudmundsson, who now lives in Amsterdam, is a large diamond-shaped window created by a peaked arrangement of six black granite blocks that evokes the shape of a house. The sculpture stands on a rock jetty and is enclosed by a low circular wall of concrete. I was once told by a Norwegian that, unlike Americans, who like their wilderness views unobstructed by any human structure, his countrymen prefer something built in the foreground to create contrast. Ocean Eye both alludes to the house, but also provides a window through which to focus your attention across the fjord and onto the peaks, a double framing device. It’s a vertical work that’s highly resonant with the horizontal plinths at Kleivodden, both devices that, while focusing our attention on the structure of the land, help us understand how we structure our views.
One of the more famous Artscape Nordland works is the reflecting structure by American Dan Graham that stands on Vestvågøy. Constructed of two-way mirrors set into stainless steel frames, the side facing the road the work presents a right-angle corner, which works as a regular mirror; on the side facing the sea, however, the mirrors are concave and serve to dramatically heighten the mountains across the fjord. The concrete base offers a stage in front of this funhouse, and the result is to find yourself standing in the middle of what looks like a Chinese landscape painter’s version of Lofoten. What at first looks like a steel-and-glass funhouse experiment turns out to be both a sensuous and serious work. Even while this untitled work seduces you by dramatizing an already beautiful view, it that takes you one step further in analyzing your response to both the art and the land. First, it injects you into the view, an allusion to the Romantic painting tradition of David Casper Frederick, and then it encourages you to consider how we hype historical landscape views into clichés as we brand them for sale to tourists.
Although the National Tourist Route projects are fairly well publicized and easy to find, the Artscape Nordland projects are sometimes tucked away in genuinely obscure spots, even at times requiring a boat to reach them. And I think that’s exactly right, a combination that elicits those twin pleasures of the treasure hunt, expectation and frustration. The coastline is so fractal that, even if you knew where all the art stood, it would take weeks to track down both the public and private works just in Nordland. You slowly realize, as a result, that the works are as much for the local people as the tourists. Contemporary art hasn’t been an easy sell to Nordland’s 40,000 or so residents, some of whom have been vocally ambivalent about the works, which is also true in the Swiss Alps, too, as Sara and I discovered last fall. But the placement of provocative art and architecture in the landscape can be done so that it is not bolted on as an intrusive gesture in front of your view. When done right, it is something you seek out, stumble across, or just pass by with a sense of delight, curiosity, and awe—more about which in the next post.