Lofoten Islands, Norway, part 2—June 2-7, 2015
Because we had only four days of driving within the islands, we looked for a central place from which to forage for art. The Sandtorgholmen Hotel is a small historic property that sits at the end of a small peninsula on the sound separating the island of Hinnøya from the mainland. Sandtorgholmen has been a storied trading post since the early 1300s, and when we drove up to its lawn and checked in, we found its accommodations spacious and warm, the perfect alternative to the chain hotels that are expanding in the larger towns.
We stayed in a room overlooking the water, ate in the wooden-beamed restaurant—and, much to our surprise, discovered a contemporary sculpture installation on the rocks right at the tideline. Fremskritt (“Progress”) by the glass artist Linn K.M. Klamath and sculptor Håken Lindgren was commissioned by the nearby municipality of Harstad in 2004 for the Festival of Northern Norway. The funding disappeared, and the owners of the hotel, Alice and Rolf Trulsen, purchased the work.
When we walked out to examine the steel and glass figures, we were dive bombed by an oystercatcher nesting atop the grass-roofed earthen cellar built in 1557, which in 1752 was converted into northern Norway’s oldest wine cellar. As in Svalbard, I’m bemused by the emphasis above the Arctic Circle on the entombing and eventual consumption of good wine.
The rusting steel human-sized figures were bolted into the rocks, their matte sand-cast glass faces both visible and not, depending on your vantage point. Seven of the figures were arrayed in a line as if marching down to the water, but there’s a gap where one had seemingly stepped “out of line,” exercising some agency. The lowest two or three figures actually descend into the intertidal zone, and in fact Sara found an upside down sea urchin that had been torn off the rocks and deposited halfway up the sculpture.
During our time in the Lofoten Islands we found, documented, and discussed dozens of public and private sculptures located in plazas, on highways, in front yards, and saw some of the best highway architecture in the world, roads that soared and twisted and curved over rivers and around mountains, engineering that achieved a level of perfection all of its own. But one of the most arresting works we discovered wasn’t on our itinerary—we just happened to drive right to it on the way back to Tromsø on our last day. Immediately after crossing a bridge over the Målselva River on our right stood a 20-foot-high pile of large boulders stacked within a circle of 55-foot-tall dead trees.
We pulled into the small parking area to examine the structure, so massive and deliberately primitive that it looked as if erected by an ancient race of giants. A well-used fire ring was set within a small spiral off to one side, lending a ritual air to the site. The gray slabs and boulders within the trees were cold to the touch, the trees themselves scorched and shorn of branches until above the rocks, where they formed a tall thorny crown.
There was no signage, although from the wear and tear on the grass, it was obvious that the site is a much-visited rest stop. The only other time we’d seen a formal fire pit at a rest stop, however, was atop Furka Pass in Switzerland, where a sculpture of four granite blocks by Max Bill defined a minimalist fire ring.
It takes much internet searching once home, and using Google Earth™, to discover that the work by the river, Målselv Varde (“Cairn”), is by the Sicilian-born sculptor Alfio Bonanno, who was commissioned in 2000 to make a work for the municipality’s site celebrating the turning of the millennium. The enormous cairn, almost 15 feet in diameter, required four years to engineer, and assistance from the Norwegian Army to ferry the bedrock gabbro rocks from a nearby quarry.
Bonanno, who has lived since 1970 in Denmark, is a renowned artist working with natural materials around the world. To find a major work by an artist of such stature by happenstance while traveling is a particular joy. The relatively intimate presence of the steel-and-glass figures of Fremskritt at the hotel, and the monumental presence of Målselv Varde are examples of a likewise diverse yet linked set of motivations for sculpture in the landscape. They establish enduring human relationships with land by creating metaphor, as if to say land is one thing and landscape another. It’s in this constant cognitive give and take between what is natural and what is cultural that public art can create another way to stay alert to the world.
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.