Center for Art + Environment Blog

January 21, 2014   |   William L. Fox

Vardø 4

visits Norway

The Norwegian government has established eighteen national tourist routes that traverse some of the most stunning landscapes on Earth. Each of them host place-specific architecture and art interventions that reveal aspects of nature and culture which might otherwise remain unnoticed. In Vardø, at the end of the northernmost of the routes, is the Steilneset Memorial designed by Swiss architect and Pritzer Prize winner Peter Zumthor, who worked with the late French-American artist Louis Bourgeouis on her last sculpture. The site memorializes the seventeenth century burning at the stake of91 men and women suspected of being witches in the state of Finnmark.

One enters the first part of the memorial by walking up a long ramp and entering a treated canvas bladder suspended from an enlarged version of a traditional wooden fish drying rack. Inside, you proceed down a dimly lit corridor with an oak floor, the entire 410-foot-long structure responding both to the wind gusts outside and your own passage. Asymmetrically placed windows, light bulbs, and individual plaques commemorate each of the victims.

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Passing back outside through another door at the far end, you descend another ramp that deposits you by the open entrance of a smoked-glass and metal frame cube whose sides stop short of reaching the ground, allowing wind and snow and cold to penetrate during winter, but also to cool the interior during summer. Inside is the installation by Bourgeois, The Damned, The Possessed, The Beloved—a steel chair inside a concrete cone, the seat of which is penetrated by four large gas jet flame.

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As the Future North researchers and I completed our transect of Vardø, measuring the changes wrought by depopulation of the fishing village during the last few decades, the memorial provided a powerful and eerie reminder of how art and architecture can use history to shape our sense of place. It was astonishing to find a memorial with this level of sophistication funded as a tourist amenity in a town of roughly 2,100 people that sits north of Murmansk across the border in neighboring Russia.

Two of the three leading partners in the Future North endeavor will be working at the Center for Art + Environment this October after attending our third Art + Environment Conference. I’m looking forward to hearing from Janike Larsen and Peter Hammersam about how they perceive the changing landscapes of Nevada. If you’re interested in learning more about the Future North project, the website is here: http://www.oculs.no/projects/future-north/news/.