THE STEILNESET MONUMENT – NORWAY
THE STEILNESET MONUMENT:
I arrived at the Steilneset Monument on an overcast and gloomy Sunday evening. Already slightly unnerved by my arrival in Vardo (Norway’s easternmost town), as this involved a 3km trip through a challenging, grey and steep road tunnel under the Barents Sea (which connects Vardo to the Varanger Peninsula in Finnmark). It was 6.30pm, I had the place to myself and in Vardo the church bells began to toll. I’d come to see a stunning and highly atmospheric art and architecture collaboration which commemorates 91 local people who were accused of witchcraft and sentenced to burn at the stake.
The Steilneset Monument is the work of artist Louise Bourgeois and the architecture Atelier of Peter Zumthor and partners (project architect simon Mahringer). The memorial comprises of two separate buildings. One an installation by Peter Zumthor, a 125m-long wooden structure framing a fabric caccoon which contains a narrow walkway,1.5m wide, which is lined with small windows, one for each victim of the witch hunts. The second adjacent structure is a square black glass room that contains the work of Louise Bourgeois. “This room contains a central chair on which an eternal flame burns, the fire is reflected in seven large oval mirrors, placed on metal columns in a ring around the seat, like judges circling the condemned” (Wikipedia). Commissioned in 2006 and opened in 2011 Louise Bourgeois died in 2010 and her contribution to the project titled ‘The Damed, The Possessed and The Beloved was her last major installation. The Memorial was jointly commissioned by the town of Vardo, the Varanger Museum and the Norwegian Public Roads Administration (developed in association with the National Tourist Routes of Norway).
The site, on the edge of the ocean was striking on a cold and grey evening. The church bells (just my timing), added to the atmosphere. The wind was blowing and intensified the sound of the burning flame, certainly theatrical. The scale and robust feel of the black glass room is impressive, the central fire reflected around the walls through which you can see the Barents Sea. The adjacent, timber and canvas corridor (reminiscent of nearby fish drying racks) is a total emotional surprise. You enter via a ramp to face a black wall, your eyes adjusting to the dark interior, then turn to face the narrow walkway where 91 dim light bulbs hang beside 91 small square windows. Next to each window a text filled banner, one for each victim of the witch hunts.
THE WITCH TRIALS:
“Finnmark is a region of Norway which was long known to medieval Christians at Ultima Thule – the end of the world – and legend has it that the road to hell was small, unpaved and set out towards the Varanger Peninsula, presided over by devils and dark knights. After paganism was outlawed the Scandinavian kingdoms were intolerant towards anyone harbouring anti-christian tendencies. Witch finding took a hold in the 1620’s, 135 ‘witches’ were accused in Vardo and 91 of them burned alive at the stake” (The Rough Guide To Norway).
“The witch-craft trials here took place towards the end of the period that saw persecution of ‘witches’ all over Europe. What is known about the Finnmark witch-craft trails mainly derives from court records of trails heard in local courts. Use of torture was common, including the ‘water ordeal’ when the accused person was thrown into the sea with his or her hands and feet bound. Water, which was considered a sacred element, was thought to repel evil, the suspects rising to the surface and floating was an indication of guilt, sinking was a sign of innocence. Most of the death sentences were passed in so-called panics, meaning that one trail led to another in rapid succession. The Steilneset Monument emphasises what is individual for every person who was executed. Each woman and man is named and correct historical information about these persons was made available to the project team”.(Varanger Museum Guidebook – Memorial to the Witches burned in Finnmark).
Example of a text banner inside the larger structure:
Brought before the court a Vardohus Castle on 26 April, 1621
Accused of practising witchcraft
Was told she would be spared torture if she confessed at once, but pleaded innocent
Was subject to undergo the water ordeal – floated like a bob
Convicted of practice of witchcraft
Sentenced to death in fire at the stake
(Married women, aged 57, denounced by seven women, all in goal under charges of witchcraft).
After visiting the monument I cycled around the town, it was really quiet (being Sunday evening), I saw some amazing and inspiring things. Since visiting Vardo I have done a bit of research to find out more about the regeneration project and its arts and cultural element. As this is my ‘line of work’, I could see that successful things were happening, the project website (below) gives loads of detail on this on-going project. I could see parallels with one of my more recent commissions in Fleetwood (Wyre MBC), where Sea Change funding partly enabled the building of The Rossall Point Marine Observatory (Studio Three Architects, Liverpool) and the partial restoration of Marine Hall Gardens (BCA Landscape, Liverpool – Sea Change funding ended with the current recession along with other cultural regenerate funding).
Many buildings in the town have been restored and those awaiting repair are sites for temporary artworks. The Slippen, which Varanger museum aims to restore is where boats were brought out of the water for repair. There is a current need for this facility to be restored and hopefully heritage funding will help.
The regeneration of Vardo is on-going through a partnership which includes local people, Vardo Restored and the Norwegian Cultural Heritage Fund. The Vardo Restored website is really interesting and shows examples of completed and future projects. Community Involvement, Heritage, Art, Architecture and Culture are at the centre of what is happening. “People enhance assets purely by communication”, Heidi Kuernvik, Husegarden.
HISTORY OF THE DOWNTURN:
During the 1980’s the collapse of the fishing industry and the downsizing of the public sector led to decline. During the period 1980 – 2000 the population of Vardo halved due to unemployment and there was a general exodus due to pessimism, leading to the decay of buildings and infrastructure. Morale was bad and the town had a bad reputation.
A NEW OPTIMISM:
Cultural life is currently flourishing, there is a reported feeling of optimism and well being. Financial support from the Norwegian Cultural Heritage Fund has helped the restoration of key historic buildings (One of the best preserved towns in the region, when so much pre WWII architecture has been lost). Tourism is increasing, there are new jobs and new infrastructure (school, leisure and cultural centres). Vardo has a development strategy and early restoration and regeneration successes have inspired local people, civic and community pride is being restored.
I’m very pleased that some random elements brought me here and that I currently have a Wifi connection on this remote peninsula so that I can share my thoughts with anyone who may be interested. Lesley Fallais August 2014
www.nationaltouristroutesnorway.com (national tourist routes in Norway)
CREDITS: Thanks to my creative collaborator and friend Jane Revitt who alerted me to the work of Peter Zumthor in Norway. Jane sent me a link to an article in Icon Magazine about another of his projects –
http://www.iconeye.com/architecture/news/item/10837-peter-zumthor – Janes partner Christoph Wagner had interview Zumthor recently. Due to open in 2016 – Peter Zumthor has been working on a cluster of museum buildings that lead to an disused Zinc mine in Almannajuvet Norway. This commission is also along one of the 18 Norwegian Tourist Routes.