The marble-clad roof and glass walls of Oslo’s Opera House rise, iceberg-like, from the fjord, connecting land and sea in a harmonious meeting of cultural life and the environment. So, too, is the Snøhetta-designed Opera House a place where art meets the public. The sloping roof is designed so that anyone who wishes may clamber atop and around it, while the broad lobby welcomes visitors inside to view eight specially commissioned public art projects, including Olafur Eliasson’s three-dimensional front- and rear-lit panels, The Other Wall. At 30 million NOK ($3.7 million USD), the Opera House’s art budget was the biggest in Norway’s history for a single building.
Opened in the Bjørvika harbor area in 2008, Oslo’s Opera House heralded the beginning of the regeneration of the area known now as Fjord City. It commands attention in Oslo’s skyline and is a symbol of Norway’s fast-moving development, funded by its booming oil economy, which, coupled with the country’s egalitarian tradition, has paved the way for a proliferation of public art.
Norway’s percent-for-art program requires that between 0.5 and 1.5 percent of the budget of every government building project be set aside for art projects, and Public Art Norway (KORO) has principal responsibility for managing these funds. Artists receive commissions from KORO, as either practicing artists or consultants, and projects are implemented within the framework of different schemes for government institutions and public buildings owned by municipalities and counties. KORO also brings art to outdoor spaces, ensuring that people can experience art both indoors and out.
Traveling around Norway in the summer of 2015, I saw an almost overwhelming amount of public art, from grand projects like the Opera House to smaller ones featuring a single artist, such as Do Ho Suh’s Grass Roots Square with its tiny figures nestled between sidewalk slabs in Oslo’s government quarter. The more outdoor art I came across, the more I sensed a relationship to the environment in which it sat. Often this relationship was regenerative, seeming to perform a healing or restoration of a wounded or threatened landscape. Following are highlights of my trip.
Ekebergparken: A Gift to the City
Oslo’s Ekebergparken has a deep history, with remains from the Stone, Bronze, and Viking Ages contained in its earth. The site, strategically positioned on a hill and looking out over the city, contains layers of memories of violence: traces of battles dating back to medieval times have been found here, though its role in the Nazi occupation of Norway from 1940 to 1945 is fresher in citizens’ minds. The park was used as a cemetery for fallen German soldiers; left littered with mines at the end of the war, it fell into decay during the ensuing decades.
In 2002, the Norwegian businessman Christian Ringnes, through his nonprofit foundation C Ludens Ringnes Stiftelse, initiated a collaborative plan with the city to turn the site into a sculpture and national heritage park, which opened in 2013. There are no entrance fees, no gates, no barriers, and the park is accessible 24 hours a day. While the installation of some pieces demanded some intervention in the natural environment —notably James Turrell’s Skyspace in the old water reservoir, for which some forest was clipped—the overall aesthetic is that of a dialogue with nature. Visitors meander along its winding paths, stumbling upon the artwork as if by accident. The park is a living space, used as much by joggers and dog walkers as by art lovers.
From Ekebergparken you can look out across the rising buildings and creeping sprawl of the rapidly developing city. But, high up on its hill, Ekebergparken is cocooned from the threat of development: an arrangement with the government promises it will remain a public sculpture park for at least 50 years.
SALT: A Nomadic Art Movement
While Ekebergparken is set for 50 years, Norway’s Arctic region holds no such assurances. As climate change melts the north, hungry eyes are trained on the untapped oil, gas, and mineral resources that lie beneath the ice. In 2014, an ambitious art and music festival called SALT was launched there to raise awareness of the fragility of the northern reaches of our planet and to instill respect for the havfolk, the people who live on its coasts. After its season in Norway, SALT will travel to Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Scotland, Spitzbergen, Alaska, and Russia, spending a year in each place.
The idea for SALT came to founders Erlend Mogård-Larsen and Helga-Marie Nordby when they were curating the biennal Lofoten International Art Festival on the nearby archipelago in 2010. A local fish-drying rack—typical of northern Norway and evocative of a food-preservation technique that is less viable as temperatures rise—was slated to be torn down. The curators took the opportunity to utilize the giant pyramid-shaped rack for performances, sowing the seeds for SALT.
On the Arctic island of Sandhornøy (population fewer than 500), sculptures by architect Sami Rintali were set on the beach; the centerpiece was a 490-foot-long “Arctic Pyramid,” modeled on those fish-drying racks. SALT’s ethos is to follow the Arctic philosophy of moving with the environment and maintaining a close relationship with nature, so it was perhaps no surprise that harsh winds tore down the Arctic Pyramid barely a month after its launch.
SALT was forced to close while it secured the funding needed to rebuild. Finally it relaunched in June 2015 with a smaller version of the Arctic Pyramid, set slightly farther back from the sea. There were three pyramid structures in total; one housed what was called the world’s largest sauna, while the others were used for concerts and art and film installations. Guests could stay overnight by pitching a tent on the beach or by renting a njalla, a small hybrid house/tent inspired by Sámi building practices that emphasize low-impact movement with the animals and the seasons. The njallas, which leave no mark on the ground and can be easily moved, were specially designed by Sámi architect Joar Nango, whose work focuses on the architecture of the indigenous people of the Arctic and northern Europe.
SALT continued to be dogged by harsh weather, such that the much-anticipated closing concert with Norwegian pop star Bjørn Eidsvåg in late August had to be scrapped. Not that the organizers were unprepared for the elements—rather, they never tried to tame the environment, only to embrace and move with it. Although the Norwegian section of the global journey was significantly curtailed, the organizers have announced they will reopen in the same place in the summer of 2016 prior to continuing their journey.
The Steilneset Memorial
Further north, in Vardø, a harsh, even less tamable landscape, is the site where, in the seventeenth century, 91 women, girls, and Sámi men were burned at the stake for witchcraft. The cruel treatment of the victims symbolizes a zeal for wresting control over unruly elements. Louise Bourgeois, in collaboration with architect Peter Zumthor, honored them with the Steilneset Memorial, completed in 2011. Bourgeois’s part of the installation, The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved, comprises a circle of mirrors surrounding and reflecting a flaming steel chair; it sits inside a square, steel-and-smoked-glass room near one end of Zumthor’s 410-foot-long frame that again recalls the fish-drying racks of the north.
The memorial forms part of one of Norway’s National Tourist Routes. The Norwegian government has commissioned 18 such routes, as well as a council made up of architects and artists to ensure the visual quality of each scenic viewpoint and picnic area along them and that public art is part of the experience.
The Steilneset memorial was created more than 300 years after the event, a marked contrast to the speed at which memorials have been planned for Norway’s worst atrocity of recent times.
Less than a year after Anders Behring Breivik killed eight people with a car bomb in Oslo’s government quarter, then shot 69 more at the Labour Party Youth League’s (AUF) camp on Utøya island, KORO received an official assignment for national memorials from the Ministry of Culture. Two sites were decided on: one in the government quarter (a temporary work will first be installed, then replaced, as the area is in the process of redevelopment) and another in Hole municipality, in which Utøya lies. A committee, which included survivors and AUF representatives, was formed to select the winning design in the competition.
In February 2014 Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg was announced the unanimous winner. Dahlberg’s design, Memory Wound, proposes cutting a 3.5 meter-wide (11.48-foot) slit into the Sørbråten peninsula, facing Utøya. Dahlberg’s proposal states that slicing the landscape reproduces “the physical experience of taking away, reflecting the abrupt and permanent loss of those who died.” Across the small channel created by the wound, the names of the victims will be inscribed in the stone, visible but just out of reach—evoking the physical feeling of longing for loved ones.
According to Nora Ceciliedatter Nerdrum, a curator at KORO and head of its arts department, Dahlberg was inspired when he observed bullet holes that still scarred the walls of the buildings, while the island’s natural elements had been restored. He said he wanted to permanently mark nature, as the bullets had marked the physical environment. It is an incredibly bold concept, which Dahlberg often explains by recalling a discussion with a survivor who told him not to be “too careful” in his design.
Still, Memory Wound has stirred up strong emotions, as well as environmental concerns over the cleaving of the landscape. Some local residents, several of whom actually assisted in the rescue efforts of 2011, have voiced opposition. Nerdrum told me that following a review, psychologists, too, have concluded that the presence of such a memorial so close to people’s homes would reopen wounds—wounds that have barely been given time to heal.
Memory Wound was originally due to be unveiled on July 22, 2015, exactly four years after the massacre, but has been delayed while these concerns are considered. The proposal is now being handled at a national political level. At the time of this writing, its status is still unconfirmed. Nerdrum says they hope that it will open on July 22, 2017. This means that plans for the government quarter are also on hold, as Dahlberg intends to use materials excavated from Sørbråten, including stone, trees, and plants, to build the foundation for both the temporary and permanent memorials there.
Meanwhile, two public memorials currently stand in Oslo’s government quarter. A panel displaying the July 22, 2011, edition of the tabloid VG stood, frozen in time, behind bomb-shattered glass for two years before artist Ahmad Ghossein moved it across the street, preserving it as an art piece titled Relocating the Past: Ruins for the Future. Along with the 22 July Centre, where visitors can watch the explosion via a surveillance recording and relive the Utøya massacre minute by minute, the memorial offers a visceral reminder of the events of that day.
Norway’s response to the atrocity was memorably dignified, but the memorials currently on view are coarse. Dahlberg’s vision too, though beautiful, is brutal and traumatic, so it is understandable that those living close by could find it too much to bear. Contemplating Memory Wound partially ruptured my impression of Norway’s public art as a means of healing. It showed me that it also has the potential to irritate wounds.