Bringing Light to Norway’s Dark Night
Witnessing the endless daylight of Scandinavian Midsummer this past summer in Vardø, a picturesque Barents Sea island village built around the northernmost fortress on earth, I was led to wonder what life must be like there during the opposite extreme of the winter solstice. As it happens, this year’s Midsummer celebration gave some idea of that very different experience, or at least of the possible dire effects of prolonged climatic stress on the collective psyche. On June 23, Queen Sonja of Norway came to open the Steilneset Memorial to the Victims of the Witch Trials in Vardø, a new monument by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois that eerily evokes the dark night of the soul that it also attempts to expiate.
After the outdoor dedication ceremony—where the queen wore a full-length white cape over a matching pants outfit, an enormous red beret, and no jewels, the very model of social democratic royalty—she attended a memorial service in the town church at which the clergy begged God’s forgiveness for the heinous acts perpetrated in his Name there more than three centuries earlier.
The Vardø witch trials, which played out in two phases, both in the depths of Arctic winter (in 1621 and in 1662-1663), were part of a bizarre phenomenon that swept through late medieval Europe and spread to colonial settlements, most notably Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Although ostensibly a consequence of post-Reformation Christianity’s concurrent battle between orthodoxy and heresy, witch trials were also a convenient way for ingrown communities to settle long-festering feuds and rid themselves of troublesome or envied neighbors under the guise of divine judgment.
Norway’s determination to revisit this ugly chapter in its history is part of the recent trend among enlightened governments to apologize and atone for injustices perpetrated by their benighted predecessors, including slavery, genocide, and other abominations. It is also hoped that the artistically ambitious Steilneset Memorial will draw visitors to a remote and economically depressed region.
The Vardø project is an anomalous part of the Norwegian public roads administration’s admirable National Tourist Routes program, through which architecturally distinctive and environmentally sensitive structures are being erected to encourage visits to outposts of exceptional natural beauty, from spectacular snow-covered mountain ranges to vast tundra traversed by herds of reindeer. Dispersed in groups of two to five stops along eighteen separate stretches of highway on or near Norway’s 15,000-mile-long fjord-infiltrated coastline, nearly seventy such destinations have thus far been completed. This is by far the most exemplary public works initiative undertaken by any nation in recent memory.
These interventions range from scenic viewing platforms and bicycle storage shelters to rest stations and hiking paths. The vast majority of them are by young, largely unknown, but clearly talented Norwegians. In this case, however, the sponsors sought foreign artists of established reputation, who could meet the difficult challenge of conjuring a monument to strange, long-ago events that left no visible remains.
Until Zumthor won the Pritzker Prize at the age of 66 in 2009, he was an obscure cult figure admired by architectural aficionados for a very personal aesthetic. That work at times bespeaks a delicate arte povera sensibility, epitomized by his gossamer-light wooden shelters for Roman ruins in Chur, Switzerland—an approach unlike the concrete-bound Brutalism of such fellow Minimalists as Tadao Ando. Similarly, Bourgeois had endured decades of critical neglect before her provocative explorations of gender and identity at long last made her a feminist heroine.
These two late-blooming cultural celebrities admired each other from afar—their output shares a certain reluctance to ingratiate, even though Bourgeois could hardly be called Minimalist. In 2003 they intended to collaborate on a piece for Dia:Beacon in Hudson, New York, but that project fell through. Norwegian artistic advisers suggested their pairing for the National Tourist Route’s most high-profile installment. As it turned out, this dream double act turned into an uncollegial struggle for center stage.
Zumthor’s evocation of mass madness is so hauntingly powerful in its own right that it ought to have been left by itself. As he tells it, Bourgeois (who died in 2010 at the age of 99) complained that his initial design left no room for her contribution and insisted that a second building for her work be wedged into the allotted site. The artist made a schematic sketch of an adjacent shelter for her installation, which Zumthor then fleshed out—with the result, however, of a lamentable side-by-side confrontation.
Zumthor was inspired by the wooden fish-drying racks still found along the Norwegian seacoast and particularly common around Vardø, whose inhabitants long depended on catching and preserving cod (until industrialized fishing by foreign vessels depleted the local waters). The architect adapted those extended A-frames for his memorial building. Within a 410-foot-long enfilade of closely spaced tilted timber posts, he used X-brace cables to suspend a pod-like tensile enclosure of pale-gray fiberglass fabric that tapers to a point at either end and vaguely resembles an enormous fish.
Inside that enigmatic container a dimly-lighted black-painted hallway is hung with texts dedicated to each of the ninety-one Vardø citizens who were put to death–often by burning at the stake—during the witchcraft hysteria. Here the name of each victim is accompanied by a terse but chilling excerpt from the meticulously transcribed court proceedings that sent the unlucky accused to their doom, cautionary documents of officially condoned murder.
Whereas Zumthor’s weathered-looking structure fits harmoniously into the dramatic fjordside site, Bourgeois’s reflective black-glass cube looks far too slick and urban, more like a Beverly Hills branch bank than a Nordic cenotaph. This thirty-nine-foot-square vitrine encloses the artist’s shrine, comprised of a hollow concrete tumulus at the epicenter of which stands a generic aluminum chair with gas jets in its seat. When this quasi-eternal flame is lit, it brings to mind either a Magrittean tomb of the unknown or a TV commercial for a hemorrhoid remedy. Reflecting the fiery spectacle are seven huge oval mirrors ringed overhead and angled downward like the petals of a monstrous blossom. Bourgeois’s familiar Surrealist motifs here descend into self-parody.
Just days after the Steilneset Memorial was inaugurated, Zumthor’s response to a very different landscape was also unveiled, with the opening of a small but prestigious temporary enclosure he designed for London’s Serpentine Gallery. This was the eleventh in a continuing series of temporary pavilions commissioned since 2000 by the Serpentine. Erected next to the contemporary art center’s home, converted from J. Grey West’s Serpentine tea pavilion of 1934, these annual demonstrations— almost all of them by Pritzker Prize winners, including Oscar Niemeyer, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, and Zaha Hadid—have been stylistically diverse but nonetheless much alike in their assertive contrast to the neo-Georgian redbrick gallery.
At first glance, Zumthor’s coal-black, windowless, shoebox-shaped pavilion could have been mistaken for a long abandoned relic of the Blitz—an air-raid shelter or anti-aircraft pillbox. Its grim exterior, crafted from some tar-like material applied over wire mesh, was relieved only by entry and exit portals punched into its long flanks. Beyond those uninviting doorways, a tunnel-like corridor ringed the periphery and led into an oblong roofless atrium with a central herbaceous bed laid out in the classical English manner by the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf (widely praised for his superb landscaping of New York City’s High Line and Chicago’s Millennium Park.)
Furnished as an outdoor café, this walled courtyard provided a wonderfully quiet place in which to sit, have a cup of tea, and contemplate Oudolf’s subtle plantsmanship. Architecturally, however, the forbidding and rather shoddy looking surround reconfirmed that Minimalism is not to be undertaken cheaply, even by a designer who has elsewhere used humble materials to fine effect. Utter simplicity, a ruling principle of High Modernism, is a cruel taskmaster, and its unforgiving exposure of the slightest flaws in detail and finish can undo even an architect as exacting as Zumthor.
November 4, 2011, 2 p.m.